In Which Markos Moulitsas Becomes Bad For the Left
September 1, 2010

Markos Moulitsas
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

I have a paleoconservative friend who, when I’m berating the modern right, will often respond with something like: “Well, don’t get too comfortable. Give your leftist friends a couple more years in power, and they’ll turn into rabid animals too.”

I begged to differ, instead reiterating some version of Jon Chait’s thoughts on the topic:

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy—more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition—than conservatism.

I still believe this to be true, in some sense, for the moment—though I would again caution that a governing philosophy can’t be pragmatic on the level of first principles because first principles can’t be pragmatic. But to pretend that it’s not possible for any ideological movement to slide into epistemic closure is to practice exactly the sort of self-deception that makes one so vulnerable to that very phenomenon.

My friend considers that process inevitable, and I would like to disagree—sadly, one of the giants of left-wing activism seems firmly committed to proving my friend’s point.

In Jamelle’s excellent review, he points out that Moulitsas is primarily an activist, not a journalist, and that this book is likely more about rallying the troops than painting an accurate portrait of the modern right. Fair enough. But Jamelle’s review also does a pretty thorough job of demonstrating why that’s no excuse. Once the loudest voices among the liberal base start showing a Jonah Goldberg-style willingness to sacrifice honesty for pom-pom shaking, Chait’s defense no longer works at all. I hate to go all “a pox on both your houses,” since Kos is still correct on a number of policy issues—but if the process by which he reaches those conclusions is this thoroughly corrupted, then the conclusions themselves are largely a happy coincidence.

In my book, that doesn’t count for a great deal. Not considering how bad this style of argumentation is in the long run, both for the left and the country as a whole. If liberals embrace American Taliban-style thinking, then we’re bound for a conservative resurgence and a liberal meltdown that will leave us much in the same position as the modern right: intellectually bankrupt, blindly emotive, and capable only of making noise and obstructing policy. In the shorter term, the left will have completely alienated those conservatives who we could actually make common cause with.

I can understand the impulse for this kind of rhetoric. My theory is that Kos is trying to gin up enough enthusiasm in the netroots to blunt conservative enthusiasm going into 2010. It’s a wise short-term play if you consider the goal to be simply subverting conservatism whenever you can—and, if at all possible, crushing it for good. But we’re not going to get rid of conservatives, nor should we want to. Instead, the goal should be a two-party system in which both sides show at least some appreciation for what David Foster Wallace called the Democratic Spirit. If Kos and his right-wing counterparts have their way, then the American D.S. will be dead in a generation.

Lucky for us, there’s hope. The proof: a prominent left-wing publication (the Prospect) publishing a review (Jamelle’s, see above) that rips American Taliban to shreds. As long we still have room for that sort of intra-movement dissent, we’re doing significantly better than the right.

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Recommended Reading for the American Left
August 14, 2010

Via Crooked Timber, here are parts one and two of an excellent interview on the philosophy and theory undergirding leftist thought. I haven’t read the full thing yet, but the early portions are an excellent overview of some of the concepts and ideas that are all too frequently absent from the American liberal lexicon. Unsurprisingly, this interview comes by way of the UK-based New Left Project; the British left and right both have firmer intellectual and theoretical foundations than American liberalism or conservatism, the latter of which has a stalwartly anti-intellectual foundation. But even American liberalism, as I’ve written before, suffers for appearing more like a list of disconnected policy preferences and priorities than a cohesive political vision.

It’s important to understand the philosophy that unites these policy preferences, and it’s very important to understand that there is, in fact, philosophy involved. Mainstream liberal arguments often take root in this notion of American liberalism as a technocratic, empirically-based approach to governance. Conservatives are the ideologues, goes the subtext; we’re the logical pragmatists.

That’s a deeply unsatisfying, even anemic, understanding of liberalism. There is an ideology, and a set of moral principles underlying the liberal worldview which anyone interested in left-wing American politics would do well to engage with. This interview is a great place to start.

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In Which I Reveal a Hidden Conservative Streak
July 16, 2010

In order to understand what I mean when I say “ethically dubious” in my previous post, I think you’ve got to understand a bit about where I come from when it comes to political philosophy. One small way in which I could be said to have an old-fashioned conservative’s disposition is that I place a great deal of emphasis on stuff like personal responsibility and communitarian obligation. I don’t see this as being at all in contradiction to my fairly orthodox liberal progressive politics; instead, I think it complements it. Liberal democracy, I would argue, should do everything it can to account for and counter human selfishness and venality, but it fundamentally doesn’t work properly unless we expect the average citizen to feel a certain amount of obligation towards his fellow man.

Just as I’ve argued before that our rights expand with the government’s ability to defend and nurture them, I also think individual responsibility grows with the individual’s ability to discharge it. So to connect that back to blogging, the larger an audience you command, the greater your responsibility to produce something good—not just aesthetically, but ethically.

That may sound sort of limiting, but I don’t think it is. Goodness, after all, can be found in a lot of things—I’m inclined to side with John Gardner’s belief, for example, that all good literature is more or less an ethically good proposition.

But the real point is that if we have a responsibility to do right by others, then first we need to figure out what “right,” given one’s present circumstance, even is. That’s not easy; in fact, it’s mind-bogglingly difficult. And the reason why I make such a big deal out of interrogating the ethical dimension of something as seemingly innocuous as, say, writing an autobiographical blog post is because that’s something new and complicated that I believe deserves a lot of thought and open debate.

(If this all, by the way, seems like a way of setting up unreasonably high moral standards that no human being could possibly fulfill satisfactorily, I’d happily concede that. But it seems to me that law is the place for reasonable standards, and philosophy is the place for ideal standards. I haven’t yet to hear of the ethical system that is somehow convenient without being deeply anemic.)

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