07/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Liberal Principles

This is Part I of a three part article. Parts II will appear here tomorrow and part III on Wednesday.

I. Introduction: Reveille for Liberals

The Democrats smell blood. In the big Pew Trust survey of party identification, the Democrats' lead has gone from three points four years ago to thirteen last March.
Not surprisingly, the bookstores are full of books about the Democrats, prescribing tactics and avowing faith. Neither tactics nor avowals are likely to revive political movements. Only philosophy -- principles about what it means to be human and how people should live together -- can ultimately do that.

Out of power, the Democrats finally caught a couple of breaks: an unsuccessful, unpopular colonial war, an economic downturn. They have a lot of fierce bloggers. They have a lot of good policy initiatives. Taken together, the initiatives imply a rough set of commitments. Which matters enormously. But it's an implied philosophy. How can you revive a political movement, or even a political party on the strength of an inference?

In my recent book, Get to Work (Viking 2006, Penguin 2007), I criticized so-called "choice feminism," the belief that whatever a woman chooses to do is a feminist act. "Choice" liberalism -- a Democratic Party that fills up with whatever happens to be the most politically palatable policy initiatives of the moment, does not promise to be more politically effective than choice feminism was. As former presidential aspirant and Democratic strategist Gary Hart wrote in the New York Times last week: "Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to produce a coherent ideological framework to replace the New Deal, despite an eight-year experiment in "triangulation" and an undefined "centrism." Once elected, Barack Obama would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party. He could preside over the beginning of a new political cycle that, if relevant to the times, would dominate American politics for three or four decades to come."

As I will describe tomorrow, at the ideological level, much of the New Deal framework will probably do just fine. It is worrisome, however, that profiles of the Democratic nominee for president have described his philosophy in altogether unambitious terms. As conservative Bruce Bartlett recently reported, the New Yorker thinks Senator Obama most resembles the adherents of Edmund Burke: "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative." According to his University of Chicago Law School colleague and sometime advisor, Cass Sunstein, Senator Obama is a minimalist, someone who "like[s] consensus and favor[s] incompletely theorized agreements -- that is, agreements about how to settle a particular dispute in the midst of disagreement or uncertainty about the fundamental questions that underlie it... Like all minimalists," Sunstein continues, "Obama believes that real change usually requires consensus, learning, and accommodation -- a belief directly reflected in many of his policies... In a letter to Daily Kos, discussing the appropriate tone to be taken by public officials, Obama wrote, 'Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon.'"

If liberals needed any convincing that Americans are not suspicious of labels, all they have to do is consider role of principles, expressed in labels and language, in the success of a resurgent conservatism. At least until the recent debacles, the conservatives' simple principles were:

1. Minimal secular government
2. Social obligations derived from the family or the church
3. Interest-driven foreign policy

These core principles allowed conservative politics to be coherent and consistent. They apply over time and without regard to the issue, because they rest on clear, metaphysical beliefs about what people are like. Regardless of what you think of The Political Mind, nonscientist/nonhistorian/nonphilosopher, George Lakoff's recent foray into science and the history of philosophy, he got one thing right. Politics runs on a few simple, emotionally accessible principles. Fortunately, the long term revival of liberal politics should not depend upon any one individual candidate, however elevated the office. The conservative revival was fueled, not just by the successful politics of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but by a structure of foundational ideas, which came from all sorts of sources, few of them in the Oval Office.

One such conservative foundational idea is that people are naturally separate and own whatever they create. "Politics is based on the individual, not the collective," as one of the founders of the conservative revival proposed. As classical liberal John Locke said (Second Treatise on Government, Sec. 27): "every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property." To be human in that philosophy is, as Locke's image so powerfully conveys, to be alone there in the forest. Accordingly, any redistribution or regulation of the individual's product or behavior is presumptively illegitimate. Regardless of its standing in academic philosophy, the structure was politically invaluable.

To see how this metaphysical principle drives politics, consider the budget-busting tax cuts of 2001. Although overgrown frat boy George Bush does not obviously resemble any philosopher, not even a Greek one, he took a moment on the occasion of the passage of the tax cuts to remind Americans about the teachings of John Locke. Not the private jets of the CEO's. President George W. Bush: "It's your money to begin with, by the way." His Greek chorus, Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey, (R, Texas), echoed: "And I should say, it's our money. It belongs to you and me. It doesn't belong to Washington . . . We have millions of taxpayers from all over America who turn their minds and their hearts to Washington and they said, 'We want a refund. Give us our money back.'"

The Republican conservatives have been invoking the Lockean concept of possessive, individualistic personhood so consistently and for so long that even many intellectuals have forgotten that it is -- or can be -- highly contested. Having won the battle to "label" what it means to be human, the illegitimacy of government action follows without a hitch.

The conventional wisdom is that, since Lockeans don't dominate the American electorate, free market conservatives made a corrupt and incoherent bargain with religious moralists to trade low taxes for sexual repression in order to win elections. But Republican philosophers did not have to trade off their deep beliefs to build their coalition. In the space cleared out by the classical liberalism of the free market conservative philosophy, government loses most of its power and legitimacy to regulate human behavior. Since life has a habit of producing questions of how humans behave, one possible result is something like anarchy, or at least the moral anarchy of relativism. Anyone other than an obsessive libertarian would recognize that people cannot live together without at least some minimal regulation of human behavior. Public regulation bears the ever-present threat of economic redistribution or other egalitarian possibilities, so conservatives turned to private sources of regulation - the church and the nuclear family. The marriage of religious conservatives and free market libertarians wasn't a corrupt bargain: for all its later strains, it was as close as you can come in politics to a perfect fit.

The best evidence of the fit is that actual religious philosophy supporting the conservative revival is more of a snapshot in the history of Christian belief than a return to any first principles. The primary conservative religious philosopher, Richard M. Weaver, was a lapsed Protestant who valued his faith for mostly for its respect for tradition and nature and its history in Virginia. Not surprisingly, a religion cherished for its role in the birthplace of American chattel slavery turned out to be a powerful weapon for social inequality. According to his biographer Fred Douglas Young, Weaver argued that social, gender, and age-related equality actually undermined stability and order. He claimed that it should be possible to sort people into suitable categories without the envy of equality. Using the hierarchical structure of a family as an example, he pointed out that family members accept various duties grounded in "sentiment" and "fraternity," not equality and rights. (Accordingly, he could not understand the feminist movement, which led women to abandon their stronger connection to nature and intuition for a superficial political and economic equality with men.)

President Bush expressed the conservative philosophy of private governance in announcing his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The United States Constitution, a secular, public document, with its federal structure, threatened to produce the secular, egalitarian result that couples married in a state which permitted gay marriage could invoke the full faith and credit of that state's act in any other state, effectively making gay marriage an option throughout the nation.

Instead, Bush proposed amending the constitution to enforce moral principles derived from non-political sources: "America is a free society, which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens... This commitment to freedom, however, does not require the redefinition of one of our most basic social institutions."

"The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith," the president said. "Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society. Marriage cannot be severed from its cultural, religious and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society."

Because the principles -- weak public governance, strong private, hierarchical morality -- provide the deepest commitments, conservatives have consistent answers to old questions. If they are not laying down neural pathways, as Lakoff speculates, they're doing something right. Government in debt? Cut taxes to raise productivity ("it's your money") and revenues.

Government surplus? Cut taxes ("it's your money"). Because the principles run to the deepest beliefs, when new issues arise, conservatives have immediate access to the sources of answers. Stem cell research? Absent collective political morality, moral answers must come from the church. Homosexual (contractual) marriage? Traditional social groupings are natural and essential to social order. Health care crisis? Look anywhere (even to the health insurance companies) but to the government.

In the end, conservatives needed only two books to know what to think: Libertarian social theorist Freidrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Weaver's The Southern Tradition At Bay. (Actually, they don't even need to read the stuff; the titles alone are probably sufficient.)

It is possible that gross economic inequality, unsolvable collective problems and the looming worldwide threat of global warming would have ultimately capped the conservative surge. But fortunately for liberals George Bush went to war in Iraq, with, conservatively speaking, disastrous consequences. Liberals have a path out of Egypt. But if our principles are still unbaked or minimalized, it will be another long trip. Well as the warthog said in The Lion King, "Put your behind in the past."

Next installment: II. Liberal Principles