Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Future of Liberalism

The New Republic's latest issue includes a provocative package of essays on the future of liberalism as part of a 90-year anniversary of that magazine's founding--an issue that notes the term was basically invented in its American context by TNR itself.

It's all worth reading. E.J. Dionne argues that liberals have erred in conceding religious language and religious constituencies to the GOP, part of the reason the robber barons of the Bush-Rove-DeLay ascendancy have gotten away with casting themselves as moral traditionalists. Martin Peretz offers a dyspeptic and occasionally annoying but fundamentally accurate take on the intellectual emptiness of today's American Left (bloggers take note: definining yourself by savage partisanship doesn't really mean "standing up for your principles" unless you articulate them). The always-interesting John Judis suggests that the shifting dynamics of the U.S. and global economies have placed liberals on a permanent defensive when it comes to economic policy.

But for my money, the most instructive piece in the package is Jonathan Chait's analysis of the asymmetrical war being waged by conservatives who have an ideological template for every policy they pursue, regardless of the context, the evidence, or the results; and liberals who are focused on real-life results as the end and are flexible as to the means for getting those results.

Chait's discourse strongly confirms the New Democrat argument that American Progressivism has always involved fixed, result-oriented ends and flexible, experimental means. By that definition, all the great icons of American Liberalism, from Wilson to FDR to JFK, LBJ, and MLK, anticipated less orthodox figures like Carter and Clinton in challenging the idea that every "liberal" program or policy had to be defended as a matter of principle. But Chait also challenges liberals of every variety to understand that their principled willingness to act as members of the "reality-based community" creates a tactical disadvantage in competing with conservatives whose policies are based on ideological certainties that are immune to actual experience or results.

And that, I submit, is an important question in today's debate within the Democratic Party about how to deal with the purely ideological politics of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Today there's a strong sentiment, especially in the blogosphere, that we must closely emulate the conservative movement, and become as cynical, as fact-free, and as rigid as the opposition if we want to beat them. For a variety of reasons, including the superior appeal in the "reality-free community" of policies that offer free lunches domestically and a search-and-destroy missions internationally, I think that's a losing proposition, and an unprincipled position, for Democrats. We need to raise our game and appeal to our best instincts, and the best instincts of the American people.
-- Posted at 6:32 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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