Saturday, April 22, 2006

It's the Power, Stupid

I've had some more time to think about Michael Tomasky's TAP essay on Communitarianism and the Democratic Party.

First, consider this passage from his essay:

For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today’s. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest.

This, I think, is exactly wrong.

First, I would argue that the "demand" (his words) for citizens to balance their self-interest with common interest is precisely the basis of just about every conservative critique of modern culture, from abortion to gay rights and school prayer. It might not have anything to do with the Republican's economic agenda, but it has everything to do with its cultural one. The conservative critique of modernity is precisely the liberal democratic notion that people should be reasonably free to live their lives on their own terms, as they see fit, provided they are not directly or significantly harming others. For conservatives, the type of individualism that allows and even encourages personal freedom of expression is anathema. In contrast, it seems vital to me that modern liberalism and the emancipation of the individual that it desires be given a voice from at least one political party in the country, and since Republicans, with their base of fundamentalist Christians are not inclined to provide it, Democrats can and must.

Second, the basis for liberal government is not "the demand that citizens place community interest over self-interest" but the belief that the purpose and vision of democracy and its correlary principle--popular sovereignty--is to shift power from royal and religious elites to the common man. Consequently, for liberal governance the essential aim of government (besides that common to all governments of securing order and protection from outside threats) is to diffuse power, to neutralize the concentration of power in the hands of economic, religious or governmental elites. The aim of liberal democratic government is therefore, to empower and liberate the individual, to pull the individual out of the group, as my political theory professor once remarked, to free him or her from the demands and conditional constraints created by private and public power centers against which the individual is unequally matched.

The essential basis of conservative philosophy is that the entity to be protected is society, and that the threat to society is the individual. This is why the conservative movement and the Republican Party have managed to fuse so well. It's economic and social coalitions are not essentially different. Both favor the establishment and enrichment of concentrated power, whether it is the corporation and wealth elite on the economic side, or the religious and cultural elite on the social side. Both demand that the individual be made subservient to a group or groups in society that dictate or constrain the individual's actions.

Attempts by Democratic Party leaders and strategists to articulate a response to the conservative menace to freedom tend to break down because, such as is the case with Communitarianism, it fails to link the economic and social wings and coalition members of the party. Tomasky's Communitarianism thus attempts to find an appealing rationale for the Party's economic agenda, be it Social Security, Medicare or aid to education, and to do so, comes forth with the notion of the public good versus individual self interest. This sounds all well and good until one recognizes that applied to the social and cultural sphere, it leads towards intrusion upon the individual and an invasion of the family's right to privacy.

The reason modern liberalism has embraced both income support and redistribution policies on the economic front, and civil liberties issues on the social and cultural front is because both aim to ensure that economic and religious foundations of power are mitigated to at least some degree, allowing the individual and the family to be more fully free.

If Democrats want to overcome the challenge to freedom and liberty represented by the Republican Party, it can best do this by emphasizing that the individual freedoms it seeks to protect (and of which Republican conservatives and Tomasky seem so contemptful) and opportunity it seeks to grant are equally important for the family as for the individual. Instead of talking about the individual right to privacy, liberals should talk about the family right to privacy. I believe this would allow the party to articulate and defend its civil liberty concerns (i.e. abortion and gay rights, voting rights, affirmative action, etc) a language that would at least partially negate the negative connotations that many in the conservative media and religious industrial complex* have tried to apply to the Democratic Party's pluralist goals and voting patterns.

For another example, consider the issue of NSA wire-taps. From Tomasky's Communitarian point of view, the president is basically right to do whatever he wants to "fight terrorism", even if that means invading a family's privacy without a warrant, because it is in the common interest, and liberal Democrats should just stop complaining about it and whining about individual rights, which are really pretty pesky things that need to be bulldozed in the name of the common good. Obviously, this will not do for a Democratic vision of governance, or at least one that seeks to provide checks on concentrated power, whether in the government or in society as a whole.

In short, the unifying element of modern liberalism is not the common good, as articulated by Tomasky, but the need to reduce the adverse effects of concentrated power. By reducing the adverse effects of concentrated power, the common good, in the pluralist and best sense of the word, is also preserved.

For an additional critique of Tomasky's Communitarianism see Digby's post.

*I'll elaborate on this concept in a future post.


The Rogue Progressive said...

I agree 100%, Senator. Never been a fan of communitarianism and the whole thing smacks of an effort to court cultural regressives by making a faux pitch for community standards. Excellent post.

AnomymousINTP said...

Tomasky made it too complicated.

The pursuit of the "common good" is simply solving our "common" problems: e.g., the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

A common problem is a focal point for collective action--for it does not matter whose pet policy solution "wins" but rather that our common problem "get solved."