The Non-Wonky Institutional Left?
Regular League readers know about my professional hobby horse: leftists usually make thin, wonky arguments instead of explaining the moral principles involved. Goes like this:
But if the eclipse of the new progressive era has many causes, one stands out: the American Left has no coherent or compelling moral vision to justify its policy aims. It frequently can’t articulate why it is it believes what it does. Leftists are philosophically adrift. To a substantial degree, this is because American liberalism has become a haven for wonks. Many prominent leftists seem to believe that political debates are won and lost by econometric analysis. This undercuts their willingness (and their capacity) to justify their projects.
As much as I like banging that drum, it’s important to also acknowledge new evidence to the contrary. So, without further ado: the Center for American Progress’ Catherine Woodiwiss and Alexandra Scheeler have written an excellent essay critiquing Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. But leftists lambast Ryan’s budget every day! What makes their approach so impressive? First of all, Woodiwiss and Scheeler have a clever angle: since Ryan customarily argues that his budget is inspired by his Catholic faith, they’ve challenged him on those grounds. The article pits Paul Ryan’s rhetoric against early-twentieth century progressive Monsignor John Ryan’s view of political economy—i.e. “Ryan vs. Ryan.” Woodiwiss and Scheeler explain:
But the response of these two Ryans to inequality could not be more different. Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals are so diametrically opposed to the just and supportive America envisioned by John Ryan that, were the latter alive today, he would be shocked at the religious and moral justifications being used to undermine the very causes to which he devoted his academic, spiritual, and political life.
Pause. Let the cleverness sink in. They didn’t go with “Rauschenbusch on Ryan” or “Niebuhr on Ryan.” They didn’t call it “Diversity of Catholic Opinion, Then and Now.”
Second of all, developing Monsignor Ryan’s implicit critique of the Ryan budget requires them to sketch core elements of his moral vision.
For John Ryan, the greatest marker for a just economy was not lack of debt—as Paul Ryan asserts—but promotion of human dignity. In advocating for fair labor laws he built upon the centuries-old Catholic belief that each person is created in the image of God and possesses inherent worth.
This approach allows them to critique Representative Ryan’s proposals on moral grounds—religious and otherwise. In other words, they’re complementing persuasive facts with a compelling moral frameworks. They’re doing precisely what I’ve been counseling leftists to do more often. Hurrah!
Third of all: go read it.
Conor P. Williams thinks John Ryan is a great theological thinker, but he prefers Reinhold Niebuhr for highly nerdy reasons. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find more on Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.