Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Making Progress?

Three weeks ago I made the observation that in the 1980s, when conservatives succeeded to a large extent in making the word “liberal” a pejorative, a lot of modern liberals began referring to themselves as progressives.

That’s how I remember it anyway. I don’t really remember people I actually knew referring to themselves as progressives before that. But maybe that was because I never spent any time in Wisconsin. Anyway, I had certainly heard the word progressive before, but mainly from history books dealing with the early 20th century.

If you talk to a progressive, she might well tell you that progressives have always been among us and that there is a straight historical line from the progressives of the late 19th century to those of today—and that “progressive” is not merely a synonym for “liberal.”

Somewhat ironically, the two men most often cited as founders of the progressive movement in America were both Republicans. Many identify the movement’s founder as Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who represented Wisconsin in both houses of Congress and who was also the state’s governor. He left the Republican Party because he thought it had gotten away from its anti-slavery roots and was mainly in the service of corporate interests. Something of an isolationist, he was opposed to the U.S.’s entry into World War I as well as to its joining the League of Nations.

The formal Progressive Party, which came to be known as the Bull Moose Party, was founded by former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 after he lost the Republican presidential nomination to William Howard Taft. His platform was mainly one of anti-corruption—in both government and business. In the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt carried six states (with 27 percent of the popular vote), Taft carried only two and Woodrow Wilson was elected with the support of 40 states.

La Follette did not support Roosevelt as the Progressive candidate. He later formed a new Progressive Party of which he was the presidential nominee in 1924. He carried only Wisconsin but did win 17 percent of the popular vote. Republican Calvin Coolidge was elected with 35 states versus 12 states for Democrat John W. Davis. La Follette’s national Progressive Party soon disbanded—although it did continue to be active in Wisconsin until 1946.

La Follette’s main legacy to the movement may have been his founding of a publication in 1909 called La Follette’s Weekly. Later the name changed to simply La Follette’s and then, in 1929, to The Progressive. It is still being published today as a monthly magazine, and its back issues may be the best way to track the evolution of the movement through the 20th and 21st centuries. As for the causes that it has promoted in recent times, it pretty much ticks the boxes of feminist, union, environmental and civil rights components of modern liberalism.

It is also pointedly anti-corporate, anti-military and pacifist—to an extent that arguably takes it out of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. For example, The Progressive was not only against the 2003 invasion of Iraq but also against the 1991 Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait. It has also been critical of President Obama for any number of actions, including continuing the war in Afghanistan and many domestic security policies inherited from the Bush administration and increased reliance on drone warfare.

It is not difficult to work out where the term “progressive” came from. The word “progress” suggests a journey in which the destination is better than the starting point. The notion of a journey with a promised destination is a very powerful one in the human mind—as far back as Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. It has a rhetorical appeal similar to the formulation that progressives and modern liberals often use when debating specific policies, i.e. that their opponents are “on the wrong side of history.” This implies that the history has already been written and the historical judgments have already made as to who was right or wrong. Therefore, if you are not on “our” side, you are on the losing side.

Part of the appeal of this formulation is the idea of participating in a cause that will accomplish something great and important. Unfortunately for the people using the “on the right side of history” formulation, it is a device that has also been used by everyone from the imperial Romans to proponents of Manifest Destiny and even by Communists and Fascists. In other words, it is designed to appeal more to the heart than to the head.

In American politics, progressives have a home in the Democratic Party, and the late progressive Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone famously declared, “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” But the fact is that true, principled progressives (like Wellstone, former Senator Russ Feingold and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich) are actually few and far between at the national level, and they never come anywhere near a presidential nomination.

Some pundits have described Barack Obama as the most progressive (or liberal or leftwing) president in U.S. history, but they tend to be his critics. True progressives—if The Progressive is any indicator—do not see it that way. His own supporters tend to see him as moderate and centrist.

With the current Democratic ascendancy at the federal level (in contrast with the trend at the local level) and in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, are we now on the cusp of a new progressive era? To bet on that would really be, to coin a phrase, swimming against the tide of history. (I’m using the term history here in the sense of past experience rather than a prediction of the future, as described above.) While some social issues championed by progressives (notably same-sex marriage) have become more mainstream, there is no sign that the U.S. or other western countries are going to do anything serious about reining in corporations to the extent that progressives would want.

And that may be just as well. In terms of the economy, when progressive policies do get tried, people’s overall living standards usually suffer. Then the progressive narrative becomes a complaint of how corporate and wealthy interests have sabotaged the execution of their good intentions.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Droning On

Four months ago I tried to be provocative by making a comparison between Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. This consisted of pointing out that both insisted on treating ideologues bent on violently overthrowing their governments as mere criminals rather than as soldiers in an organized campaign. The example, in Thatcher’s case, was the IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland who wanted—but were denied—prisoner of war status.

At the time, I could have pointed out that President Obama actually had a hunger strike of his own on his hands—and has had for some time now. The news audience in the UK and Ireland was reminded of this recently when BBC and RTÉ journalists reported from Guantánamo, courtesy of a press junket hosted by the U.S. military. Soldiers explained matter-of-factly to the visiting reporters how they are, as gently as possible they say, force-feeding prisoners who have been on a hunger strike for months.

The first time he was elected, President Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year. More than four years later, the prison is still in operation and, as he does with so many things, the president blames Republicans. That stance, however, was definitively refuted by Martha Rayner, a lawyer who represents Guantánamo prisoners, in a blistering op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May.

She chided the president for an April 30 press conference in which he asserted that it was Congress that was blocking the transfer of prisoners. Rayner pointed out that full authority to transfer or release any of the prisoners lies squarely with the president. All Congress did (and in overwhelming bipartisan fashion, it should be noted) was to block transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland. This does not prevent the president from transferring them anywhere else in the world.

Despite the president’s promise to “close Guantánamo,” his problem is that he doesn’t really want to close it—at least not in any meaningful sense. Yes, he would clearly love to close the facility on Cuban soil the name of which has become notorious throughout the world. (And it should be noted that no small part of that notoriety is due to U.S. politicians who, like the president, raised its profile during the Bush administration.) But the president will close Guantánamo only if he can move the prisoners somewhere else. In other words, he doesn’t want to close Guantánamo but to move it.

He is no doubt aware of the number of prisoners that have already been released and have returned to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Proponents of closure tend to speak of each and every prisoner as if he is there because of a misunderstanding or an injustice. The president clearly must believe that the remaining prisoners are at least potential threats or he would simply release them—something he has full authority to do entirely on his own.

The president has, though, made sure that no new prisoners have been brought to Guantánamo under his watch. This is because, once terrorists have been identified and located, they are simply assassinated by drone—along with anybody else unlucky enough to be too nearby. The up side for the U.S. government is that there are no new prisoners for people to protest about. The down side is that there is no opportunity to extract information from the terrorists before they are killed.

The irony here is breathtaking. The one positive accomplishment the president could boast about in his reelection campaign was the fact that Osama bin Laden had been killed. In the wake of that accomplishment, there was a debate over whether the information that led to the Al Qaeda leader’s killing could or would have been obtained without waterboarding or other rough interrogation methods. But what no one disputes is that the U.S. would never have acquired the information on his location if Al Qaeda prisoners had not been taken prisoner and interrogated. That sort of information will not exist in future hunts for terrorist leaders because there will be no prisoners with current information to interrogate.

Instead, whatever information security forces will have to work with will come from worldwide monitoring of electronic communications—something that bothers people all over the world, including many within the U.S. The most forceful argument against Guantánamo was always that it was a recruiting tool for terrorists and that it undermined America’s image as a beacon of human values. I think it is safe to say that on the Arab street whatever revulsion remains over Guantánamo has pretty much been eclipsed by the increased use of drone strikes and everywhere else by the NSA monitoring program.

The point here is not that Barack Obama is somehow unusual in not living up to his promises. (Few politicians do.) The point is that it rarely, if ever, pays to get ones hopes up that a new politician will somehow be different from most of the others that have already come and gone. It just feels worse when a new politician has done a particularly good job of convincing you that he is truly different.

After the debacle in Benghazi and the recent precautionary closures of American embassies and facilities in the Middle East, the president has been doing some fancy backtracking from last summer’s crowing at the Democratic convention that “Al Qaeda is on the run.” (At least he didn’t declare “Mission accomplished,” countered one of his defenders on TV one recent Sunday.)

His recent verbal efforts at parsing the difference between “core” Al Qaeda and its offshoots have been kind of painful to watch. To most of us, that kind of finessing is about as relevant as understanding whether our local McDonald’s is corporate-owned or a franchise.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What’s in a Name?

Here is another confusing thing that happened to me as a student in France.

For some reason the teacher of my Spanish class was talking to us about the French Revolution. Since I was the only American in the class, she was interested in my take on it. I shrugged (a Gallic habit I had picked up) and stated what I thought was the obvious, that the rise of Napoleon as emperor was essentially an undoing of the French Revolution. France had traded a monarchy for a republic and then for another monarchy.

The teacher seemed totally surprised by this. What I hadn’t yet grasped was that the French believed—or were taught to believe—that Napoleon was actually the fulfillment of the revolution, that he was the man on a white horse who had risen to save the country. It didn’t seem to matter that he wore a crown, the same as Louis XVI.

History is full of bait-and-switch political movements, i.e. leaders and parties who promise something new and then deliver the same old stuff with a different face.

Last week I traced the history of the word “liberal” and attempted to figure out how the word went from its original meaning to its current one. The next question is why this happened.

Why did people who were essentially advocating major government involvement in the economy twist and torture the language to apply the word liberal to themselves—when their ideas were the exact opposite of what “liberal” had meant up until that time? Since I wasn’t there, I can only guess. But my guess is that the word liberal, which embodied personal liberty, had a very positive connotation and that it was easier to sell an idea if you could attach a popular label to it. It is the sort of linguistic jiu-jitsu normally associated with George Orwell.

But let’s get back to the question I ended with last week. Has the word “conservative” gone through a similar evolution as the word “liberal”? After all, the original meaning of conservative in England was someone who steadfastly defended traditional institutions like the monarchy, the Church of England and the British Empire. What is the relevance of the word in America, where there is neither a monarchy nor a state church?

In the American version of conservatism, the Constitution is the institution that is defended. A conservative will argue that the Constitution should always be consulted and followed as literally as possible. Amplifications, as provided by court interpretations, are to be discouraged—except for ones that enforce particular social values that the particular conservative endorses.

The problem with generalizing about conservatives is that they—no more or less than modern liberals—come in a wide array of flavors. You have your so-called paleoconservatives, who tend to be seen as nativist and isolationist; your neoconservatives, who favor active intervention abroad; your social conservatives, who are focused on issues like traditional marriage and abortion; and fiscal conservatives, who mainly just want the federal budget balanced. To confuse things further, libertarians—who just want the government to do the least possible—also tend to get lumped in with conservatives.

I am old enough to remember when both the Democratic and Republican parties each had conservative and liberal wings. Sometimes individual politicians transcended political boundaries all by themselves. You could have a Democrat who was for expensive social programs but wanted a strong military or a Republican who wanted to balance the budget but also have strong civil rights and environmental laws.

Today the two parties are obviously more polarized than they used to be. Yet there are still spectrums of opinions within each of them—even though each side does its best to paint the other as monolithic and extreme. But the spectrums are now mainly contained, respectively, within the left and right ends of political thought. On the Democratic side, the “wings” basically break down into specific advocacy groups: labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, feminists and ivory tower academics advocating more centralized government.

In a way, the central political battle today is still the same one that was being fought in the 18th century. How much authority and control will the government (then a monarch and/or church, now a rather large federal administration with ever-growing spy technology and coercive power over its citizens) have versus how much liberty will the individual have? Whichever side you choose, it is essentially a leap of faith—either in the benevolence of those in power or in the behavior of individuals.

Either way, it is faith in the individual and distrust of a powerful government that make some within the conservative spectrum think (probably correctly) that they are now the true liberals, in the classical sense of the word.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Being Liberal-minded

When I went to France as a student in the 1970s, there were things that surprised or confused me. For example, why was the coffee so much stronger and why did that make it taste so much better?

One particular thing that confused me was the way the French and English languages could have words that were exactly the same but which meant totally different things. Like the way in English the verb derange meant to cause someone to go insane but in French it meant to merely bother someone.

Another word that had profoundly different meanings was liberal. In my own experience, it described someone who always thought that taxes and government spending were too low. When I took a class in France that touched on economic topics, it became clear that it had a totally different meaning in Europe. It described someone who thought that the government should stay out of the economy as much as possible.

So how did the Latin word liberalis (meaning courteous, generous, gentlemanly and which was based on the word liber, which meant free) evolve to be spelled the same in English and French (and other contemporary languages) and yet be understood so differently from one to the other? Or, for that matter, how has the word come to be understood so differently from one English-speaking person to another? It’s all very confusing. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Liberalism can be first identified as a distinct philosophical or political movement in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, i.e. the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a rejection of hereditary privilege, state religion and the divine right of kings. John Locke, oft cited as the founder of the movement, argued that governments should not violate human rights, which he identified as life, liberty and property. These were the ideas that fueled the American and French revolutions and led to monarchical governments in Europe and America being replaced by republican ones.

Linguistically, the word liberal started getting massaged in the late 19th century. In the context of the Industrial Age a group of British thinkers, who came to be called New Liberals, argued that liberty was of little use unless governments could provide favorable social and economic conditions. Depending on your point of view, New Liberals either took liberalism to the next logical step or they weren’t liberals at all but rather proponents of a kind of socialism. In America, New Liberalism was manifested in the labor union movement and the New Deal. Concurrent with that was what has come to be called Modern Liberalism, which incorporated the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes and aspires to economic equality in society, i.e. the welfare state.

Over time in the U.S., the word “liberal,” as a political label, seems to have defaulted to Modern Liberals. Americans seem to universally understand the word to refer to the political legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Over time the term has also incorporated other causes like civil rights and environmentalism. In other words, this meaning of liberalism can be considered to be pretty much the opposite of its original meaning of limited government.

This change in language is also reflected in the use of the word “right” (as in human right). The original liberal philosophers understood rights to be restrictions on government. For example, the thrust of the U.S. Bill of Rights is pretty much summed up by the beginning words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…” Modern liberals have a different understanding of the word “right,” asserting that benefits like minimum income and health should be considered rights.

A funny thing happened in the late 20th century. Around the time of the conservative ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, the word “liberal” came to be seen as a pejorative. Conservatives were surprisingly successful at defining the term rhetorically to mean someone who is not a “real American,” who is soft on defense and who wastes public money. Even more surprisingly, many liberal politicians began to back away from the label. Some elected to describe themselves as “moderates” or—harking back to a reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that variously took in such politicians William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt—“progressives.” The word liberal has recovered somewhat since the Reagan days, but “progressive” has persisted as a synonym or more populist variant of “liberal.”

So “liberal” in America today generally means Modern Liberal, which is very different than a Classical Liberal, which was the original understanding of the word. Then what are we to make of the word “conservative” in today’s political context, since it originally referred to someone who supported traditional institutions like monarchy and a state church?

I think the most timeless—and best—definitions of these terms was provided in 1911 by the very witty Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary:

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.