Sunday, February 17, 2008

Netroots: Liberal Democrats and Jacobins

There have been no dragons in my life, only small spiders and stepping in gum. I could have coped with dragons.

"Hero", Niki Nymark
Longtime readers of this blog know I’m less than impressed with the direction the netroots has taken since the 2006 electoral cycle. It is ironic, given that I am at heart an Arendtian and firmly believe in the necessity of popular power in creating and maintaining liberal democracy. My initial appreciation of the blogosphere soured as I watched what was a marvelous mash-up of ideas and initiatives turn into something decidedly less inviting. The devolution would have been very difficult to avoid, it is true, but the lack of self-awareness from a large cadre of trained thinkers makes me shake my head. This post (and others I have planned) is an attempt to think critically about the course of the netroots.

Several months back, there was a spate of posts, generally gleeful, about the differences between the “left-wing” and “right-wing” brain, and how this showed that people on the left were “smarter” than those on the right. What few noted was that the study simply documented modes of thinking – a flexible mode and an inflexible mode – and noted that the inflexible form of thought was more prevalent among political conservatives than among political liberals, not that there was a conservative or liberal brain, though it would be difficult to be a liberal and not be a flexible thinker. The flexible vs. inflexible modes of thought is a way to understand the profound gulf in the netroots, one that mirrors a long standing and traditional divide on the left – that between liberal democrats and Jacobins.

I make a distinction between someone who holds leftist views generally and those who are specifically liberal democrats. Why is that an important distinction? The defining characteristic of liberal democracy is the structure of the polity, a law/rules governed set of interlocking institutions. To be a liberal democrat (in the classical, McPherson sense of that label), is to be someone who deals constructively with ambiguous situations, where the task at hand is not to chose between right and wrong, but to act within the formal institutions, evaluate competing legitimate claims for social goods (rights, entitlements, benefits, protections), and distribute these goods in a defensible, equitable way. When the institutions have either failed or are no longer adequate to evaluate claims, the institutions and laws are restructured. This may happen any where from a local school board to the Constitution.

The vulnerability of a liberal democracy lies in the fact that it must take the claims of all citizens into account. While not everything is allowable (such as chattel slavery), what remains is not always recognizable as liberal, or even very democratic. Even claims that are reasonable are not necessarily harmonious with other legitimate claims, and the resulting contest and compromise are givens. Moreover, what is politically necessary may not be morally perfect. There are limits to the exercise of morality in the public sphere, which is what Machiavelli meant when he said that we must learn how not to be good. It was not a call to lawlessness, but to its opposite, to strict adherence to the needs of the mundane world, embodied in the law of the land, vs. the other-worldly claims of religion.

The point here, which is crucial when understanding the excesses of both left and right, is that a liberal democracy can only fight about right and wrong when there is a prior agreement that the survival of the body politic – the institution and rule bounded space in which we conduct the public’s business – is the most important consideration. We must learn how not to be good because at any time your claim may be the losing one and, no matter how true or right you hold that claim to be, you are not therefore entitled to destroy the flawed world in order to get what you wish. In a related vein, faction within the liberal majority may open up opportunities for a compact and organized illiberal minority to seize the institutions and offices of the state and then pervert them. This is, frankly, what happened to Gore in 2000, when the Naderites sabotaged the Democrats. It is not moral to adhere so dogmatically to moralistic stances that the worst side wins. Acting in the place of and on behalf of others incurs political obligations, and the liberal democrat must chose the ethic of responsibility over the ethic of absolute ends.

Movement conservatism at its core denies the legitimacy of liberal democracy because it will not accept that there can be any acceptable position other than what it desires. The Bush/Cheney administration is a two-term repudiation of the founding principles of the nation. One of the chief accomplishments of movement conservatism is to delegitimize the act of evaluation, attempting to force all questions of policy and statecraft into false dichotomies in which their end of the pole is always the right one with the ultimate goal of deconstructing the institutions that limit their desires. It is an effective political strategy because living in ambiguity is difficult. You want decisions done with, final, that’s it. You want certainty and solidity. Sometimes, you simply want what you want and to hell with fairness. The battle of good vs. evil is great box-office. It appeals to the sanctimonious dictator dwelling in all our hearts.

Movement conservatism has seized on issues where there is legitimate contesting interests and has reduced them to yes/no. Taxes and abortion are their two most effective memes, with racism and nativism hot on their heels. The key to making an effective dichotomy is to imbue it with a personal emotion, reduce it to false equivalency (taxes = theft, abortion = murder) that removes the space for judgment, then pump up the volume on the outrage such that it is illegitimate to voice a contrary position without hedging, apologizing, equivocating and so forth. Taxes come from my wallet, who doesn’t love little helpless babies, and then there is the ever present fear of the dark skinned, funny talking other.

On the left, the rigid mind flourishes quite well, too, even if it is not as prevalent as on the right. It participates in the same sanctimonious moralism as their rightwing counterparts, and both engage in a rhetoric of purity, but with extremely dangerous results for the left. On the right, it is us against them and serves to unify otherwise incompatible interest groups. On the left, it is me against the machine and sets up dynamics that create canyons out of small differences. On the right, it is the beloved community of true believers fighting against the sullied world. On the left, it is the pure hearted citizen rooting out the corruption of power.

It is a Jacobin tendency on the left to always already consider the kinds of powerful institutional and public processes that are necessary to perform the people’s business to be inherently dangerous to the fantasized prelapsarian condition that The People would live in were they not led away from the straight and the good by the politicians and power brokers. The problem, of course, as Arendt points out in numerous ways, is that you need very strong institutions to defend the space for evaluation of claims and distribution of social goods. Or, as Winston Churchill is alleged to have said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

The deep problem of Jacobinism is that it ends up both endangering the ordinary institutions and structures of power and also creating boundary dissolving movements of persecution, both done in the name of preserving the “true” or “pure” will of The People. It destabilizes the attempt to found effective institutions for harnessing political power in its single-minded pursuit of purified power outside the bounds of city hall and the legislature, imagining that if only the deal-making, rule-breaking and interminable palaver of these place could be replaced with wisdom and justice (freedom? Not so much…) for all the deserving. Like the right, its enemy is the evaluation of claims and compromise on distribution of social goods, which is the core of liberal democracy.

This is the Achilles Heel of the left, even more so than its general predilection for internal contestation. In the latter we find the arguments about who gets what, where and how that are the proper topics for a liberal democracy. In the former we find the impulse to squelch the unseemly horse trading and hucksterism of the agora. That the netroots (particularly the blogger A-List) is not the same as the left, let alone contiguous with liberal democrats, exaggerates the degree to which purity (and its dark side, revenge) is the central concern. How often do you hear “I hate all the parties! They are all corrupt! There is no saving the system!”? The blogosphere amplifies the Jacobin tendencies of the Left.

These tendencies are why we get utter fuck-ups like Ralph Nader running for President. He knows he wants what is right and true and good, and he will be above all the dirt and filth of the government machine and will pass good laws and The People will hail their modern Solon. It is a compelling fantasy, that of the good philosopher king who will be above “mere politics” and will bring justice and order from the mire merely by pronouncing the law. Every significant election, from local mayor to President, has at least one of these types running, sometimes several. A good liberal democrat knows this is nonsense.

What the right understands is that politics is power and the relationships that generate conditions in which power can be seized, deployed, and increased. They know that the best way to disempower the left (which Paul Krugman covers in great detail in The Conscience of a Liberal) is to disrupt the formation of the political relationships on the left which create points of contact between potential rivals and facilitate discovery of and agreement upon common issues. They do this through politics of fear and division in mass politics, and through smearing and trashing individuals who exhibit leadership in inside-the-beltway politics. One of their sure-fire tactics is to tarnish the reputations of such leaders with the Jacobins. Every politician on the left who has attempted anything of consequence has something in their record to earn the opprobrium of the moralists, left and right, and their “failures” are amplified into crimes against the nation. The netroots attacks the same Democrats that the right attacks, and in nearly identical language and levels of hysteria. The most pure case of this was the hatchet job they did on Al Gore in 2000, effective to the point that even today after all the Bush/Cheney ghouls have done, people on the left sneer at Gore as a hypocrite, a phony, an “establishment” candidate, a “corporatist” and quite a variety of unpleasant names.

The key here is that the netroots, more than any other part of the so-called left, is exquisitely susceptible to the Jacobin impulse, tearing down people and institutions in the name of ending corruption and hypocrisy. And, in this way, it amplifies the efforts of the right to dissolve the structures that place limits upon desires. As there is no end to the ways in which ordinary human beings can screw up or fail to do their best, there is no end to the hunt for the guilty, the punishment of the innocent and the promotion of the non-participants. It also results in candidate promotion that is simply unrealistic coupled with an unwillingness to accept that most of the rest of the political world just wants its goodies and really doesn’t care about Saint So-and-So who will lead us to the Promised Land. The stance of absolutes is inherently a minority position.

The Jacobin left shares with the conservative right an unhealthy faith in the power of a great leader to rally the faithful and pronounce the law, a man before whom the foes of the good will tremble and retreat, whose words of wisdom will instruct the benighted and lead us to righteousness. Saint Reagan was the exemplar of this being on the right. The left always manages to deny its Solons, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem comes in the desire to see oneself in a struggle of world historic proportions, with much slaying of dragons and rescuing of fair damsels. As my epigram hints, the ordinary course of liberal democracy, one of its virtues, is that politics is, for the most part, small spiders and stepping in gum.

Is there corruption at the heart of the republic? You bet your bippy. The source of that corruption is the movement conservatives who are anti-democrats and wish to transform this nation into a fascist state on the model of Franco’s Spain. Has the Democratic Party been too damn complacent? Ditto. But their complacency has to be put into the context of the unrelenting, well-coordinated assault on the psyche of the nation by the right for almost half a century, aided and abetted by the Jacobin left who would rather see evil flourish than compromise on their demand for purity. As Eric Alterman likes to say, thanks Ralph. The resurgent Democratic party of the 90s was stymied more by its unwillingness to tell the right to stuff its faux-morality up its keister than by any alleged lack of progressive rigor, preferring to lambast its own president for not being pure to denouncing its opponents for not being democratic.

This is not a defense of the status quo (though Jacobins will consider it such), but a diagnosis of the fault line that runs through the political left. There is a reason that politics splits (and splinters) the way it does in the US, and why the left has such difficulty building and preserving popular, egalitarian institutions. It is hard to keep the extremes of a liberal democratic coalition attached in order to retain a sufficiently powerful electoral majority. The left must take an object lesson from the effectiveness of the movement conservatives on how to drag politics towards its own interests, but it also has to be keenly aware of the way in which the tactics of purity politics are corrosive to the practice of liberal democracy. It unnerves me when the answer of both the extreme left and the extreme right to the problems of government are to destroy the Democratic Party and everything attached to it.

Krugman identified economic equality as the best glue to maintain this coalition, and racism as the solvent that has fractured it. My next post in this series (should it ever be written) will be about “The South” as the key challenge to liberal democracy.



Anonymous said...

Any chance of a 101 version ? I think I'm getting the gist, but oy, the jargon !

dragoneyes said...

Awesome essay! Hope you decide to do the others the sequence. Looking forward to it!

You did a great job of articulating the sense I had that the ideologues/purists on the Left were just as big a problem as those one the Right.

ps - I do have dragons in my life and they are a great help in dealing with the Changing Times we're livin' in :)

David said...

Without the jargon, it is the same twaddle we hear every election cycle from the Democratic establishment: Disregard what you know to be true and vote for the lesser of two evils. The pathetic rap on Nader is the tip off - if you needed one. The Dems still cannot admit that it was their own institutional incompetence and cowardice that lost the elections of 2000 and 2004.

In the absence of a coherent third party that is not a lap dog of the Dems like the current Greens, I suppose I'll have to vote for a third choice that I have not yet made. I sure as hell will not sit it out and let McCain destroy what is left of the country.

There is an assumption here that the two-party system is eternal when, in fact, we see the Repugs disintegrating into their economic, social and imperial military wings before our very eyes. A tectonic shift may be underway among the Dems as well that will produce a center-right electoral avalanche in the fall that opens some daylight on the left and excises some of the cancer that has spread to all branches of government.

Liberal democracy and its incrementalism is OK in (theoretical) conditions of generalized affluence where certain sectors of society are not getting screwed all day every day by "bargains" concluded in the spirit of class warfare.

Otherwise, this type of liberal discourse is the same as we see in the MSM where a true statement is "balanced" by a contending falsehood and the reader is asked to find the "middle ground" for herself. In the absence of a level playing field, liberal laws show no bias: both the poor and the rich are equally forbidden to sleep under bridges.

No Blood for Hubris said...

Moi, I prefer to call them Faux-Liberal Manichaean Naderites, but -- Jacobins, in a pinch, will also do! Kudos!

Anonymous said...

Instead of blaming Nader, if Democrats had any intellectual honesty, they would blame the mediocre Gore campaign (any semi-competent campaign would have had the ignoramus Bush snivelling in a corner), Gore not carrying his home state or Bill Clinton’s home state, the Democrats in Florida who voted for Bush, Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris and the Supreme Court for subverting the will of the electorate, etc. etc. etc. But instead they attack Nader and alienate many progressives with their whining and sense of entitlement.

And regarding Iraq, Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act (, perpetuated the sanctions on Iraq that killed 1/2 a million Iraqi children, and imposed the longest bombing campaign on Iraq that any country has endured since the Vietnam War. Did Gore repudiate Clinton on this score? No. Who was Gore’s running mate? Joseph Lieberman.

And the Democratic Party sure proved Nader wrong after the 2006 election when they caved to Bush and the Republicans time and again, didn’t they…

The Democratic party is a corrupt band of thugs, and its apologists are snivelling whiners.