Monday, May 22, 2006

News and Observer Article

From a piece in the Q section in the N&O yesterday:

The turning point in ideas about government was the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. It changed our character, it ended for many people the sense of optimistic self-sufficiency they had been brought up with and it turned us back from progressivism toward liberalism. Liberalism came to mean that concern for the poor is not just a sentiment, but a motivation for policy. Liberals fought for reforms that built a wall of government resources around those who were least well-off, a dam holding back a tide of poverty, ignorance, starvation and disease.

And it worked, as politics. Regardless of what you think of the New Deal, the Great Society programs of the '60s and the scores of other programs focused on social ills, they were wildly popular. The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for decades and from 1933 to 1969 held the presidency for seven out of nine terms.

More recently, however, liberalism has stopped working. Many of the core beliefs of liberals are still present in American thought and culture, but for a politician to call herself a "liberal" is suicide in most jurisdictions. The reason is that the French sense won the war of meaning, and Americans rejected that view of political life. Doctrinaire ideologues, insisting on a particular conception of equality at the expense of liberty and on a narrow secular interpretation of the rhetorical space of public discourse, hijacked liberalism.

It was a Pyrrhic victory: In winning control of the Democratic party, they lost the confidence of voters. Liberalism was reduced to an interest group code phrase: "Vote for me, and I'll give you other people's money."


UPDATE: For those interested in "fair use" rules....


Anonymous said...

does the term "liberal" include a liberal interpretation of copyright laws?

"All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner."

ps-i'm not sure if the warning is copyrighted?

mungowits said...

An interesting question.

I reproduced less than half the article, which I think most people would say constitutes "fair use"....

I linked the main article.

And, I have no commercial purpose.

But really, it's about power. I was not paid anything to write that piece, and things I write in the future can go somewhere else. Newspaper articles don't go on my c.v., and in fact basically are just a service activity. But at least some people read the paper. My blog, on the other hand, is read by 7 or 8 people. I can't imagine they care.

If the paper asked me, I would remove the excerpt from the blog. Then I wouldn't write for them again. And they wouldn't miss me at all, and I wouldn't miss them.

bourkereport said...

Why do you characterize the New Deal as a turn away from progressive politics? I've always understood the policy orientations of the New Deal and those of the Progressive movement as basically continuous (i.e. regulation of industry in the name of social responsibility). I see the New Deal as more of a turn away from the laissez-faire approach of the 1920s, which was anti-progressive.

mungowits said...


This was a 1200 word article. I cut it to 800, and then they cut to 600.

Lots of things got lost.

My basic claim is that progressivism is intolerant. Prohibition, protestantism, mistrust of markets and letting people do things on their own.

Then, the 1920s were corrupt (NOT, mind you, laissez faire, but corporate theft on a grand scale), and the door clanged shut. Liberalism followed progressivism, and became fundamentally intolerant and paternalistic, just as progressivism had been. Progressivism is a poison pill, and liberals swallowed it and died.

What do you think of Peter Beinart's book, "The Good Fight"? In some ways, he agrees with the above claim, or at least the part that progressivism is bad for, and actually inconsistent with, liberalism.

bourkereport said...

I understand the space limitations, and I've often been frustrated with what I've been able to say in letters to the editor/op-eds as well.

I'll grant that the 20s were corrupt and not laissez-faire, and I'll also grant the point about Prohibition. But it seems to me that the main thing progressives were intolerant of was corporate corruption itself--impure food and drugs and trusts, mainly.

I haven't read Beinart's book, but I read the New Republic article that spawned it, "A Fighting Faith." The analogy between Communism and terrorism, and hence anti-Communist liberals like Niebuhr and the direction current liberals need to take seemed a little too glib to me.

Tom Spragens is finishing a book manuscript now on the history of American liberalism. I haven't seen it yet, but I think he argues that Dewey and Whitman (and thus progressivism and a more classic American liberalism) have a continuity that is broken with Rawls. I think he uses Dewey's arguments about means and ends, arguing that Whitman's concerns about freedom and a Millian self-fulfilment remained with Dewey, but that "industrial capitalism" presents new challenges as to the means necessary to achieve them (i.e. progressive social regulation). Tom then argues that Rawls distorts the ends of liberalism, replacing liberty and self-fulfilment with a "hypertrophy of justice."