Wiring the Wonky Left’s Moral Compass
Thanks in no small part to Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher, my post last week on the “Wonky” American Left has generated some interesting discussion. Given that I’ve been unsuccessfully pushing this argument for a few years, I couldn’t be happier with the response. Debate beats quietude every day of the week.
Here’s a modest attempt to respond to some of the most common complaints and questions I received (Thanks to those who provided feedback!):
1. A lot of readers thought that I didn’t (and don’t) understand that leftists are not progressives, who are not neo-liberals, who are not Kennedy’s “Brain Trust,” who are not Marxists, who are not real activist leftists…etc.
I’m using the term “leftist” in a capacious sense, along the lines that Richard Rorty uses it in Achieving Our Country. U.S. leftists are those folks who occupy the left wing of American politics. While the dead ideological center of American politics is obviously impossible to conclusively define, at this level of analysis a certain fuzziness will suffice. “Leftists” refers to the whole of the Left—not just a radical slice at the fringe and not just the ones who attend hip music festivals.
Whether you accept the definition or not, at least notice that the degree of confusion over what to call members of the Left goes right to my point. How can a movement that can’t settle on its own moniker be expected to explain what it stands for?
(For what it’s worth, I self-describe as a progressive. If you’re interested, I’ve written [with John Halpin] several essays about what I take this to mean (here and here). It’s all over my own site as well.)
2. A number of people liked the stuff I had to say about wonks, but found my provisional solution incomplete.
Rousseau’s answer (from The Social Contract) is still best: Toutes mes idées se tiennent, mais je ne saurais les exposer toutes à la fois—“My ideas fit together, but I can’t present them all at once.” This is a big topic, and I’m trying to be as clear and consistent as I can—but it can’t all go in one post, ok? Get me a book contract and I’ll burn hundreds of pages on a Grand Unified Theory of left-wing wonks…but until then, it’s going to come in bite-sized chunks.
Incidentally, this is one of the things I find most irritating about the speed and structure of writing online. The truncation of our news cycle and attention span fosters a corresponding loss of patience. “Why didn’t you take the effects of new media into account?” “Why didn’t you include an analysis of the effects of economic trends?” “Why didn’t you address Marxism, guy? Huh? What about that?” Why not? Because I was tilling other goddamned fields. Give me a minute. Ha-rumph.
3. Other readers simply found my proposed solution unnecessary or unconvincing.
In the original post, I argued that leftists ought to “reverse the Reaganomics equation” by explicitly defending reliable government institutions as prerequisites for vibrant economic life. That way, leftists can dispense with conservative canards about the naturalness of “free” markets. The Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker explained this especially well last year in The End of Loser Liberalism:
For the most part, progressives accept the right’s framing of economic debates. They accept the notions that the right is devoted to the unfettered workings of the market and, by contrast, that liberals and progressives are the ones who want the government to intervene to protect the interests of the poor and disadvantaged.
However else leftists can improve their argument, there’s no doubt that they’ve got to get off the right’s home turf. This is going to require rethinking government’s relation to economic forces—whether it’s specifically along the lines I spelled out or not.
4. This suggests a related challenge. Part of the Left’s problem—as several commenters pointed out—could be more substantive than rhetorical.
What if leftists have a hard time coherently articulating their moral vision because their policy goals are actually incoherent? Are the Left’s troubles due to confused beliefs or ineffective rhetoric? Are leftists’ problems a matter of appearance or being?
It’s probably a bit of both. Obviously, any modern political movement always lives with a certain degree of inconsistency at its core. Pluralist politics require mental flexibility; no single political principle can reduce and resolve every problem. There’s little evidence that the American Left’s platform is uniquely incoherent, but Rorty’s “cultural” and “reformist” lefts could certainly be brought into better substantive harmony.
But the path to more coherent convictions runs through a serious rethinking of the Left’s moral vision. Anyone who’s ever tried in earnest to persuade knows that discourse can sharpen and clarify beliefs. As leftists get better at talking about their view of America’s future, they’ll also see new ways of making their policy objectives more coherent. It’ll be great, I promise. The cultural leftists will sit down with the reformists. The neo-liberals will break bread with the progressives. The wonks will swap ideas with the philosophers.
5. This brings us to the most interesting question—some readers worried that a clear moral vision isn’t as desirable as I suggested.
Fair enough. Though the Right’s crisp, radical rhetoric plays well in public debates, it severely limits the breadth of ideas they bring to the governing table. Rick Santorum pays for his coherence with sacrifices at the altar of narrow-mindedness.
In other words: Wouldn’t a more coherent Left emulate the very worst traits of their opponents? Wouldn’t they, in sharpening their moral rhetoric, surrender to the sort of radical simplicity that so hamstrings the American Right? Aren’t flexibility and nuance the hallmarks of a mature, adult approach to politics? Most importantly, wouldn’t leftists also have a harder time clowning conservatives for their love of purity? Would they—horrors—have to give up Jon Stewart?
Yikes. Something is rotten in the state of American conservatism. Right-wing elites sell a limited bill of goods to a base hungry for easy answers, only to later discover that they lose significant political flexibility in the transaction. They’re stuck trying to convince the country that tax cuts for the wealthy are the lapis philosophorum of American politics—because their base will tolerate nothing else. That’s why it’s nonsense to pretend that the conservative “establishment” somehow stands over, above, or against their “conservative base.” Elites staffing the establishment’s ranks created the grassroots tiger they can no longer tame. When their base questions Barack Obama’s citizenship, parentage, religion, and patriotism; when their base boos gay soldiers and cheers the deaths of the uninsured—conservative elites generally look the other way and hope no one notices.
Should leftists really aspire to radical intransigence? No. Of course not. Fortunately, Santorum’s isn’t the only rhetorical model available. There’s no necessary connection between a strong, clearly-defined moral vision and political juvenility. In other words, not all clarity is created equal. For example, the contemporary conservative view of the world is tightly delineated by its policy content. Conservatives have narrowed their raison d’être to specific tax reforms and cultural touchstones. Their “political religion,” to use Lincoln’s term, is deeply literal and fundamentalist.
Earlier leftist narratives provide ample proof that this need not be the case (Michael Kazin’s work is far and away the best on this point). Leftists from the original progressives to the New Left organized around broad political ideals—not specific policies. For example, the labor movement coalesced behind calls for unity between all working, productive citizens. They organized around general notions of “fraternity,” not particular theories of political economy, à la Reaganomics. Progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey argued that American individual freedom was under attack in an age of newly corporate economic forces. Like the unions, the progressives used these general ideals as the foundational support for various specific policies. In other words, modern leftists should be able to speak more coherently about what they believe without sacrificing their empirical honesty and nuanced view of politics. Their “political religion” (at its best) should be hermeneutic and ecumenical.
If nothing else, I’m glad to see the conversation going in earnest. As I wrote in the original post, many leftists don’t see a problem with their rhetoric. The resulting self-certainty is far less productive than the arguments I’ve had in the days since my original post. Though I’m confident about the core critique of wonkiness, there’s undoubtedly still a lot of room for improvement.
Conor Williams is a freelance writer and a Doctoral Candidate in Georgetown University’s Government Department. Past work published by Dissent, The Washington Post, The Center for American Progress, and elsewhere. See more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.