Does the Democratic Party need to exorcise the specter of socialism?

Democrats should be wary of embracing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, argues Princeton sociologist Paul Starr.* “Socialism” isn’t just another term for New Deal liberalism, he says, but a distinctive political and ideological outlook that is at odds both with the liberal tradition and economic and political reality.

Sanders’ own political journey recapitulates the evolution of socialism itself: communal living on an Israeli kibbutz, touting the state socialism of Eugene Debs, affiliations with the Socialist Workers Party, and now advocating a program of extensive redistribution and regulation as a nominal Democrat.

Starr argues, however, that Sanders’ proposals, such as his tax and health plans, are outside of the mainstream even when compared with the European social democracies he upholds as models. For instance, Scandinavian governments have largely made peace with capitalism, financing generous welfare states with wealth produced by a relatively low-regulation market economy. (This point has also been made by libertarian writer Will Wilkinson.) But Sanders doesn’t talk as though he recognizes any external constraints on the feasibility of his plans–other than those that stem from the greed of the rich or the venality of establishment politicians.

Sanders’ causal attitude toward the real-world obstacles to implementing his policies has caused considerable consternation among some high-profile left-of-center economists and policy writers. But it reflects the moral fervor that animates his campaign. That is, Sanders’ socialism is not first and foremost an economic plan to be evaluated according to the canons of technocratic rationality; it’s a moral vision based on the value of economic equality. The revolution trumps (pardon the expression) the petty bean-counting of wonks.

But this single-minded focus on equality distinguishes socialism (democratic or otherwise) from liberalism, according to Starr:

At its core, liberalism has a concern for liberty. While liberals have expanded public programs, they also have sought to strengthen rights that limit arbitrary power, both governmental and private. Liberals do not sanctify the free market, but they care about preserving the incentives that stimulate innovation and investment and make possible a flourishing economy.

While I think Starr may overstate his case a bit here (a passion for equality is not necessarily at odds with a commitment to liberty), Sanders does seem to operate on a different set of assumptions than mainstream liberals. Do current business practices require stronger oversight are are they fundamentally illegitimate? Is there any limit, in principle, to the scope of authority the government should have to manage economic outcomes? Can capitalism be harnessed for more equitable growth, or is it essentially immoral? This is an long-running debate between liberals and socialists, reformers and radicals.

My own inclinations are toward the incremental progress and messy compromises of reformist liberalism. Pure socialism, in any of its forms, has little appeal to me, and I’m a moderate by both temperament and conviction. I also share the concerns about the feasibility of Sanders’ proposals, not to mention his appeal to a chimerical “political revolution.” (There’s also his evident lack of interest in foreign affairs and other aspects of the actual job of being president.)

But at the same time, liberals should listen to and benefit from more radical critiques and ideas. The New Deal wasn’t socialism (and neither was the Great Society or Obamacare), but progressive reform in the U.S. has often been influenced by more radical movements, with liberals in many cases co-opting (and moderating) ideas advocated by socialists and other more radical leftists. Abraham Lincoln, in some ways the pragmatic liberal reformer par excellence, was pushed in a more progressive direction in part by radicals in his own party as well as by activists like Frederick Douglass** (the course of the war had something to do with it too). Without this pressure, Lincoln might’ve pursued a restoration of the pre-war status quo instead of making the abolition of slavery a reality.

I don’t plan to vote for Sanders (unless he wins the nomination, which currently appears unlikely). But I’m glad he’s injected some more radical ideas into the race. The vast wealth disparities that characterize our new Gilded Age threaten values that everyone on the left side of the political spectrum holds dear. By putting the issue of inequality front and center, Sanders has done liberalism–and the country–an important service.
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*Starr is the author of Freedom’s Power, a very good book on the history and ideas of liberalism.
**Douglass also came to value Lincoln’s pragmatism, however. A good book on the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and their different approaches to political change is James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican.
 

Trump’s politics of fear vs. the pope’s politics of solidarity

There’s something fitting about Donald Trump’s feud with Pope Francis. The public personas of the two men could hardly be more different. Francis exudes openness, compassion and humility, while The Donald is all vulgarity, braggadocio and sneering contempt. But even more, Trump’s brand of politics represents much of what Francis has spent his pontificate opposing.

Trump’s appeal is based largely around fear: fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of Muslim immigrants, etc. And his proposed solutions are just as blunt and indiscriminate: build a wall, “bomb the shit out of them.”

Francis, by contrast, has spent much of his tenure outlining and exemplifying a politics of hope and solidarity. Solidarity with immigrants, with the poor and with the natural world. In Francis’s view, our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman. This is the context in which to understand the pope’s comment that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Jesus crossed boundaries between people and broke down walls, so Francis is in good company here.

This isn’t to say that Christians can’t disagree in good faith about politics–including immigration policy. But when politics is rooted in fear and demonizing others, it should forfeit its claim to Christian support. All politicians traffic in fear to some extent of course, but Trump has elevated it to the animating principle of his campaign. His candidacy has been almost entirely bereft of any appeal to the better angels of our nature, something the Republican Party used to know a little about.

“Get down, you damn fool!”

When Confederate General Jubal Early drove a small Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, crossed the Potomac, and threatened Washington itself before being driven off, Lincoln went personally to Fort Stevens, part of the Washington defenses, to observe the fighting. It was on this occasion that a Union officer standing a few feet from Lincoln was hit by a Confederate bullet and that another officer–none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–noting without recognizing out of the corner of his eye this tall civilian standing on the parapet in the line of fire, said urgently: “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” A chastened president got down.

–James McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” from Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 67-8

Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.

Fiction:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.

Non-fiction:

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement

During my vacation I read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Oakes tells the story of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged on a brand of antislavery politics that eventually resulted in the emancipation of America’s millions of slaves (via a bloody civil war, of course).

One thing that struck me was Oakes’ description of Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Douglass adhered to what Oakes describes as “a messianic Christianity in which a vengeful God commanded the bloody overthrow of the slave system.” In Lincoln’s speech, particularly its references to the war being a form of divine judgment on the nation, Douglass saw a vindication of his view.

Oakes points out, however, that there were differences between Douglass’ and Lincoln’s views of divine judgment. Douglass saw things in more black and white terms–slaveholders and those who enabled them were sinners, and God would judge them accordingly. Lincoln, meanwhile, saw the sin of slavery as something that both North and South bore responsibility for, and he held that neither side’s cause could be simply identified with the divine will. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

(Of course, Lincoln, as a free white man, had the privilege of taking this “broader” view, while Douglass–a former slave–had first-hand knowledge of slavery’s evils. So you could see why Douglass was less inclined to magnanimity.)

But what really interested me about this was that divine judgment played an important role in both men’s thinking, even though they represented what would be considered the “progressive” position of their time, politically speaking. They were invoking God’s judgment–even wrath–in the service of social justice and equality. This contrasts with a lot of contemporary progressive theology, which seems uncomfortable at best with the notion of divine judgment. Instead, God is often portrayed in terms of unconditional acceptance or “hospitality.”

But can unconditional acceptance of oppressors–slaveholders, victimizers, or abusers–be at the same time hospitality for their victims? If God loves his creation, wouldn’t he be wrathful at seeing his creatures abused? (It was Elizabeth Johnson’s defense of divine wrath in her feminist theology She Who Is that first made me realize this was not necessarily a “conservative” position.)

Maybe this is why, despite the many critiques that have been leveled at it, I still find something worth holding on to in traditional “satisfaction” accounts of the atonement. As Paul Tillich has written, we relate to God both as Father and Lord–that is, as a loving Father with whom we can have an “I-thou” relationship, but also as the universal governor of the universe and upholder of the moral order. Tillich thought that the emphasis on God’s fatherhood to the exclusion of his lordship accounted in part for liberal theology’s neglect of what he calls the Pauline doctrine of the atonement.

Lincoln and Douglass both believed there was a moral order in the universe, upheld by divine governance and that this would ultimately doom slavery. But it’s less clear to me whether Lincoln, with his God of inscrutable judgment, or Douglass, with his God of vengeance, could make room for divine mercy. (At least in Oakes’ account, Christ didn’t seem to play much of a role in either one’s theology.)

For all the distortions, that’s what the Anselmian doctrine of atonement–and its many offshoots–tries to do: hold together mercy and justice. God wants to save his creatures but does it in a way that preserves the moral integrity of the creation. There is a price to be paid for sin, though the Christian message is that God, in the person of his Son, has paid it himself. I’m not sure the doctrine is entirely successful, but it at least points to a genuine problem.