Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Current Crisis: State of the Party Part III

In picking up the pieces from November 2, most of the advice for Democrats from friendly as well as non-friendly quarters can generally be classified into two main substantive courses of action. The first, and perhaps most abundant and unsolicited type, calls for Democrats to reshape their message to accomodate rural voters, religious conservatives, and red-state dwellers generally. This is what might be called the "values" thesis. The second is a call for Democrats to return to a message stressing economic populism. This theme, which I shall dub the "populist" argument is perhaps best identified by a well-noticed book this summer called What's The Matter With Kansas?, by Thomas Frank. In it, Frank noted the apparent incongruity on the part of mid-western and small town inhabitants to vote on the basis of religious and cultural issues and for the Republican Party but in opposition to their own economic self-interest. This second line of thought is deserving of a more considerate and reasoned response and approach that I can muster at this particular time and for that reason, I will put off a more thorough discussion of it for a later posting.

But my delay in joining this discussion on the politics of economic populism has another, more important cause at heart. That is, I believe the nature of the crisis that we face has more to do with the first issue, that siren call for Democrats to ape the rhetoric of conservativism in appealing to voters. Essentially it is my belief that the nature of the problem we face, and the route to challenging, if not correcting, the direction of American Politics it embodies lies not in shifting the focus to economics over values, but in addressing the values issues head-on.

One of the paradoxes of American politics over the last couple of decades has been the simultaneous call from conservatives for more "freedom", "less government" and a promotion of the value of "individualism" at the expense of collective action, while at the same time conservatism has publicly ridiculed individual liberties and through rhetoric as well as practice, worked to grant the government and society greater control over the individual.

As for this latter tendency, there are three main sources of this growing totalitarianism: Nationalism; Religious Fundamentalism; and Law and Order Authoritarianism. I distinguish between these types because each has unique attributes, but it should be pointed out that the three are far from mutually exclusive. They all share the same enemy: non-conformity in thoughts, words, actions, appearances, languages and allegiances; and the freedom of individual privacy and public expression. And from each spring the sources of attack against various liberal institutions, beliefs, and practices.

Let's consider the issue of Nationalism first. There have frequently been conflicts between nationalism and "patriotism" on the one hand, and individual liberty on the other. For the last half of the last century its basis was the Cold War. More recently matters such as the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, the discussion and introduction of a flag-burning Amendment to the Constitution, to a certain extent the first Gulf War, and more recently, the events of 9-11, the so-called "war on terrorism", and of course, our pre-emptive strike on and continued occupation of Iraq have created tension between nationalistic reative jingoism and the freedom of expression through dissenting opinion. Wrapped up in much of this have been continuing revelations from historical scholarship challenging conventional myths about America's founding and founders from Columbus to Thomas Jefferson, which have generated a great deal of hostility from movement conservatives towards colleges and universities, as well as the press, for supposedly being "anti-American".

In the context of each of these issues, conservatives have argued emotionally and vehemently, and with little respect for the right to freedom of expression, for a curtailment of individual liberties, both formal and informal, although not in so many words. It is usually cloaked in the language of the risk that certain behaviors or words cause, references to any useful symbolic reactionary tools, such as the images of 9-11 or some other period of national distress. During the present war we were and are told that to dissent is an afront to our "troops" and an encouragement to our "enemies". One "popular" anchor warned all opponents of the war to "shut up" once it started (or presumably face the consequences, from institutions or vigilantes it wasn't clear). Another favorite target of nationalism conservatives (as well as other conservatives as we shall see) in addition to colleges and universities are organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Despite the fact that the ACLU exists to protect prominent American "values" such as freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and freedom of and from religion, it has been tarred and feathered by conservatives in political campaigns, op-ed columns, and think tank "research" as an insidious and seditionous organization for its heretical positions and support of religious and political minorities. Conservative opposition to the ACLU and civil liberties proponents came to prominence during the election campaign of George H.W. Bush in 1988 when he accused his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, of being a "card carrying member of the ACLU", as if this was a bad thing. Ever since then, the Democrats have been beating a hasty retreat from defending or being associated with the ACLU, the liberal label, and with civil liberty concerns generally. The emergence of Fox News on cable TV and its rabidly pro-Republican, pre and post war cheerleading hosts and "reporters" has given conservatives an additional platform from which to advance their desire to suppress dissent and control individual behavior when the Republican Party is in charge and its cultural and military war aims are threatened by the institutions and values of a free society.

Religious Fundamentalism. Much has been written over the last couple of decades about the rise of cultural evangelicalism, mega-churches, and political-religiously charged issues such as abortion, gay rights, and sex education. Similar to nationalism conservatives, religious fundamentalists have a strong aversion to multiple points of view, free discussion, the scientific method, and non-mythically-driven, non-emotional, non simplistic decision making. Consequently, places where these principles and approaches can be found are among the primary targets of religious fundamentalists. That information and debates may approach moral and political issues from a broader point of view than sexuality are particularly dangerous to religious conservatives. This is particularly why their primary bulls eye, as with nationalism conservatives, is naturally the college campus and public education as a whole. Hollywood and the entertainment industry also come in for more of their fair share of criticism and opposition, despite the fact that many television and cable tv stations are owned and operated by conservatives themselves, such as Fox, which promote a tyrannical cultural conservativism on its news network, but produce a wide range of sexual and violence-laden smut from its entertainment division. Feminist organizations, such as NOW, and Planned Parenthood, which strive to improve opportunities and choices for women are also seen as a threat to religious control, as of course are the ACLU, which among the liberties it seeks to protect are those of religious and non-religious minorities. Among the more informative pieces regarding religious fundamentalism is this one linked to by Digby. The prevailing advice from the punditry is for Democrats to embrace and accomodate these views. But as the linked piece suggests, fundamentalists are not interested in compromise, negotiating, or concerned about non-religious freedom. As Lee Child, a writer to the NYT letters section, noted recently (link unavailable from Friday, December 3), the position of fundamentalists is that we do not have a right to our different opinions and that this position (by religious fundamentalists) requires not understanding but opposition.

Law and Order Authoritarianism: This sub-theme has diminished, at least overtly, from the mainstream media, and the halls of Congress, due in part, to the decline, at least nationally, of many criminal indicators, and due again, in part, to a reluctance by the out of power party to argue on behalf of opposing interests and ideas. The acceptance of the death penalty by President Clinton and most of the candidates running for the nomination last year is one example of this. The absence of any major debate regarding the so-called War on Drugs is another. Conservative attacks on liberal supposedly "soft on crime" candidates and policies have done much to prevent the emergence of any dissent on matters of criminal justice issues where civil liberties and government control conflict. In both cases, conservatives have argued for greater resources and rights for government and its security industry apparatus at the expense of the rights, liberties, and lives of individuals.

Subsumed in the discussion of civil liberty protections from each of the three lines of the conservative totalitarian program outlined here is the Right to Privacy. While conservatives pay lip service to, and strenously promote the idea of "freedom" and "liberty", conservatives are strangely hostile to the notion of a Right to Privacy. Conservatives such as Antonio Scalia scoff at the very notion of a Right to Privacy and don't believe that the Constitution provides for it. Among conservatives he is not alone in this view. If there is anything you need to know about the cold, beating heart of conservatism it is this opposition to the Right to Privacy. (Should you happen upon the next meeting of the Federalist Society or the Young Americans for Freedom Foundation conference, or the American Conservative Union jubilee, you might want to be careful about bringing up the subject of the Right to Privacy, lest in the aftermath of doing so, you generate such an outpouring of spontaneous foaming at the mouth that animal control specialists armed with rabies vaccinations are summoned to quell the disturbance).

This opposition to the Right to Privacy brings us to another institution and process much belittled by movement conservatives and increasingly in the press as the structure most putting a break on malignant authoritarian designs: the courts. Notice the arguments advanced by the anti-gay marriage Constitutional Amendment advocates for example: "activist judges" (although since the cases are technically brought to the courts not by judges but by the parties involved in the suit, the judges aren't doing anything to advance an agenda, so it really isn't "activism" in the usual sense of the word, and for that matter, regardless, the courts are, you know, a legitimate branch of government, but nevermind), "out of control courts", decision making by "unelected judges", "judges need to interpret the law but not make the law" and so forth. Opposition to the courts is not new, but opposition to courts for EXPANDING individual rights is relatively recent, and deeply troubling. Beware the typical conservative subterfuge in defense of opposing the courts: something called "strict constructivism" in interpreting the Constitution. What this means to law and order conservatives and religious conservatives as well, is that in matters relating to the rights of people, we should defer to the circumstances of the late 1700's (meaning that people should get less rights than we would grant them today in an era of women voting, non-slavery, Miranda warnings, etc) and base rulings on the "intent" of the framers/founders, however such intent may be divined, inherently conflicted as it likely is in the many statements most of the founders may have uttered on the issue or the lack of statements as the case may be. But for Law and Order conservatives and religious fundamentalists, the real issue isn't "strict constructivism" or "intent" or whether judges are "activists" or any such legal nicety. The real issue for conservatives is the need to ensure the ability to control and punish people and to limit the freedom of minorities, whether religious, political, economic or otherwise.

In summary, this is the conservative establishment as we know it. The main threat from this conservatism is its war on individual liberties and its preference for religious, nationalistic, and punitive hierarchies and systems. And it has advanced this preference cleverly, from a wide range of angles, using symbolic, highly charged, and manipulative language.

The challenge for liberals is to call this conservatism by its right name--oppressive, backward, and threatening to freedom, the individual, and to our way of life and most important values. And to do so unapologetically, without fear for the immediate consequences. Liberals must redeem the word "liberal" as a positive attribute, unhesitantly defend liberalism's contributions and advances in our society over the last century and a half, and zealously guard the institutions that protect liberal values, individual freedom, and the growth of knowledge and opportunity, such as the ACLU, People for the American Way, and our colleges and universities.

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