John Quiggin of Crooked Timber had a post over this weekend that deserves some serious discussion. His thesis is that: (1) the right-wing in Europe and the US has completely collapsed intellectually (these are the “dead horses” his title refers to), (2) conservatism remains potent politically, nevertheless, and (3) that killing off the right-wing is only the beginning.
It’s a powerful piece and I agree with the vast majority of it. He closes with something that gets to the heart one of the biggest questions that divides the left:
Finally, as I’ve said before, the left has to stand for something more than keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements. We need to offer the hope of a better world as an alternative to the angry tribalism that threatens to engulf us.
Personally, I don’t see the conflict between “the need to offer the hope of a better world” and “keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements”, but I know what he’s getting at: namely, the idea that liberalism has to offer something more transformative than CBO scores and the elimination of lifetime caps on health insurance payments and changes to immigration policy, and the like.
Do most of you agree with this idea? I know that I don’t. First of all, I don’t like the idea of dreaming up some new transformative vision. I’d rather liberals just focus on health care, education, public transportation, and the many other concrete problems we face. Certainly, this might involve changes in taxation (for example), but probably more along the lines of a 40% rate being upped to 44% than something radically redistributive.
It’s true that pragmatic liberalism has its shortcomings as a political strategy. Much of the appeal of conservatism comes from how thorough-going its dictates are. Contemporary liberal discussion (at least as I see it on blogs and in opinion columns) mostly confines itself to governmental policies. The conservosphere gets involved with what movies you should watch, what kinds of scarves you should wear in Dunkin’ Donuts ads, what kinds of countertops you should have in your house, and so on. (I’m not saying liberals can’t be preachy, mind you, but it’s one thing for your friend to lecture you about recycling, it’s another for prominent political columnists to devote multiple columns to Avatar.) That’s seductive in the same way that religion is. Pragmatism told ancient people not to eat rotting carrion; but that wasn’t broad enough, they developed religion to tell them exactly what foods they could eat, how they should prepare them, and when they could eat them. The fact that these rules often had no empirical basis was part of their appeal. And so it is with “drill baby drill” and “let them fail”.
Obviously, “we need to find a way to document workers” sometimes loses out to “Build that wall! English only!” But not always. The recent rise of the right in the west is most likely the result of white male anxiety about the perceived loss of white male power. Thus, the rise is limited by demographics (especially in the United States). If liberals can govern effectively and pragmatically, they will be able to build a lasting majority coalition by taking advantage of demographic changes, with or without a transformative vision.