Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

Can conservatism protect your daughter?

Say what you will about conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, he certainly knows how to troll liberals.

Yesterday, the Times published a column in which Douthat offers an explanation of why, as some research has apparently shown, parents who have daughters are more likely to vote Republican. Douthat sketched a post-60s sexual landscape in which men hound women for commitment-free sex, and women spend their prime child-bearing years without landing a husband. This situation, he theorized, can increase the appeal of social conservatism to parents who worry about such a fate for their daughters.

This set off a round of the usual Twitter outrage among liberals. And much of it was well justified–Douthat’s column could be read as endorsing the retrograde sexual ethic or a bygone (and in many ways mythical) era. Virtually all liberals–and many conservatives–think we’re on balance much better off living in a world where premarital sex and previously taboo forms of sexual behavior like homosexuality don’t invite the full force of social disapproval (not to mention legal sanction). Moreover, the findings that Douthat’s argument leans on can be given a much more unpleasant interpretation.

But in fairness, Douthat’s conclusion was actually pretty modest. You don’t have to be crazy to think that contemporary sexual norms have drawbacks as well as advantages. Or that those drawbacks might disproportionately affect women. Certainly Christians, whatever their political views, can’t sign on to a regime of anything-goes sexuality.

All this notwithstanding, as (yes) the father of a daughter (and of a son for that matter), I’m glad my kids aren’t going to grow up under the sexual norms that prevailed when I was young, much less those of the 1950s. If for no other reason, this is because (1) girls and women today aren’t held to quite as rigid a double standard and (2) being gay is much less stigmatized. I don’t want my daughter to live in a world that tells her she’s a slut for expressing her sexuality, and I don’t want either of my kids to think there’s anything wrong with being gay.

Having kids has made me more conservative in some ways (and more liberal in others). Yet this hasn’t translated into increased support for the policy objectives of the organized conservative movement. As far as I can tell, these have very little to do with addressing the real problems facing people today, including young people. A policy that actually supported commitment and family formation, for example, would include paid parental leave, something that is largely anathema to the Right. Contemporary social conservatism seems driven largely by a tribalistic opposition to anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow definition of “real” American. And it’s far from clear to me how a platform of cutting taxes on the rich, gutting the welfare state, and opposing gay marriage will make life better for my daughter (or my son) as she grows up.

If there’s a problem with contemporary sexual mores, it’s not clear there’s a policy fix for it. But to the extent there is, I don’t see any reason to think conservatism provides it.

A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.

Negative liberty, positive liberty, and the second American revolution

In the afterword to his magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom (which I finished reading over Christmas), historian James McPherson says that the Civil War was a turning point between two different understandings of liberty. He distinguishes them using the terms made famous by Isaiah Berlin: “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty. Roughly, negative liberty is freedom from external interference–the “right to be left alone.” So understood, freedom is essentially opposite to government power: the stronger the government, the less freedom. The American Revolution was arguably a battle for negative liberty in that the colonies were seeking freedom from English domination and that the resulting government was one of sharply limited powers.

By contrast, positive liberty is having the actual capability to do something you want. Freedom in this sense is not inherently opposed to power, but in fact requires a strong government. Freeing slaves, to take the most salient example, required a dramatic increase in federal power.

McPherson contends that, after the Civil War, positive liberty became the dominant American understanding of freedom. He points out that the first ten amendments to the Constitution–the Bill of Rights–were essentially a series of “thou shalt nots” directed at the federal government intended to limit its power; but the post-Civil War amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) established that the federal government did have the power to enforce the equal civil rights and freedoms of citizens. This created a much wider scope for government activity to ensure equal effective freedom.

McPherson observes that the “libertarians and southern conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War were right to make Lincoln a target of their intellectual artillery.”

Unlike these one-dimensional philosophers of negative liberty, however, Lincoln understood that secession and war had launched a revolution that changed America forever. Eternal vigilance against the tyrannical power of government remains the price of our negative liberties, to be sure. But it is equally true that the instruments of government power remain necessary to defend the equal justice under law of positive liberty. (p. 867)

This, of course, is also the view of American liberalism–the liberalism of F.D.R. and L.B.J. and the modern Democratic Party. When conservatives invoke freedom they usually intend to restrict it to negative liberty in McPherson’s sense (although even this commitment is often more honored in the breach than the observance). Freedom from taxes, from regulation, from restrictions on gun ownership, etc. are all framed as negative freedoms. Liberals maintain, though, that government power is necessary to ensure a degree of positive freedom sufficient for people to lead flourishing lives. This is the theoretical basis for the social welfare state and government regulations on nominally private activity, such as pollution. Lincoln may not have been a “liberal” in the modern sense, but there’s a relatively straight line from his political philosophy to New Deal-Great Society liberalism.

Disturbingly, though, the increase in positive liberty often seems to go hand-in-hand with a diminution in negative liberty. We only need to recall Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, F.D.R.’s internment camps, or Obama’s “kill list.” That’s the legitimate insight of the libertarians (and their left-wing cousins the anarchists)–that it’s hard to establish a firewall that confines government power to good purposes. So you end up with an expanded welfare state and civil liberties violations and overseas wars. That doesn’t mean that a free, peaceful, and social democratic society is impossible (the Scandinavian countries seem to pull if off fairly successfully); but it may be a risk inherent in the project.

The incoherence of conservative economics

First ThingsR.R. Reno and The American Conservative‘s Scott Galupo both have recent posts that grapple intelligently with the problems of the G.O.P’s economic message. They’re responding in part to Mitt Romney’s post-election diagnosis that President Obama won because he offered “gifts” to voters.

Here’s Reno:

What today’s Republican Party can’t seem to get its mind around is that globalization has disoriented and disadvantaged large portions of American society, just as industrialization did more than one hundred years ago. Democrats aren’t “creating dependency” by inventing social programs, they’re responding to the social reality in the way progressives have for more than a century. I’m not in favor of the progressive approach, but the fantasy that politics is simply about everybody getting the best deal for themselves is absurd. We have an instinct for solidarity, not just self interest.

And Scott Galupo:

Strong national government and federal supremacy have been with us since the Lincoln administration, but you can see its root system in the Adams administration. Michael Lind has been an essential source for the “developmental economic” history of the Unites States. If I can sum his work in one sentence, I would put it like this: The story of America, from Hamilton to Lincoln to the New Deal to World II, has been one of state-promoted — not state-run — industrial capitalism and American Dream-ism. The “neoliberal” adjustments of the 1970s and the Reagan-Clinton era did not replace this system, but rather enmeshed it in the lean-and-mean world of global finance and multinational corporations.

Obama’s mission, as he sees it (or as I think he sees it), is to try to revive the high middle-class living standards of the mid-20th-century in this neoliberal world. “Advanced manufacturing,” new infrastructure, high-tech energy, and higher education are the key components of Obama’s vision of re-industrialization. Republicans have reacted to Obamanomics as if 1) it is akin to socialism or European social democracy; and 2) they do not practice a similar brand of state-promoted capitalism themselves (military-industrial complex, anyone?).

Neither writer, both being on “the Right” broadly speaking, is enthusiastic about the economic program of the Democratic Party, but they both agree that a political party should have an economic program–one that responds to the actual needs of voters. As Matt Yglesias put it, the G.O.P. could stand to learn from Obama’s “make people’s lives better” strategy.

It has always seemed to me that there’s a basic incoherence in the message of economic conservatism. If you free up the market–cut regulation, increase foreign trade, etc.–then you are inherently exposing certain people to more economic risk. Now, this may be justifiable on the grounds that it increases the overall wealth of society. But if you simultaneously argue for slashing the welfare state and public services, then what happens to the “losers” whose economic fortunes are worsened by the market’s “creative destruction”? A cynical view of the matter–and one with some truth to it, I think–is that this is a feature, not a bug of the conservative economic worldview. That is, the whole point is to reduce the power of the middle and lower classes relative to the rich.

But assuming charitably that conservatives are interested in increasing everybody’s well-being, a more coherent approach might be a “Nordic“-style model that combines a liberalized market with a universal safety net and robust public services. This model upholds the values of economic freedom that conservatives claim to cherish, but also recognizes that government action is needed to blunt the sharper edges of the market and ensure universal access to basic goods. However, given its reliance on high levels of taxes and public spending (not to mention its–ew!–European-ness),  I have a hard time seeing such a vision catching on among American conservatives.

Romney vs. the 47%

The big political news of the day, of course, is the video released by Mother Jones of Mitt Romney speaking to a room of wealthy donors in which he essentially wrote off half the American public as moochers who will never be convinced to take responsibility for their lives.

Romney’s remarks are a version of an increasingly popular conservative narrative according to which 47 percent of the American public allegedly pay no taxes and are living off the largesse of the welfare state at the expense of the hard-working “makers.”

There have been a number of debunkings of Romney’s comments today, not all of them from liberals. Ezra Klein wrote about it with his usual wonky detail, but National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and First ThingsMatthew Schmitz also pushed back. The New York Times’ David Brooks pointed out that these “freeloaders” include war veterans, students getting loans to go to college, and senior citizens (who disproportionately vote Republican!). The reality is that there’s no clear sense in which the political coalitions of Right and Left can be divided into “makers” and “takers.”

I’m not trying to make a tu quoque argument that Republicans benefit from government spending too. The point I’d rather make is that the self-made man who inherits nothing and doesn’t owe anybody anything is a myth. Luck is as large a determinant of where you end up as individual initiative is. And liberals believe that government is the only entity in society with the ability to level the playing field a bit and make sure as many people as possible have a shot at a decent life. It does this through redistribution, regulation, and provision of public services, among other functions. As I’ve written before, one of the reasons I became disenchanted with libertarianism was that I realized my life wouldn’t be possible without “big government.”

We all probably have a tendency to exaggerate our own contributions to our successes and to minimize what we owe to others, to circumstances, or to dumb luck. But is that something to base a governing philosophy on?

Liberals aren’t sexual relativists

In an article that otherwise makes some good points about conservatives’ “populist” defense of junk food, Rod Dreher just can’t resist taking a swipe at a time-honored liberal strawman:

For conservatives, it may be revealing to compare the defensiveness with which many of us discuss what we do in the dining room to the defensiveness liberals approach discussion of what they do in the bedroom. Liberals, to overgeneralize, believe that what consenting adults do in bed with their bodies is immune from moral judgment. Social conservatives recognize the falsity of this view, understanding that immoderation in sexual matters corrupts individual character and can have deleterious social consequences.

I can see why this neat bit of parallelism may have been too tempting to leave on the editing-room floor, but it just doesn’t wash. A more accurate approximation to the “liberal” view would be that what consenting adults do in the bedroom is not a fit matter for state regulation. But liberals are hardly barred from making moral judgments about sexual relations. This is because consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for morally appropriate sexual acts. A liberal can easily say, for instance, that a relationship of equality and mutuality is morally superior to one based on humiliation and degradation, even if all the parties involved consent to their treatment.

Dreher here makes the common conservative mistake of assuming that because liberals object to some longstanding moral prohibitions (on, say, homosexual relationships) that they must object to all moral judgment in matters of sex. This only follows if you treat sexual ethics as a seamless whole that can’t be altered without the whole thing unraveling. But liberals typically take a different approach: they look for the deeper, underlying principles that justify a particular sexual ethic and try to prune off the bits that seem inconsistent with those principles, understood in light of changing social contexts and new knowledge. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant made some particular judgments about sex that nearly all of us (conservative and liberal) would now reject, but we can still use the principles of human flourishing or respect for persons to articulate a consistent sexual ethic.

Rand Paul’s top-down conservatism

Continuing the grand congressional tradition of monkeying with local D.C. affairs, supposedly libertarian G.O.P. senator Rand Paul has introduced amendments to a bill granting the District budget autonomy that would dictate city policies on guns, abortion, and unions.

From the Washington Post:

One Paul amendment would require the District to allow residents to obtain concealed weapon permits for handguns, and would require the city to honor permits issued to residents of other states. Another amendment would make the District “establish an office for the purpose of facilitating the purchase and registration of firearms by DC residents,” in response to reports that there is only one licensed gun dealer in the city.

Paul has also submitted an amendment to codify the city-funded abortion ban. The prohibition — a continuing source of frustration for local leaders that is strongly supported by anti-abortion groups — has been extended via appropriations bills every year that Republicans have controlled one or both chambers of Congress since the mid-1990s.

Paul proposed another amendment saying “membership in a labor organization may not be applied as a precondition for employment” in the District, and protecting employees “from discrimination on the basis of their membership status” in a union.

Note that what’s at issue in this bill is whether or not the District gets to decide how to spend its own money raised by local taxes. (“Wait,” you say, “D.C. doesn’t already have that authority? But that’s crazy!” Indeed.) But for freedom-loving Rand Paul, it’s an opportunity to engage in some social engineering, conservative-style.

Political purism and playing the long game

Garry Wills wrote a good response to the video from Harvard Law professor Roberto Unger calling for the “defeat” of Barack Obama. Unger, who is invariably billed as Obama’s “former professor” (according to Wills he taught Obama in two classes at HLS), maintains that Obama has “failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States.” Unger’s video has some good ideas in it–or at least ideas worth considering. But the conclusion that Obama “must be defeated” comes as a complete non-sequitur. It’s unclear why supporting the (admittedly flawed) Obama is incompatible with working to make the Democratic Party and the political system in general more progressive. And it’s even less clear how four or eight years of a Romney administration would advance the cause of progressivism. Why, for example, would it be a boon to “the progressive cause” to allow the social safety net to be further shredded?

Fortunately for us, we have a pretty clear test case here. Remember back in 2000 when some liberals/progressives said that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush? And liberals had plenty of good reasons to be unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration, arguably the most conservative Democratic administration since Grover Cleveland. Which is why some of those folks voted for Ralph Nader–helping to hand the election to Bush (with a generous assist from the Supreme Court). And yet, does anyone really think that the world was better off from a progressive point of view after eight years of Bush in the White House? (The institutionalization of the post-9/11 national security state alone is something we’ll be living with the rest of our lives.)

Wills agrees with Unger that Obama’s progressive credentials are less than stellar, but disdains Unger’s political purism:

The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.

To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.

To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)

The independents, too ignorant or inexperienced to recognize these basic facts, are the people most susceptible to lying flattery. They are called the good folk too inner-directed to follow a party line or run with the herd. They are like the idealistic imperialists “with clean hands” in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—they should wear leper bells to warn people of their vicinity.

The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes. What they normally do is damage the party closest to their professed ideals.

I don’t know why some progressives come out at election time to bash the more liberal of the two candidates, when the more sensible course of action would be to try to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction between elections. Unger’s monologue consists mainly of a wish-list of lefty reforms with barely a nod in the direction of how we’re supposed to bring them about. What is so complicated about the idea of supporting the lesser evil on election day, but also keeping your eye on the long game? Conservatives seem to have become pretty adept at this “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to politics; they support viable Republican candidates who deviate from conservative orthodoxy all the time, but they’ve also been very successful at building institutional power and gaining influence in the G.O.P. This has been a decades-long effort, but conservatives have essentially established their preferred positions on a host of issues as Republican orthodoxy. Seems like a smarter approach than “destroy the village to save it.”

A dime’s worth of difference, 2012 edition

If you follow writers associated with what I’ll broadly call the “disaffected Left,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are few if any substantive differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both, we’re told, are content with the corporate plutocracy, support a hawkish foreign policy and an ever-expanding surveillance state, are open to making cuts to entitlement programs, and generally do not present significantly different choices for the future of American society.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll get into a common litany of betrayals that Obama has perpetrated: the expansion of drone warfare, continuation of Bush-era civil liberties abuses, a timid and incremental approach to health-care reform, and excessive obsequiousness to Wall Street being among the most often cited.

And there’s truth to virtually all of this! Obama hasn’t governed as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal nor has he transcended partisan animosity to usher in a new era of beyond-red-and-blue politics. He’s done stuff that anyone on the “Left,” broadly defined, should oppose. I personally have been most disappointed in his record on civil liberties and foreign affairs, but I also agree with much of the left-wing criticism of his domestic and economic policies.

All that said, however, there remain significant differences between Obama and Romney that will have major effects on people’s lives, depending on who’s elected. Here’s Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog to summarize:

Okay, I get it. But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it won’t. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, it’s a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.

Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obama’s failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.

Now Kilgore is a longtime Democratic strategist, but even allowing for some partisan cheerleading, this seems about right to me. Although he wants to tinker with it in a (possibly misguided) attempt to make it more fiscally sustainable, Obama accepts and even defends the basic post-New Deal social compact. The Romney-Ryan G.O.P., however, is a different story. In fact, opposition to the New Deal–and its principle that the government should ensure a basic level of economic security–is arguably the animating impulse of the modern conservative movement.

Similarly with foreign policy. Do I wish Obama was more dovish? Why, yes I do. But there are still important differences between his brand of liberal internationalism and the vision of unilateral hegemony favored by conservatives. And these are literally differences of life and death, possibly for many thousands of people.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that anyone is morally obliged to vote for Obama. But there are real differences between the candidates, even if not as many–or as significant–as we might like.