There was an interesting exchange on my Facebook page following my last post. I am re-posting it this afternoon because I think it opens some important points and may serve as a guide to understand more deliberately this week’s Republican National Convention. The dialogue reveals alternative positions on conservative politics and the way progressives engage with conservative thought and practice. I think it is an interesting beginning of a discussion beyond partisan intellectual gated communities, as Gary Alan Fine has called for in these pages. I welcome the continuation of the discussion here, hope it illuminates theoretical and pressing practical questions . -Jeff
I opened on Facebook by quoting a central summary of the post. The irony: “Ryan’s nomination, I believe, assures the re-election of President Obama. The basis of my belief is a judgment that Americans generally are guided by a conservative insight, an American suspicion of ideological thought. Conservative insight defeats the conservative ticket.” And then a debate followed.
Harrison Tesoura Schultz: Would you say that the conservatives have become too extreme for most people to believe that they’re still actually ‘conservatives?’
Alvino-Mario Fantini @Harrison: What I always want to know is: “too extreme” in reference to what? Public opinion? (It seems to shift.) In comparison to conventional wisdom? (It, too, seems to change over the centuries.) The problem, I would suggest, is not that conservatives have become too extreme for people but that basic conservative ideas and principles are no longer known or understood, and increasingly considered irrelevant.
Jeffrey Goldfarb: Extremism in defense of liberty is a vice and it is not conservative. So, I think you are both right. People who call themselves conservatives are often not, rather they are right wing ideologues. Too much for the general public, I think, hope. On the other . . .
Read more: Conservative Principles vs. Conservative Practices: A Continuing Discussion
Some thirty years ago the legislature of the state of Minnesota, where I was teaching at time, decided to enact a seat-belt law. If memory serves, Congress had made the distribution of highway funds dependent upon such a revision of vehicular safety standards. Driving without seatbelts transformed accidents into fatal crashes and fender-benders into emergency room visits. Minnesota drivers and front seat passengers were to wear a lapbelt. (At first there was no fine, only a merry warning from a state trooper).
We considered this law in my undergraduate social theory class, considering the right and the responsibility of a government to restrain the freedom to choose. One of my treasured students, let us call this jeune femme fighter for liberté Marianne, informed us that she used to wear a seatbelt while driving, but as a result of the legislation, she no longer did. She sat athwart her steering wheel as an act of protest. For her, the core of freedom was to say “I won’t” to what she considered state intrusion, and there was much that she considered intrusive. While it might be a suitable coda to announce that I last saw her on a gurney, her survival paid for by fellow citizens, as far as I know she is still on the road. But principled libertarians like Marianne demand that we question the uncertain divide between community and liberty. Some of our fellow citizens instinctively reject any collective mandate.
I recall Marianne when I consider the travails of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their desires to defend a mandate for health care. Mandate is from the Latin mandatum, commission or order. As the opponents of mandated health care, whether in the Bay State or from coast to coast complain, a mandate orders citizens to purchase health insurance – with exceptions for those who cannot afford it – or to pay a fine. (A subtle . . .
Read more: Mandates and Their Foes
Let us call experience seniority. And let us mean by this that people who work over extended periods of time develop, ripen, face the hard knocks of life day in and day out, and that they usually gain from the experience.
To be experienced is to have spent the time, paid the dues of the job, learned what it takes, put out the raw energies and skills required. And more: to be experienced means that one has internalized all these things, and that one can bring to the everyday situation of work an array of competencies that the inexperienced are unaware of. That is why this precious game of life requires the serious engagement with it. Engagement brings, even if only eventually, an enlargement and a subtilization of competencies, things that one has in one’s hands, in one’s plan for the day, in one’s skill set, in one’s general work habits, all which add up to becoming experienced.
But consider: “senior” in America typically means old people, not only not at the top of their game, but also not necessarily competent. In the right-wing attack on seniority in the public sphere, and unions more generally, seniority translates into deadwood. Now every institution has some tiny percentage of deadwood in it, people who have disengaged from their work experience. But to assume, for example, as Republican state legislatures are in the process of doing, that teachers with years of experience are the deadwood whose seniority rights have to be eliminated (meanwhile ignoring the administration deadwood), is sheer folly. It completely ignores how those experienced teachers incorporate a reservoir of potential mentoring and actual “how-to” knowledge. It is a way of promoting inexperience at the cost of experienced professionals. And isn’t that what the mad-hatters’ Tea Party celebrates in politics as well: lack of political experience as a qualification for office?
Seniority in the workplace means that the years and decades you have put in paying your dues to the job count for something in the work community, and that a larger and deeper outlook and ability is . . .
Read more: Have You Ever Been Experienced?
Like many, I have serious reservations about elements of the debt deal. But from a standpoint concerned only with the legislative process, the debate in Washington has not been “business as usual.” In recent months we have witnessed two primary, parallel attempts at compromise: The “Gang of 6” in the Senate, and the Obama-Boehner-Cantor talks at The White House. To me, the failure of the “Gang,” and the ultimate success of the White House talks, is a sign that our government is undergoing a significant shift in the way it legislates.
Change in the legislative paradigm is not a radical event – it has been the norm in our Congress’ history. Compromise, specifically over “perceived truths,” as Jeffrey Goldfarb notes, is the heart of the legislative process. Among the oldest approaches to compromise was John C. Calhoun’s “doctrine of the concurrent majority,” where the goal of legislation was to accommodate all ideas. During the “Golden Age,” Henry Clay championed the idea that “all legislation…is founded upon the principle of mutual concession.” Now, Obama’s inability to strike a “Grand Bargain” should not be seen as an unqualified failure; grand bargains can only be made within a legislative framework where both sides are willing to sacrifice equally, a point I will return to shortly.
Turning to the present day, we find two curious episodes in the Senate. First, we have an attempt by the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to cede portions of the Senate’s power to the Democratic President. The Senate has always fiercely defended its own sovereignty with a ferocity that can only equal debates over world-shattering policy changes. William S. White, perhaps the most eminent scholar on Senate history, noted that it is “harder to change a [standing] rule than to vote to take a country to war.” For McConnell to suggest that the Democratic president takes the reigns is a clear act of desperation, a sign that the existing framework of compromise familiar to McConnell no longer applies.
Second, we have the “Gang of 6.” The Gang . . .
Read more: Bipartisanship’s Last Stand: What does the Debt Deal mean for Legislators?
I am convinced that the mess in Washington, which may still lead to another world economic crisis, and the resolution of the latest conflict over the debt ceiling, which probably won’t have any positive impact on the American economy and could make matters worse, is primarily a matter of political culture, not economics. I think specifically that the relationship between truth and politics is the root of the problem. Truth is both necessary and fatal for politics. It must be handled with care and in proper balance, and we are becoming unbalanced, driving the present crisis.
Factual truth is the necessary grounds for a sound politics, and philosophical truth cannot substitute for political debate. Hannah Arendt investigated this in her elegant collection Between Past and Future. I have already reflected on these two sides of the problem in earlier posts. I showed how factual truth, as it provides the ground upon which a sound political life develops, is under attack in the age of environmental know-nothingism and birther controversies, a politics based on what we, at Deliberately Considered, have been calling fictoids. And I expressed deep concern about a new wave of political correctness about the way the magic of the market and highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the constitution have been dogmatically asserted as the (philosophic) truth of real Americanism.
The posts by Gary Alan Fine and Richard Alba confirm my concerns.
Fine is sympathetic to the Tea Party politicians, specifically the fresh crop of Republican representatives in the House, and he reminds us that they are smarter and more honestly motivated than many of their critics maintain. I tentatively accept this. As a group they have a clear point of view and know the world from their viewpoint. They are likely no dumber, or smarter, than our other public figures. But still I see a fundamental problem, which Fine perhaps inadvertently points out when . . .
Read more: Truth and Politics and The Crisis in Washington
If it can be said that the devil is in the details, Barack Obama is on the side of the angels. It has been legislative tradition for the party out of power to complain with piss’n’vinegar about raising the debt ceiling on American borrowing, and even in symbolic fashion to vote against the rise, as pre-presidential Obama did to his lasting regret. In the end the vote is anti-climatic. The debt ceiling is raised and despite promises to do better, politicians relying on the short memories of their constituents go their merry way. Depending on which party is in power, they continue to tax and spend or merely to spend.
But summer ‘11 is different. Unlike most Julys, this is not the Silly Season. The fresh crop of Republicans has that most dire of all political virtues: sincerity. It is not that these freshmen are insane or are terrorists, as flame-throwers on the poetic left suggest. Rather they share a perspective on government that, even if it is not always explicitly or candidly presented, is certainly a legitimate view of how a quasi-libertarian state should be organized. As boisterous tea party rebels, they are children of Ron Paul and, with less intellectual gravitas, of Milton Friedman. It is the task of Speaker John Boehner to hide their deep desires – currently unlikely to be enacted – from the public. These politicians wish broad principled cuts. Call them “radical” if you reject them, but, after all, this rhetoric mirrors the self-enhancing distinction: I am firm, but she is stubborn. As the Speaker’s plans evolve, it is increasingly unclear when and where these billions of cuts will derive. One can’t but imagine that this is a shell game with the American public as the marks. Boehner is the adult in the room, but like so many parents, he tries to misdirect his offspring’s attention hoping against hope that the promises will be forgotten.
The Suckers March: Show Us the Cuts
Thursday, I considered President Obama’s speech, informed by William Milberg’s analysis of Senator Ryan’s budget proposal. My conclusion: the terms of the political debate for the 2012 elections are being set to the President’s strong advantage. I am pleased, but even more pleased because two serious opposing views of America and its public good will be debated. A rational discussion about this seems likely. There will be smoke and mirrors to be sure, but this is a time for grand politics in the sense of Alexis de Tocqueville and a grand political contest we will get.
This is especially important given the present state of affairs in the United States and abroad. But Presidential leadership will not solve all problems. Indeed, much of the politically significant action occurs off the central political stage, in what I refer to as “the politics of small things.” This dimension of politics has been on our minds this week in the form of three very different cases: the Tea Party in the United States, and The Freedom Theatre and the International Solidarity Committee in occupied Palestine.
The Tea Party is a looming presence in American politics. But it is in a sense “no thing”, as Gary Alan Fine puts it. It is a social movement that emerged in response to major changes associated with the election and early administration of Barack Obama, and a response to the global economic crisis. Fine and I disagree in our judgment of the “Tea Party patriots.” Indeed, I, along with Iris, am not sure how rational they are, but that is actually a political matter. As an objective observer of the human comedy, i.e. as a sociologist, I am particularly intrigued by the no thing qualities of the Tea Party which Fine considers.
A media performance occurs. An agitated announcer denounces policies said to be supporting losers, calling for a new tea party demonstration. People, who can’t take it anymore, come together in small groups all around the country, . . .
Read more: DC Week in Review: Ryan’s Budget, the President’s Speech and the Tea Party between Two Assassinations
Barack Obama is a centrist, trying to move the center left, defending it against the right. Health care reform has been his great legislative “left moving” achievement. Though far from perfect, he established the principle of universal coverage.
In the past months, he has been primarily on defense, fighting back against the Republican attack on government. Obama is not a left-winger, to the dismay of many on the blogosphere. He is now defending a new center, which he helped establish, against right-wing attack.
The opening shot of the attack was the Tea Party protest against the bank bailout, the stimulus package, and “Obamacare.” In the recent elections, Obama and the Democrats suffered a defeat, a “shellacking” as he put it. But now as we are approaching the main event, the Republican attack has taken the form of Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.
William Milberg asserted here that with this proposal the President is just about assured re-election. I have talked to a number of friends and colleagues about this. Their response, put bluntly: “from his mouth, to God’s ears.” But just perhaps, God won’t have anything to do with it. Perhaps, it will be a matter of leadership and political direction, along with the political economic fundamentals Milberg highlighted. The quality of the leadership was revealed in Obama’s speech on the deficit yesterday.
In his speech, the President was forthright in his rhetoric and policy recommendations. He addressed the problems of the deficit, emphasizing that deficit reduction will require taxing as well as cuts in spending. He drew a sharp distinction between his and the Republican plans. The contrast was stark. The political thrust of the speech was clear.
Obama and the Democrats promise to defend Medicare and Medicaid, while the Republicans will dismantle them. The Ryan budget provides many tax advantages for the rich, while what they present means that “50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit.”
As the President declared:
“And worst of all, this is a vision that says even . . .
Read more: President Obama on Taxing and Spending, and the American Center
Half a century ago, Tom Lehrer, our iconic musical satirist, paid ironic tribute to National Brotherhood Week. In introducing his cracked paean to tolerance, Lehrer asserted that ‘I know that there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that.’ His grievance is all too common. We have resided for some time in an age that frets about hate speech, but when does distaste become hatred? And is sharp and personal talk bad for the polity? The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords temporarily invigorated the debate over civility, but such moments have a way of not lasting. That was so January. Biting discourse draws attention and motivates both supporters and opponents.
In the immediate aftermath of the Tucson killings, some on the left focused their attention on those in the Tea Party who expressed vivid – and yes, offensive – animus for President Obama. There surely are those whose colorful language hides an absence of mindfulness. But, as conservatives knew well, their time for grievance would come soon. After all, we have a United States senator who titled his literary effort, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. And there was the backbench Democrat from Memphis who compared Republican tactics to Nazi propaganda. Hitler would have George Soros’ wealth if he could receive a tiny royalty for each use of his name or image.
Even more dramatic is the boisterous crowd of teachers on the mall in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters are fighting for collective bargaining rights, and in the process compare their newly elected governor, Scott Walker, to Hosni Mubarak and worse. Others will judge the justice of the Badgers’ cause, but who has taught these demonstrators about the villains of history? By the way, as an Illinois resident, I welcome the fleeing Democratic state senators and urge them to pay our newly increased income tax, part of which will go to teachers’ pay.
The question is how concerned should we be with Governor Walker’s and President Obama’s detractors? What is hate speech? Is it just . . .
Read more: Hate Speech or Biting Political Provocation?
I think the relationship between truth and politics is one of the key challenges of our times. Get the relationship right and there is a reasonable chance that we will be able to address our problems successfully. Get it wrong and our chances are slim. There are many indications that we are getting it wrong, already observed in passing in DC, as we have discussed the problem of fictoids and as we have been noting the general development of the paranoid style of politics, and the threat of theocracy and ideological thinking. This week we will focus on this issue.
My guide in these matters is Hannah Arendt. She maintains, on the one hand, that there has to be a separation between the pursuit of truth and political power, but on the other hand, politics that are based on factual lies are deeply problematic.
Today’s post will be about the dangers of conflating an interpretive or ideological truth and politics, tomorrow’s post, about the need politics has for factual truth. We will then continue exploring this issue for the rest of the week.
The Conflation of Truth and Politics
Trotsky once declared, when he was still a loyal Bolshevik, Arendt observes in her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “We can only be right with and by the Party, for history has provided no other way of being in the right.” The correct reading of Marxism, the official party theory, forms the policy; the policy enforced confirms the Party’s truth. Truth and politics are conflated and the result is that neither the independent value of truth nor the independent value of politics exists. This is the true meaning of political correctness.
In Soviet history, this resulted in immense tragedy and suffering. Thus the dynamic of totalitarian horrors when indeed for a broad population Trostky’s way of being right was the only way of being right. Atheism, collective farms, grand industrial steel works, and the like were mandated by the truth of Marxism, and the power of the Party confirmed truth. Because “religion is . . .
Read more: Politically Correct