Tag Archives: liberals

Signs of Caution and Hope from Conservative Critics

New Orleans      Watchwords for all of us in this work have always included “know your enemy” and “keep them close.”  It is impossible to keep up in these days and times with all the right’s rage and social media screed, but some effort has to be made.  I try to at least read some of their more easily accessible voices, particularly columnists in the major papers, so I have a clue to the cleaned-up version of some of the elite conservative crud.  In the same way that the old saying holds that even a broken clock is right twice a day, sometimes in a shocking pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment, they even align almost perfectly with my own views and fears recently.

David Brooks, a never-Trump conservative and cultural columnist for the New York Times became a prominent footnote to the power of the current national moment when he opined that moderate leadership has failed.  Yes, he was stating the obvious, but more significantly he admitted what none of the elites or common political wisdom has been very willing to concede: education is not the path to equity.  This has been the policy panacea for conservatives and liberals seemingly forever, and it has demonstrably proven itself inadequate as a mass solution.  Brooks throwing in the towel is a sign of hope that we may finally be able to have a real conversation.

Peggy Noonan who occupies a similar place at the Wall Street Journal is a hardcore conservative with credentials that go way back, and usually defaults to sweeten her positions with a “can’t we all be friends” plea for civility, tried to change cultural colors the other day.  She wrote a full-column fan letter to Bob Dylan, who many of us on the other side of the spectrum claim as one of our own, no matter the contradictions.

Just when we might think there is hope, we have to confront the fact that our worst fears are also recognized, when Ross Douthat, a more decisive and shrewd apologist for the right and conservative cutthroat when it comes to eviscerating arguments from all sides, voices them fully as he did in a column recently called, “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders.”  Trigger warning!  This is going to scare all of you to the degree he is spot on in expressing cautions for this moment.

He argues the following particularly about the Black Lives Matter movement,

  • …longer arc of the current revolutionary moment may actually end up vindicating the socialist critique of post-1970s liberalism — that it’s obsessed with cultural power at the expense of economic transformation, and that it puts the language of radicalism in the service of elitism.

  • …more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power.

  • anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism….”

  • … revolutionaries need scapegoats …. to retire with prejudice. But they aren’t out to dissolve Harvard or break up Google or close The New York Times; they’re out to rule these institutions, with more enlightenment than the old guard but the same fundamental powers.

  • … few powerful people will feel particularly threatened if the purge of Confederate monuments widens….

  • …likely endgame of all this turbulence is the redistribution of elite jobs, the upward circulation of the more racially diverse younger generation, the abolition of perceived impediments to the management of elite diversity (adieu, SAT) and the inculcation of a new elite language whose academic style will delineate the professional class more decisively from the unenlightened proles below.

  • The promise of the Sanders campaign was that the insights of the older left, on class solidarity above all, could alter this depressing future and make the newer left something more than a handmaiden of oligarchy, a diversifier of late capitalism’s corporate boards.

Finally, and pointedly, Douthat reminds that “even for woke capital, capitalism comes first.”

If the shoe fits, wear it.  Don’t tell me some of his critique doesn’t come too close to home and speak to the same worries many of us have about whether or not this moment can turn into the kind of social change, justice, and equity that we’ve fought and dreamed of for so long.


Defending the Constitution for Workers and Not Elites

New Orleans    Hidden in the New York Times the day after the July 4th holiday was a fascinating op-ed piece entitled Workingman’s Constitution, by William E. Forbath, a professor of law and history at the University of Texas in Austin.  Forbath was writing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, so that gave him his hook, but his real theme was that “liberals” were dropping the ball in not fully understanding and appreciating that the design and updates of the Constitution were meant to guarantee what we might call “distributive justice,” and the opportunity – and right – for average American citizens rather than just elites to live happily and well in economic terms.

It seems to me that Forbath makes a number of strong points here that are worth note and discussion.  One that underlies all of this arguments is that in the hue and cry by conservatives to “follow the Constitution,” too many of us are ceding the Constitution to the rightwing without hesitating long enough to make a fight for its strengths for our positions as well, which undermines our own programs and policies.

Liberals have too often been complacent and purely defensive. The Constitution, they often declare, does not speak to the rights and wrongs of economic life; it leaves that to politics. Laissez-faire doctrines were buried by the New Deal.  Until last week, this response may have been understandable. But it was always misleading as history, and wrong in principle, as well. And it was bad politics, providing no clear counter-narrative to support the powers of government now under attack from the right.

Pulling examples from James Madison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Forbath makes a persuasive case that the enduring constitution is interlaced with a “distributive tradition” and that “you can’t have a republican government, and certainly not a constitutional democracy amid gross material inequality…because gross inequality …destroys the material independence and security that democratic citizens require to participate on a roughly equal footing in political and social life.”

This is profound and powerful stuff, and there may not be enough students matriculating from UT Law School ready to take pen an voice to join this army, so the rest of us need to take careful note if we are able to wrest the Constitution out of the grimy, greedy hands of the Koch Brothers and their Justices on the Court and their tribunes in politics.

The Constitution on this account promises real equality of opportunity; it calls on all three branches of government to ensure that all Americans enjoy a decent education and livelihood and a measure of security against the hazards of illness, old age and unemployment — all so they have a chance to do something that has value in their own eyes and a chance to engage in the affairs of their communities and the larger society. Government has not only the authority but also the duty to underwrite these promises.