Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Political theory and the political (not academic) Left

My friend John Seery, last mentioned here, has written in response to James Ceaser’s "blue vs. red" paper. From his own vantage point left of center, John agrees with Ceaser’s observations regarding the relative dearth of theory in liberal/leftist Washington thinktanks:

While one could certainly argue that egghead wannabe-politicos are best left on the sidelines, Ceaser’s observation about the conspicuous dearth of institutionalized (albeit non-academic) political theorizing on the left ought to be taken seriously--and it may help explain the current "idea deficit" or "vision deficit" among the Democrats. Sure, a few political theorists served as advisers to Bill Clinton (Benjamin Barber, William Galston), and Cornel West was a prominent adviser to Bill Bradley’s 2000 Presidential campaign--but there’s nothing structurally comparable to the quasi-organized Straussian (or libertarian, or evangelical) presence throughout the Washingtonian ranks of quasi-officialdom. From my limited vantage, I see that if a young conservative Ph.D. in political theory, hailing from Chicago, Harvard, Duke, or the Claremont Graduate University, fails to land a tenure-track teaching post, he or she may still find gainful theoretical work, without much retooling. If a Berkeley, Princeton, Northwestern, or Johns Hopkins Ph.D. specialist in political theory doesn’t find a teaching appointment, forget it, the career is over.

He further notes how regrettable this is, taking as his example The New Republic’s Peter Beinart, whose efforts to get Democrats to take a more sober stance in foreign policy have been much noted.

Here’s an author who clearly is insufficiently informed about the classic critiques of political liberalism put forth by Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, and Kojève. My progressive postie friends would cringe at his clunky attempts at defining a national purpose by demonizing and scapegoating an Other. Beinart desperately takes a crowbar to the work of political theorists Michael Walzer and Hannah Arendt in an attempt to dignify his case that the war on terror ought to be seen as continuous with earlier wars against communism and fascism. But my undergraduates, drawing more thoughtfully on Arendt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Foucault, would have an easy time dismantling his adamant but woefully antiquated notion of totalitarianism. Such a book will not engage or inspire my undergraduates, because--should I say it baldly? --it is theoretically impoverished, something of an embarrassment to read. It is not worthy of their intellectual efforts. Is this the best we can do?

responses to John’s piece are mostly of the "we don’t need no stinkin’ theory" variety, born either of a post-modern "mistrust of metanarratives" or of a kind of anti-intellectualism. Even if all of his friends aren’t my friends, his "enemies" are mine as well.

There are two questions I’d like to ask him, however. First, how easy does he think it would be for left-wing academic political theorists to find a way constructively and effectively to inform political debates? In his HuffPost piece, he mentions Bill Galston, Benjamin Barber, and Cornel West, but I wonder about those whose theoretical work is, from my limited perspective, more heavily invested in jargon and self-conscious challenges to common sense. Second, might it not be possible that the true channel, such as it is, of influence for liberal and Leftist academic theory is through the law schools and the courts?

Discussions - 21 Comments

The Seery article raises some points worth thinking about:

1. How successful have the theorists in our government been in defining national purpose around natural right?
Does that mean spreading or supporting freedom--the natural purpose of human beings--everywhere? Does that mean seeing the war against Islamofascism as a continuation of the war against communism and Fascism? Is it really true that most conservatives agree with those propositions?

2. Granted that the left lives in a jargon-filled posttheoretical (and post everything human) fantasy land (and I’m just granting that for the sake of argument, Steve), is the Right now too theoretical or overemphasizing the theoretical or natural or cosmic significance of particular policy choices? Theoretical men and women can easily overdramatize the critical nature of their times. One example--the "last man" and the "Brave New World," in my opinion, are not dangers that are REALLY confronting us.

3. If there is a conservative theory, does it really produce clear conclusions on the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, and the future of the welfare state (as redistribution changes from the rich to poor to young to old)? What good is this theory if "natural right" is generating policy choices for Bush that most conservatives don’t actually embrace? (I’m not saying Bush is wrong on any of his choices, but, for example, sticking up for him on immigration would cause most of the NLT readers to scream at me.)

4. Isn’t the theory of the allegedly postfoundational left really soft libertarianism--no real objection anymore to the free market combined with individualistic permissiveness across the board socially? But aren’t all conservatives partly libertarian too? I know I am.

Ah, but Peter, you’re a Thomistic libertarian, aren’t you? There are kinds of immorality that government efforts to prohibit (or, in some cases, even discourage) would produce much more harm than good.

Seery says the GOP "bashes" gays and immigrants, but by and large, what a breath of fresh air he provides by simply by being fair. By simply being charitable. He bothers to mention the fact that the camp of the Straussians contains dissenters from the main tendencies, as well as more significant divisions. He bothers to remind his fellow Dems that most of the conservative theorists he has met are "earnest." And, in keeping with his fine book of essays, he consistently makes a powerful case for the study of political theory, a case anyone can benefit from but which Dems particularly really do need to heed. The Dems’ Rawlsian instinct simply to accept a set of Democratic Imperatives as if they plop into human life out of heaven, so that the MORE Democracy, Equality, and Democratic Values the better, really is childish, as is the anti-foundationalism so many of them lapse into when bothering to "defend" this stance. Seery/theory-educated Dems would know better.

Peter, apropos to your libertarinism: is it a principled matter of a prudential judgment that some battles aren’t worth fighting, because they shock the zeitgeist too much, detract from more important battles (that might make you a good Thomist); is it an self-acknowledged enlightenment on your part, because of what you actually see about either the falseness and perils of judgmentalism or the relative okayness of certain practices and activities that otherwise might come under (some) moral approbation (e.g., divorce, same-sex couples, and so forth) ; or is it being insidiously eroded by the creepy, creeping libertarian zeitgeist; or some combination of the above?

It was good to read John’s little statement. I hope it does some good with its intended audience. Because he’s actually met some non-left people, including we theorists, he actually knows that we’re human beings, not monsters. I think he uses the term "Straussian" too indiscriminately, but there is no malice involved.

Peter, Paul’s query is more important, but I am curious to hear you spell out why natural right might be driving Bush’s immigration stance. I agree with your suggestion, by the way, that many conservatives have become too theoretical in their thinking about policy. I find this especially in much conservative opposition to the Iraq war and its fixation on neo-conservatism and democracy-promotion. Foundational principles set one’s overall direction, but they cannot give one the proper decision on complex issues like Iraq or immigration, and thus they do not provide a comprehensive or bankable guide to interpreting the position of one’s opponents on particular policies. Of course, I am certainly open to the way they can determine decisions, which is why I ask you about Bush and immigration.

I think the answer to Joe’s second question is undoubtedly yes. But I’m not sure that Seery is right in any case. While it might be true that a lefty straight-up theorist would have trouble finding work in the DC think-tank world, I’m not so sure that same wouldn’t be true for conservatives. Are there really jobs out there for newly minted PhD’s who wrote a dissertation on some rather obscure philosophical question? (That’s a live question for me, by the way...) My sense is that most think-tank sorts of places want "policy" people and that while some philosophical acumen is always handy, it’s not enough.

Alternatively, it might just be that conservatives by and large are more interested in basic philosophical questions because lefties tend to either think the basic questions nonsensical, already settled, or not crucial.

Too much to respond to, but some enjoyable reading.

Some libertarian views: It’s good we stopped criminalizing gay sexual behavior. Government should leave the home schoolers alone. Political correctness, in general, sucks. The Second Amemendment is not unconstitutional (redneck joke).

I don’t think, in truth, that natural right can give any guidance on whether or not to invade Iraq. If it was (and I tend to doubt it), the source of what JWC calls audacious prudence that may have no been so prudent, then I’m against it. In the end the question of Iraq is how well it worked to secure our interests without screwing up their lives too much. The jury is still out, but I’m rooting for us and Bush.

The same with immigration--any particular nation open to the truth about human nature is bound to encounter tensions and paradoxes taht can only be resolved prudentially in the absence of unambiguous guiding principle. We gotta close the borders is a prudential judgment that I share, but that doesn’t resolve the complicated question of how to treat the people already with us.

What a time to be out of town with a slow connection -- and grandchildren to keep me delighted and too busy to read the piece in question!

Carl said,

"Foundational principles set one’s overall direction, but they cannot give one the proper decision on complex issues like Iraq or immigration, and thus they do not provide a comprehensive or bankable guide to interpreting the position of one’s opponents on particular policies."

I am confused. Ceaser, himself, has cited Bush’s invocation of natural rights in making the case for/defending regime change in Iraq to demonstrate that the GOP is returning to its best foundation, the natural rights of Lincoln. Carl, Iraq and Immigration are huge issues on which Bush has wagered his legacy. If Iraq is not among those issues constituting "overall direction", what issues do? perhaps the finer, day to day policy issues in Iraq are not amenable to foundational principles or natural rights, but the decision to affect regime change in Iraq was at least partly about natural rights. Bush has said so, so has Krystal, so has Ceaser.
Bush has not to my knowledge spoken of the connection b/w his understanidng of nautral rights and his immigration policy. However it is worth noting that Krystol has been very critical of the House Bill and its supporters (see the infamous "yahoo" piece) and even said that he doesn’t much care about illegal immigration.
and on immigration Bush seems tone deaf to arguements re the importance of culture, which is also something he overlooked in Iraq.
(and NCLB education policy, for that matter.)
Bush conistently misses particulars, perhaps because he is preoccupied with universals.

Re Peter’s comments on immigration.
I don’t disagree that the domestic situation needs to be addressed with compassion. But, successful immigration policy BEGINS with much, much better border control. We need a wall. and we need a wall before we compassionately address the illegal immigrants alreeady here. To this point Bush has not given any indication that he is resolved and committed to closing the border.
Conservatives have realized that Bush really does dissemble and that many of the Left’s criticisms of Bush were more right than wrong.

Great thread with much to consider . . . hmmmm . . . but I think Joe is right in his original post when he speculates that ". . .might it not be possible that the true channel, such as it is, of influence for liberal and Leftist academic theory is through the law schools and the courts?" I think that’s exactly true. But what is more, it is no longer simply "academic theory" for a great number of those on the left. It is now almost a religion for them. If you doubt that consider the viciousness of the attacks that come from its apostles when you question it.

Thanks, Peter. I was afraid my question was too direct. Speaking of our creeping libertarianism, I agree that most young people I encounter are non-judgmental, because of the zeitgeist, the MTV culture, and their non-home schooling public education. This includes a lot of Catholic kids, of course. However, I also see many of them dissatisfied with easygoing relativism (for various reasons). (And Brink Lindsey seemed to acknowledge as much in his more complicated/nuanced view of the middle of the middle class bell curve.) They respond pretty well to real education (weasel phrase, I know). So I’m more inclined (by temperament and conviction, as well as teacherly experience) to not give "the trend lines" as much credence or inevitability. Call me a Tocquevillian. (Of course, you Tocqueville experts know how sisyphean that task is and will be!)

An addendum: I very much agree with Julie that the law schools are much to blame. A contender for the most corrupt institution in our society. But it has a good deal of competition, of course.

So here’s the complaint of swing voter Ryan Rakness: The neocons exaggerate nature and unrealistically downplay culture or the embedded strengths and weaknesses, possibilities and limits, of a particular way of life--that’s the link between Bill Kristol’s unrealistic optimism on democratizing Iraq and assimilating lots and lots of Mexican etc. immigrants. Is it Straussian to exaggerate the possibilities for direct, rational rule by natural principles? Or is the neocon position an Enlightenment distortion contrary to the true view of Strauss? Answers depend, first of all, on what nature is and to what it extent it can be the foundation of political choices.

Glad you responded, Ryan, as I had you somewhat in mind. I agree with most of what you’ve said, and while I don’t yet know all my ps and qs on Ceaser’s foundational principles piece, I trust your assesment. My basic response is to take your "Bush ignores particulars for universals" and say, yes, big problem, particularly with respect to faith in dmcy-promotion, but then to say that it is also a problem that theory-centric conservative critics of the war ignore Iraq particulars for universals--universal number one neo-conservatism. I am sick of hearing, not so much from you, the following sort of argument: A) neo-conservatism flawed, not truly conservative, B) neo-conservatives convinced Bush to go to war, C) therefore, it was a bad decision. QED. This argument, like the no-WMD-QED argument, like the culture-matters-but-neo-cons-ignore-it, is far too general. Here’s some particulars that have rec’d very little discussion in public debate and academic circles, but which are crucial to judging Bush’s decision: 1) How do you decide when your intelligence is dicey? Is it okay to make no decision or delay it, when WMD + terrorism are the possible outcome of being wrong? 2) How long could you station troops in Kuwait, etc., while waiting for further inspections? 3) Wasn’t Hussein in a perfect position to bluff? 4) Wouldn’t the world still basically think he had WMD (including a program on the way to nukes) if we hadn’t invaded? 5) Was a pure decapitation stratgey--i.e., kill Saddam and leave-- plausible, given the chaos and Baathist resurgence that likely would have resulted, and given public opinion in response to these events? 6) If you come out and say that Muslims can’t do dmcy, that’s why we’re not invading, or why we’re only doing so decapitation-style, then you are saying that Muslims need strongmen, and you are saying that public opinion can stomach that being your policy. These and many other such particulars the Bush team surely considered, regardless of whatever universalist proclivities they had. But this refusal to consider the powerful case for taking out Saddam in the actual decision-situation that Bush dwelt in, and this refusal to consider that once he had made that decision the basic choices for stage-two were try-for-dmcy or back-a-strongman, is to intellectually FLEE from particularity to generality. (By the way, back-a-strongman wouldn’t have been so bad an option IF a case can be made that you could have gotten the American people behind it. The American desire to give dmcy a chance runs very deep. Interesting to consider the political sustainability of a stage-two which would have backed an Ataturk-style "liberalizing" strong-man.) I can forgive the American public, given its bad MSM teacher, for not being able to get into such high-diplomacy/Aronian considerations of the choices faced, but I don’t understand, Ryan, why smart conservatives like yourself avoid these topics for big-think about neo-conservatism. Finally, I don’t like your "many of the Left’s criticisms" line at all. Partisan-motivated and prudence-hostile CYNICISM, which has been the guiding spirit of 90% of the Left’s criticism of the war, ain’t the same thing as hard-headed thinking.

Peter, assuming your question is rhetorical, the correct answer is: something of an Enlightenment exaggeration (although I’d opt for a third formulation, along the lines of Michael Mandelbaum’s Ideas that conquered the world). For light on Strauss’s possible/plausible views on foreign interventions, nation-or is it, state? -building, and swamp-draining regional transformations, I recommend rereading his eulogy of Kurt Rietzler.
You did a good job of linking the neowilsonianism of the Iraq war rhetoric to the immigration non-policy. Too much universalism. I personally think connecting Strauss and Straussianism (whatever that is!) with the Bush administration is silly.

I agree with Paul on Strauss and Bush, and of course they’re considerable differences too between Kristol and Bush. And I’ve said before the natural law orientation of some of Bush’s rhetoric doens’t mainly come from Strauss or Straussians. The decision to invade Iraq wasn’t as bold or controversial as we now remember, and the lack of planning for post-war Iraq was mostly ordinary hubris and incompetence--it’s to our credit that we’re not such good imperialists. But I’ve been going with natural right foundational premise to see what would come of it.

Strauss = Krystol + Bush divided by Ceaser...
you are right, that doesn’t work, or at least not that simply. certainly, the left has frequently (and clumsily) made the connection b/w Strauss and the NeoCons and the Bush admin.. However, Ceaser, with more precision, does also. Ceaser more or less says that Strauss (straussians)= Neoconservatism = reason + nature (natural rights). Whether or not his interpretation/analysis (re Strauss, or Bush, etc.) is correct is another matter.
the Bush administration’s decision to affect regime change in Iraq was based on many issues with WMD as the primary issue. It is difficult to say how much Straussian natural rights (as described by Ceaser) contribted to the decision, although it is not difficult to say that Ceaser thinks natural rights contributed quite a lot.
There are many ways in which he could be wrong. But, assuming, for the sake of discussing foundational concepts, he is right there is much to be critical of.
My earlier post was a response to Carl’s assertion that Bush policy on Iraq and/or immigration should not be subject to arguements re foundations.

I only have time for links right now, so read this and this.

Carl, I had just enough time to skim your post. I’ll read it more closely (and respond) either later tonight or tomorrow.
as for Ceaser’s pieces on Bush. I have read them and will look them over again.
the piece that is most on point, however, is this

see pg 12 in particular. This is the only online version I could find since the Public Interest is no longer with us.

A clarification to my too-long-winded and snarky post above. Ryan, it’s not that I object to big-think on neo-conservatism per se, nor is it that I want to boot foundational arguments out of policy decisions. I’m just worried that you and others allow your foundational disagreement with the neo-cons to be the deciding factor in your judgment of the war. If that’s what you’re doing, I do not think that would be correct way to judge.

Carl is right not to overspin or exaggerate the importance of the theoretical dimension of the statesmanship of GW Bush. Invading Iraq is certainly a decision an allegedly nonfoundationalist president like Clinton or Gore might also have made given the same set of circumstances. not to mention the same faulty intelligence. Too many so-called intellectuals want to believe that evilthinkers like Carl Schmitt or Leo Strauss rose out of their graves like devil-ghosts to make GW do it In the long run, invading Iraq may end up looking like a mistake, but we’ll still have to concede that it was a reasonable choice or risk. Bush’s thoughts on the permanence of the struggle between good and evil in history and in every man’s heart and his nuanced or unprogressivist and even un-Deist view of providence seem Christian more than anything else, and that’s because they appear in speeches written by very smart Christians influenced by the traditon of natural law. One difference, of course, between the president and most of our leading Framers is that he is more of a real believer in the providential and judgmental Creator. Experts disagree on whether that’s good or bad for public policy--certainly some of his conservative critics say that genuine conservatism can’t be compassionate. But whatever his screw ups and blind spots (and there are way too many of both), Bush has shown that Christian compassion or charity can be combined with personal toughness
and an aggressive foreign policy.

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