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A Potent Progressivism October 19, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

One of our frequent and insightful commenters, Moriae, has repeatedly charged me with using what he refers to as “over-the-top invective” in my descriptions of conservative candidates and conservative philosophy.  (See the comments here and here) If I understand his view correctly, he thinks my arguments are unreasonable because they are based on emotion, are devoted to attacking an opponent’s motives rather than analyzing their positions, and express excessive certainty regarding political and ethical matters.


I do routinely accuse conservatives of embracing ignorance, authoritarianism, selfishness, and dishonesty. Although I don’t think anything I have said is “over-the-top”, I intend my descriptions to be denunciations—whether they are abusive (and thus invective) of course depends on whether the descriptions are deserved. Since I think they are deserved, I don’t think such descriptions are abusive.


I won’t rehearse my arguments here—see my previous posts for the arguments. But I think Moriae’s criticism raises some important political and philosophical issues that deserve a more comprehensive treatment. The issues have to do with the nature of justification, the nature of arguments in general and political arguments in particular, and the proper political rhetoric for advancing liberalism.


The issue of justification is far too complex to take up in a blog post. Suffice it to say that I focus on motives because I think the justification of an action in part depends on its motive. Attacking motives, to the extent they can be discerned, is part of a critical analysis of any action evaluated from a moral point of view. And on this point, the Kantian and Aristotelian traditions would agree. (So would the motive utilitarians).


My particular choices of descriptors for conservative “values” are a response to a dilemma that liberals have confronted for many years. Liberals must find an adequate response to the culture wars, inaugurated and advanced by Republicans, which have become influential precisely through impugning the moral credentials of liberalism. Their claim (I hesitate to call them arguments) is that liberals are bereft of moral conscience because they have adopted relativism as their governing philosophy, because they lack religious commitment, are anti-American, or because they give in to indulgent desires that disconnect them from the realities and commitments of ordinary life. (Liberals are alleged to lack “small-town” values)


This attack has been carried out in churches, on talk radio, and in the media, and it has been central to Republican political campaigns at least since Nixon’s 1972 campaign, with tentacles reaching back to the McCarthy era.


The audience for Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, and their ilk is huge, and vast swaths of this country run around repeating their nonsense as if it were gospel. (In fact they usually claim it is to be found in the gospel.)  But more importantly, it is repeated by mainstream politicians who hold real power, and the McCain campaign is no exception. Republicans run for office by declaring war on half the population of the U.S. (For recent examples see this and this.)


These claims about “evul libruls” are nonsense. But this attack poses particular problems for liberalism. Liberalism has a history of pluralism and tolerance toward a variety of life styles and belief systems. This tolerance is born of skepticism. Traditionally, liberalism has claimed that any account of the good is subjective and, thus, many issues of moral significance are private matters to be decided by individuals. On matters that cannot be considered private, modern liberalism holds out hope that, through our common capacity to reason, we can find enough shared beliefs so that we can agree on some general moral principles to govern all of us despite our differences.


Thus, for the past 30 years, in the face of conservative attacks, liberals have responded as liberals do–marshaling evidence, making rational arguments, advocating tolerance, and when in power providing effective management of the economy and foreign policy. Inspired by Deweyan calls to reason and a commitment to pluralism, liberals have given credence to conservative premises and compromised their principles when necessary to sustain a political consensus about the direction of the country. (The emergence of Democratic centrism in the institution of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton’s triangulation strategy during his administrations, and the broad tendency to focus on issues of economic growth rather than moral values are examples of Democrats seeking common ground with conservatives.)


But that approach didn’ t work!


Despite Clinton’s largely successful presidency, with the election of Bush for two terms, we have watched the political center of gravity lurch further and further toward the right and the political polarization of this country become more and more extreme. (If Obama wins in the upcoming election that may signal a sea change in political attitudes; but I doubt it. Obama’s victory will have more to do with the utter collapse of our economy than a fundamental re-thinking of values on the part of the public.)


Why does the liberal call to “come let us reason together” fail to maintain a moderate liberal consensus? It fails because conservatism is a radical philosophy–theocratic, anti-government (except when the military or surveillance is involved), authoritarian, and virulently individualistic. It has abandoned reason in favor of end-times theology, creationism and Biblical fundamentalism; it ignores science whenever it is incompatible with the Republican agenda; it has abandoned the idea that government must serve the common good; and it has elevated mediocrity to a virtue.


Liberalism’s aim to find shared premises from which to reason toward a governing consensus is thus bound to fail. Liberalism and modern conservatism have almost nothing in common. This incommensurability of discourses is not, by the way, a liberal invention. The conservative writer Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a book in 1999 called “One Nation, Two Cultures” in which she argues for just such a claim. As Obama said in an interview recently “there is an entire industry now, an entire apparatus, designed to perpetuate this cultural schism, and it’s powerful.”


In such a political climate, rational persuasion by itself will be ineffective.


Furthermore, there is ample evidence coming out of a variety of disciplines that shows that rationality is dependent on emotions. The old philosophical view that to be rational is to suspend emotions, desires, and inclinations and reason impartially has largely been replaced by a much more subtle analysis of the mind that views reason and emotion to be intimately connected.


Finally, much recent work in psychology is demonstrating that political beliefs are not based on evidence or logic and not influenced by argument, but instead rest on a variety of value commitments and unconscious preferences that rarely respond to reasons by themselves. (See the work of Drew Westen, George Lakoff, and Jonathan Haidt) Reason must be supplemented with emotional appeals that tap into underlying values and attitudes that frame our understanding of economics and other policy matters.


Given our political situation and these facts about political psychology, how should liberals respond to conservative attacks? Moriae would have us wallow in ethical and political uncertainty and patiently try to reason with conservatives to try and find common ground. That is a rational strategy when moral questions are genuinely opaque and there is someone to negotiate with. But that doesn’t define our situation. I am intimately familiar with the history of debate about the foundation of ethics and I know the radical uncertainty of many moral claims. (In fact I devoted an entire book to investigating this uncertainty). But this uncertainty about foundations does not entail that no moral claims can be made with confidence or that any claim by some nutcase must be taken seriously because the truth is unknowable. The fact that we have no single theory of the right or the good does not entail that we can’t point to some very bad answers to ethical and political questions.


So what to do?


Liberals first must wake up to the fact that we are in a culture war and that conservatism aims to destroy liberalism (which is their stated aim) and the many elements in American life that are based on liberalism. Compromise and horse-trading is of course necessary in politics but we shouldn’t capitulate before the negotiations begin by assuming the truth of conservative premises. There is nothing in modern conservatism of value to us.


Second, although, in our current moment, the economy is on everyone’s mind, moral values cannot be pushed under the rug. Economic judgment is driven by value judgments just as foreign policy judgments are. Thus, liberals must take back our moral vocabulary. The first step in that process is to relearn how to call a lie a lie and identify ignorance, selfishness, and wickedness when we see it. Instead of pretending respect for nonsense in order to find agreement, express tolerance, or poach a few votes, we should highlight at every turn the moral bankruptcy of conservatism. Of course, moral criticism is not in itself a strategy or a policy. But liberals are full of policies. What we have not done in the recent past is to take back the moral arguments from conservatives that abuse the very notion of morality


Thirdly, in the long run, we have to redefine Americans’ understanding of moral character by articulating a distinctly liberal moral identity. Too many Americans have a tendency to view a person of character as someone with a small mind and a big gun. The liberal task in the 21st Century is to change that equation.


This change cannot be accomplished by mealy-mouthed platitudes or the deployment of euphemisms that take the edge off liberal critiques of conservatism.





1. Huan - October 19, 2008

Very powerful blog post! Great points like always.

There may be a problem with one of these points though, the one about how political beliefs are not based on rationality. This is all too true, and I see it all too often on both sides. Since the topic is liberalism, I will focus on that.

Of course like you said, just because nothing is objectively good, doesn’t mean we can’t make moral claims. However this would mean that liberal arguments are less open to questioning in the mind of a liberal, since it is based on a series of emotional responses at its core.

Now I’m not saying liberal morals are horrible, in fact I find them quite useful. However to have the core of liberal morals be emotional/moral responses would be quite detrimental. If liberals accept their emotional response as the guiding force of their morality without question, they will be no less stubborn than fundamentalist Christians. In fact having spoken to some stubborn liberals, they really dead set on their ideals, completely unresponsive to reason.

One example was that I raised a PURELY hypothetical scenario on whether it would be right to look down upon a race of humans that is scientifically proven to be inferior, and every liberal in the room called me a racist. After explaining for the 10th time that it was a purely hypothetical scenario meant to challenge the moral fabric of political correctness, they STILL called me a racist. As if the very idea of challenging these liberal ideals made me a horrible person.

I mean I’m not suggesting we rest in moral uncertainty here, but having the ability to challenge your own ideals is to me crucial for any kind of cooperative society. I mean if we leave our moral ideals in such an unquestionable position, isn’t it inevitable that we’d run into endless conflicts?

I mean if I could vote(not a citizen) I’d vote for Obama as well, but much like Moriae, I have met my share of conservatives that I was able to reach common ground with.

2. Moriae - October 19, 2008

I was preparing a response to the last posting, but I see this one needs a proper response as well. Been a bit too busy to keep up on this daily, but since this is the only blog that has provoked me sufficiently to respond, I will give it my attention soon.

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