Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

John Rawls and the Greening of Liberalism

Prof. Knippenberg has brought our attention to the dispute initiated by Linda Hirshman on the New Republic website over John Rawls. Hirshman thinks that the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 explains quite a bit of the electoral difficulties liberals have faced since then. She calls the book “the touchstone for liberal political philosophy,” whose deficiencies “simply left the country to the conservatives.”

Hirshman’s detractors think that the causal link between a turgid book of political philosophy and a series of bitter election days can’t possibly be as direct and powerful as she claims. Matthew Yglesias, for example, wrote that “it’s obviously insane to blame Rawls for Democratic Party electoral defeats.” Hirshman informs TNR readers that she is “working on a much longer piece about the role of foundational philosophical beliefs in contemporary American politics,” so any judgments about her full argument, not to mention her sanity, will have to be provisional.

Pending the appearance of her longer essay, it’s worth noting that Hirshman has employed enough qualifiers to hedge her bets. No fair reading of what she has already said can ascribe to her the opinion that liberals in 1971 were poised for several more decades of political victories until A Theory of Justice showed up in bookstores and syllabi, transformed liberal thinking and rhetoric and, the next thing you know, Ronald Reagan is giving his inaugural address.

Allan Bloom’s fierce review of A Theory of Justice argued that the book didn’t transform anything because it set out to justify everything liberals were already thinking at the time. Those who turn to Rawls, Bloom said, “will be given a platform that would appeal to the typical liberal in Anglo-Saxon countries: democracy plus the welfare state - leaving open whether capitalism or socialism is the most efficient economic form (so that one need not be a cold warrior); maximum individual freedom combined with community (just what is wanted by the New Left); defenses of civil disobedience and conscientious objection (the civil rights and antiwar movements find their satisfaction under Rawls’s tent); and even a codicil that liberty may be abrogated in those places where the economic conditions do not permit of liberal democracy (thus saving the Third World nations from being called unjust). This correspondence, unique in the history of political philosophy, between what is wanted by many for current political practice and the conclusions of abstract, rigorous political philosophy would be most remarkable if one did not suspect that Rawls began from what is wanted here and now and then looked for the principles that would rationalize it.”

In other words, the political content and the political fortunes of liberalism over the final third of the 20th century would have been exactly the same if John Rawls had been a shoe salesman instead of a philosophy professor. A Theory of Justice supplied syllogisms and footnotes for an ideology without changing its meaning. It’s the academic-press analog to The Greening of America, by Charles Reich, a book that is to political discourse what the lava lamp is to interior decorating. Reich’s book, published in 1970, captured the sensibility of the American left a little too well. The book went from being a best-selling phenomenon to a joke within the year, as liberals decided that an author who could write about the spiritually uplifting qualities of bell-bottom jeans might not be all that useful as a public intellectual.

The next three weeks

I’ll be traveling a lot, with only sporadic internet access, so I doubt I’ll be blogging much. Enjoy the dog days!

Obama’s Substance

John Podhoretz offers the argument that Obama’s proposal that we invade Pakistan, at least has the virtue of being the first substantive statement on foreign policy in this long, dull contest for the Presidency. Of course, if Obama’s intention was to look tough after his blunder in the YouTube debate, he succeeded only in looking even more naive and pathetic. As Podhoretz points out, he’s no more going to be able to invade Pakistan than the moon. But the substance of Podhoretz’s point is that the candidates and NOT the media are to blame for the lack of substance in this election cycle. That is, none of the candidates is really saying anything that isn’t canned and pulled from the shelf. That Obama’s first attempt at substance came, as it did, because of a blunder in a YouTube debate speaks volumes about what has happened to our politics. And perhaps it is an argument in favor of Republicans going forward with plans for such a debate--snowmen and all.

Another Year, And More Teachers Taught

As summer is quickly winding to a close, many parents are turning to the task of preparing their children for the return to school. But who prepares their teachers? Despite state-mandated requirements for teachers to obtain advanced degrees, the masters’ degree programs geared toward teachers all emphasize the mechanics of teaching, rather than the substance of the subjects to be taught. All but one, that is. The Master of American History and Government stands unique in offering a substantive program in American history designed to better equip history teachers to know and teach their subject. Using the best professors—great teachers and scholars from universities across the country—and primary sources which bring the subject to life, the program offers a series of intense, one-week seminars offered during the summer to accommodate teachers’ schedules.

As I am writing this, we are wrapping up our last week of the summer classes, during which teachers from all fifty states (plus the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories!) have studied topics such as The American Revolution, The American Founding, Sectionalism and the Civil War, and The American Presidency. The response from the teachers is humbling. Just last week, I was standing outside the Center when one of the teachers came up to me on her way out to her car. She thanked me for what had been a great week of classes, and commented on how much new material she had learned that she would bring back to her classroom. She said that she was sorry to have to leave. It was at this point that I noticed that she was crying—tears literally streaming down her face—as she explained how much she looked forward to coming back and learning more. As I said, humbling.

The Master in American History and Government is an important project that we have undertaken, but like all important projects, it requires generous contributors to continue. So, with the coming rush of back-to-school, please take a few minutes, and give a tax-deductible donation to help us teach more teachers.

Coolidge, and things of the spirit

John Karol makes the case for the "political minimalist" and "moral force" that is Calvin Coolidge, and a movie about him. He is a liberal, but says he was smitten when he read Coolidge’s autobiography, and then went to his speeches. I’m re-reading the autobiography now and am struck, again, at his crisp, clear, and lovely prose. It should be required reading for those of us who are inclined to be convoluted in our writing. Read some of his speeches here.

No Left Turns Mug Drawing Winners for July

Congratulations to this month’s winners of a No Left Turns mug! The winners are as follows:

Leslie Alexander

Don Bagwell

Michael Ernst

Laurie Helgason

William Schaeffer

Thanks to all who entered. An email has been sent to the winners. If you are listed as a winner and did not receive an email, contact Ben Kunkel. If you didn’t win this month, enter August’s drawing.

Finally . . . Perspective and a Sense of Humor

About astronauts who (gasp!) tip back a few. Charles Krauthammer does an admirable job of defending them. I especially love this line: "I dare say that if the standards of today’s fussy flight surgeons had been applied to pilots showing up for morning duty in the Battle of Britain, the signs in Piccadilly would today be in German."

The SCHIP hits the fan

My Congressman--Dr. Tom Price (and that, as my wife would say, is a real doctor)--explains why the Democratic effort to expand SCHIP is, as we used to say, "creeping socialism." Read the whole thing.  

Progressive originalism?

It’s the 14th Amendment, baby.

The Bush Doctrine, properly understood

George Weigel likes this book. It will make its way to my nightstand.

The Uninformed Electorate

Jonah Goldberg’s op-ed in today’s LA Times about the merits (or not) of requiring tests for voting reminds me of a great story from graduate school. I was in a (required) class that was known to be less than serious. The professor was a nice enough sort, but known also to be a bit obsessed with what one might call "social justice" causes and all perceived inequalities in American life. During the first week of class we were asked to take a lengthy multiple choice test on the United States Constitution. Most of us passed it (after all, we were graduate students in politics) but it was no cake walk. It was quite detailed and covered parts of the Constitution that one is not likely to commit to memory for the simple reason that it’s easy enough to look it up.

When it was finished, the results tabulated, and a few red faces peppered the room, the professor announced that this had been a poll test used in the south during Jim Crow. We were supposed to be horrified, of course. Indeed, it certainly was over the top in and of itself and--when applied, as it was, to only one race--it was quite obviously a work of injustice. Yet, it was difficult to resist laughter when the only black student in the room--a gentleman from Uganda (if I recall correctly)--raised his hand and asked indignantly what was wrong with this professor. Didn’t he think Americans should be able to answer these questions about their own constitution? Did he think there was something inherently inferior about blacks to make their answering these questions impossible? Every American should be required to take this test before he could vote, this man proclaimed with barely concealed contempt. It was clear that he thought the professor and most of us native-borns were too soft to deserve democracy. And, indeed, in discussion after class he confirmed this suspicion.

Jonah doesn’t quite go that far in this article, but he raises some interesting questions. Ultimately, however, I think I am still against tests for voting. I am, of course, in favor of working to assure that the electorate possesses the knowledge to pass such tests--but I guess there’s just something in me that wants to flip the proverbial bird at anyone from the government presuming to ask me to prove myself worthy. Moreover, I am afraid of the way things would turn out if we were to be governed only by the sheepish people who showed up willingly to get in line for such a test. I’ll take the salt of a little stupidity over that dreary prospect any day!

H! and Obama on faith and politics

Here are a couple of little pieces that encapsulate nicely the messages the Clinton and Obama campaigns want to send to religious voters. H! is clearly reaching out to mainline Protestants, which isn’t much of a reach for her. Obama is a little more interesting.

Rawls and contemporary liberal (or is it progressive?) politics

Linda Hirshman and Jacob T. Levy have been going back and forth at this TNR blog about the role of John Rawls and of "theory" in general in contemporary politics and in politics in general. I’m generally sympathetic to Hirshman’s position, i.e., that ideas matter, especially to elites in politics, though I also agree with Levy’s--in some respects, anti-Rawlsian--caveat, which is that social and cultural conditions aren’t simply susceptible to our Promethean refashioning.

What I found unhealthy about Rawls’s position--a position that probably had more influence in law schools and hence with law professors and hence with judges--is its presumption that, ultimately, our "natures" (both in general and as expressed in our particular cases) don’t matter. The only constraints to which we should pay attention that those that come from our rationality and reasonableness. I regard this as a kind of hyper-Kantianism, which paves the way for a kind of liberal idealism that morphs into "progressivism." Levy says he wants no part of this, and I think that’s a good instinct, for what it requires is a confidence that we can, in effect, be causes of nature as a whole, that we can entirely master our circumstances. This, as I’ve argued before, is at the core of much of contemporary liberalism (or should we call it by its new name?). It’s also connected with what all too often passes for a certain kind of liberal electoral strategery, as if all that’s required is the correct language or frames.

When I welcome the return of thoughtful liberals to "the great conversation," what I mean is a return to talk about nature, human nature, and the imperatives and constraints connected with them.

RIP Ingmar Bergman

Here are some witty and interesting thoughts from Woody Allen on Ingmar, including his terrible and largely undeserved troubles with the tax man. I can honestly say that Bergman’s teaching style didn’t fit my learning style, but even I can see he was an artistic genius.

Following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps

My dad wants us to, at least when we’re in Delft.

Vote your gut

Political psychologist Drew Westen, about whom I blogged here, thinks Democrats have been too, er, cerebral for the voters. He’d apparently prefer our level of discourse to be more like that found in the DailyKos.

Well, that’s not quite fair. But I am taking his advice and making an emotional appeal instead of responding rationally to his argument.

HRC (or is it just H! ?) and public service

John J. Pitney looks at a pie-in-the-sky proposal to create a public service academy, wondering why H! thinks colleges and universities aren’t educating enough public servants. If it’s a problem, why not just offer scholarships?

Oh, but they’re vouchers.... And a national public service academy is so much more French (not to mention Japanese and Chinese). And wouldn’t a university staffed entirely by professors devoted to governmental solutions to our problems be a wonderful thing? (I’m resisting cracks about how little different it would be from the current "diverse" public and private alternatives.)

Liberal critics of the Iraq war

Think the military situation on the ground is improving markedly.

Potty Potter-y

Good leftists should apparently have guilty consciences about enjoying Harry Potter, at least according to this commentary. You see, J.K. Rowling ultimately can’t free herself from essentialist racist and sexist stereotypes. We can only hope for better from her in the future:

The hierarchical, patriarchal undertones of the fantasy genre will likely be lost on children caught up in Harry’s quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. The series is great fun, and I wouldn’t deny anyone the pleasure of reading these books. But the politics of Harry Potter, while broadly anti-authoritarian, are far more complicated at the level of individual identity, and cannot be described as progressive. Perhaps this is why science fiction is ultimately a more radical genre than fantasy. While fantasy looks backwards for its myths and mores, sci-fi looks forward. So here’s hoping the next J.K. Rowling washes her hands of Tolkien and, perhaps in her next series of books, popularizes Madeline L’Engle instead.

I should add that
this story might put paid to libertarian readings of the septology. And this isn’t terribly penetrating, but it’s on the right track, I think. For a loving lengthy version of this argument, go here, but only after you’ve read the book.

Calling all Ashbrooks, and other interesting college students

Why not enter this contest? We old fogies will offer some commentary along the way. I’ll start soon.

Update: I rather liked Rick Perlstein’s essay, albeit more for his account of how the distance between "college" and "the real world" had diminished (to the detriment of the former) than for his romantic account of extra-curricular life in the "good old days."

In my view, "college" now isn’t "college" any more for three principal reasons. First, the hallmark of the 60s was a demand for "relevance," which college bureaucracies now give to students in spades. Many students take relevance in the currency of careerism; others, in the currency of social activism. For a few, there’s no distinction between the two.

Second, too many faculty--especially at elite institutions--have little or nothing to gain from trying to teach students anything other than their narrow specialties. Few want to teach "gen ed," what we old fogies would call traditional liberal education. So college curricula become a mishmosh of specialized classes, which engage a few and disengage many. There’s little or nothing in the classroom to hold the attention of students whose extracurricular lives are much more interesting than what they can glean from the "specialist without spirit" behind the podium. (For more on this, see my brief comment on Ross Douthat’s Privilege here.)

Third, parents and administrators have conspired increasingly to infantilize the collegiate experience, so that everything is presented to kids more or less pre-digested. There’s little room for adventure or risk-taking of a good sort, simply a number of well-trodden, well-lit paths down which to plod.

The solution, I hasten to add, is not to return to the 60s (described here, for example), but to seek out odd little schools that have succumbed less to what Perlstein, I fear, rightly describes as the marketization of higher education. (Cushy teaching and research jobs, massive bureaucracies, and all the comforts of an upper middle class gated swim-tennis community aren’t cheap, after all.)

Liberals and John Rawls

Here’s an argument that liberals should pay attention to nature and purposes, rather than the "political, not metaphysical" constructivism of John Rawls. I, for one, would welcome a liberal return to the "great conversation."

Have We Lost All Sense of Proportion?

There are no butts about it, says Mark Steyn. We are becoming more permissive and more coercive--not to mention more humorless and less prudent--when it comes to anything in the neighborhood of sex.