Commentary recently asked a group of 64 intellectuals: Are you satisfied with the way terms like liberal and conservative, or…
With certain issues raised by the presidential elections—but also with a broader context—in mind, COMMENTARY recently addressed the following questions to a group of American intellectuals of varying political views:
- Are you satisfied with the way terms like liberal and conservative, or Left and Right, are used today?
- If not, how do you think these terms should be used? If so, how do you deal with the fact that many positions which used to be called liberal are now called conservative (for example, support for economic growth or opposition to quota systems) and others which used to be called conservative are now called liberal (for example, support for decentralization or opposition to big government)?
- Does it matter how these terms are used? Why?
The responses—sixty-four in all—appear below in alphabetical order.
Lionel Abel: According to contemporary Marxist theory, at least as sophisticated by the Frankfurt School, Spätkapitalismus, “late capitalism,” is the right descriptive term for the mixed economies now extant in Western Europe and the United States. We are living not so much under a “state capitalist” as under a “late capitalist” regime. And thus it is we often seem to be suffering from the ills of both capitalism and socialism. On the other hand, we benefit, and this is too often forgotten, from the advantages of both systems. But in any case, if late capitalism is indeed the proper name for the system under which we live, then should not the qualification “late” also be applied to the various political options we can take under this system? Does not any liberalism, addressed to present circumstance, have to be a late liberalism? Certainly the liberalism of free-market days hardly applies in a market as circumscribed as ours. And what about conservatism? An up-to-date conservatism, actually capable of conserving anything, surely must take account of actual circumstances. It too must take a look at the historical clock; it will not be entirely determined by what was once desirable, but is now no longer possible. And leftists today know—or ought to know—that they are, and have to be, late leftists, however youthful they may have been when coming on the historical scene. Stalinists of many and sundry descriptions are nowadays in the main late Stalinists. Some of them indicate as much by denying they are Stalinists; others do so by calling themselves Maoists. So we arrive at this provisional conclusion: under late capitalism, not everybody is a capitalist or in favor of capitalism, but everybody is late, and has to be late, as a liberal, as a conservative, as a leftist, as a Stalinist.
Let us see how liberalism, conservatism, and leftism—Stalinism we need not take up here—differ today from what they once were; I shall compare their present with their past approaches to some problems still before us, looking at their changed focus on questions which have recently become acute: the problem of Communist participation in Western European governments allied with NATO, court-ordered busing to end de facto segregation, and the ever-pressing, nagging problem of wide-scale unemployment. If there are differences between liberalism late and early, conservatism late and early, leftism late and early, such differences should appear in the changing judgments made from these viewpoints with respect to the problems mentioned.
Without having examined all of the facts, one conclusion already suggests itself: late liberalism may well have much more in common with late conservatism than early liberalism could have had with early conservatism. Similarly, late liberalism may have much less in common with late leftism than early liberalism could have had with early leftism. Suppose these anticipated conclusions hold; it would mean there has been an erosion of realities and values the early positions of liberalism, conservatism, and leftism were formulated to defend. We can now understand why there was such difficulty in using the terms liberal and conservative with any real precision during the presidential primaries this year. Evidently Congressman Udall felt this to be the case, for he did not want to call himself a liberal, though he did want people who called themselves liberals, and who wanted to call him a liberal, to rally to his side. And he begged such people not to support Governor Carter, who had been called a conservative. As for Governor Carter, he succeeded in the primaries with a blatant disregard for the meanings liberal and conservative had formerly had for Democrats. In fact, the Democrats still do not know the political faith of the man who is their presidential candidate (everybody does know the religious denomination to which he belongs).
But let us come back to the matter of how some problems of this period are judged by the different political doctrines in their early and late expressions. I shall start with the problem of unemployment.
Early liberalism and late liberalism are alike in their objective of getting men and women who are unemployed back to work. But I believe early liberalism did not think of the private sector as having any need to be protected from government. Late liberalism does recognize such a need. It does not want the government to take workers out of the private sector, and it does not want the government to treat the private sector as anarchic, checking or inhibiting its enterprise. The problem of dealing with unemployment today is conceived very differently by the liberal from the way in which he thought about it two or three decades ago. The late liberal knows that the matter of job creation has to be thought out in every detail, with the greatest scrupulosity, including a care for each item of expense, and all this in a way that might well satisfy the staunchest conservative.
For in fact late conservatives do not now have to be against the policy of opening government jobs to people on the labor market. Arthur Burns has already conceded that the old conservative argument for continuing unemployment—that it would bring down inflation—no longer holds. But this judgment, coming from Arthur Burns, who is surely conservative, is nothing less than a condemnation of early conservatism. The concern of the late conservative has to be that jobs opened to the unemployed by the government should be jobs in fact as well as in name, and in this attitude he is unlikely to find himself opposed by late liberals.
What about leftism, early and late? Early leftists never believed that the problem of mass unemployment could be solved under this system. They pointed to the unemployed with alarm, urging that the system be changed. Late leftists, however, do not take the view that the system can be changed radically, They stress their own impotence here, something early leftists never did. This feeling of powerlessness has, I think, increased the hate content of leftist utterances. Now even the rather professorial and mild-mannered Norman Birnbaum talks like a member of the “I-Hate-America” club. We are now a backward country, he tells us in the Massachusetts Review. Why are we today a backward country? Because the Communist party of the United States is not beating at the gates of political power, as it is in Italy, where, should it be admitted, it will have to turn to the backward United States of America for aid. Why do latter-day leftists in general feel impotent? As their numbers increase, their horizons narrow. The Communist parties of France and Italy—the two most important Communist parties in Western Europe—can neither take power by armed rebellion nor win majority opinion to their side. In Italy, the question this last June was not whether the Communists could set up a Communist government, but whether they would be allowed to participate, in return for a promise not to behave as Communists, in a government of the Left and Center. The ability of the mixed economies of the late capitalist states of Western Europe and America to handle many of the problems it was once assumed that only a socialist program could solve, is, I should say, the cause of leftist weakness, and also the cause of what now especially programs and characterizes it—that is to say, hate.
Herbert Marcuse, during the 60’s, tried to stimulate and justify leftist hatred of modern late capitalism; against it, he claimed, any attack on the part of the proletariat, if, indeed, it had the capacity to launch such attacks, was simply bound to fail. But did this mean that there was anything good to be said about modern late capitalism? By no means. But was it not liberal in outlook and prospects? Didn’t it both allow and encourage civil liberties? So it appeared; but, claimed Marcuse, this was only an appearance. The vaunted civil liberties promoted in our modern Western states were in reality the subtlest form of mass domination by the few. Marcuse even went so far as to say that the expression of interest in sex in contemporary writing was in fact a subtle form of controlling and even inhibiting its expression.
If Marcuse was right, and there were a great many people, not all of them stupid, who thought that he was, then hatred was right and proper, violent hatred even, of a system so deceptive, so brutal, and so successful as ours. During the 60’s, people who expressed such hatred were in fact often loved. Today, though, one may well question whether such hatred was based on true, or merely tendentious, judgments. At the present time, however, this question is not being raised, and literary men are taking over the love of hating. And anyway, hating seems more appropriate in literature than any purely intellectual genres. Recently I’ve come across a play by one of the more talented of the younger English playwrights, Trevor Griffiths. The play, The Comedians, may be done here next year. In it, class hatred is openly held up for admiration. Four men of working-class background who have been students at a kind of professional school for comics conducted by a former great, run through their routines before a hiring agent. Two are hired, but the most brilliant is not. Why? Because, says the once great comic in charge of the school, the most brilliant of the four is still not funny enough, and this is because his routine is full of hate. But the apprentice replies that the master is now no longer capable of creating comedy himself. This is why he is now a teacher. At the outset of his career, when he was in fact great in comedy, his routines were inspired by class hatred. The image of the performer who is superior and unsuccessful because of his thorough hatred for society is, I think, a rather deeply felt image of the modern leftist who has read the clock of history and who knows how late his leftness is.
On the matter of unemployment, the late leftist can have little in common with late conservatives or late liberals. Can he at least share something with early leftists? Not very much. Early leftists did not hate the system when unemployment became widespread. You do not hate what you feel you are able to change. I do not of course mean that early leftists liked unemployment. They disliked it, to be sure, but what they disliked they felt could help them. Late leftists, who cannot like unemployment, do not believe, all the same, they can be helped by it. Hence, hate.
Late liberals are likely to be much less enthusiastic about forced busing than early liberals were. For early liberalism, the issue was that black children should be able to attend neighborhood schools; this is not the issue in 1976. The issue today is whether white children are to be bused to schools outside their neighborhoods and which their parents do not want them to attend. There is a further issue today, namely: is it proper under a democratic system to bring about school desegregation by court decrees? On this matter, conservatives late and early were openly critical, and now liberals have begun to be. In the New York Times for June 24, 1976, the liberal columnist William V. Shannon condemns the decrees of Judge Garrity of Boston, describing his qualities of zeal and ambition as “suspect in a judge.” The condemnation by Shannon of Garrity’s decrees, and also of the school situation which resulted from them, is as strong as anything we have heard on this issue from late conservatives, and it is is backed up by an admirable quotation from Edmund Burke, that fountain-head of conservative thinking. Surely there is evidence here of some convergence of the late liberal and late conservative views.
Early leftists, thinking it might bring an end to hatred, thought of busing as a means. Late leftists, expecting hatred will continue, now think of busing as itself an end—they defend it, not for the good that is to come of it, but because it is the “law.”
Finally, there is the matter of Communists in power in Western European governments, for example, the government of Italy. Early liberals certainly would have opposed any such eventuality; but late liberals may see, in an Italian government in which the Communists play a responsible role, a historical exit of Communism as an independent political force on the Western European scene. And late conservatives, if they are intelligent—and there is no historical law which says they cannot be—may expect an Italian government in which Communists participate to raise as many problems for the Soviet Union as for the United States. So here too there can be a coming together of late liberal and late conservative views. Not every conservative is Ronald Reagan.
Early leftists would have welcomed Communists in the government of a Western European nation as promising the end of capitalism. Late leftists may well see in any such dispensation an end to promising anything socially: even with Communists in government, the mixed economy seems here to stay. We seem to have come to the end of all glorious endings; finally, there is to be no final conflict.
From which I deduce that late liberals and late conservatives can share certain limited goals, and need not always think of themselves as very far apart. On the other hand, both late conservatives and late liberals can have very little in common with late leftists. Can the leftist who is up-to-date at least feel that he has something in common with leftists who are now completely out-of-date? Can the late leftist even enter into conversation with the early leftist he once was or might have been? I think not. The pat positions of the one will be paradoxes to the other. Think of a present-day “I-hate-America” leftist trying to converse with the mildest non-party Browderite of the 30’s, who might very well say, along with Comrade Earl, “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.”
Elliott Abrams: In the last few presidential campaigns, the terms liberal and conservative have been robbed of their historical meanings. These labels are used today simply as weapons in political power struggles.
The misuse of the term liberal is at the heart of the problem. For several decades, and until the late 60’s, the term connoted a political position which emphasized individual liberty as the highest political value. To American liberals, the concept included not only political liberty but elementary social justice, so that the American goal of equality of opportunity might be fulfilled. Only when civil liberties were respected and equal opportunity provided could the individual truly be free and in control of his own life. Today’s argument about big government is, among liberals, a very difficult one precisely because big government is both a means of achieving social justice and a threat to individual liberty. Fidelity to liberal principles does not resolve this problem.
There is one fundamental issue, however, which fidelity to liberal principles does resolve—the issue of America’s role in resisting totalitarianism around the world.
Not surprisingly, liberals have traditionally viewed totalitarianism as the gravest threat to liberty; and not surprisingly, liberals have believed that since America was free and was the strongest of the free nations, on it fell the burden of championing the cause of liberty.
In the 60’s, however, what is now known as the New Politics movement arose, fueled by opposition to the war in Vietnam. Since its adherents often were, and are, former liberals, they still lay claim to the liberal label, although they dispute some of the central tenets of American liberalism. They have transformed the longstanding liberal concern for protecting civil liberties and ending racism into a belief that America is a racist, repressive society. And they have concluded that since Americans are themselves not “truly” free, America cannot be the champion of liberty.
But the New Politics view was not simply that America was not so good a society; at the time, the view became widespread that antagonistic political systems were really not so bad. Since Communists proclaim their adherence to the traditional liberal values of freedom and social justice, some portions of the liberal community have never clearly understood that Communist totalitarianism is in fact as much an enemy of liberty as is fascist totalitarianism. Thus, for decades, many well-meaning liberals refused to acknowledge the true nature of the Stalinist regime; thus, today, one can still hear it suggested that since Communist societies have national health insurance and (allegedly) no unemployment, it is difficult to say whether workers there are not “really” better off than workers here. This outlook, which was marked as a splinter view by the dismal failure of the Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, reappeared in the later 60’s and early 70’s as a sufficiently potent political force to seek control of the Democratic party and, indeed, in 1972, of the White House.
Precisely why this particular political view gained so markedly in popularity at just that time is not clear, but two factors surely deserve note. First, intense opposition to the Vietnam war led many to believe that a policy they thought evil could only be the product of an evil society. Second, the rapid growth of cultural relativism and the loss of the religious faith which underlay American political values, have eroded the belief that America’s political ideal—liberty—is of transcendent importance.
The traditional liberal view that the distinctions between, say, Soviet society and our own are obvious and are not only political but moral in character, has been rejected.
In rejecting the absolute primacy of liberty as a political value—and in becoming, in some cases, outright apologists for the denial of liberty—the New Politics forces left liberalism far behind. The sole tie between the New Politics view and traditional American liberalism is the fact that most New Politics enthusiasts are former liberals (if they are old enough to be former any things). Those who do not share these new “liberal” views are, of course, called—what else?—conservatives. This label is applied by the New Politics forces, who mean it as a criticism and use it as a weapon, and by the cadres of the media, who either share the New Politics outlook or are entirely ignorant of the historical meaning of liberalism in America.
Does any of this matter? After all, recognition of a political leader as a great liberal or a great conservative has not traditionally been of much value to him. The Eisenhower victory over Mr. Conservative, Robert Taft, and for that matter the Carter victory this year, are evidence that success may go to those who escape the liberal and conservative tags.
However, the misuse of the term liberal to describe the New Politics forces and the labeling of traditional liberal views as conservative, do matter. For the historical traditions of American liberalism are now being used to legitimize a political position which is antithetical to it and which, without the identification with the liberal tradition, would be weaker. What is at stake here is the legitimacy of rival claims to follow in and to embody the main Democratic party tradition. It is not simply a matter of semantics; like all politics, it is a struggle for power.
Jervis Anderson: It is true, as you suggest in your questionnaire, that the terms liberal and conservative are used rather loosely today. It is also true that certain positions once associated mainly with conservatives have lately found favor among liberals, and vice versa. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that a measure of confusion now exists in many minds over who can rightly be called liberal and who, conservative. I hope I do not surprise you too much by saying that I myself have managed to avoid being confused. This is because my own standards of definition are broad and resilient enough to sustain occasional deviations; because I realize that the apparent ideological confusions we are now witnessing have occurred a number of times in the past; and because, especially where liberals are concerned, I do not find these developments at all astonishing. I offer at least three explanations of what I mean.
- A lot may depend upon what motivates liberals and conservatives to adopt positions that are not in harmony with the history or the background of their social beliefs. In many cases, it may simply be that they have seen in these positions a new opportunity to pursue old interests. For example, the advocacy by liberals of decentralization and quotas is, indeed, problematic. It creates almost as many problems for liberals as it solves. Not the least of the problems it creates is this: suddenly called into question are both the consistency of the liberal belief in centralized administration and the integrity of what liberals have always said about the more desirable ways of achieving equality. The latter end of this wicket is probably the more sticky, because the espousal of anything resembling preferential treatment undermines the general principle of equality. However, when liberals are found taking such positions, it is often because they are stirred by plight, and are acting out of a need to remedy or correct problems which do not respond to conventional methods of solution. Conversely, when the conservatives advocate decentralization or oppose quotas, it is frequently because they are insensitive to plight, hostile to the social objectives of centralized administrations, and indifferent to the need for redress. In other words, the hand may at times be Esau’s, while the voice is still Jacob’s.
- The liberal persuasion has always seemed to accommodate fairly wide shadings of social outlook; has always seemed unable to resist the challenge of untested possibilities; and, as a result, has always lent itself to a good deal of risk and experimentation. When one looks at some of the more admirable traditions and achievements in American history, politics, and literature, one can only be thankful that the liberal idea has always yielded to risk and moral adventure. On the other hand, the ruins of many of its good intentions are by no means hard to find. And yet, the mistakes and failures of liberalism—as it has sought to translate itself into public policy—are almost worth celebrating, for they were consequences of some of its most appealing traits: its openness to a diversity of progressive dispositions; its willingness to undertake uncertain searches for uncertain answers; and its awareness, as Lionel Trilling once said, of “complexity and difficulty.”
- Historically, the behavior of liberals and conservatives has not been as consistently orthodox as we may wish to believe. These days it is mostly conservatives who are fighting to place limits upon government power, but there was a time in the past when it was mostly liberals who were doing so. The Liberal party in England, as Flora Lewis reported in the New York Times some months ago, “is for decentralization and individualism, but considers itself more humane and compassionate than the Conservatives.” And Walter Lippmann once reminded us that “The Tory party in Great Britain introduced political democracy into the British Constitution. Bismarck established social insurance in Germany. Theodore Roosevelt brought the railroads under regulation; and Wood-row Wilson, aided and abetted by William Jennings Bryan, presided over the making of the Federal Reserve System, which is now regarded by many conservatives as sacrosanct.”
All of this brings me back to the spirit of your first two questions. Am I satisfied with the way the terms liberal and conservative are used today—in light of the ideologically contradictory positions being adopted within both camps? Because of my own standards of definition, I must reply that I am neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. What are these standards? When I try to perceive today who is liberal and who is conservative, it is not the occasional points at which ideological positions merge or blur that I take chiefly into account. It is whether, despite certain apparent contradictions, those who call themselves liberal and those who call themselves conservative may still be seen to be upholding the central moral values and tendencies of their faiths.
Because I believe that it is the ultimate moral differences between liberal and conservative commitment that really count—and because I am inclined to wait and see who, in the end, remains available for a defense of what is decisive to liberal and conservative conviction—I believe it matters how the terms liberal and conservative are used, or how I use these terms. What are some of these ultimate differences? I cannot sustain this point unless I also describe what, in my mind, are some of the ultimate differences between the two outlooks.
I would say that conservatives are not persuaded, on the whole, that humane ideals should influence the conduct of those who manage public affairs. Left to themselves, they would probably repeal the Bill of Rights and the philosophical premises of the American Revolution. They do not believe it is the duty of government to create what have been called “civilizing opportunities” for the general population. And their conduct, in government or in private, is more often shaped by their social irritabilities than by their social concern. Liberals look forward to making life somewhat more tolerable, somewhat more civilized, somewhat more just, and somewhat more decent for the general society. Their undertakings in the area of public policy are often animated by compassion and the instinct for redress. It is their conviction that social goals should be pursued democratically. They believe that government is the most effective instrument for providing the conditions under which social problems can be solved; and that civil liberties, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are indispensable to the survival of a civilized community. Finally, even when many liberals do not realize it, they belong to a tradition which, as Irving Howe has said, draws deeply upon “the political promise of democratic socialism” and “the ethical substance” of Christianity and the Old Testament.
Josiah Lee Auspitz: An important truth about partisan labels is to be found in Gulliver’s account of the politics of Lilliput, where the rival factions at court were distinguished by the high and low heels on their shoes. To agitate the body politic the king had only to alter his own heels the merest fraction of an inch. His son, the heir to the throne, careful to keep his options open, wore one high heel and one low heel, which made him walk with a hobble.
Gulliver also records an earlier and less tractable dispute between the Big-endians and the Small-endians, so named from the method of cutting open their morning egg. Six armed rebellions had raged over which end of the egg should stand upright in a cup, and the losing faction, its books banned from Lilliput, continued to foment subversion from exile in the rival kingdom.
That the egg controversy led to civil war, while the heel issue remained political, conveys a lesson. With the height of heels it is always a matter of degree, whereas for the end of an egg one must definitively opt. Peaceful is the land in which the eristical questions are those of more and less rather than those of either/or.
By this test, Americans can be grateful for partisan terms like Left and Right, liberal and conservative, that permit a reasonable man to hobble. Instead of demanding logical consistency in the positions which opportunity may commend to the two sides, we should give thanks for the simple fact that there are two sides, each resourceful enough to assure a shifting middle ground. The alternative, after all, is a politics preoccupied with “objective” and unbridgeable categories of race, religion, language, tribe, region, and class. Better the quaint designations of the early Girondist and mid-Victorian periods than the unadorned and frozen hatreds of contemporary Lebanon, Cyprus, Cuba, Nigeria, Cambodia, Rhodesia, Argentina, and the Sudan.
American political labels share a second advantage with those of Lilliput: they give the intelligentsia something to be agitated about. Social scientists can busy themselves correlating statistical indices of left- and right-wingedness; historians, reading the labels backward into the past, can hunt for precursors; journalists can be struck voluble affixing these terms to new electoral moods. And each of us in our own lives can identify impulses that we choose to call radical, moderate, liberal, or conservative, and can thus feel our humble struggles reflected in the Olympian maneuvers of high politics. If all this sounds more diverting than profound, consider the alternatives. Consider how minds devoted to the scholasticism of power might otherwise occupy themselves.
A third advantage is more peculiarly American, for the use of ideological markers helps to correct a deficiency in our Constitution. Aside from the President, we have no officials elected at large (and under the electoral-college system even the President plans his campaign not to win a direct national mandate but to assemble localized majorities in a coalition of states). Yet in an increasingly national polity merely geographical representation cannot suffice. It must be supplemented with non-territorial and proportional devices. Talk of a one-dimensional, European-style, Left-Right spectrum has facilitated one such adaptation. A Senator, for example, whose abilities exceed the meager resources of a small state like Arizona, South Dakota, or Idaho can find a larger constituency by becoming the spokesman for a national left- or right-wing movement. Voters who are in a permanent minority in their state or district can then look to such a representative as their own.
Under the banners of liberalism and conservatism there have, in fact, assembled not only officeholders but political infrastructures, complete with publications, youth organizations, think tanks, citizen-action groups, and acquired places in universities, foundations, corporations, and news media. Such factional groupings enjoy a greater purity of purpose than the Republican and Democratic parties and operate without many of the legal and tax disabilities. To the extent that the terms liberal and conservative have any concrete referent in American politics, it is to these elite networks and to the issues their members choose to emphasize.
In the past generation, the most familiar issues have reflected material interests—with the Right favoring free enterprise and the Left the cause of labor and the welfare state. But such lines of cleavage have been unsettled by the increasing number of citizens who seek moral rather than economic forms of patronage from government (and who, recent studies show, now rival business and labor as sources of political funding). At the same time, accommodations among government, corporate, academic, and union leaders have removed many economic questions from the political to the managerial sphere and have changed others from class to sectional conflicts. The simultaneous growth of corporatism among our leaders and civism among our people has robbed the old labels of their saliency.
Yet it is perhaps the most important advantage of our catchwords that they point beyond themselves, in a way that makes them open to reinterpretation. They convey intimations of profundity that invite historical and philosophical reflection. They thus set us on a road that leads out of Lilliput, beyond the merely disputatious aspects of our politics to the larger considerabilities from which we can gain rootedness and perspective.
Traveling this road even a short distance, we soon come to see America as the carrier of a powerful idea of freedom, with respect to which we are all liberals, all conservatives, all radicals, all moderates.
It is to the humane ideal of self-determination itself and to the magnanimity of spirit befitting the free citizen that the noble term “liberal” is properly applied. Those measures are liberal which extend the conditions of human freedom. Since these conditions are in part material, liberalism has naturally come to demand limits not only on government but on those uses of private property that inhibit the positive exercise of citizenship. (Slavery is the most dramatic example, but by no means an isolated one.)
Preserving the prerequisites to a regime of freedom is, for its part, a “conservative” project. Even the most rudimentary procedural justice is impossible without habits of rectitude inculcated outside politics. We are all conservatives to the extent that we seek to safeguard the deeper moral habits on which liberty depends and to defend against criminality and aggression the social order in which these mores inhere.
There is, moreover, a “radical” thrust to all this. For what is being conserved in America is something more than classical liberalism, with its implicit reliance on the restraining role of a stable aristocracy. America is dedicated to the proposition of universal equality: that all human beings have equal rights to a voice in their own governance. The principle supports demands for democratization not only in government but in the workplace, the church, the school, even the family.
The American concept of equality also contains the grounds for the “moderation” of its own radicalism: for it holds men equal not only in liberty but in depravity and fallibility—in the potential to abuse any power that they gain. Hence every exercise of power must be carefully balanced, checked and hemmed in by rules. We may have a “democratic” ideal but our moderate instincts tell us to express it through “republican” institutions.
There is, in sum, no necessary contradiction among the several tendencies in the American political tradition. But there is inevitable conflict. For those aspects of an ideal that the political philosopher sees as complementary have their practical limits established by partisan struggle. So, though we may all be liberals and conservatives, radicals and moderates, democrats and republicans, it is only human that we should designate ourselves as one or the other. And as the politics of Lilliput remind us, it is only prudent.
William Barrett: The country is indeed sliding away from liberal/ conservative stereotypes, but toward what? Much has been made of a general drift toward conservatism, but this movement, real enough, has to be qualified by another fact that hasn’t been so well noticed. The most conservative of the candidates in the primaries, Ronald Reagan, was not so conservative as Goldwater in 1964. Indeed, that year, ’64, may well mark the last time that any candidate was able to attack the idea of welfare as such; and in fact Goldwater could not maintain the position throughout his campaign. Henceforth, the welfare state is a permanent part of our political and social life, and the only quarrel among politicians will be over the question of administering it.
But the hard facts of administration do not kindle ideological fires. Democratic capitalism, plus the welfare state, certainly looks like a more efficacious and safe way to realize what we used fondly to call our “socialist ideals.” All the historical facts point that way, but they are not likely to be heeded. I expect intellectual debate will become much more polarized around the question of socialism. In any case, the crypto-socialists among liberals will have to come out of the closet.
For my generation, liberalism was a secondary issue to socialism. As young Marxists, we looked down on liberals as wishy-washy and uncommitted, though they might occasionally be useful as allies. Later, when we were anti-Stalinists, the liberals had become enemies because they were deliberately concealing the facts about the Soviet Union. Surely this must be accounted one of the more bizarre chapters of liberal history. They did not become socialists when they had their chance; and thereafter, out of some obscure sense of atonement, defended the most illiberal of regimes because it claimed to be socialist.
What we now know as the liberal establishment emerged later. (Yes, it exists; no, it is not an organization or conspiracy, but a pervasive climate of opinion, and no less potent for that.) Most of those who move within the establishment never encountered Marxism or the Russian Revolution as live issues. They know all about the Soviet dictatorship, of course, but would rather not think about it, and therefore dislike Solzhenitsyn. Why can’t the man shut up? But history returns to plague us in the questions we have not thought through. Hence the liberal yearning, the eager will to believe that, if not in Russia, then elsewhere one of the latter manifestations of Communism will indeed be the Second Coming.
At the moment Italian Communism is the particular pet of some liberals. Television recently gave it a special show, which illustrated among other things the powers of distortion and of truth peculiar to the visual media. Fast and slick cuts made life in Bologna look like one gay whirl. (It is, in fact, one of the more stolid and dull of the Italian cities.) But the revealing moment was an interview with the mayor in his office. Speaking directly into the camera, he explained in labored but accurate English that the West had nothing to fear from Italian Communism, that this Communism was indeed different, and believed in political democracy and civil liberties. Behind him on the wall—and here the camera could tell its own truth—was a life-sized picture of Lenin.
Imagine a neo-fascist party that wins attention by its efficient organization and social concern. Its leader explains to us that this is a very different fascism from the past because it supports liberty and democracy. While he is talking, we are looking at a life-sized photo of Adolf Hitler on the wall behind him.
Would we believe him?
It is easy to promise liberty before you have the instruments of power in your hands. Easier still when your ideology has never given thought to the political problem of limiting power. Under socialism the people own the means of production. Who then owns the owners? Neither Marx nor Lenin faced this question. Marxism has a view of history and a sociology, but no political philosophy: no theory that deals with the problem of power as such, in its various modes and above all the mode of limiting it. Why should it? Political institutions, after all, were only the superstructure for vested interests. Make the revolution, establish collective ownership, and there is nothing to worry about. If men were angels, Madison observed, they would not have to worry about the forms of government. Lenin decided we were angels, and announced that the state would wither away. And no one is more ruthless than a utopian when he has the reins of power in his hands. The Russian Revolution didn’t go off the road; it ran right along the tracks of the theory. The evil was at the root of Marxism itself.
Capitalism too has its own evils, which probably annoy us more because we see ourselves in them; but we are not obliged to love it. The corporations are greedy; they will chisel, gouge, and generally be as corrupt as they can get away with. So will organized labor, but I don’t find that an argument for abolishing unions. Better to pit one form of corruption (power) against another, while we on the sidelines are free to bitch about both. To strike a sobering note amid our bicentennial exuberance, we might recall that our American legacy also includes that profound piece of political theory, Federalist 51, in which Madison argues for the separation of powers just on these grounds of the corrupt tendencies of human nature. And he was worried about limitations of power merely within government, while the economic sector and private property were to be left unfettered. To consolidate all power, economic and political, is a step that must inevitably be fatal to liberty.
But if I am conservative about the political forms of our liberty, I think we can be much bolder within their framework. So I am not altogether happy with conservatives either. We owe neoconservative intellectuals a debt for having rediscovered classical political theory. That is a considerable step beyond our Marxist generation. But sometimes they give me the impression that they are content merely to sit on their discovery.
Robert L. Bartley: The language is full of words that are tricky to define in isolation but totally untroublesome in context. Are you satisfied with the way terms like bright and dull are used in contemporary discourse? The knife is bright; the knife is dull.
Despite the trickiness of defining a liberal or conservative position on this or that issue, I do not find the words troublesome in context. If in the context of contemporary discourse I am told that someone has become more liberal or more conservative, the statement seems to me to have a rough but reasonably reliable meaning. Certainly it does not leave me in the utter bafflement I feel when people continue to describe themselves as socialists even after sad experience has disabused them of belief in government ownership of the means of production.
It’s futile to try to fix a living language along any single axis, but for me at least the liberal-conservative distinction has a historical core that endures today. At the heart the issue is epistemological. Does one learn primarily from theory, or primarily from experience?
The liberal temperament has always been to seek some grand abstraction from which all else flows, with which all else can be ordered. To take the historical examples, Rousseau had his State of Nature and his General Will, Bentham had the Utility Principle and his “Felicific Calculus.”
For the contrasting conservative temperament, listen to Burke: “Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence.”
Thus, “Politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature, of which reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.” The British Constitution was not “struck out at an heat by a set of presumptuous men,” but “is the result of the thoughts of many minds in many ages.” And, “The whole scheme of our mixed Constitution is to prevent any one of its principles from being carried as far as, taken by itself, and theoretically, it would go.”
Much becomes clear if you apply this historical distinction to contemporary liberalism and conservatism. That is, if you think of the distinction not in terms of social or political programs, but primarily in terms of a clash between two epistemological temperaments.
In particular, the fickleness of the liberals’ political program is best understood as the result of their search for the philosophers’ stone. One week the prescription is vinegar and molasses, but if constantly increasing doses of that fail to turn society and human nature into gold, the next week the prescription will be changed to sulphur and oil of vitriol. It is not the prescription that matters but the search.
Thus, if equality under the law does not solve all racial problems, the liberal feels compelled to press for something new, like quotas. If economic growth does not lead to the perfect society, the prescription becomes an end to growth. If centralization doesn’t work miracles, maybe decentralization will. If internationalism doesn’t bring peace to the world, isolationism must be the answer.
As one would expect from the underlying temperament, the conservative position is far less volatile. Conservatives who argued for less government yesterday do not argue for more government today. But their position does evolve, particularly in response to experience. Some of the liberals’ abstractions are indeed necessary in the trial and error through which progress is made. Now and again one of them will actually work out in experience, and accordingly will be absorbed into the conservative position.
The best historic example is found in the abstractions offered by Adam Smith. For nearly two centuries adherents to The Wealth of Nations were called liberals; in Continental Europe they still are today. But in contemporary U.S. discourse, Smith’s followers are called conservatives. They follow proven experience, while the liberals have marched off to a tune of a newer abstraction, the Keynesian multiplier. This elegant abstraction has the advantage of fitting nicely into computers, though it is having a bit of trouble explaining the simultaneous unemployment and inflation of the latest business cycle.
Finally, yes, it does matter how these terms are used today. Their usage causes great personal anguish to people who recognize that in recent years liberal abstractions have been pushed to silly extremes, who correctly see the conservative temperament as all the more needed in the hectic society we are increasingly becoming, but who learned at mother’s breast that liberals are the good guys.
Now, this was not a bad lesson to learn for someone growing up before 1954. Joe McCarthy was not a very attractive fellow, and he seemed to have all conservatives bullied (though he never would have existed if liberals had faced up to Alger Hiss’s guilt). Conservatives so often seemed to defend vested interests, seeking personal advancement. Most importantly, a great piece of national reform remained to be done, and conservatism had been appropriated as a cover for segregationism. Naturally, a man of sensibility and wit was attracted to the liberal side.
Much has changed since 1954. Great progress has been made on the racial issue, and I know of no conservative who would like to go backward. Indeed, with racial quotas liberals have once again pushed a single idea too far. Conservatives have done a far better job of containing their extremists than the liberals have in containing theirs. The liberals have developed an anti-establishment establishmentarianism that shows that no ideology has a monopoly on pettiness, small-mindedness, or intolerance. The self-seeking programs of the New Class show that liberals have their own vested interests.
It may be too much to contend that the same qualities of sensibility and wit that pushed in the liberal direction in 1954 push in the opposite one today. But someone whose political feelings were not fixed by that date will not find a strong association between ideology and such personal qualities as intelligence, moderation, and open-mindedness. If one has to be something today, the term conservative is nothing to fear.
David T. Bazelon: The current use of the word liberal just sort of happened. Nobody thought it out ahead of time. So far from making historical sense, the 19th-century liberal—out of John Stuart Mill, perhaps—would today be called a true conservative. This inversion, however, may be appropriate, to honor the rushing passage of time. But certainly it is additionally unhelpful in finding one’s way in and around an already messy political situation.
The mess in America begins, I suggest, with the Mugwumps and other agents of citizen disappointment in the fulfillment of the Big Ideas of the Fathers. They set some elements of a pattern which has persisted; perhaps they initiated the departure from the definitions of classical liberalism. From the Mugwumps to the Progressives, civil-service reform was The Issue for a full generation, although I suspect that the low-grade, off-the-street character of the big capitalist winners was as obnoxious—certainly as contrary to the Fathers’ vision of the Republic—as the irresponsible office-filling of politicians, in the manner of Jackson’s men, and the grandiose thieving of Grant’s servitors. The Progressives added clean elections to the agenda, and even held hands with Populist trust-busting. But underneath, they just didn’t cotton to immigrants. Especially the recent ones who made money and won elections.
On the subject of how American liberalism happened, the foregoing merely presaged the New Deal. That was the big event that matured the special meanings we are now discussing. (Incidentally, Roosevelt—the prime mover—was much concerned to collect as many Progressives as he could: e.g., Harold Ickes.) I don’t recall the word being used much in earlier writing the way it comes to be used thereafter. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to have been an important word at all—just something like “a man of liberal views” occasionally, meaning cultural as much as political. (And the word in that phrase might as readily have been “advanced” or “progressive,” suggesting a happy belief in scientific progress.) What distinguishes the word in and after the New Deal period is that it quickly became very important indeed. Let’s say, dominant.
The Stalinists never liked the word. (Remember “confused liberal”?) Under Popular Front duress, they preferred “Progressive” and even “Forward-Looking Social Forces.”
One big reason, maybe the main reason, the word has had so special a course in this country is that, at the time of the Great Depression, it was chosen to fill the void left by the default of socialism here. The competition to fill the void was between that inappropriate term and Stalinist bull about Jefferson and Paine out of Howard Fast and like that. “Liberal,” if you could withstand the assault, was a term of honor—“democratic socialist” being an immigrant with an accent, hardly knowing where to get what to eat in this strange place, much less elected to anything nice.
A true conservative in America, if there is one—indeed, in any modern place—is a person who, facing our century’s extreme set of difficulties, relies fundamentally on the better elements of the ruling group, or what purports to be one, to see him and us through. He distrusts most everything else. I can’t imagine any different serious political meaning, currently, to which one might apply that ancient word. A true liberal in America—yes, Irving, there are some—is one who, seeing that we have and have had the most irresponsible and unseeing ruling groups of any great power in all of modern civilized human history, therefore tries to make it up as he goes along. America is still a mining camp, you understand. Hardly anybody of any real significance in running this country today attempts to honor even his great-grandfather in so doing. (The majority of our bosses know next to nothing of their grandfathers.)
At this moment, we need not be too concerned with true conservatives and true liberals. If there are any, they are not yet important. What is big right now is the default of the New Deal liberal establishment in the 60’s in the face of the student or youth rebellion, and the reaction to that series of events by those winners and near-winners in the workings of the liberal establishment who cannot bear so serious a disappointment at so serious a stage of their so seriously engaged-in careers.
They now constitute themselves as the New Conservatives. They are the smartest such since the Early Days: therefore, very significant. (Some of them even used to be friendly to me.) But this maneuver puts up front the decisive orientation-issue of the New Class, in its American manifestation: when are they careerist, in what are they not? Here in the university environment where I now live, the issue is so easy to see that most often I must shield my eyes from the very glaring sun. Apparently, the obvious is more difficult in New York City, where I lived so much, so long ago.
In conclusion: Why did the Jews come to America, if this was all they were going to do? I often ask myself this (for my father, as well as myself). After all, who is more Jewish? The talmudic denizen? The fiercest defender of Israel—my almost-country, right or wrong? Saul Bellow—the classiest survivor of the Depression generation? Irwin Shaw—the richest? Irving Howe—the most frequent? Isaac Rosenfeld—the longest dead? Robert Warshow—deadest too soon? Clement Green-berg—the farthest out? Harold Rosenberg—the deepest in? Philip Rahv—who died with a suspicious foot still on the boat? Maybe Dwight Macdonald, God help us?
Who is this American Jew who is now supposed to celebrate his personal achievement in this harassed country by presuming to become a conservative, yet? Hold your water, boys. You may need it. The fire next time.
Arnold Beichman: Forty years ago, Earl Browder, the then un-purged secretary of the American Communist party, unfurled a banner in the old Madison Square Garden which announced: “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.”
In view of the fact that the Old and New Left are revising their political opinions about the American polity, it may well be time for William F. Buckley, Jr., and with more reason than Browder, to unfurl a banner with the slogan: “Conservatism is 20th-century Americanism.” Suddenly, conservatism (and I don’t mean the Republican party) has become popular and, what is not always a concomitant variable, respectable.
In the last few years, we have witnessed the following politico-cultural phenomena:
A cultural radical like Charles Reich in The Greening of America blamed the New Deal not only for helping to create an inhuman corporate state but also for helping to create “a new consciousness that believed primarily in domination and the necessity for living under domination.”
William Appleman Williams, the demi-god of revisionist historians, a few years ago memorialized Herbert Hoover as the man who “outlined our future in 1923.” Hoover, said Williams, was victimized “by his faith in the dream of a cooperative American community. The trouble with him was that he believed. Not just in us. But in the very best of us.”
Professor Williams also called for an affirmative reassessment of much of the American conservative tradition so that its values and ideas might be incorporated into an American socialist ideology.
Richard Flacks, an SDS founder who a mere six years ago was warning that a revolution might be necessary, now says that “no existing social system seems capable of realizing the moral hopes of the Left,” that the New Left in “advanced capitalist societies [is] out of touch with the concrete potentialites of historical reality.” In his lament, Flacks calls upon the Left “realistically” to study “how much American workers have won over the last fifty years” (emphasis in original). Flacks might find confirmation of his finding in the latest Communist Daily World slogan: “No Taxes on Family Incomes Under $25,000.”
The overwhelming defeat of the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate was due to a widespread perception that he was allied with “cultural radicalism [and] a general antagonism to the basic social order.” So ran the post-election analysis by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab in COMMENTARY (“The Election and the National Mood,” January 1973).
The results of the 1976 presidential primaries, the nominating conventions, and the party platforms confirm for me that we are watching the prairie-fire spread of a counter-counterculture which is strongly supported by a broad constituency of voters.
Nathan Glazer in 1970 asked how it was that a radical like himself up to the late 50’s ended up as “a conservative, a mild conservative, but still closer to those who call themselves conservative than to those who call themselves liberal in early 1970.”
Daniel Bell tells us that “the death of socialism is the unrealized fact of the century.” Or, as Barron’s reported last June, the Bank Handlowy Warszawie of Poland has just borrowed $75 million for five years from a consortium of Spanish banks.
I am writing this on the twenty-third anniversary of the anti-Soviet uprising in East Germany and by the time this is published it will be the twentieth anniversary of the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, and the first anniversary of Helsinki and the White House refusal to receive Alexander Solzhenitsyn. All these events occurred during conservative Republican administrations which actively discouraged support for East European rebellions while claiming to be for “rollback” of Soviet power as against traitorous “containment.”
It is easy to see why terms like liberal or conservative are misused so frequently that not even a contextual definition can help clarify their meaning. There is no unitary idea which attaches either to liberalism or conservatism. Liberals and conservatives are not system-builders. What one calls oneself in politics—assuming you are not a political hopeful seeking a party nomination—is a matter of aesthetics and upbringing.
Liberalism and conservatism are essentially traditions, and as Michael Polanyi once said, it is in the nature of a tradition to remain unformulated. Yet traditions like these can be transmitted by the personal apprenticeship of succeeding generations. Conservatism and liberalism no longer, if they ever did, represent ideological polarities.
I would go further and argue that both traditions have been on a convergence course since the rise of the New Left in the late 60’s. Perhaps this convergence can be summarized in a phrase of Richard Chase describing the best in American literature: “conservative impulse, radical idea.” When one reads the texts of William Rusher and Patrick J. Buchanan urging a conservative secession from the Republican party, the phrase takes on dramatically concrete political meaning. It was Rusher a few years ago who pointed out after the early Nixon years that “a Republican President simply demobilizes conservatism in the United States.” And it was Eugene D. Genovese, the Marxist-Leninist (so he says!) intellectual, who in the pages of National Review described President Nixon’s “right-wing liberalism [as] the counterpart of the Communist party’s left-wing liberalism—that is, each advances solutions within the established consensus of liberal social policy.”
We have moved in the past decade from an American version of lib-lab to something which I would call “lib-con.” The convergence of the two traditions stems from the following phenomena:
The unifying force of anti-Communism and particularly anti-Sovietism.
The short-term intractability of socioeconomic problems in the democracies so that neither liberal nor conservative solutions seem to work as they should.
The now-prevalent certainty that socialism requires a full-fledged party dictatorship for its effectuation, that socialism therefore leads inevitably to gulag-ism. Revolution and revolutionism—particularly in the age of terrorism—are no longer envisioned as useful alternatives to law and order.
The all-out attack on Israel has created a vast disillusionment with the UN and subsidiary internal agencies like UNESCO. Once it was the ultra-conservatives who were outspokenly anti-UN. Today, the UN’s dwindling band of true believers are apologetic about the UN.
Withdrawal and even disengagement of the liberal tradition from American trade unionism has hastened the lib-con convergence. There are exceptions to this event, like Daniel P. Moynihan, but they are few.
A resistance to the universe of anti-meritocratic egalitarianism a la John Rawls. There is lib-con agreement against
1 These characterizations of liberalism may help explain why I regard radicalism as existing on the same spectrum as liberalism, at the far Left of it, so to speak. But even if one locates radicalism outside of that spectrum, one might argue that it does not present itself as a serious alternative; it is not a significant part of either the social reality or the public consciousness.
2 Cf. Soviet Russia Today, March 1937, the Daily Worker, April 28, 1938, and the New Masses, May 3, 1938.
3 This is shown by the otherwise inexplicable passion generated by the term “benign neglect”—a Harvard turn of phrase, after all, for “cool it.”
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What Is a Liberal-Who Is a Conservative? A Symposium
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?