« Bad Math | Main | Ferguson on Tax Reform »

Philosophy Gap

Sometimes, the onerous burden falls upon me of promoting my boss' word, but you should really give today's Mike Tomasky column a read. It highlights what is, I think, a serious problem facing liberalism today. Simply put, I'm not sure liberals have a clear idea of where we're trying to take the country. I mean that on two levels. First, there's significant disagreement between liberals about what we should be doing. Second, many liberals seem to me to be simply confused themselves. As Mike argues, the sort of vehement tactical discussions we've all been having are a bit irrelevant in light of the underlying philosophical problems. It only makes real sense to argue about how to take the country where you want it to go if you already know where you're trying to go.

February 22, 2005 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Philosophy Gap:

» Minding the Philosophy Gap from The Fly Bottle
Michael Tomasky worries out loud that contemporary liberals don't make any sense. Liberals strategize and strategize, but means require ends, and those are . . . what? Conservatives do better: I’ve long had the sense, and it’s only grown since... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 22, 2005 2:45:29 PM

» Quote of the Day from Grouchy's Liberaltopia
Talk of democracy has little content when big business rules the life of the country through its control of the means of production, exchange, the press and other means of publicity, propaganda and communication. Eric Alterman's take: Can Democracy Wor... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 22, 2005 10:02:06 PM

» The Core from Not Geniuses
There's a healthy discussion going on at Pandagon and at Matt's house about this American Prospect article by Michael Tomasky. The discussion is important; it's about finding the core philosophy of American liberalism. I gave this answer a try at... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 23, 2005 11:42:52 AM

» The Core from Not Geniuses
There's a healthy discussion going on at Pandagon and at Matt's house about this American Prospect article by Michael Tomasky. The discussion is important; it's about finding the core philosophy of American liberalism. I gave this answer a try at... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 12:08:36 PM

» The Core from Not Geniuses
There's a healthy discussion going on at Pandagon and at Matt's house about this American Prospect article by Michael Tomasky. The discussion is important; it's about finding the core philosophy of American liberalism. I gave this answer a try at... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 24, 2005 12:09:47 PM


Democrats should concentrate on work-life issues, specifically, time pressure. I believe the reason that Americans are fat, ill informed, and raising kids who think it is OK to torture is because we spend too much time at work. We don't have enough time to prepare healthy meals, inform ourselves, or monitor our children's development.

Posted by: TheJew | Feb 22, 2005 1:17:07 PM

For me, it's about appropriate balances that foster a stable, working, open and growing polity - a balance between labor and business, between public and private, between investment and obligation.

Basic good government. Efficient, make private what is private, make public what is public, make sure no child goes hungry, and gets a fighting chance at developing his/her skills.

And fighting those interests - either personal, politcal, etc, who seek to damage the polity (such as Walmart for basic worker's rights, or protecting the public health via safety regulations) or giving children a chance through Head Start.

And avoiding the OTHER extremes as well, whereby a labor strike incapacitates a whole country (such as what happens in France), or labor get outrageous perks (such as San Francisco's MUNI employees).

Efficient markets AND caring about people.
Eliminate government waste AND have the government do work that the government should be doing (and not have the government do what it should not be doing.)

Is "good government" a governing slogan? Probably not - but this is what Clinton did, to the best of his ability, and he didn't do badly.

Posted by: JC | Feb 22, 2005 1:29:15 PM

I think that it is reasonable for people broadly defined as "liberal" to hold different views. Certainly local issues differ markedly throughout the country, and a liberal take will vary depending on many things not the least of which is the local power structure. The way the Democrats eventually find to speak effectively to guys with gun racks in their trucks (the guys Dean meant to address when he talked about Confederate flags) will not be the way they speak to suburban moms. Far from suggesting hypocracy, this would mean that we take winning seriously. Philosophy is useful for deciding what the brand will be, but it need not be universally accepted in order to win.

Posted by: Eric | Feb 22, 2005 1:36:27 PM

I guess the speech "To Sercure These Rights" he refers to is actually "To Fulfill these Rights," since that's what's LBJ's Howard speech was called. before you send people off chasing after ur-texts, might want to make sure you know what they're called.

Telling that the other text he mentions by name is The Vital Center. Intellectual vitality of liberalism always came as response to the Left, Communist and otherwise. Problem won't be solved until enough people in American intellectual life have the courage to take a genuinely adversarial position, as opposed to trying to reinvent cold war liberalism. Much as I admire Tomasky, he's not the man for the job.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Feb 22, 2005 1:39:11 PM

Eric, I agree with you that liberalism is about acceptance of a broad spectrum of ideas, but in the sense of what Tomasky is saying (and I like the essay, and Tomasky generally, a lot), that's beside the point. The point is that liberals and Democrats - or as I would say, "we" - have gotten away from saying some basic, common-sense things about what we believe. Even stuff as simple as fairness, and helping those least able to help themselves. We can talk in a high minded way about the different ways to reach "guys with gun racks in their trucks" (not my choice of phrasing) and suburban Moms, but we also need a more fundamental discussion of just what it is we're trying to reach them with. And I agree with Tomasky, that clarity of philosophical viewpoint - which we actually have, I believe - has been poorly articulated by senior Democrats and their spokespeople, when it's been articulated at all. We just need to be better at that, and it is somewhat embarrassing at this point that we're not.

Posted by: weboy | Feb 22, 2005 1:46:59 PM


That's nice and all, but half those talking points have been adopted by the Republicans (because they are more then thirty years old) and the other half are too complicated to communicate during an elevator ride.

Work life balance is a lens through which we can view those issues. Public healthcare reduces the lump sum costs of employees, making part time work more availible. Improved public education reduces competition in the realestate market to get into the right neighborhood, reducing our need to kill ourselves with work to give our children a fighting chance (to kill themselves with work?).

In addition, it is a strategic investment. A large part of the problem is the under informed nature of the electorate. By creating more personal time we help people inform themselves on such topics as whether or not there were WMD found in Iraq. The right has been using strategic policy since the eighties when Reagan cut the taxes (on campaign and think tank contributors) and broke the unions (not necessarily an entirely bad thing).

Posted by: TheJew | Feb 22, 2005 1:57:55 PM

Here, here Matthew. My points exactly.

For more details, see:

- Less Than the Sum of Our Parts

- The Donkey Gets Its Ass Kicked: Five Lessons for Democrats

Posted by: Jon | Feb 22, 2005 2:13:15 PM

Dude, I should have written that. Except the problem with your boss's piece is that Democrats don't talk about strategy, they talk about tactics.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 22, 2005 2:23:20 PM

JC's commetns are symptomatic of exactly of exactly what's wrong with liberalism. In a country where organized labor is abrely alive, and where not coincidentally blue collar wages have basically stagnated for the past 30 years, he makes one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism

avoiding the OTHER extremes as well, whereby a labor strike incapacitates a whole country (such as what happens in France), or labor get outrageous perks (such as San Francisco's MUNI employees)

On the one hand, we have conservatives, who want to redistribute income and political power from labor to capital s much as possible. And on the other hand, you've got liberals, who think labor is maybe a little too weak ... or a little too strong .. or probably somewhere in between.

If Democrats like JC keep saying to union workers, "we think your wages and benefits should be cut, too," then we're going to say f*** you and stay home on election day, and you'll keep losing. And you'll deserve it.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Feb 22, 2005 3:00:47 PM

Besides universal healthcare and a too regressive tax system, the government right now is very close to the consensus liberal view of what government should look like in the end.

We have a pretty clear view of where we want to be as far as the government goes.

Throw in a slightly more active role in for the government in regulating business and a more active role in addressing racial disparities, and you have there the consensus liberal utopia.

Posted by: Vickie Waddell | Feb 22, 2005 3:01:35 PM

Liberalism: fairness, justice, hope.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher | Feb 22, 2005 3:21:35 PM

I may be very pessemistic, but I truly think that the reason Democrats are flailing about trying to identify ways to take the country back is that there is no way to do it. Much of the American populace is caught in the grip of fear due to the escalating risk related to social and financial uncertainties not present when this post-war generation was growing up. When you combine this fear with the 40-year decline in the quality of public eduction, you come out with a vast number of people who are scared and ignorant. This combination invites belief in superstition, occult forces, and paranormal phenomenon and a fantasy about recapturing a previous "golden age". These people are not open to logic, reason, argument, or charm, but cling to a past symbolized by "traditional values." I think the only circumstance under which Democrats will regain some control is as a result of an economic crisis comparable to the Great Depression.

Posted by: Katherine | Feb 22, 2005 3:22:55 PM

How come 'liberals' is now used interchangeably with 'Democrats'? What happened to the blue-collar labor folks and to the lefties, but especially the blue-collar folks? Do they have some other party now? This is absurd. The strategy for the Democrats should be to contain the damn liberals.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 22, 2005 3:37:23 PM

This bit from the LBJ speech rocks

The voting rights bill will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories. But this victory--as Winston Churchill said of another triumph for freedom--"is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society--to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

True in America, true in Iraq. GWB says Freedom is on the march, LBJ responds Freedom is only the beginning.

(Also note contrast LBJs rhetoric to Kerry's defence of minority set-asides in the presidential debates. Note GWBs response in the same debate.)

Posted by: Ikram | Feb 22, 2005 3:40:19 PM

"I'm not sure liberals have a clear idea of where we're trying to take the country."

It's not the destination, it's the journey. (Carville would add a "stupid!" at the end, but I'm trying to persuade my 13 year old daughter to eschew use of that word.)

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens | Feb 22, 2005 3:48:46 PM

Ms. Katherine et. al.,

Thats one way to illustrate the problem, and to reinforce Mr. Tomasky's point - despair is a symptom of losing ones beliefs. There is a very good reason why despair is a sin in the Catholic faith.

In detail though I would quibble with your evidence also. I would say that:

1. US public education is improving slightly, having hit rock-bottom somewhere in the late 1970's (going by what I have seen in the NAEP), and the principal drivers for improving it are definitely not on the left. There has been a huge private response to its failures, manifested in various forms, from the huge expansion of home-schooling (competition!) to the rise of American-style "juku" like Kumon, to testing and accountability systems to back-to-basics curriculum. These are all a bottom-up and very healthy response to institutional and cultural failure. I understand that competition for top universities is getting tighter every year.

The rise of superstition it seems to me began in the 1960's, and has been on a downturn for a long time. The "new age" is pretty much a has-been.

There were some very useful "traditional values" that could stand re-introduction, such as better self-discipline, faithfulness in marriage, and chastity. There were many more children with both parents around forty years ago. That is at the core of what a lot of people want to revive, correctly. And this cycle has happened several times, it is not some unrealistic goal.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 22, 2005 3:54:33 PM

I'd consider my basic philosophy of liberalism as "try to let everyone be as free as possible." Unlike libertarians, though, I hold positive freedom to be a legitimate type of freedom too, as well as negative freedom. Overall, though, I think there should be somewhat of a bias in favor of negative freedom, i.e. new actions by the government to expand oppurtunity should be held guilty until proven innocent, but the criteria for finding them innocent shouldn't be as tight as libertarians would like.

For example... I think that most people would be able to do more with their lives if we had universal healthcare, because it's more efficient than adverse-selection ridden private insurance systems, and efficiency generally allows people to do more. However, we certainly shouldn't prohibit any private healthcare (presumption of negative liberty), and to implement public healthcare, our criteria should be slightly stricter than "it's more likely than not to be a net positive." It should be more like, "we have quite good evidence that it will be a net positive," though not quite "we are sure beyond a reasonable doubt that it will be a net positive."

So basically: run things technocratically efficiently, respect people's freedom (negative liberty), and expand their oppurtunities apart from the ordinary oppurtunities of freedom (positive liberty; somewhat, though not overwhelmingly, lower priority than negative liberty).

Not a rousing call, is it?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 22, 2005 4:16:09 PM


Hmm - well, for what I believe - universal health care, done in an efficient mode.

As far as labor goes, I would like everyone to have access to a protective union - my personal opinion is that Walmart is, by the damage it does, an evil company.

Should I not point out where there are deep and costly inefficiencies that go the other way? Per my examples of France unions, and San Francisco MUNI?

Posted by: JC | Feb 22, 2005 4:18:23 PM

Well, back in the day (July 2002), FWIW, I wrote a quixotic, semi-megalomaniacal post: "What America Needs Done: A Suggested Platform For Idealistic Liberals" or "Three Phrases, Six Words That Could Make The Democrats The Majority Party: `Middle Class, Common Sense, Golden Rule'" I divided the issues into three categories: "Middle Class issues", "Common Sense" issues, "Golden Rule" issues.

Middle Class: These should be the "bread and butter" issues for Democrats, which distinguish them from Republicans, and convince the average worker that their lives will be better under Democrats than Republicans.

The key polarizing idea is "progressive taxation" (the liberal word), or "coercive income redistribution" (the conservative/libertarian word). Liberals may think that it is unwise to redistribute income through the tax code (for incentive, efficiency and technical reasons), but it is not immoral. Conservatives believe such redistribution is either 1) immoral, evil, a government theft of private property, or 2) very very very unwise, playing with fire, and thus any social safety net and the consequent redistribution should be kept to a bare, bare minimum.

A good exposition of the liberal point of income redistribution/progressive taxation are two essays by Paul Krugman, one a review of Dick Armey's book "The Freedom Revolution", the other a review of a book on the living-wage movement:



Common Sense: "Common Sense" issues are either non-ideological issues, or issues that we wish to make non-ideological, by uniting people over a broad middle ground. Especially, we attempt to take the sting out of polarizing (and often inane) “culture war” issues. This might require pissing off people on the right and left. Also, “common sense” issues refers to reforming programs that have failed (eg. the War On Drugs), and taking on certain powerful non-ideological special interests.

Golden rule: “Golden Rule” issues are those that require us to make sacrifices for the good of others, especially people who are down on their luck. Americans are very generous people: They just don’t think government is an effective vehicle for their generosity. But there are some things that can only be done by governments. We can give a homeless person a meal: we can’t get him a job. Similarly, if we are serious about helping Africa / South America/ Asia / the Carribean, the federal government must play a large role. Private charities tend to be inefficient and piecemeal. Liberals should support “Golden Rule” programs because they are the right thing to do, and also because they might raise their long term standing with Evangelicals and the religious, and will give Democrats long term moral credibility, so that even if the voters do not always love Democrats, they will respect them.

"Middle Class" Issues: progressive taxation (income redistribution); universal access to education, employment, health insurance, & opportunites for advancement and wealth-creation; eliminating many special interest tax credits and subsidies; supporting private-sector unions; Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid; other safety net programs, social insurance; containing the extent of usury, monopoly & vested interest by the plutocratic elites, etc.

"Common Sense" issues: Defense, Education, Environment, Civil Rights & affirmative action, War on Drugs, Gun Control, Abortion, Public sector unions, Tort and Regulatory reform, Judicial issues, Immigration, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, voting rights for DC/Puerto Rico + universal access to good voting/voter registration technology, etc.

"Golden Rule" issues: Foreign aid, Nation-building, Education & Equal-Opportunity programs for the disabled/disadvantaged, No State lotteries, Voluntary humanitarian military missions, voting rights for rehabilitated non-violent felons, etc.

Apologies for length.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Feb 22, 2005 4:37:08 PM

Should I not point out where there are deep and costly inefficiencies that go the other way?

What's an 'inefficiency' - people being paid decent wages? Yeah, that's a terrible thing.

And what was the last time whole France was paralyzed and what was that paralysis about - do you know? Let's see some details.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 22, 2005 4:37:08 PM

Should I not point out where there are deep and costly inefficiencies that go the other way? Per my examples of France unions, and San Francisco MUNI?

Well, sure, if you like, but that's no fighting faith. What's got you so bothered about the public workers in San Francisco, anyway? Middle-class salaries, 3-week vacations, the horror! Republicans recognize that they owe something to their base, they don't pretend to stand in some kind of Olympian detachment from it.

And if you think the French got universal healthcare without countrywide strikes, you've got another think coming. That's liberals for you -- they want the positive outcomes without the disruptive fights that produce them.

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Feb 22, 2005 5:00:04 PM

Lemuel Pitkin--There is a prominent Democrat who shares your views on public employees' unions, especially public safety unions. His name is Gray Davis.

Posted by: s.f. | Feb 22, 2005 5:37:00 PM


JC is right that France has had crippling nationwide strikes -- most recently in 1995 in response to the government's attempt to drastically reduce ublic pensions.

Sound familiar? We may be wishing soon that we had a few more nationwide strikes here in the US...

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Feb 22, 2005 5:45:35 PM

I argue everywhere I can that the Democratic Party is not the liberal party. If not liberalism, then what unites the Democrats? Two things. Democrats
1. Believe that human beings are basically good and by and large want to live a good life
2. Democrats believe that there is an essential role for the Government in helping human beings live a good life.

I believe this is what binds all Democrats, conservative, moderate and liberal together. You can weave a fairly comprehensive philosophy from that.

The contrast is that Republicans don't trust human nature to do what is right without force. The individual is prized over the community and it is ultimately beneficial to the community for self interest and power to intersect in a sub group, the elite.

When it comes down to it, Democrats are about people, Republicans are about laws/principles.

Posted by: Ono | Feb 22, 2005 6:02:28 PM

Liberals have a fundamental problem, in that 'liberalism' in the U.S. is about the opposite of 'liberalism' in the rest of the world. So, you set that aside and look at American liberalism, which is equally fantastic. Reading Walter Lippman won't help, unless you have the genetic variation 'WL' that actually makes Lippman interesting to 0.000001 per cent of the population. Oliver Wendell Holmes is equally impenetrable to the modern reader (no Hunter Thompson he!), but H.L. Mencken will be a valuable reminder that Boobus Americanus is stubbornly resistent to evolutionary progress.

Some detours, such as the Henry Jackson faction, will prove particularly depressing, and more so if you consider the context in which Jackson was considered a 'liberal'.

All thing considered, it's a big bad world out there and being a 'liberal' may be more trouble than it's worth. At one time it was easier to just be a radical, but now that the Bush gang has appropriated that sobriquet, it's time to mosey on..........

Posted by: serial catowner | Feb 22, 2005 7:27:48 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.