Monday, August 2, 2010

The origins of contemporary liberalism: a debate

What's called "liberalism" today is quite distinct from what it once was, as the political voice of the emergent individual. Why? How did it change, and when? These are the questions underlying an important debate that Scott Johnson noted on Powerline a few days ago. Even beginning to answer them will help us understand the long period of political/cultural reaction in which we've been immersed, and make a start toward finding our way out of it.

The debate actually has earlier origins, but this latest instance of it starts from a book by William Voegeli, entitled Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State. The subsequent stages:
Not having read the book, I can't comment on that itself, but I can make a couple of observations about the debate above:

First, note that Lind's primary point is that, even though the conservatives might be right about Wilson-era progressivism, from FDR on they're wrong, because liberals/progressives reformed themselves. And on this, I think Voegeli's response is exactly right -- that they may have abandoned some discredited ideas (e.g. eugenics), and adjusted some of their rhetoric (words being cheap, it costs little to nod to the founders, or to the "living" Constitution, if that's politically expedient), but that there remains a strong thread of continuity from Wilson to FDR to Obama. The notion of the "liberal" changed, not in the thirties, with Roosevelt, but sometime in the early years of the last century, under the impact of pressure from its political left -- i.e., from socialism. Then as now, many of those who couldn't quite bring themselves to embrace the socialist doctrine as a whole, and even many who were explicitly opposed to it, were nonetheless strongly influenced by its implicit vision of a technocratic elite able to wield the immense power of the state to step in and "fix" things. In this vision, the fascination with the state tends to reduce the individual to a mere unit in what the older progressives liked to refer to as "the masses", what Zinn and others reified as "the people" (in a usage quite distinct from Lincoln's, for example), and what today is either dismissed as "consumers" or clumped into the various victim/victimizer groups of identity politics. Liberal concern over state power tends to resurface only when that power is not in their hands, but otherwise theirs is a kind of unprincipled pragmatism in the use of power to whatever ends they deem justified -- an aged document designed for a "society of farmers", as Lind takes from Roosevelt, becomes merely an obstacle, to be "re-interpreted" out of the way.

There are problems with the other side of the debate as well, though, and I'll try to get to those in the next post.

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