Monday, November 10, 2008

LIBERAL?

John Judis has an article on TNR online, “America the Liberal: The Democratic Majority: It emerged!” It was posted November 5. http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=c261828d-7387-4af8-9ee7-8b2922ea6df0

It prompts some thoughts.

He’s writing, he notes, because “Washington’s pundits were declaring that nothing had really changed politically in the country”.

It may seem strange that ‘The New Republic’ is touting liberalism. It quickly swung into formation as the fundamentalist and neocon and (perhaps only coincidentally) pro-Israel coalition took shape from the mists and smokes of a turbulent post-1968 politics and especially after the Reagan win of 1980. But – stunningly – ‘liberalism’ has not been clearly defined recently, and it seems clear that the Democrats wanted it that way: the less definition, the less clearly can you be seen to have failed, the less clearly you can be seen by one demographic as favoring another demographic, the less clearly you can be seen by one demographic as pretty much declaring war upon it.

It cannot be coincidence that the national aversion for clear definitions and bright distinctions that has brought Us to so many of Our present catastrophes is precisely of the same type.

Definitions, after all, ‘define’, and thus they create a Shape that must be maintained, and equally, they create boundaries that must be maintained. Definitions are both a trellis and a fence, and simultaneously provide the defined entity to develop coherently and provide others with clear grounds for identifying the entity among them (and figuring their own stance toward it).

They give ‘clarity’, both to the entity defined, and to the socially surrounding entities. They keep the latter honest and require the former to make careful and accurate assessments.

If ‘definitions’ are not clear, and if dynamic entities (like, say, human beings individually and in groups and the situations they create) are thus being dynamic in an ‘undefined’ way – no trellis to Shape them, no boundaries to contain them – then We have LA freeways with no lane-markers painted on the surface, Manhattan with no traffic lights, world-class airports with no air-traffic control.

This, alas, is the result not only of the impatient and callow youthful ‘liberations’ of the later Sixties, but also the political calculation of the Democrats of that era (and subsequently) who in their desperate desire to keep as many voters as possible in their deflating Big Tent did not want to risk ‘defining’ any demographic out the door (and into the waiting arms of the Republicans). We are talking world-class levels of strategic politicking here.

And then the Dems started favoring some groups verrrry specially. And not-favoring others. And they didn’t want to give opportunity for all that to be discussed too clearly.

And then the Dems started caving in to all sorts of demands of the later Sixties and early Seventies that didn’t necessarily square with any commonly understood definition of ‘liberalism’. And they didn’t want to give opportunity for that to be generally noticed, let alone widely discussed.

Thus ‘abortion’ – as clear a Social-Darwinist powerplay as one might ever concoct – became a ‘liberal’ cause. So did ‘affirmative racism’. So did the massive expansion of government police-power, intruding into the lives of the citizens in ways that heretofore only Stalin and Hitler had espoused. So eventually did going overseas with the military and invading other countries in order to ‘help’ or even ‘liberate’ them from some ‘evil’ – as in ‘humanitarian intervention’.

And obversely, many elements that had been considered liberal in one form or another were no longer considered liberal. The boundarying of government power through the political activity and private industry and economic activity of a free citizenry in order to promote individual freedom and economic prosperity was no longer quite the thing. The deployment of government power for the purpose of economically securing all the citizenry against the wilder swings inherent in capitalism was not so liberal any longer. Even the latter-day ‘liberalism’ as defined by FDR’s New Deal was no longer ‘liberal’ (although here too the plan was to abandon it without letting folks know).

Progressivism – an anti-democratic (but well-intentioned) elitism that sought to harness an ever-increasing government authority and power in the service of goals defined as ‘good’ by the elites-with-good-intentions – became the new ‘liberalism’, although it was something else indeed both in its objectives and its methods.

Of course, the same applied to ‘conservatism’, which went from a careful and principled support of the status-quo in order to avoid the hasty and potentially dangerous ‘changes’ that sometimes sweep our excitable species, to an unripe, swaggering, military bullying that resembled not traditional ‘conservatism’ as it had developed in England in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries, but rather a Rightist, national-order militarism more characteristic of central and southern Europe of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

He happily opines that “if Obama acts shrewdly to consolidate this new majority, we may soon be ‘America the liberal’”. Such bright dampdreams.

Shrewdly, he proposes that “the new Democratic realignment” is primarily about economics: the Reagan-era “shift of industry and population from the North to the lower-wage, non-unionized, suburban Sunbelt stretching from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas and Southern California”. Not that he’s wrong. As the ‘easy’ world-straddling industrial hegemony of the postwar United States began to unravel starting in the later 1960s, big-business began to look for ways to keep profits and dividends flowing by cutting costs (rather than by putting out better product). And when that gambit was no longer sufficient to keep up appearances and dividends, Big Business began to look elsewhere for workers and factory-sites.

The unasked question is why the government – Congress especially – did nothing to require the corporations to adapt the harder but more socially responsible course of developing better products and keeping the jobs here.

But of course, the Congress had quickly sold itself to the corporations with the Democratic-inspired invention of PACs in the mid-‘70s, and it soon found itself in no position to be slapping its de facto paymasters on the snout with newspapers as they proceeded to cast off the American citizenry in search of profits and – as American public education increasingly became less achievement-oriented – competent and at least minimally mature and reliable workers. 1968 scared the corporations too, and continued to do so; and while they – like the pols – eventually learned how to pander to the demands of the new ‘liberalism’, they quietly but quickly made up their minds that the country was starting to curdle and it was time to start – ever so sensitively – to look elsewhere.

But the ‘economic’ explanation cannot stand alone. Judis avoids even the merest hint of the monstrous societal and cultural derangement caused by some of the above-noted ‘liberal’ demands that began to shred the citizenry’s sense of communal identity and purpose, and deliberately so. The results of that struggle – vast numbers of citizens leaving the Democrats and embracing Reagan (if not ‘the Republicans’ in general) – are still obvious even now, where any reasonable observer might be forgiven for wondering if – had the economy not imploded as if on cue just prior to the election – then much of the 40-or-so percent of those old Reagan Democrats who pushed Mr. Obama to a bare win in the popular vote might have stayed with the Republican Party (despite its present odious composition). We came that close.

Judis goes on, burbling matter-of-factly about “the new Democratic realignment that reflects the shift that began decades ago toward a post-industrial economy centered in the large urban-suburban metropolitan areas devoted primarily to the production of ideas and services rather than material goods”. It apparently has not occurred to anyone indulging in such bosky dampdreaming, that a society as dedicated to conspicuous consumption (the better chardonnays and Mercedes and Lexuses as well as Wal-Mart stuff) is going to have to produce a hell of a lot of ideas to pay for what it consumes, especially if, being post-industrial, it has to purchase its luxuries overseas. How on earth can a society of some 300 million support itself on ‘ideas’ and ‘services’? How can it defend itself? How can it defend itself if it has little industry?

These urban-suburban areas are the ones that contain “the backbone of the new Democratic majority”. This majority, he notes, is composed of “professionals” – whose definition is now grossly expanded to include any and all “college-educated workers who produce ideas and services”; minorities (African American, Latinos, and Asian Americans); and women (particularly working, single, and college-educated women).” So there it is: it turns out that Our darker imaginings are true.

Not only have the Democrats abandoned FDR and the industrial workers, but they are apparently whacked out enough to imagine that the smallish coalition above-described (those ‘women’ are all three at once, i.e. Murphy Brown) is sufficient to support the Party’s claim to legitimacy and to provide an engaged citizenry that is capable of functioning as The People and robustly civic enough to be the ‘struts’ that will ground the Three Branches of the Founders’ Ferris-wheel. Maybe they were just ‘bad apples’, but Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo don’t particularly encourage confidence in the future of Constitutional government. And as for the assorted spiked and high heels and sensible shoes that celebrated recently at the President’s mansion at Hahvahd – well, ditto.

Not only do the Democrats – in Judis’s vision anyway – feel that We are well off being a ‘post-industrial’ nation but they also feel that they can make this country work – you should pardon the expression – with just a few favored Identities. The rest of Us can go and be Republicans, apparently. Which, as I said, was just about what happened last week, except that the economy tanked so monstrously just before the elections that a lot of modestly sober folk voted ‘not-Republican’. And are presently waiting in the tall grass to see how things shape up.

Judis goes on in this stunning vein, gushing as if it were some sort of victory that professionals, who “were the most Republican of all occupational groupings” in the 1950s are now “a quarter or more of the electorate in many northern and western states”. In case We hadn’t gotten the message, these “nurses [and] teachers [and] TV producers [and] software programmers [and] engineers” have been voting Democratic since 1988 and make up a fifth of the labor force.

What, one must ask, does the other four-fifths of the labor force do? This is a post-industrial show, right? And We see the ominous inference of 1980's film “Ordinary People”: workers are no longer the ‘ordinary people’ (whom the Democratic Party would theoretically serve).

A Party that sees its backbone as a quarter of the electorate, and that quarter concentrated among the college-educated, is no democratic party – it is an ‘elite’. So dropping ‘liberal’ and calling themselves ‘progressive’ a year or more ago was not just a tactical ploy to avoid the “L-word”; the Democrats are shooting for a reincarnation of the old Progressive ‘elites’ of the early 1900s.

Well, their thirty-plus years of ‘bipartisan’ cooperation with Reaganism’s revival of the Age of Social Darwinist ‘survival of the fittest (and the American-est)’ helped reawaken all the old monsters of the First Gilded Age, so now they’ll pour salt into Our wounds by constituting themselves as the elites who will tell Us what’s good for Us.

We are not ‘unwashed’ because We don’t believe in hygiene or have no ‘taste’; it’s simply that Our jobs have been sent away while the ‘idea’ elites have been force-fed tax-dollars for teaching that ‘facts don’t matter’ – an ‘education’ of which Mr. Judis appears to be a sterling example.

Marvelous.

But it also seems that there is a flavor of decadence about this Democratic theory of 'knowledge elites'. It is the last hyper-glistening shine of a dead fish carcass about to go bad. Having failed to achieve their revolutionary goals, the Identities - with the now-neutered Dems in tow - are simply going to define everyone except themselves out of the Party if not indeed out of the polity and the common weal. There are therapies for individuals like this - but they have to want to get better.

He goes on to gush about all the immigration. I guess that questioning the wisdom of bringing in large numbers of immigrants unfamiliar with the traditions and dynamics of Constitutional government may sound like what has been characterized in ‘liberal’ circles as 'outrageous' and 'insensitive' examples of the old late-19th and early-20th century ‘nativism’. But this is the early 21st-century. Most of those immigrants of an earlier era came more or less directly from Europe (North or South or Central), and had at least a nodding familiarity with the culture of the West that did so much to shape Constitutional thought and praxis.

And even more significantly, the ‘America’ to which they were coming still had some working sense of itself as a common undertaking, committed to the Founding principles and to making the vision of a Constitutional republic work. And that – it is too too true – is no longer the case. After the ‘radical politics’ and outright revolutionary anti-politics of the Identities in the late-Sixties and throughout the Seventies (so baaad that Stallone’s Rambo seemed a good thing!) there was the outright bashing and deconstructionist de-bunking by Multiculturalism in its early-Nineties heyday, and then the assorted anti-Constitutional ‘achievements’ of Victimism of the mid-Nineties, and only then do We start surveying the damage caused by the Bushist Imperium’s post-9/11 catastrophic military misadventures and toxic assaults on civil-rights and the entire concept of the rule of law.

'Democracy', it appears - and to many elites of either right or left as a surprise - is not easily exportable. Perhaps because it is not 'natural' to human beings, whose record of governance so far since Adam has skewed toward the verrry not-democratic. Inhaling large numbers of persons not really versed in the ways and requirements of democratic citizenship ... I don't see how that's going to further 'democracy' here, let alone anywhere else. Indeed, it seems like a recipe for diluting democracy and skewing back toward ... un-democracy.

So if it is not at the least manipulative to lure ‘immigrants’ legal and otherwise here in order to bolster Democratic electoral chops with the promise that this is still the same ‘America’ of opportunity that existed – in all its fetid, feral, and bloody glory – in the 1890s, it is certainly imprudent to bring in untold numbers of voters who are not only not going to be asked to assimilate culturally, but are not going to be offered even a consensually-accepted model of how to conduct oneself as a responsible free Citizen of a Constitutional republic and a member of The People.

And if the immediately foregoing sounds like it might be hyperbole, Judis goes on immediately to note about the new immigrants that while “some are professionals … others form the working-class of the post-industrial economy. They are orderlies, child-care workers, janitors, fast-food cooks, and servers”. And thus a peasantry. And with damned little chance of bettering themselves since the economy has started to balkanize into rich-and-poor with no middle-class and also because – conceptually – a Party of the ‘elite’ is not going to be able to turn the whole citizenry into an ‘elite’, nor – more to the point – will it want to.

And what of four-fifths of the American citizenry? Will they be going to college? All of them?

This is what they are thinking in the Beltway? Among the Democratic circles? This is ‘thought’? This is the result of ‘thinking’? These are 'elite' thinkers? They need to go back to their Ivy-League schools to get some serious thinking-skills ... or, no, wait ...

He goes on: “But the heart of the new [Democratic] majority is no longer blue-collar workers. While the ranks of professionals, minorities, and working women are growing, the traditional white working class is shrinking – having already gone from 58 percent of the workforce in 1940 to 25 percent in 2006”. This IS what they are thinking. The Dems haven't won a majority of white-male votes since about 1964, so they simply wrote white-males off, got in touch with their Inner Woman as defined by the Second Wave feminists, and commenced to fund that vanguard elite's 'war' against 'men', 'maleness', and you-name-it.

Alas, since the Identities can't be blamed for the 'oppressive' history of America, then it must be the 'white males'. But then if you toss out the white males, you have to be careful not to toss out American history - and with it the principles and virtues or at least attitudes and strengths that helped build the country. But I think the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

And now the 'liberal' elements of the Democratic Party (with deep apologies to the actual spirit of Liberalism) cannot admit that they have tossed out the baby because they can't admit they went to war against half the electorate, nor admit that their 'war' was conceptually a baaad idea to begin with and that it has caused far more damage to the country than it has helped. And this, it seems to me, is a vivid replay of the mess the Democrats found themselves in with the Vietnam War forty years ago. The hell-hot historical ironies!

But it's not 'ironic'. It's stupid. It was hugely ill-advised. It has failed. The consequences are coming back to bite Us in the head. And so this sounds like Iraq too - which the 'liberals' signed onto to 'liberate' the Iraqis and, of course, to save their children. Oy.

Have We, finally, no shame? But you have to have self-awareness to feel shame.

I can’t help but thinking myself: that there are some very real dots that need to be connected here. In the past thirty-odd years this country

has embraced the Social-Darwinism of abortion while refusing to admit as much;

has become far more impatient and immature in its ability to process information;

has become far more emotionalist and far less rational in its assessment of relevant challenges;

has settled for surface-appearances rather than substance in its approaches to societal challenges and in the general conduct of one’s life and affairs;

has become far more susceptible to fear rather than courage in its responses to societal threats and hence far more susceptible to stampedes reminiscent of villagers in a monster movie;

has allowed its ‘free press’ to morph into a sensationalist, emotionalist, shallow trumpeting to an increasingly uncomprehending herd where once it had a more capable citizenry;

has consequently done much damage to its own Constitutional protections and safeguards even while ceasing to robustly teach the Constitutional tradition in public and higher education;

has failed to exercise constructive leadership in the Moment of Soviet Communism’s long-desired collapse;

has invaded numerous other nations ‘for their own good’ thereby killing huge numbers of civilians and children and in violation of the very essence of the arrangements solemnly covenanted by the world’s nations after the Thirty-Years War 1914-1945;

has failed to win military victory in all but the invasions of the smallest (Grenada, Noriega’s arrest and capture) nations;

and has placed the entire economy of the planet in dire danger of collapse by abusing its privileged position as the ‘world hegemon’ to – in effect – go on a shopping binge from Hell for a full quarter of a century.

I’m kinda thinking that Judis is being wayyy too optimistic, and wayyyy too generous in his assessment as to the benefits of whatever the frakking frak it is that he thinks the Democrats have accomplished in the aforesaid time period. Such elites.

I would propose something more along the lines of: the Democrats have simply played tactically to ensure their own political viability, pandering to numerous incoherent demands with no substantive concern or forethought as to the consequences – specific or cumulative – of the demanded changes upon this country or This People or the ethos of a Constitutional Republic, and all the while availing themselves of the obscene legalized bribery of the PACs that they themselves invented in order to maintain their elected offices, in return for which under the sham of ‘bipartisanship’ they allowed Malefactors of Great Wealth to plunder the economy while simultaneously undercutting the citizenry’s economic security and civil liberties.

It is thus utterly insufficient if not also treacherously dishonest to blame the whole mess on ‘Republicans’ or ‘terrorists’ or ‘men’ or what have you.

Which means that Mr. Obama – upon whom be much peace and strength – is not by himself going to be able to make much of a dent on Our problems.

In fact, this election reminds me of Lincoln’s comment in the late summer of 1864 when it looked like he would not be re-elected: “In such case, I shall have to work to the utmost to assist the President-elect in ending this war before the Inauguration, because he will have gained the election on such terms that he cannot possibly win it after the Inauguration.” [My best recollection of the phrasing.] There is huge danger that Mr. Obama will not be able to effectively address Our situation. And that he will not be allowed to even if he tries. Carter, as Walter Karp records thoroughly, was betrayed by the leadership of his own Party, to Our great and lasting (and perhaps fatal) damage and detriment.

And just at this Moment in American history, as great if not greater in its danger than the Moment faced by Lincoln in 1861, the American People itself is riven and distracted and unsure and rendered cynical or hopeless.

Nor is there great reason to think that The People will be able to exert a supportive pressure on Mr. Obama's behalf. Indeed, if Mr. Judis be correct, not only the Democratic Party but a vast majority of the citizenry is in no position to even want to wage such a struggle on behalf of the Constitutional heritage entrusted to Us for the sake of future generations of Americans, however comprised and defined.

Ms. Albright, that stellar woman and liberal – who saw the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as merely a price to be paid – was not correct in asserting that America is the “indispensable nation”. The Constitutional heritage is the great Gift bequeathed by the Founding generation to the world’s peoples. The American nation is – was? – merely the vessel. And perhaps if it is now incapable of carrying on, then the world’s peoples will have to – in naval parlance – transfer their flag, to a more mission-capable vessel. As Orville Schell relates in the October 20 issue of ‘The Nation’*, even the Communist Chinese government is now trying to re-awaken the Confucian philosophy of “moral authority”, of the righteousness of the people who are given prime example by their government, such that the government is ruled first by virtue, then by rules.

Such concern with ‘virtue’ and ‘right being’ and ‘right doing’ is anathema both to revolutionaries (including America’s cultural revolutionaries) and to expansionist imperial-leaning governments, both of whom refuse to be defined or fenced-in by any overriding responsibility to any judgment about the ‘right’ and the 'good' except their own, reserving to themselves utter ‘freedom’ of action and the authority to judge themselves as to the ‘rightness’ and 'goodness' of their actions.

But to lack ‘definition’ is to lack Shape oneself. This is true for nations as well as for persons, for governors as well as for the ruled. A nation with no Shape will collapse, although if it is large enough, its collapse – like that of a great dam or a great tree – will destroy everything around it.

And it is so much the worse in a democratic Republic: where the rulers themselves are responsible to The People, the citizens have to have learned to submit and rule themselves according to ‘right’, and thus exert their deep authority on their elected servants. If The People are not well-Shaped, then what hope can there be? To cast good seed on rocky soil is not ‘hope’, it is the epitome of fecklessness and incompetence. First till the soil so it is ready, and then cast your good seed. Although I suppose none of the urban-suburban 'professionals' would know about such things - they being initiated into far more 'cutting edge' mysteries. But perhaps they might at least ask their nannies and pool-boys.

How can there be a rule of law under a government and among a People who acknowledge no higher law? Who have no Shape? What sort of ‘laws’ do Shapeless citizens and Shapeless legislators (or Unitary Executives) pass?

It is the awefull danger of this present Moment that the American People, and surely the Democratic Party, may be willing to let it all slip away. And to allow ‘America’ to sink into the oligarchy and functional despotism from which once, among all the world’s peoples and nations, it was raised up by the mighty exertions of the Founders in their time on this earth.

So little do the Democrats think of Us. Do We think so little of Ourselves?

Has it come to this?

______________

*Oliver Schell’s article is to be found here: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081020/schell

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