November 09, 2003

Liberal Versus Liberal

Andrew Hagan has a good solution to the battle between liberal hawks and the anti-warriors over who gets to call themselves "liberal."

It's a fine solution, and I'm surprised I haven't seen this before.

Simply divide the liberals into camps. The right has already done this to itself.

There are paleoconservatives of the inflexible old-fashioned Pat Buchanan variety. And there are neoconservatives who are more moderate and who often have a left-wing pedigree. There are also just plain old conservative conservatives.

So why not carve up the left the same way? There are paleoliberals and there are neoliberals. The neolibs have already been identified; they're the moderate (and often hated) brainy folks at The New Republic. But the paleolibs are thus far unnamed and unexamined. They aren't radical leftists, but they are out of date and rather inflexible. Andrew Hagan, a moderate liberal himself, has their number.

UPDATE: Matt Welch in the comments asked a good question, and I see I forgot to include something obvious. There also are plain old liberal liberals, like Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum, who don't need a paleo or neo attached. They aren't reactionary, as the paleoliberals are, and I never get into arguments with either of them about who is a "real" liberal and who is a heretic.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at November 9, 2003 05:50 PM

In which category would you classify Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum?

Posted by: Matt Welch at November 9, 2003 06:02 PM

Ow! That's going to leave a mark...

Posted by: Mike Spenis at November 9, 2003 06:20 PM

Matt: In which category would you classify Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum?

I would put them in the just plain old liberal category, without a prefix, just as George W. Bush is a plain old conservative without a neo- or paleo- attached.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at November 9, 2003 06:28 PM

Okay...that we're identifying the difference is a good thing but I'm a little offended by the phrasing "paleo". Granted, their pacifism is very much akin to Pat Buchanan sytle "paleoconservative" isolationism. But Buchanan's paleo-conservativism harks back to the time of Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge. Neo-liberalism, as it is called, in terms of dates is really more "paleo" than the current strain of post-Vietnam's the liberalism of Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. Clinton, to his credit, realized that the ghosts of Vietnam needed to be desperately purged from the Democratic Party and sought to revive the Wilsonian foreign policy of the Cold War Democrats by calling it new or "neo" to put a "don't stop thinking about tomorrow" spin on it. I wrote a 20-page paper on this. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Funny that Bush has taken up the Wilsonian charge though, isn't it? At least someone has.

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"Paleo" just means old. It's true that liberal hawks have older left-wing foreign policy ideas. But it's also the case that the self-described neoliberals, like those at The New Republic, are what you might call "reconstructed" liberals who have moved away from the excesses of the 1960s New Left. Neoliberals think of themselves, quite rightly, as people with left-of-center ideas that are updated to fit modern realities. The paleoliberals, in Andrew Hagan's formulation, are stuck at a specific point in the past.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at November 9, 2003 06:47 PM

Paleoliberals aren't radical leftists, according to Michael. And yet Hagan says that they would toss most of our cherished values down the toilet, and replace our society with a different one, without feeling the need to give a justification. These ideals seem more Leninist than American to me.

Paleos on both right and left represent positions that are not worth debating, being of zero plausibility. The plain-old liberals and plain-old conservatives represent positions that everyone knows have seemingly insurmountable difficulties, but are yet somewhat plausible. The neos of both kinds have nailed it and are arguing over which of the two darts is in the exact center of the bull's eye. They ought to account for most of the members of Congress. That they don't is depressing.

Posted by: Jim at November 9, 2003 08:02 PM

Jim: The neos of both kinds have nailed it and are arguing over which of the two darts is in the exact center of the bull's eye.

Yeah, I think that's pretty much right. There are differences between the two, and I definitely prefer the neoliberals to the neoconservatives. But these days I can do business with both.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at November 9, 2003 08:18 PM

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Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Hey guys, the war's over.

Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Hey guys, we aren't fighting the communists anymore!

These people are just living up to the lyrics they have chanted for decades, and they don't care that situations have changed. Repeat, repeat, repeat...

Posted by: Patrick Lasswell at November 9, 2003 09:03 PM


Posted by: ooh ooh at November 9, 2003 09:18 PM

I'm sure a lot of paleoliberals will vigorously deny that they are paleoliberals. I'm not attempting to make a pseudo-sociological classification. Admittedly, finding a single person that fits every criteria I laid out would be difficult. By paleoliberals, I meant to describe a wide swathe of people.

MJT has characteristically nailed it with regard to plain old liberals. You'd see a lot more plain-old liberal bloggers than you would in real life, because blogging forces you to think. Most of the Democratic Party candidates are paleoliberals, or are currently campaigning like them. This indicates they believe a lot of opinionmakers agree with their positions and rhetoric.

I said that "they would toss most of our cherished values down the toilet?" No, I never said that. I would say that they want to change our society from top to bottom, and that they do not share basic American values, such as showing reverence at funeral services. They do not intend to toss out our values for us. They intend to undermine them.

Posted by: Andrew Hagen at November 9, 2003 09:28 PM


Why coin a neologism for what seems to be a return to classical liberalism? Is there some aspect of classical liberalism that those who you would classify as neolibs reject? Are the paleolib's really liberals or are they syncretic heretics? (I'd vote for the latter - but I'm not a liberal.) After all, at the completion of a revolution, you're right where you started.

Posted by: RDB at November 9, 2003 11:14 PM

RDB: Is there some aspect of classical liberalism that those who you would classify as neolibs reject?

No. I suppose you could say neoliberals are left-of-center classical liberals. A neoliberal probably agrees that we need some kind of universal health coverage, but would like it not to be statist.

I wrote about something like that here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at November 9, 2003 11:45 PM

Michael, to add to your response to RDB, "neoliberalism" has been around as a concept for at least two decades, and it's not the same as classical liberalism (which is now right-wing libertarianism). Neoliberalism is simply a pragmatic implementation of the liberal program which is decoupled from orthodox values and excessive partisanship. (I say this as a libertarian-conservative, so take my commentary with a grain of salt.)

In international politics, neoliberals are hawkish and reject the pacifist norm of the left, because they have no patience for the notion that every hostile regime can be "reasoned with" given enough time. In domestic politics, neoliberals are Democrats who sometimes cross over to support Republicans, because they believe that policies are to be judged for their utility rather than how closely they align with liberal articles of faith.

Posted by: Matthew Stinson at November 10, 2003 02:18 AM

A neoliberal probably agrees that we need some kind of universal health coverage, but would like it not to be statist.

Contradiction in terms. "Universal" coverage will always be founded on some kind of mandate from the state, and will always have to have some kind of "safety net" for people who can't or won't buy insurance for themselves, otherwise it won't be universal.

By definition, then, universal coverage is statist at its core. A classical liberal (what we now call libertarians) would not think that it was any of the state's business how she chose to pay for her health care, and would object to being required by law to both choose a particular method (insurance) and to pay for someone else's care (via the safety net).

Universal coverage is fundamentally socialist, not "classical liberal," because it brings a bif chunk of the economy under state direction. This isn't necessarily to dismiss it, just trying to keep the taxonomy straight.

Posted by: R C Dean at November 10, 2003 04:10 AM

Another way to divide the elephant: neoconservatives and neoliberals are more open to innovation and change than their plain-vanilla conservative and liberal brethren. Thus neo-cons will support gay marriage (or at least domestic partnership) and neo-libs are willing to substantially revisit thie assumptions about U.S. security position and its integration into the internationalist framework in the wake of 9/11.

To me, at least, the plain-vanilla variety is somewhat more "conservative" in that they want to defend the existing positions of their respective camps. There are many such distinctions, from positions on affirmative action and school vouchers to laws regarding changing social mores. Liberal hawks, South Park Republicans--these are really names for the emerging neo-branches of each strain.

Since I'm basically an optimist regarding the U.S.'s ability to accept and incorporate ongoing and substantial change, I tend to find the neo-cons and neo-libs more interesting and intellectually dynamic than their plain-vanilla counterparts. This is why Bush's "radical" speech positioning the U.S. on the right side of the drive toward democratization of the Middle East is very exciting to both the neos- but less warmly received by the plain-vanillas in both camps.

Posted by: Daniel Calto at November 10, 2003 07:18 AM

There have been some very sharp assessments made in this comment thread (and on the whole the tripartite division of liberal and conservative camps strikes me, cursorily, as a very helpful albeit somewhat rigid classificatory framework) - I love the image of the neocons and neolibs arguing over which dart is closer to the bullseye. I would particularly like to second Daniel Calto's 'division of the elephant' above, about how the neos on either side are more willing to entertain radical CHANGE (not 'radical left' or 'radical right' ideas, but the thing itself: the Greek Delta) than their more staid brethren. There may be an element of self-regard in this 'radical' center's appreciation of their own willingness to try outside-the-box solutions, but there's truth there nonetheless.

Neocons and neolibs, if that's what they are to be called, are becoming increasingly impatient with the same-old non-solution solutions and fatuous pieties offered by ideologues of either side, while also recognizing much merit in their adopted basic liberal or conservative outlooks. So you get the crossover effect: from global terrorism (liberals forsaking old-fashioned pacifism, conservatives reclaiming previously unRepublican idealist views on spreading liberty abroad) to gay rights or abortion (the blur here revolves around an essentially libertarian/moral axis, as the neocons from the right move towards a live-and-let-live view of gay marriage and the neolibs towards an understanding of the human cost of abortion), a new zone of consensus is being forged as we speak.

The interesting thing about this is that despite the ideological sympathies of neolibs for neocons - their ability to 'do business with each other' as Michael Totten would say - there will always be fundamental divisions between them that will ensure their remaining apart from one another; not just differences in temperament but in substance as well. I think this is actually a very good thing, as I prefer the constructive intellectual friction that such essentially 'loyal' opposition generates. It's far preferable to stultifying unity and suffocating consensus.

Posted by: Jeff B. at November 10, 2003 12:20 PM

RC Dean: keeping taxonomy straight on health care is pretty difficult. In your view, it would seem our current health care system is "fundamentally socialist", since it is driven by tax breaks to employers, plus Medicare and Medicaid.

Daniel: very well-put.

Posted by: Oberon at November 10, 2003 12:26 PM

I take it your talking about more recent definitions of the terms "neoconservative" and "neoliberal". Almost to a man, neoliberals in the '80's, such as Gary Hart, were much more dovish than the average Democrat, whereas "neoconservatives" at that time (ie., Podheretz, Peretz, Kristol, et al.) were distinguished by their hostility to civil rights and feminism, as well as a hawkish foreign policy. I suspect that even today most self-described neoliberals are opposed to the Bush policy (such as it is) in Iraq, and are more likely to depart from liberal orthodoxy on issues like vouchers and affirmative action. Neoconservatives (or the more accurate term, chicken hawks), on the other hand, are now pushing an extremely idealistic foreign policy, one not constrained by issues of practicality or truthfulness (or even patriotism, as the Valerie Plame affair showed).

Posted by: Steve Smith at November 10, 2003 12:40 PM

Well, then sign me up for neoconservative foreign policy. In fact, however, I don't see anything inconsistent with a strong foreign policy and either liberalism or neoliberalism.

Steve Smith, your characterization of the (current) foreign policy as impractical and untruthful are the opposite of the truth.

What we saw on 9/11 was that the old policy was a failure. We were not encouraging democracy enough. We were not improving the lot of the world's poor enough. We were not exercising hegemony in a fundamentally just manner. This manner may have been relaxed, allowing Saddams and Burmese regimes to exist into perpetuity, but it was nevertheless negligent.

We had to change or face the prospect of a loss of hegemony not only for the USA but also for liberal democracy. To have kept the old, paleoliberal approach, as with Steve Smith apparently, would have been to enter into a suicide pact. Change or die.

It is far more practical, honest, and strategic to effect preventative change before the poison has fully taken effect. In that case, the first and most important job is taking out foreign brutes.

For the paleoliberals, none of this can be true. There is no evil. All we need to do is to smoke some dope with Osama and all will be right between us. Welcome back from fantasyland.

Posted by: Andrew Hagen at November 10, 2003 12:58 PM

Daniel and Jeff B. mention the distinction between the looney changes advocated by radicals and the openness to change that characterizes the neos at the center. The former is dogma-driven, while the latter is driven by devotion to evidence and getting things right. The former won't change the agenda under any circumstances. The latter is conservatively resistant to change only as long as the evidence supports this attitude. (I'm a neo-con. A neo-lib might write that last sentence: "The latter is open to change as long as the evidence doesn't count against it.")

Both Steve Smith and Jeff B. point to substantial rifts between the center neos. These rifts are usually owing to differences between their genuine efforts to evaluate the arguments and evidence. The paleos left and right, on the other hand, do not deliberate in good faith. They are simply authoritarians. Meanwhile the plain-olds, left and right, are somewhat open to the evidence against their views, but not enough so.

As Socrates would have said, devotion to the truth is pivotal.

Posted by: Jim at November 10, 2003 01:11 PM

The concept that neoconservative foreign policy involves a devotion to the truth is absurd to me. It has been made clear that a devotion to wishful thinking and a disregard for the possibility of nonoptimal outcomes is a hallmark of the neoconservative approach.

Posted by: Kimmitt at November 10, 2003 01:59 PM

Jim: Well put. Socrates was right.

Apart from devotion to the truth as opposed to devotion to one's ideological position (evidence be damned), I think the neo-cons and neo-libs can also be characterized as more comfortable with ambiguity, being more willing to act upon imperfect but substantial evidence, more willing to tolerate paradox, and understanding at times that the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is one reason neo-cons and neo-libs can work together in support of the same policy (for different reasons) and not lose sleep over it.
This obviously does not characterize the paleos.

Posted by: Daniel Calto at November 10, 2003 02:06 PM

To Andrew Hagen

Tbogg's outed you dumbass. You might as well quit lying. Quote "I hold left-wing views. As an
American, I'm a political independent who leans toward the Democratic Party and away from the Green Party." Please don't lean toward the Democratic party. We don't want your worthless, lying ass. Go back and join your freeper friends.
P.S. Time to get off the Oxycotin dittohead now that they got your dealer Limbaugh in a padded cell where he belongs.

Posted by: Phonyliberals at November 11, 2003 09:19 AM

I must say that Andrew's screed is the lamest, ill thought piece of crap I have ever read on a so called liberal site. He does not even understand basic definitions or is he able to give specific examples for his points. His definitions are worthless without evidance. Nothing more than bad political grafitti.

Posted by: James at November 11, 2003 01:20 PM

I have to say, those were two very well-thought out arguments.

Posted by: Jeff B. at November 11, 2003 02:07 PM

Yes, Jeff B. I too have been impressed by the quality of Andrew's, shall we say, "most ardent" critics.

Sarcasm aside, he sure struck a nerve! Talk about "protest too much"!

Posted by: Jim at November 11, 2003 02:30 PM

I have been reading Andrew Hagan for almost a year. He is no "freeper."

Tbogg's buddies are the dittoheads around here.

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