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Anti-Left Versus Anti-State

"Go read Mark Schmitt" is almost always sound advice, and his post on the Goldwater issue is no exception. I like his account of what the conservative movement has accomplished while failing to roll back the New Deal or the Great Society: "What the think tanks and grassroots groups and Karl Rove and Frank Luntz figured out over the 36 years after Goldwater was how to retain the language of ideological conservatism, leave unchallenged the facade of operational liberalism, and use that combination to exercise power long enough and aggressively enough to destroy every future prospect for operational liberalism." To put it in this morning's terms that brand of conservatism primarily directed at combatting liberals has been very successful, whereas the strain of conservatism oriented toward rolling back the state has not.

As Mark says, this isn't "anything for liberals to be glad or complacent about." I would only add that the paucity of success for small government conservatism is something liberals should be aware of and often don't really seem to be. That said, what I really wanted to do here was issue some responses and clarifications to this morning's post.

One common confusion has been reading the post as a knock against what I called the "anti-left" tendency (in retrospect, "anti-liberal" would be a more accurate term in some ways, but that sounds like I mean "illiberal" which isn't what I mean, and "anti-left" was Jonah Goldberg's original term. It's also more in keeping with the way that faction sees things -- persistent overrating of the extent to which America's left-of-center is really a "left" in any robust sense is an important element of the doctrine). I don't really mean it that way. Obviously, as a liberal, I'm not sympathetic to the view that combatting liberals ought to be one's main objective. At the same time, I don't think it's worse in any clear way than the anti-state view. In a lot of ways, it's more in keeping with my own outlook. Narrow views about state power and its appropriate deployment are pretty thin gruel that seem to appeal only to a pretty narrow group of intellectual types.

Nor do I mean to be saying that National Review has been hypocritical (I know Jonah thinks people are always calling him a hypocrite) in tending to soft pedal their concern with big government à la Bush. I think the effort of the Weekly Standard crowd to rationalize the Medicare bill as a hallmark of some novel thing called "big government conservatism" is pernicious and nonsensical. I think NR's decision to expend more emotional energy being upset about Ward Churchill and what he symbolizes than on being upset about the expansion of federal dmestic spending reflects the setting of priorities. All magazines do it. I'm merely making the observation that NR -- typically of the American right -- seems to feel that having captured the state, the most important thing to do domestically is to expose the left in its remaining bastions of strength and engage it there. Abroad, of course, we're fighting the war on terrorism.

Which brings me to another point. Many commenters said something like, "I'm no de-prioritizing small government because I've simply decided to hate on liberals, I supported Bush because the Democrats aren't serious about national security." I think that amounts to a kind of anti-left conservatism (or in the case of Professor Reynolds, libertarianism). It's the view that the main domestic problem facing the United States is the presence of a large and influential movement that's unserious about national security and that stands a good chance of undermining our national security.

That's a view that is, I think, wrong. Had John Kerry won the election he and the people he would have appointed would have been very serious about national security. Others, however, don't feel this way. Powerline has made it clear that they think the primary danger to the country comes from radical Islamist terrorism, and that the secondary danger is a large and dangerously powerful internal opposition composed of Jimmy Carter and every major figure in Democratic Party politics other than Joe Lieberman. Note that this latter bit isn't really a view about foreign policy as such, it's a view about American liberalism. It typically comes paired with complaints about how Democrats used to be so great (gesture toward Truman or Kennedy) and now their awful. For some people, though, it's part of a longstanding trend (insert McCarthyite rant).

February 25, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Narrow views about state power and its appropriate deployment are pretty thin gruel that seem to appeal only to a pretty narrow group of intellectual types.

That's a great sentence. But I'm not sure that you're thinking of what I think you're thinking of...

I agree w/ a lot of the post. This- "I supported Bush because the Democrats aren't serious about national security." is such bullshit. It's just a psychological thing they've fallen victim to- they're on their knees blowing this archetypal father-figure that they see in the right. A big psychological component of the right is very demure submission to authority.

As to that whole "liberals used to be ok, but now you're... [insert trash-talking here]" line, that's just a quite transparent psychological poly to try to sway liberals. I flip the bird to that crap.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 25, 2005 9:01:10 PM

"persistent overrating of the extent to which America's left-of-center is really a "left" in any robust sense"

I call this the "Ptolemic falacy".

Look, there IS no objective measure of "left" and "right", apart from the distribution of views within a society. Your "robust sense" doesn't exist.

I see it all the time, liberals commenting that there's no significant left wing in this country. And what's the basis of this? They don't see a lot of people to THEIR "left". Well, I've got news for you: You're not the center of the political universe.

Neither am I, of course, but at least I realize it.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 25, 2005 9:53:13 PM

Good post. This is barely on-topic, but IMO the way most conservatives view themselves in regard to the "left" is described best in Michael Barone's "Hard America, Soft America". I seem to remember you called it "silly", but didn't discuss it in any depth. I'm vaguely surprised why clowns like Coulter & Powerline get all the attention, while people who are the pillars of modern conservatism: people like Barone, Bill Gertz, Bill Sammon, the fellow who wrote "Dereliction of Duty", etc. sort of float under the radar screen. Also, you have a their/they're thing in the last sentence.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Feb 25, 2005 10:28:14 PM

"liberals used to be ok, but now you're..."

Well, of course they are talking about Scoop Jackson, Perle's daddy. Southern Democrats 1935-1975 were certainly more conservative and stronger on defense than their blue-state party brothers, then or now, but I am not sure to what degree there is a one-to-one correspondence between the old Southern Democrats and today's Southern Republicans on domestic policy. Pro Public-works, anti-welfare-state consistency?

Besides the lynchings, still held in check by the Federal Marshalls.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 25, 2005 10:44:18 PM

Brett Bellmore: 'I see it all the time, liberals commenting that there's no significant left wing in this country. And what's the basis of this? They don't see a lot of people to THEIR "left".'

Um, no: the basis of this is that, by the standards of other First World countries - most notably Canada and the nations of Western Europe - there is no significant left wing in the U.S.

Brett: 'Well, I've got news for you: You're not the center of the political universe.'

No, but it's perfectly reasonable to calculate the 'center' in terms of the Western world as a whole, not just the United States.

Posted by: Firebug | Feb 25, 2005 11:14:56 PM

"No, but it's perfectly reasonable to calculate the 'center' in terms of the Western world as a whole, not just the United States."

It's equally reasonable to calculate the center in terms of the entire world (not just the West) or compared to all civilizations throughout history, or compared to the Western world throughout history, or compared to the United States throughout history. The only standard by which the center of American politics is to the right is the standard that you propose, but there is no reason one is any more valid than another.

Historically, the idea that individuals have any rights against their governments is way left of center. So is the idea that there any significant moral constraints on warfare.

Posted by: Xavier | Feb 25, 2005 11:59:23 PM

bob, I think you've provided a perspective I was overlooking, but I think my take on the psychological element that's going into it is still valid about that point.

As to this, by Xavier:

Historically, the idea that individuals have any rights against their governments is way left of center. So is the idea that there any significant moral constraints on warfare.

What's the point of assessing the modern world by the standards of Attilla the Hun? People make progress, at least that's what we ought to be capable of doing if we have any brains in our head. The (non-P.C.) short of it: the standard your suggesting is retarded.

If there's anywhere a standard should be placed (and suggesting that no standard is meaningful simply because any point of reference could be chosen is quite a pointless attitude of resignation) it should be some sort of a modern standard. That's the only thing that's in any sense appropriate.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 12:10:01 AM

Yes, Brett. John McCain is a liberal -- and a dangerous one too! -- if you squint your eyes just right.

Nothing is real. Everything is permitted.

"There is no reason one is any more valid than another."

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 26, 2005 1:01:26 AM

Oh, and before anyone pulls out that ridiculously blunt, cultural-relativism crapola on me, let me just say that:

-judging a society across-the-board, within its own context of time and place (which is entirely appropriate, as it uses meaningful and relevant criteria), is entirely different from,

-judging a particular practice such as, say, trial-by-ordeal, removed from the context and standards particular to any particular culture, but rather against constant themes underlying and informing morality in every culture, but simply manifesting themselves in different ways in different particular places (which is also entirely sensible and appropriate).

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 1:28:19 AM

Oh, and both of the foregoing are different from mere cultural bigotry.

Ah! I managed to make the whole point. :)

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 1:33:37 AM

"To put it in this morning's terms that brand of conservatism primarily directed at combatting liberals has been very successful, whereas the strain of conservatism oriented toward rolling back the state has not.

Step 1: Destroy the ability of government to function efficiently
Step 2: Wait for the electorate to demand rolling back the state

Posted by: Petey | Feb 26, 2005 4:18:57 AM

No matter where you are personally, there are certain characteristics that define 'leftwing' and 'rightwing'.

For example, advocating universal government-financed healthcare doesn't make you a 'leftwinger': it's just not a radical enough idea, it's been accepted everywhere, it's a truly centrist position. Thus supporting it doesn't characterize you either way, while opposing it does, certainly, make you a 'rightwinger'.

Merriam-Webster:

Left...
4 capitalized a : those professing views usually characterized by desire to reform or overthrow the established order especially in politics and usually advocating change in the name of the greater freedom or well-being of the common man.

Right...
8 a often capitalized : individuals sometimes professing opposition to change in the established order and favoring traditional attitudes and practices and sometimes advocating the forced establishment of an authoritarian order (as in government).

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 26, 2005 5:04:04 AM

The GOP is also big government in areas a European social democrat finds distasteful: it's not a match.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 26, 2005 8:10:11 AM

This post, and its companion, point to the nub of our dilemma: they love our policies but they hate us. They hate us so much that they'll vote for someone whom they know will not advance the policies they love. So much that in an election, they can easily be convinced that the other side is in favor of our policies, and we aren't.

This is why the whole Beinart national security debate was a total waste of time. It doesn't matter what a Democrat says, or believes, about national security. The people who hate liberals (of whom only a minority hates liberalism) would never believe it. Nor do they believe it when we say that Republicans are going to try to undo significant parts of the New Deal.

The further problem is that the fact that they don't believe us has nothing to do with either objective credibility (that is, we haven't been lying any more than anyone else over the years) nor is it based on any kind of evidence intrinsic to our statements or positions.

Instead, it seems to be simply tribal. Liberals cannot be believed or trusted because they are the hated other.

Of course, one of the biggest problems with this is that there aren't actually any tribes. to illustrate, it is an article of conservative faith that 'the liberals' are trying to impose gay marriage. There's no such thing as 'the liberals.' It didn't matter what John Kerry's actual position was -- to 'beleagured' conservatives, to the plaintiffs who brought the action in Massachusetts, or to the Mass Supreme Court. 'The Liberals' didn't file suit to prevent prayer at the inauguration, and, more importantly, no politician could have prevented the suit. Nonetheless, they hate us for the suit's existence.

What's worse, their hate for us is one of the primary factors keeping their coalition together. So any time things start to get rough within their coalition, we can look for the subject to be changed to something about the evil media, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, or Hilary.

Posted by: CharleyCarp | Feb 26, 2005 8:26:35 AM

Well, there's plenty of hatred on the both sides, of course. Hatred for the other side is THE reason people go to vote in the environment where neither party has any constructive populist agenda.

IOW, it's not like 'my party is great and the other one is merely good', no, it's 'the other party is evil and mine is not'.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 26, 2005 8:44:28 AM

"Yes, Brett. John McCain is a liberal -- and a dangerous one too! -- if you squint your eyes just right."

Dangerous, yes. Especially if you think freedom of speech is important. "Liberal"? Not really. Just willing to oportunisticly ally with Democrats when they agree with his anti-liberty agenda, which is way too often.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 26, 2005 9:51:29 AM

Petey's got it right of course;

But as to the dictionary-quoter above, this is the kind of problem where the dictionary is just not useful!

Think about it. The problem here is sort of like a level-of-abstraction problem. We're trying to assign content to liberalism, and that's why we're looking for a frame of reference. If you try to characterize the concept of liberalism with some sweeping words, you may accurately hit the general idea of what it is, but *not* be able to inform us as what *particulars* are included in liberalism as we see it or should see it here *today*.

For example, I've seen the difference between liberalism and conservativism as this for a while (and I think I'm right on this, ad the dictionary is wrong, but the person who writes the dictionary isn't into political science- that person is a wordsmith):

liberalism amounts to advocating spreading the goods, and consrevativism amounts to hoarding the goods for the plutocracy.

(I've really made this point curtly and bluntly, but that's still the basic idea)

However, this does nothing to tell us how "far" left or not far left and particular spreading-the-goods type policy that is suggested or practiced today is. And that's precisely the point of the conversation, that's what we're trying to get at.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 11:27:37 AM

Politics is indeed tribal, for me at least. I often describe myself as a liberal Democrat even though I:

a) Believe abortion is murder
b) Believe gun control is just plain stupid (not just politically)
c) Completely support free trade

I am a liberal Democrat more because I despise the Republican Party, and especially conservative Republicans. I declare myself to be what conservative Republicans despise - and I do so as a mark of pride. I cannot stand those who threaten the wall of separation between church and state (yes, I'm an quasi-atheist Jew against abortion on purely moral grounds). I can't stand plutocrats who, in the name "free enterprise" and "property rights" threaten any basic citizen protections against corporate excess (somehow I recall pro-slavery advocates declaring that abolition would be the greatest assault on private property in human history. They were right of course (billions of dollars lost instantly in slave property) but they also demonstrated how morally bankrupt property rights absolutism is. And I can't stand people who mythologize about racial colorblindness when such a state of society clearly does not exist at this point. For these reasons I loathe the Republican Party - even more than I love the Democratic Party or "liberalism" per se. When I look at elections I see it like "good" sports teams and "bad" sports teams, with the [R] standing in for evil, plain in simple. It's like Broncos and Raiders fans (I'm a Bronco fan) - I just simply despise everything about the Raider organization and anybody who puts on the Raider uniform. It's purely tribal for me, which is why the ultimate vindication of the welfare state gives me little consolation. I somehow imagine there are a lot more people out there who see things in my tribalist mindset as opposed to the pure ideologues (on both sides) who dominate the blogosphere.

Posted by: Elrod | Feb 26, 2005 12:50:55 PM

Swan, the word 'liberalism' has many meanings, but 'advocating spreading the goods' doesn't seem to fit any of them. You might be thinking about 'socialism'.

American liberals like MY don't care much about more equal 'spreading the goods', they feel that if people down the bottom get a little more goods, then it'd justify people on top (plutos) hoarding most of the goods.

Liberals simply can't be characterized as 'left'. They don't represent interests of the common people, working people - which is what 'left' is all about; liberals are thinking in terms of the whole society.

It's more managerial/technocratic position than political.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 26, 2005 1:29:57 PM

ok, Abb1, I may have been conflating liberalism with leftism and I didn't mean to raise your hackles.

My point was that your comment was beside the point, though...

Maybe I can provide a little nuance or slightly different perspective for what you're thinking about in your latest comment on this thread, however:

if increased benefit to those on the bottom rung of society doesn't justify the extra privilege that those on the top are getting, then what does?

Nothing, right?

That's not such a plutocratic idea, but it does provide for the minimal amount of social and professional stratification that you could have in society.

The proposition is that if I, as a surgeon, make $10,000 more a year than you, a gas-station attendant (in our hypothetical leftist paradise society) that's ok if the effect of 100% of those $10,00 dollars is that, the worst-off in society will have better medical care because we provided for some economic stratification, and things wouldn't have turned out that way otherwise.

I know that we're waaaaaaaay off from having the kind of egalitarian efficiency that would truly fully justify the economic stratifications that are present in our society.

But if it did work out all neat and clean as shown in our hypo above, then what's wrong with that? Who couldn't agree with that?

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 3:32:02 PM

And if increasing efficiency in how a doctor or a lawyer provides benefits to the poorest in society isn't consistent with what you call 'left'... then what is?

Maybe MY is very far off from what I'm suggesting, but, at least you can see that the gap between his liberalism and your leftism is not uncrossable.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 3:37:59 PM

Once upon a time (before about 1900), Liberal meant something closer to 'watered down libertarian'. It still does mean roughly that in many of the continental European countries and in Latin America. Thus you'll hear leftist Latin Americans complain about the 'neo-liberalism' of the IMF.

In these countries, they also have social-democrats and socialists on the left, and Christian Democrats and various sorts of nationalists on the right.

Liberalism may be understood to be the opposite of communitarianism. It places primary emphasis on promoting the freedom and welfare of individuals. Communitarianism usually places some emphasis on the fraternal bond, coherence, and stability of the community, beyond the instrumental value it has for the individuals who make up that community.

The Great Switch in Liberalism around 1900 creates a division between Classical Liberals (who hew to the old watered-down libertarian line) and Welfare-State Liberals.

The Classical Liberals (American small government conservatives) placed almost all their emphasis on so-called negative freedoms -- the right to be left alone from coercion. The Welfare-State Liberals (American small-l liberals) started to place more emphasis on so-called positive freedoms -- the freedom which arises from having food or health care or whatever supplied to you.

I suspect that the overall level of Liberalism of both stripes is higher in the US than in Europe, due to lack of tribal homogeneity. Our leftists tend to be Welfare-State liberals, not socialists and social democrats. But also, our rightists tend be more Classical Liberal than the European right. (For those who think high levels of religiousity inconsistent with Liberalism, I cite Gladstone.)

While the US is somewhat more right than European countries, it's significantly more left than most other countries.

But what REALLY distinguishes it is that it is way way more Liberal.

Posted by: DeadHorseBeater | Feb 27, 2005 3:34:04 AM

Yes, Swan, I'm fine with doctors and lawyers; they are not the super-rich I was talking about, far from it. From the point of view of a typical super-rich parasite, an average American doctor or lawyer is undistinguishable from a janitor - in terms of their incomes.

You can find more here: The L-Curve.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 27, 2005 2:59:23 PM

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