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<nettime> Current State of Political Debate on the Left
John on Sat, 2 Jun 2007 16:09:52 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Current State of Political Debate on the Left


Hello All,

Below please find the full text of an editorial recently run in the Wall 
Street Journial.  In it the author makes a claim that I believe to be 
worthy of consideration by the Nettime readership.  While this piece 
specifically focuses on US politics, those readers from Europe and 
elsewhere may also find something here worth considering.  Is Peter 
Berkowitz's statement that the the political discussion on the Left is 
stagnant with little debate on the major issues?  If not, what evidence 
of a lively debate in political opinion can be brought to bear in 
demolishing this audacious claim?

Kind regards,
John

http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110010137

"The Conservative Mind
The American right is a cauldron of debate; the left isn't.

BY PETER BERKOWITZ
Tuesday, May 29, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

The left prides itself on, and frequently boasts of, its superior 
appreciation of the complexity and depth of moral and political life. 
But political debate in America today tells a different story.

On a variety of issues that currently divide the nation, those to the 
left of center seem to be converging, their ranks increasingly 
untroubled by debate or dissent, except on daily tactics and long-term 
strategy. Meanwhile, those to the right of center are engaged in an 
intense intra-party struggle to balance competing principles and goods.

One source of the divisions evident today is the tension in modern 
conservatism between its commitment to individual liberty, and its 
lively appreciation of the need to preserve the beliefs, practices, 
associations and institutions that form citizens capable of preserving 
liberty. The conservative reflex to resist change must often be 
overcome, because prudent change is necessary to defend liberty. Yet the 
tension within often compels conservatives to wrestle with the 
consequences of change more fully than progressives--for whom change 
itself is often seen as good, and change that contributes to the 
equalization of social conditions as a very important good.

To be sure, some standard-order issues remain easy for both sides. 
Democrats instinctively want to repeal the Bush tax cuts, establish 
government supervised universal healthcare, and impose greater 
regulation on trade. Just as instinctively Republicans wish to extend 
the Bush tax cuts, find market mechanisms to broaden health care 
coverage and reduce limitations on trade.

But on non-standard issues--involving dramatic changes in national 
security and foreign affairs, the power of medicine and technology to 
intervene at the early stages of life, and the social meaning of 
marriage and family, the partisans show a clear difference: the left is 
more and more of one mind while divisions on the right deepen.

Consider Iraq. The split among conservatives has widened since Saddam 
was toppled in the spring of 2003. Traditional realists continue to put 
their trust in containment, and reject nation-building on the grounds 
that we lack both a moral obligation and the requisite knowledge of 
Arabic, Iraqi culture and politics, and Islam. Supporters of the war 
still argue that, in an age of mega-terror, planting the seeds of 
liberty and democracy in the Muslim Middle East is a reasonable response 
to the poverty, illiteracy, authoritarianism, violence and religious 
fanaticism that plagues the region.

In contrast, Democrats today are nearly united in the belief that the 
invasion has been a fiasco and that we must withdraw promptly. Indeed, 
rare is the Democrat (Sen. Joe Lieberman was compelled to run as an 
Independent) who does not sound like a traditional realist denying both 
America's moral obligation to remain in Iraq and its capacity to bring 
order to the country.

Consider also abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research. Here 
too, the right is torn, with the social conservative wing opposed to 
both, and the small government, libertarian wing supporting both. No 
such major divisions are in evidence on the left. Rare is the 
progressive man or woman who opposes abortion rights, or who regards the 
destruction of embryos as the taking of human life, or even as a 
dangerous precedent corroding our respect for the most vulnerable among us.

And look at same-sex marriage. Again, the right is rent by serious 
difference of opinion. A crucial segment of those who voted for Bush in 
2000 and 2004 think that the Constitution should be amended to protect 
the traditional understanding of marriage as a union between one man and 
one woman. Another crucial segment of the Republican coalition rejects 
alteration of the Constitution to advance debatable social policy, 
preferring that states function as laboratories of innovation.

Meanwhile, on the left, despite ambivalence among the rank and file, all 
that remains to be decided at the elite level is how and in what ways to 
endorse same-sex marriage. Few doubt that presidential candidate John 
Kerry's opposition to same-sex marriage in 2004 was driven more by 
political calculation than moral conviction. And rare is the man or 
woman of the left who, in public debate, identifies competing principles 
and goods that ought to cause hesitation or doubt about same-sex 
marriage's justice or benefits to the nation.

This absence on the left of debate or dissent about moral and political 
ends has been aided and abetted by many of the party's foremost 
intellectuals, who have reveled in denouncing George W. Bush as a 
dictator, in declaring democracy in 21st-century America all but 
illegitimate, and in diagnosing conservatism in America as in the grips 
of fascist sentiments and opinions.

A few months ago, Hoover Institution research fellow Dinesh D'Souza 
published a highly polemical book, "The Enemy at Home," which held the 
cultural left responsible for causing 9/11 and contended that American 
conservatives should repudiate fellow citizens on the left and instead 
form alliances with traditional Muslims around the world. Conservatives 
of many stripes leapt into the fray to criticize it. But rare is the 
voice on the left that has criticized Boston College professor and New 
Republic contributing editor Alan Wolfe, former secretary of labor and 
Berkeley professor Robert Reich, New Republic editor-at-large and 
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Peter Beinart, Berkeley 
professor George Lakoff, and New York University law professor Ronald 
Dworkin--all of whom have publicly argued in the last several years that 
conservatives form an enemy at home.

One explanation of the unity on the left is its belief that today's 
divisive political questions have easy answers--but because of their 
illiberal opinions and aims, conservatives are unable to see this and, 
in a mere six years, have brought democracy in America to the brink. 
This explanation, however, contradicts the vital lesson of John Stuart 
Mill's liberalism that political questions, as opposed to mathematical 
questions, tend by their very nature to be many-sided. Indeed, it 
contradicts the left's celebration of its own appreciation of the 
complexity and depth of politics.

Another explanation is that blinded by rage at the Bush administration 
and resentment over its own lack of power, the left has betrayed its 
commitment to grasp the many-sidedness of politics, and, in the process, 
has lost appreciation of modern conservatism's distinctive contribution 
to the defense of a good, liberty, which the left also prizes. Indeed, 
the widespread ignorance among the highly educated of the conservative 
tradition in America is appalling.

In contrast to much European conservatism, which harks back to premodern 
times and the political preeminence of religion and royalty, in 
America--which lacked a feudal past to preserve or recover--conservatism 
has always revolved around the preservation of individual liberty. Of 
course modern conservatism generally admires virtues embodied in 
religious faith and the aristocratic devotion to excellence. It also 
tends to emphasize the weaknesses of human nature, the ironies and 
tragedies of history, and the limitations of reason and politics. At the 
same time, it wishes to put these virtues and this knowledge in 
liberty's service.

Balancing the claims of liberty and tradition, or showing how liberty 
depends on tradition, is the very essence of modern conservatism, the 
founding text for which was provided by Whig orator and statesman Edmund 
Burke in his 1790 polemic, "Reflections on the Revolution in France." 
The divisions within contemporary American conservatism--social 
conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives--arise from 
differences over which goods most urgently need to be preserved, to what 
extent, and with what role for government.

The varieties of conservatism are poorly understood today not only 
because of the bitterness of current political battles but also because 
the books that have played a key role in forming the several schools go 
largely untaught at our universities and largely unread by our 
professors. Indeed, perhaps one cause of the polarization that afflicts 
our political and intellectual class is the failure of our universities 
to teach, and in many cases to note the existence of, the conservative 
dimensions of American political thought.

Rare is the political scientist, to say nothing of other faculty, who 
can sketch the argument, or articulate the point of view, of such 
influential works as Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" (1953), F. 
A. Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" (1944) or Leo Strauss's "Natural Right 
and History" (1953). Yet these works, and the schools they helped 
launch, are essential to understanding not only where we come from but 
where we should head.

Kirk identified six elements that make the conservative mind: belief in 
a transcendent order that "rules society as well as conscience"; 
attachment to "the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence" 
as against the routinizing and leveling forces of modern society; the 
assumption that "civilized society requires orders and classes"; the 
conviction that "freedom and property are closely linked"; faith in 
custom and convention and consequently a "distrust of the 'sophisters, 
calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract 
designs"; and a wariness of innovation coupled with a recognition that 
"prudent innovation is the means of social preservation." The leading 
role in this mix that Kirk attaches to religion marks him as a social 
conservative; his insistence that religion provides the indispensable 
ground for individual liberty marks him as a modern conservative.

Famously, at least in libertarian circles, Hayek, an Austrian-born 
economist who became a British citizen and then immigrated to the U.S. 
in 1950, wrote a postscript to "The Constitution of Liberty" (1960), 
explaining why he was not a conservative. For him, "true 
conservatism"--which he confused with European reaction--was 
characterized by "opposition to drastic change" and a complacent embrace 
of established authority. Because his overriding goal was to preserve 
liberty, Hayek considered himself a liberal, but he recognized that in 
the face of the challenges presented mid-century by socialism, he would 
often find himself in alliance with conservatives. As a staunch member 
of the party of liberty, Hayek was keen to identify the political 
arrangements that would allow for "free growth" and "spontaneous 
change," which, he argued, brought economic prosperity and created the 
conditions for individual development. This meant preserving the 
tradition of classical liberalism, and defending limited, constitutional 
government against encroachments by the welfare state and paternalistic 
legislation.

For Strauss, what was most urgently in need in preservation was an idea, 
the idea of natural right. Like Kirk, Strauss believed that modern 
doctrines of natural right derived support from biblical faith. Like 
Hayek, Strauss taught that limited, constitutional government was 
indispensable to our freedom. But Strauss also saw that modern doctrines 
of natural right contained debilitating tendencies, which, increasingly, 
provided support for stupefying and intolerant dogmas. To arrest the 
decay, he turned to the classical natural right teachings of Plato and 
Aristotle, who were neither liberals nor democrats, but whose 
reflections on knowledge, politics and virtue, Strauss concluded, 
provided liberal democracy sturdier foundations.

There can not be a conservative soul today in the way one can speak of a 
liberal soul or spirit. Whereas the latter revolves around the paramount 
good of freedom, modern conservatives, while loving liberty, differ over 
its position in the hierarchy of goods most in need of preservation, and 
indeed differ over the paramount good. Yet the writings of Kirk, Hayek 
and Strauss do form a family. All developed their ideas with a view to 
the 20th century totalitarian temptations of fascism and communism. All 
agreed that liberal democracy constituted the last best hope of modern 
man. And all showed that defending liberty involves a delicate balancing 
act.

Conservatives, facing uncertainty about George W. Bush's legacy, and the 
reality of their own errors and excesses, have good reason just now to 
read and ponder Kirk, Hayek and Strauss. Progressives, too prone these 
days to perceive difficult moral and political questions as one-sided 
and too keen to characterize their allies at home in the defense of 
liberty as enemies, have good reason to do so themselves.

Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover 
Institution."


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