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Bringing It All Together

I don't have much to say about this Timothy Burke post on the difficulty of constructing a workable liberal narrative except that you should read it. I think there's a real problem here. A tendency by members of liberalism's technocratic elite faction to forget that we are but one faction among several, and not to think about how ideas can be constructed and put forward in a way that broadens, rather than narrows, our appeal.

January 21, 2005 | Permalink

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» Narratives from Pandagon
I'm not quite sure I understand this Timothy Burke post Matt approvingly links to -- it seems to conflate the need for candidate narratives with party narratives. While I agree that Bush's clean redemption tale was much more effective... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 21, 2005 4:13:01 PM

» Liberal Life Stories? from A Straight Shot Of Politics
Okay, I'll give it a try. Boundless emotional commitment to selflessly aiding the less fortunate was never my narrative anyway. It has always struck me, frankly, as a fatuous projective fantasy on us by our rather anti-intellectual Conservative friends... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 22, 2005 1:38:16 PM

Comments

Great essay and worth thinking about in detail.

However, I have a bit of a problem with this part:

> has always struggled with the problem of why
> elites would or should cast themselves into
> political struggle against their own ostensible
> interests. Highly [...type...] Marxism

Why must one turn to Marxism for explanations? If one's goal in life for oneself and others is absolute, utter classical microeconomic wealth maximization and optimization, then the fault lines are as Burke describes.

But anyone who has dealt with a pure wealth-maximization entity knows that they lead to nasty, brutish, and short lives for most of the people engaged with them and enormously privilaged lives for the top 0.01%. Note that "wealthy" professionals [wealthly until the next student loan payment, mortgage payment, and downsizing notice arrive on the same day] are _not_ part of the 0.01%. They know it, and see that a somewhat geared-back society, where some efficiency and wealth maximization are given up in exchange for a more reasonable sharing of wealth and happiness by everyone, is better than the Radical Right's alternative of toil and hellfire.

Sure, they may give up some of that munificant professional salary between ages 30 and 40, but everyone including the professionals will be better of in terms of internal utility and reduced risk.

That's not expressed well enough to be a narrative or a frame, but I think it is important.

BTW, Kerry lost during the 2nd debate. If he had looked W in the eye and said "hell yes I am a Massachusets liberal - and proud of it. Whereas you are an Enron Radical and ashamed of it" he would have had a chance. Instead he tried to slip-slide his way through after the win in the 1st debate, leaving me once again sick to my stomach about voting for him. There went the on-the-fence centerist Repubs.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 21, 2005 2:19:38 PM

He says: "interests in the Democratic Party [were united because they] shared a common morality... That story doesn’t carry much water any longer."

He's wrong, we are still united by common morality:

Liberals trust their fellow men as allies. Our willingness to work with each other, rely on each other, stand beside each other, and support each other is what makes us stronger.

Almost every one of our differences with conservatives can be understood in terms of this simple rule. Why private accounts? Because they are unwilling to stand together, to support each other, to rely on each other. Why no allies in Iraq? Because they see no value in standing with allies, they only see the loss of autonomy. Why no universal health? Because conservatives never want to support each other, to depend on each other. Why do they believe that they are not causing global warming or affected by it? Because they cannot bring themselves to believe that we rely and depend on each other.

A moral system does not have to be about defeating a cartoon-character evil. A moral system can be an attitude toward one's fellow men, a willingness to treat them like extended family.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 21, 2005 2:21:04 PM

As much as I dislike "me, too" comments, regarding Josh's comment:
Me, too. If the Democratic party (or any party for that matter)
were to adopt his statement about cooperation as their entire
platform, I would happily vote the straight party line forever.

Posted by: ajm | Jan 21, 2005 3:18:36 PM

While I think Josh's comments do in some respects represent a difference in worldview between liberals and conservatives; three points:

1. Valuing being independent enough to not to have to depend on anyone else doesn't mean you lack goodwill toward your fellow citizens.

2. If, by standing together, you mean funneling our efforts through the government by more taxes - which conservatives view as the most inefficient middle-man possible - or ceding portions of our sovereignty to international organizations that don't have our (and maybe not even the rest of the world's) interests at heart, can you understand that reasonable people could, not out of malice for their fellow man, not think that is the best solution to our problems?

3. I don't think that interdependence vs. independence is a winning argument for the Democrats, but I would love it if the argument were framed that openly and honestly.

Posted by: mj | Jan 21, 2005 4:17:14 PM

"I don't think that interdependence vs. independence is a winning argument for the Democrats, but I would love it if the argument were framed that openly and honestly."

I think the reason it's not is because most Democrats don't see it that straightforwardly. They get hung up in the details and they don't see the underlying pattern.

"Valuing being independent enough to not to have to depend on anyone else doesn't mean you lack goodwill toward your fellow citizens."

Agreed, it's not about goodwill. It's about getting the most out of life.

If a man is 30 years old and he's still living with his mother, he needs to get some independence. If a man is 60 years old and he still hasn't gotten married because he values his independence too much, then he's missing out.

Independence is a good thing. But if you see independence as the be-all-end-all, you're going to lose out on a lot of the good that comes from having mutual support systems.

"If, by standing together, you mean funneling our efforts through the government by more taxes"

It isn't about money. For example, conservatives tend to be hostile toward unions, or to the UN, neither of which uses tax money. What bothers conservatives is their general feeling that people should stand on their own two feet, and that therefore, relying on others is a crutch. The money aspect is entirely secondary - you don't like people spending money on things that you perceive as bad - heck, who does? But the reason you perceive solidarity as bad in the first place is because you feel it eats away at independence.

"conservatives view [government] as the most inefficient middle-man possible"

I think that's an ideologically-warped perception. When other countries spend *half* what we do for health care, and end up with a longer average lifespan and less mortality, it takes a very distorted filter to perceive that as government inefficiency. My suspicion is that "inefficiency" is a mere rationalization, that the real motivation is a powerful dislike of mutual support networks.

"Ceding portions of our sovereignty to international organizations that don't have our interests at heart..."

Certainly, one should choose one's alliances with care. But my question is this: You don't like social security. You don't like unions. You don't like our military allies. You don't like universal health. You don't like the commerce clause, because you wish the states were independent. Are there *any* cases where the value of an alliance trumps the value of independence, in your eyes? If not, then I'd say you are missing out.


Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jan 21, 2005 5:12:42 PM

Hi! Does the "we" in the bleg refer to "us liberals" or to "us members of liberalism's technocratic elite faction"???

Either way, which other factions are there?

I'm curious and hope you find the time to answer both of these questions. In any case, I do agree with the sentiments and ideas u put forward.

Thanks.

Posted by: storyx | Jan 21, 2005 5:16:20 PM

Josh,

Good post. Fair points. But I think it is too extreme to say that conservatives favor total isolationism and separation from any international organizations. Most conservatives favor strong family and community ties, we just don't think that excessive govt is any substitute for them and comes at too high a price to individual liberty.

For example, I think that most conservatives would say that NATO has been and can be a useful international organization. As far as allies, a lot of conservatives want the support of other nations, but have been extremely out off by the fact that we become the world's punching bag. I am open to the position that 50% of that can be layed at feet of our own policies, but I wish that people on the left would ever conceed that 50% of the vitriol spewed at America is undeserved "blame America first" nonsense.

As far as the belief that government is inefficient being a mere "rationalization", I don't think that it can be seriously argued that our own government is efficient or that international organizations deliver results comensurate to the funds they receive. I truly believe, like a lot of Americans, that giving a $1000 to Catholic Charities will produce more good than the same $1000 would to UNICEF. (Americans and America Corps. provide more that 60% of all the private international aid in the world). That doesn't make me anti anything, it's simply a question of bang for the buck where it would do the most good.

As far as the Commerce Clause goes, many conservative/federalists (myself included) feel that regardless of the merits of a federal regulation - our government is one of limited powers. So even if a federal regulation could rectify a huge problem, I would still say that it shouldn't be enacted if it exceeds the scope of the federal gov. (For example, though not commerce, I don't agree with the FMA for this reason).

Posted by: MJ | Jan 21, 2005 6:57:21 PM

I'm with Ezra (see TrackBack): not convinced the Democrats need a party narrative seperate from candidate narratives until you convince me the Republicans have one. And note his narrative/definition distinction. Maybe it's just terminology, but if Burke's "narrative" is the same as Ezra's "definition," then "definition" is a better term. There's no narratin' goin' on.

Posted by: some guy | Jan 21, 2005 7:09:57 PM

I truly believe, like a lot of Americans, that giving a $1000 to Catholic Charities will produce more good than the same $1000 would to UNICEF.

With all due respect, I'd beg to differ on this one. I mean the WHO eliminated small pox! An entire freakin' disease, gone! And they're very close to doing the same with Polio. Not to knock Catholic Charities but gov't programs achieve an immense amount of good around the world that goes largely unnoticed. I don't think it is wise to assume a priori that gov'ts will be less efficient than private charities.

Furthermore, the historical record of nations (including the U.S.) that have attempted to rely solely on private charities to aleviate social ills like poverty has been absolutely abysmal.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Jan 21, 2005 8:02:40 PM

"I think there's a real problem here. A tendency by members of liberalism's technocratic elite faction to forget that we are but one faction among several, and not to think about how ideas can be constructed and put forward in a way that broadens, rather than narrows, our appeal."

Sure. The trick for a coalition is coming up with a banner to run under that expresses the desires of all of the coalition members, while also broadening that coalition's appeal.

For modern Dems, the place to start rediscovering that banner should always be Clinton's old call for "Opportunity, Responsibility, Community.".

---

A Couple of Notes on Burke's piece:

- While highlighting the oddness of the Democratic coalition, Burke doesn't touch on the equivalent oddness of the Republican coalition. A Wall Street investor concerned about the estate tax doesn't have much in common with an underemployed West Virginian concerned about abortion.

- Burke confuses Errol Morris's criticism of Kerry not having a personal narrative with the very different criticism of the Democratics not having an ideological narrative. Those two things are not related, and the first has a lot more to do with Kerry's defeat than the second.

- The importance of a Presidential candidate having a sellable personal narrative cannot be understated. This is reason #37 why I'm a fan of John Edwards.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 8:25:20 PM

Using the words "liberal" and "conservative" really doesn't help in the effort to achieve genuine understanding of what is going on in our society. There is no such thing as liberalism; there is no such thing as conservatism. Our tendency to thing in these crude terms is part an Orwellian artifact of our ridiculously constricted two-party system, and in part a reflection of the inherent stupidity of human beings, and their consequent need to classify things into tidy oppositions.

The parties are coalitions, each built out of dozens, more likely hundreds or thousands, of distinct ideological and social groupings. Even to say that all of the groups in a party coalition have some "affinity" is too strong. It may be true that any given group in a party is linked to another by a tenuous chain of similarities or ideological affinities, but it is clearly sometimes the case that certain Democratic groups have closer affinities with certain Republican groups than they do with some other groups in their own party. These coalitions have been formed from a complex and highly contingent historical process of negotiation, strategizing and adventitious cooperation. There is not much in the way of ideological coherence or an underlying rationale for the coalition other than mutual self-interest, habit and mindless team spirit.

The labels "liberal" and conservative" are psychological crutches that give people an easy dualistic anchor for their sense of political identity, and that help them pretend that the other people on their team are similar to themselves in some fundamental way.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 21, 2005 8:33:29 PM

"Certainly, one should choose one's alliances with care. But my question is this: You don't like social security. You don't like unions. You don't like our military allies. You don't like universal health. You don't like the commerce clause, because you wish the states were independent."

Typical conflation of a government program with it's purported benefit; Hell, I think "social security" and "universal health" would be keen accomplishments... This doesn't imply that I have to think a government program is the best way to achieve 'em. I swear, if you named a program "Beer", you'd accuse me of being a prohibitionist if I opposed it!

And the commerce clause? I like it just fine. In fact, I like it so much that I wish the courts would enforce what it actually says, rather than just pretending that "commerce" is a magical word permitting Congress to enact anything it likes.

Unions? Nothing wrong with them, so long as people have a CHOICE about joining. But they're kind of like nuclear weapons; Better employeed as a deterent than in actual use.

Our military allies? All honor to them, I just wish liberals would recognize that they're not the same countries they used to be.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 21, 2005 8:36:39 PM

- Burke confuses Errol Morris's criticism of Kerry not having a personal narrative with the very different criticism of the Democratics not having an ideological narrative. Those two things are not related, and the first has a lot more to do with Kerry's defeat than the second.

Excellent point Petey. That was a strange leap in in Burke's piece, and I agree that Kerry's loss had more to do with his failure to make a personal connection with the public, based on a compelling and intelligible life-story, than on the failure of the Democrats to offer a coherent ideology. As you say, the Republicans have no greater ideological coherence than the Democrats.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jan 21, 2005 8:39:36 PM

Dan Kervick,

"Using the words "liberal" and "conservative" really doesn't help in the effort to achieve genuine understanding of what is going on in our society. There is no such thing as liberalism; there is no such thing as conservatism. Our tendency to thing in these crude terms is part an Orwellian artifact of our ridiculously constricted two-party system..."

As in the case of this paragraph above, I often find the things you write to be silly in the extreme. However, I know with close to absolute certainty that when it comes time to choose up sides, I'm going to caucus with you, and not with Brett Bellmore. Why is that?

It's because notwithstanding some of the peripheral oddities of the Democratic and Republican coalitions, both of those grand coalitions do represent relatively coherent worldviews.

You say there is no such thing as liberalism, but call it liberalism, or progressivism, or just "the left", and it does represent one of the two broad camps in American politics and society.

I caucus with the left because I believe in:

- An active role for government in ameliorating the excesses of capitalism
- The importance of equality and the danger of plutocracy
- The evils of imperialism
- Social libertinism and civil liberties

Now, I'm sure we could identify many, many differences on the particulars between us. I believe in (Clintonian) free-trade, and I strongly suspect you don't, for example. But the fact we both caucus on the left indicates certain core shared values that are not unimportant.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 9:03:47 PM

"Excellent point Petey."

Oh, great. While I'm busy writing a post calling you silly, you compliment me. Bastard!

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 9:04:59 PM

In multi-dimensioned "ideology space", there are any number of plausible hyper-planes that could divide the space up into competing ideological groupings. The reason the current division we call "liberal/conservative" so often seems a poor fit, is because the underlying ideological terrain has shifted, but the coalitions can't shift easilly to match it, because we have a 2 party system instead of a multi party parlamentarian democracy.

And, Petey, I caucus with the right, because the excesses of capitalism pale before the excesses of government.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 21, 2005 9:17:25 PM

Personally, I'd like to see The Left (not to be confused with Norbizness) framing its policies in terms of valuing total freedom, which includes both traditional negative freedom and positive freedom. I'm not sure that it would be good for the Democrats as a whole, but it would appeal to me as an individual. Naturally, there must be some compromises between increasing positive freedom and increasing negative freedom, though they're both important (programs to provide more life-options for poorer people (positive freedom) might have to be paid for with higher taxes (negative freedom). Worth it? Depends on the margins.).

Posted by: Julian Elson | Jan 21, 2005 9:53:25 PM

I do like Josh Yelon's statement. But I think it falls short at a time when many people are scared witless (literally) by foreign threats. It wins domestic policy, but not foreign policy.

This is where We Know Better steps in. Cooperation is Better. Allies are Better. Not confusing Iraq and Afghanistan is Better.

I would add another theme to this. We Are More Truthful. I mean this not (only) in the sense of not letting falsehoods pass our lips -- Republicans will be squawking "I did not have sex with that woman" till the end of time. I mean it in the larger and more important sense of Bronowski's first Commandment (see his "Science and Human Values"): thou shalt behave in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so. This is not only a vital and true theme of liberalism; it helps defuse charges of elitism (I'm so open about this that you can reject me if you think I'm wrong) and charges of media bias (they're not biased toward me, they're biased toward the truth).

Posted by: AK | Jan 21, 2005 10:17:50 PM

"The reason the current division we call "liberal/conservative" so often seems a poor fit, is because the underlying ideological terrain has shifted, but the coalitions can't shift easilly to match it, because we have a 2 party system instead of a multi party parlamentarian democracy."

Same as it's always been.

The two party system has always necessitated a fair amount of strange bedfellow-ism.

But even parliamentary systems aren't immune from this. Check out present day Israeli politics for an extreme example.

-----

Personally, I find the coalition building necessary to put together 51% to be the most interesting part of politics by far.

Knowing what you think is right is easy. Knowing how to put together a majority to get that enacted is hard.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 21, 2005 10:21:11 PM

The only reason, as far as I can see, why Timothy Burke concludes that 'We Know Best' is the only narrative is because he discounts the idea of serious moral commitment and assumes that professionals "don’t live in the same moral universe" as, say, urban African-Americans. To which I can say only, speak for yourself. Most of the liberals I know, myself included, have a serious moral commitment to liberalism. And many of us have worked hard to ensure that even if we don't live in the same moral universe as other constituencies of the party (as well as Republicans), we spend enough time in those universes that the concerns of their inhabitants are not purely abstract to us. There needs to be a lot more of that -- of trying in a serious way to work with people unlike ourselves -- but Burke seems to think it doesn't exist. Which is just not true.

There are plenty of compelling narratives we could tell. My preference would be one centered on real equality of opportunity.

Posted by: hilzoy | Jan 22, 2005 12:45:15 AM

most conservatives would say that NATO has been and can be a useful international organization.

Most conservatives would say NATO - and any other international organization we created and control - is 'useful'. They also have no problem with allies so long as they do what we tell them to do, and LIKE IT. I know that there is a fair amount of unfair 'blame America First' crap floating around in Europe, but it's been mostly rhetorical (before this last Iraq war, anyway); do we neglect our alliances with Germany and France because...our feelings are hurt?

Josh Yellon is right. This is about independence vs. interdependence. Cooperation requires a certain amount of vulnerability, the very idea of which clearly causes anxiety in many conservatives.

This is a bit of a stretch, but it glitters so pertinently, I just have to offer it. Coturnix quotes an article about market research on motor vehicles which includes the following:

The S.U.V. boom represents....a shift in how we conceive of safety--from active to passive.(snip) "The metric that people use is size," says Stephen Popiel, a vice-president of Millward Brown Goldfarb, in Toronto, one of the leading automotive market-research firms. "The bigger something is, the safer it is.' (snip) This is a new idea, and one largely confined to North America. In Europe and Japan, people think of a safe car as a nimble car. That's why they build cars like the Jetta and the Camry, which are designed to carry out the driver's wishes as directly and efficiently as possible. (snip) An S.U.V. embodies the opposite logic. The driver is seated as high and far from the road as possible. The vehicle is designed to overcome its environment, not to respond to it.

I know, I know, it's a little glib vis a vis this discussion. But...hmmm. Which is truly active and which is truly passive, dominating or engaging? In another part of the article, a cultural anthropologist who consults for American car makers found that the 'lizard' part of our brain associates height with safety - we instinctually feel safer if we are higher up. But the stats show that, in a vehicle, higher is not safer, because of rollovers.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jan 22, 2005 2:30:10 AM

And BTW Brett, this...

Hell, I think "social security" and "universal health" would be keen accomplishments... This doesn't imply that I have to think a government program is the best way to achieve 'em. I swear, if you named a program "Beer", you'd accuse me of being a prohibitionist if I opposed it!

...is a 'head I win, tails you lose' argument. You would a priori NEVER think that a government program is the best way to achieve anything. The fact is, a corporate/government solution is appropriate to some problems (like insurance) and not to others. Most of us to the left of the current GOP favor universal healthcare because it's simply rational (and is proven in other countries to work well and more cheaply), not because we're 'socialists'. If thy Ideology offends Reason, pluck it out.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jan 22, 2005 2:49:53 AM

Interesting that none of the posts even consider the classical definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative', which generally make liberals the reformist business class, and conservatives the feudalists.

That this is a good reading is suggested by the fact that today's 'conservatives' are in no way conservative. BB may talk a good talk about 'smaller government', but GWB has trumped him with plans to monitor every transaction we make, and profile us for preventive detention arrests that may be secret and last the rest of our lives.

It may seem strange to consider the resurgence of feudalism in the age of rockets and love, but look at the ownership patterns, both of wealth and political power, and connect the dots.

Having already been born once as a Unitarian, I feel no need for touchy-feely goodness to confirm my liberalism. As for the details, Scoop Jackson and his proto-fascist 'liberalism' are an infallible guide- just don't do THAT.

And for God's sake- JOIN A UNION.

Posted by: serial catowner | Jan 22, 2005 9:56:49 AM

"Scoop Jackson and his proto-fascist 'liberalism' are an infallible guide- just don't do THAT."

But do THAT, or not, dead Scoop ought to be very welcome in the big tent. As a minority party needing to expand, the Scoops of the world will fit in just fine in the big tent worldview.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 22, 2005 10:05:05 AM

"BB may talk a good talk about 'smaller government', but GWB has trumped him with plans to monitor every transaction we make, and profile us for preventive detention arrests that may be secret and last the rest of our lives."

Yeah, well I'm not exactly a Bush fan, I'm just a Libertarian who's accepted that the game is now too rigged for third parties to have a chance, and who thinks Republicans are slightly less dangerous than Democats. Slightly. If I saw any sign that Democrats actually took civil liberties seriously, (Instead of just calling> whatever policies they liked "civil liberties".) I might change my mind about that.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 22, 2005 11:17:04 AM

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