When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

August 18, 2004

So You Think You're Liberal?

Bravo Romeo Delta

At the core of many of the discussions (not arguments) about politics, I basically end up explaining to someone that I vote the way I do, not in an effort to preserve some sort of odd paleo-conservative moral rigidity, but rather because I care, above and beyond all else, about ensuring the safety of the Republic, its Citizens, and its Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And to be frank, the Democratic Party's record on defense has been waffling between sickeningly anemic and pathetically weak since Councellor Wormtoungue McGovern discovered the chords of the new siren song of the left.

What seems to confound most of my counterparts on the left, however, is how someone can be quite hawkish, yet essentially libertarian on domestic issues. Granted, this particular flavor of thought is not exactly a rare commodity in the blogosphere, but it does reveal something about the centripetal nature of American politics.

To back up a second; there is a school of thought which looks at political systems as being governed by two sets of forces. The first one is known as centrifugal politics, which you might think of as a tendency to Balkanize and fragment. Centripetal politics, on the other hand, forces parties to drift towards the center. Now American politics is seen as much more centripetal than it's European counterparts - a result of the peculiarities of our electoral system.

Which brings us to an interesting point on where one of the hallmarks of Western development over the last several centuries - the rise of Classical Liberalism.

As you know, in the US, the term Liberal is used to mean the Left. So, in the interests of avoiding that particular semantic morass, I will simply use liberal to refer to the ideas of classical liberalism. On the other hand, when I mean Left, I'll say Left. That out of the way, many self-identified Democrats seem somewhat taken aback at the notion that someone can self-identify as Republican yet consider themselves liberal.

Now if one splits political views into three broad areas of concern, social policies, fiscal/economic policies, and foreign policies, then the appellation of the label liberal becomes much more useful.

To start, the Republican Party trends towards social conservatism, while the Democratic Party (the idiotic intellectual-blackmailing politically correct fringe notwithstanding) tends to be more liberal.

While there is a group of people who call themselves "fiscally conservative," these people are conservative only with respect to the spending of money, but in the larger sense of governance, they are still liberal - the government that governs least, governs best. So on this front, the Republicans have tended to be more liberal (aside from Bush's recent budgets) than their Democrat counterparts.

Finally, getting to the foreign policy arena, we have seen some really interesting shifts (and for that matter the delineations are much less clearly defined). But, in this particular case, the 4-way breakdown provided by Walter Russell Mead is probably a lot more instructive guide for any practical purposes. But, for the purposes of our exercise, let's say that realist and isolationist policies tend to represent an essentially conservative foreign policy, while the anti-totalitarian (and sometimes even neoconservative) foreign policy approaches can be considered to be more liberal.

Along those breakdowns, the Democratic Party was unquestioningly liberal up until their Vietnam. Following that, both parties were sort riding the middle, until Reagan came along and donned the mantle of foreign policy liberalism. Clinton tried to wear that cloak with some effectiveness. The Bush Doctrine is unmistakably liberal in this sense.

Now before anyone gets up in arms, tracing the role of liberalism in foreign policy is a messy exercise, and it will suffice to say that the idea of American Exceptionalism, which has been embraced to some extent by both parties, is an essentially liberal point of view.

So what's the upshot of all this?

Well, the Democrats are socially liberal, while being economically conservative.

The Republicans are socially conservative, while being economically liberal.

There have been many notable crossovers (which we can easily interpret as the traditional lurch to the center as general elections approach).

The foreign policy axis is a bit more messy, but can be parsed any one of a number of ways.

So, in the end analysis, neither the Democratic nor Republican parties are more liberal than the other, but tend to be approximately equal in their drive for liberty, albeit in different arenas. This is one of the big reasons that the Balance of Power between the Executive and Legislative is so core to American politics. But past that, this is the reason that the Bush Doctrine is causing such tumult.

Essentially, it is an unmistakable claim on two of three arenas of liberal thinking.

This is one of the reasons that I think that we could very well see a major political realignment in the next few years - no party that remains staunchly conservative on two of the three arenas of politics has a chance in hell over the long term.

At this point, it's up to the Democrats to figure out how they'll compete with the Republicans. And given the propensity for terrorist nutjobs to kill Americans, I don't think that the future of the Democrats is too bright if they chose to remain conservative and isolationist on foreign issues. So they either need to return to the center on foreign policy and out-hawk the Republicans, or figure out which elements of the Pat Buchanan fringe they'll be hanging out with.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at August 18, 2004 09:51 PM

Retaliatiory Launches


The Demosophist Party! Heh.

I had a discussion about this once with Lipset, suggesting that FDR had turned the term on its head. He didn't agree, but I didn't find his argument very convincing. Basically I think FDR earned the term "liberal" because, by adopting "workfare" during the Depression, rather than "the dole" which was adopted in Germany and Austria, and which opened the door to the Nazis, he provided a social context for the unemployed worker: an alternative to the "politics of unreason." There were lots of American fascist organizations in the '30s, like the "Silver Shirts" and Father Coughlin, but none ever achieved critical mass. In "old Europe" they did. In fact, Paul Lazarsfeld in his Marienthal Studies actually documents the process of how it happend in Austria.

Here's what I do to keep things straight. To my simple mind you're conservative if your tendency when confronted with uncertainty is to cast anchor. You're liberal if your tendency when confronted with uncertainty is the weigh anchor. But it's what constitutes an "anchor" that introduces irony.

The anchor is usually some aspect of foundational values for the culture, which could be religion or ethnicity (in Europe and elsewhere). In the US it's partly religion... but mostly it's classical liberalism. Thus the dilemma... which I think is both ironic and healthy. Uncertainty provokes conservative Americans to catch at anti-statist, sectarian, and individualist values. The only thing that's left, if you happen to be "liberal" in the sense of weighing anchor and setting sail before whatever fickle wind happens to blow, is to oppose what the other side does. And sometimes, when these folks aren't careful, "liberalism" leads them in a reactionary direction. They don't just cast anchor, they start ripping the ship apart... just because it appalls the conservatives. It "proves" how liberal they are... which is especially useful when sincerity is the highest virtue. Crazy, totalitarian, illiberal, but sincere.

Posted by: Demosophist at August 19, 2004 08:03 AM

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