Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberals, conservatives, and "republican virtue"

Last year (well, last month), I posted this comment in which I pigeonholed Jim Sleeper (a lecturer at Yale, who was a student there at roughly the same time as John Kerry and George W. Bush) as a more or less typical liberal.

I was wrong.

Sleeper, the author of these two books-- The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, and Liberal Racism--is hardly typical. I haven’t yet read the books, but the other pieces he was kind enough to send me have whetted my appetite. I don’t agree with everything he says--especially about conservatives and George W. Bush--but his is a provocative voice worthy of some attention, not only from his (former?) friends on the Left, but also from conservatives, religious or otherwise.

Let me focus on a recent essay, "Religion in Its Place," posted here.

His diagnosis of our problem is worth quoting at length:

In The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, I diagnosed an unhealthy decline in public policymaking itself, at least as it affected the urban civic cultures I had engaged as a journalist and activist in the city. While developing my account, I came, against my own left-liberal inclinations, to accept charges that a lot of social policymaking had itself become an accelerant of civic decline. But I had no idea what was missing besides a resilient public spirit whose own wellsprings remained obscure. I knew only that there was something almost anomic about the American provision of social welfare that, whatever its intention to redress the very real damage that economic exploitation and racism had done, retarded any reliable balance between rights and responsibilities that might revive civic responsibility in a liberal republic.

But I also accepted, and still do, the liberal countercharge that a lot of the civic irresponsibility whose increase conservatives blame on entitlement and redistribution policies is driven even more strongly by something they tend to support as uncritically as some liberals do entitlements: the investment and consumer marketing methods of the legal, fictive “persons” we call corporations. Their methods, which are ever-more protean, intrusive, and absorptive of civic life, encourage a kind of spiritual privatization and civic disengagement by workers, consumers, and the unemployed. If liberal social-welfare policy, too, has accelerated civic decline, it has done so, I repeat, as a maladroit and indeed often counterproductive response to this other, more basic cause of that decline. The classical liberal understandings of freedom and sovereignty which conservatives proclaim, and upon which the American republic perhaps uniquely relies, cannot be squared with today’s conservative understandings of corporate freedom and sovereignty.

The thorny paradox we all face is one that Tocqueville only partly anticipated: These patterns of investment, broken loose from the religious ethos in which John Locke would have harnessed them, are generating an ever-more reckless, relentless, and intrusive “culture” of consumer marketing that degrades and atomizes civic and political culture in ways liberal government is not constitutionally empowered to constrain, much less redirect.

In his view, neither the Left nor the Right offers an adequate response to the ways in which commercial "culture" is undermining civic virtue. He also recognizes, however, that the "enemy" is not simply capitalism, but an evil more radical, what religious folk would call human fallenness and what Sleeper calls a "divided nature." Our solutions can’t simply be found, he argues, in a governmental counterpoise to corporate power, but rather also by supporting "the folkways, friendships, and rites of passage of republican (small “r”) training grounds--the after-hours schools, youth programs, summer camps, and other institutions that are established to strengthen civic attachments, not just to enhance the resumés of college applicants."

He especially calls our attention to inner city churches and faith-based organizations:

[T]oday’s crucibles of civic engagement, if not civic virtue, are the stronger neighborhood organizations and churches such as those organized by IAF, some employing community-organizing methods pioneered by Saul Alinsky. They do this in arms-length relationships with public as well as private supporters, whom they tend to fend off but sometimes cajole or embarrass into doing things their way, whether in supporting charter schools or other school reforms or in developing housing and living-wage programs that are far from the social-welfare models of the Great Society. They challenge both inner-city “welfare” programs and corporate welfare, both white racism and the reactive, non-white racialism of “liberationist” academics and activists.

I think he’s right, not only for the reasons he offers in his article, but also for reasons best articulated in this book.

I think, however, that his over-the-top criticism of George W. Bush--at one point he compares him to Augustus Caesar--will not win him any friends or readers among conservatives, or at least among conservatives with influence sufficient to help promote his vision. This may not trouble Mr. Sleeper, since he seems to regard almost all conservatives as in the thrall of a simple-minded free-marketism. But I think there are elements of Bush’s vision, which I attempted to articulate here and here, that ought on some level to appeal to Sleeper. I would urge him and those who might be attracted to his vision to reconsider what Bush has said about the faith-based initiative in various and sundry speeches, as well as what he says in this interview. Here’s a sample:

At home, the job of a president is to help cultures change. The culture needs to be changed. I call it, so people can understand what I’m talking about, changing the culture from one that says, "If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else," to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make in life. I call it the responsibility era. … I said that when I was governor of Texas. As a matter of fact, I’ve been saying that ever since I got into politics. This is one of the reasons I got into politics in the first place. Governments cannot change culture alone. I want you to know I understand that. But I can be a voice of cultural change.

It seems to me that Sleeper and Bush are on the same side in the culture war, though Sleeper may not, like many former Leftists, be altogether comfortable admitting it.

Update: If you’ve been persuaded to purchase Liberal Racism, please go here, as the Ashbrook Center will benefit.

Discussions - 4 Comments

This calls to mind Christopher Lasch’s "The True And Only Heaven: Progress and It’s Critics."

I met Sleeper back in 1996, in an NEH seminar conducted by Alan Wolfe. I had read a couple books by him, and he is a liberal but a very skeptical one. On race issues many would call him a conservative. He is a journalist worth keeping an eye on.


Or, more skeptically, one could say that anyone (like Sleeper) who hasn’t turned his back on the left this late in the game isn’t worth much.

“. . . .in the thrall of a simple-minded free-marketism.”

What are the options to free-marketism?
Not free?

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