Conservatism=liberal capitalism?

From Bill Moyers’ book, “A world of Ideas.” Bill Moyers continuing interview with Sheldon Wolin political philosopher on the nature of power and democracy:

Moyers: Do you think that the expectations raised by sixties, of democratic participation and power to the people, have been largely frustrated?

Wolin: To some degree they have been. One thing that has caused frustration, because it doesn’t receive the press it needs to, is the continuous, consistent growth of centralized power in our society. People think of Ronald Regan as an opponent of state power, as someone who wanted to get government off our backs, and the rest of the campaign rhetoric, but actually one of the legacies of the Reagan era is a stronger state. The state doesn’t do as much in terms of regulation of the economy, but in terms of defense, of the protection of American interests abroad, of its role in the advancement of technology, or of law and order—all of those involve extensions of national power. The Reagan era has brought a slimming down of the state so that in some ways it’s more effective and less overextended than it had been in the grand days of Lyndon Johnson and the New Deal period.

Moyers: Is this for better of worse?

Wolin: It’s for worse because it’s been accompanied by an incredible apathy on the part of the American electorate, even in terms of the simple fact of voting. It is a less alert, less involved electorate at the national level.

Moyers: So the national government becomes stronger, but the participation, knowledge, and the involvement of the people diminish.

Wolin: Absolutely. At the same time, it’s become more of a surveillance and control state in the way that it pries into individual lives. I don’t mean to imply a sinister conspiracy theory. The most spectacular example of what I’m talking about in recent years has been the AIDS problem, where the dimensions of the problem have evoked a great amount of information gathering, administering, calls for testing, and an attempt to identify a particular population, to extend government investigations into private lives and sexual conduct. The attempt to handle, even if in a benevolent way, a clearly difficult problem means, inevitably, an extension and expansion of state control and state power.

The Kootenai County Reagan Republicans have probably not watched much Bill Moyers over the years.  In fact, self-proclaimed “conservatives” often dismissed Moyers as that unapologetic “leftist” whom the world could do better without.  And yet, by introducing a political philosopher such as Mr. Wolin, the political philosopher describes the difference between democracy meaning participation of citizens in their own government and something that becomes anti-democratic in nature.  That included in his point of view, liberalism itself.

Moyers: I grew up in East Texas, where conservatism used to be defined by a fear, if not a loathing, of government. Now conservatives pay deference to the state, and talk at times of President Reagan almost as if he were a sovereign, in the same way that Tories used to talk about George III.

Wolin: It’s unfortunately not just conservatives. The so-called neo-liberals also have an expanded view of the state. The questions of state power, accountability, and responsiveness are very important questions that unfortunately don’t get the amount of attention they should get because they’re very difficult to translate into concrete questions. We fight over deregulation or regulation, or this policy or that policy, but we don’t talk about the question of state power itself.

When it comes to the modern day “TEA Party,” they have certainly demonstrated their quibbles about state power generally translate into what they don’t like about Democrats running the government in general (Pelosi, Reid, Obama) and President Obama in particular as president of the United States (socialist, commie, Marxist and *shudder* a Muslim).  But with the convening of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, the GOP have decided to extend state power by defining rape and under what circumstances rape that leads to an unwanted pregnancy can be covered by federal abortion funding.  Much as Wolin was to describe as existing during the statist syle Reagan era.  The GOP weren’t interested in focusing on the economy and jobs, but rather extending state power while supporting specific religious agendas.  In short, the GOP aren’t about “limiting government” any more than President Reagan himself.  They are only about satisfying special interests.

Moyers: Yet as you talk, I recall criticisms of the last ten or fifteen years that there’s been an excess of democracy. We have too much democracy, too much participation, growing in part out of the 1960s—that’s a criticism from some sources.

Wolin: The notion of there being too much democracy is hogwash. Most of these are self-serving statements that signify the discomfort of decision-makers. Many of these policy-oriented heads of institutions see democracy as some of the founders saw it, as an impediment to rational decision-making. Democracy involves listening to a lot of discordant voices and disparate interests and conflicting points of view. It’s very tough to make a decision in that context. Consultation drags on, and you feel like nothing’s being done. That’s the complaint. There’s a real conflict between an efficiency orientation, which is one understanding of rationality, and a democratic orientation, which is a deliberative understanding of rationality as something that’s composed of a lot of different contributions

Between the two above-named fringe elements, whether in the state of Idaho or across the nation, we see a people who do not believe in discordant voices.  Who do not care for any contribution that is not their own.  Who do not want to see a “participation of government” that doesn’t solely come from themselves.  Froma Harrop who periodically gets republished in the Spokesman-Review was concerned enough about these anti-democratic inclinations of the “TEA Party” to finally write her frustrations of their general political behavior.  With a hope that should the “TEA Party” force the former governor Sarah Palin on the GOP come 2012, that the GOP will find their clock cleaned.  And then they might find their way back to old-school conservatism, thinking conservatism and moderates.  One could only hope.

Moyers and Wolin went on to describe well-meaning heads of state who committed a great many crimes in the name of morality.  “The seven deadly virtues” with reference to Richard Nixon from Vietnam to Watergate.  Premised on the view that Watergate was an attempt to silence the critics of the Vietnam war.

Moyers: I remember Lyndon Johnson looking out the window after seeing demonstrators on television and saying, “Why are they doing this to me? I’m the commander in chief.” Our presidents begin to confuse the state with self.

Wolin: In Lyndon Johnson’s case, elitism confounded itself with populism, seeing itself not just as itself but as a grander ego, as representing the whole collectivity. That somehow adds a justification that wouldn’t be there if it were merely personal self-seeking or personal aggrandizement.

Just how many Republicans have ever argued “the American people” that aligns very closely to what Moyers and Wolin described in the behavior of Lyndon Johnson. “The grander ego as representing the whole collectivity.”  GW did this as president.  But as Moyers and Wolin were to recognize in this interview, “the American people” have little to nothing to do with any of this.  And finally Wolin:

Wolin: No, I think that one of the most important developments in this country in the last thirty years has been the steady erosion of faith in democratic values. I’ve always drawn a distinction between liberal values and democratic values. Liberal values are values that are basically suspicious of democracy. Liberal values stress the importance of constitutional guarantees, bills of rights, legal procedures, due process, and so on, as protections against democratic legislatures of popular movements. Liberalism has become the home base in which you can agree that you have to have a certain amount of legitimacy to government that can only come from a popular elections—but that’s the end of a serious commitment to equal rights and sharing. The movement away from democratic values toward liberal values is very pronounced. We talk about it in terms of meritocracy, rewarding those who deserve more because of their skills. But this is ultimately a way of hollowing out the content of democracy. It’s not that we’re really all democrats today who distrust democracy. I think we distrust it, and that therefore we aren’t democrats.

This interview took place decades ago.  The “liberalism” that Wolin described here (leftism), could just as easily apply to both Democrats and Republicans as to their interest groups, popular movements and so on.  If you want to qualify the “TEA Party” as a “popular movement,” then it would come under the same concept of “liberalism” that Wolin had described in an earlier era.  One that distrusted the democratic impulses that placed President Obama in the White House.

While reading this interview, Moyers interview with Wolin brought out human frailty and the founding father’s distrust of it.  Which I regard as interesting.  Human frailty is going to exist regardless of institution, public or private.  And yet, back in the day when the GOP held sway under the presidencies of Reagan and Bush II, there was this optimistic view of human beings that outside of a “distrusted government,” and perhaps because of human frailty…  But yet, in capitalistic enterprises, human frailties simply could not exist.  An “optimistic view of humanity” that did not exist in reality.  Thus, the S&L bailouts, the collapse of major banks and mortgage companies, to the tune of billions in Taxpaid $$$.  The founding fathers put in place checks and balances throughout government because they understood too well the dangers of human frailty allowed to run amok.  That was certainly true in government.  But the GOP forgot, that human frailty in the private sector also requires a check as well, that is why we have a need to enforce law and order even in corporate offices.  Thus, the GOP expressed their own liberalism=capitalist freedom.  And one that undercut a sense of morality, community, as well as a sense of democratic values.  Really, why would we (who proclaim “family values”) wish to harm the family?  This interview described exactly how that happened.  Work that held no meaning, people who could not hope to make “life plans,” who had no personal economic certainty or security.  That was during the Reagan era.  It proved just as true during the GW era as well.  The family was harmed in a material way by a pro-corporate agenda.  Regardless of party, liberalism is endemic to both.  The presumption of this liberalism=extension of state power, to aid powerful interest groups, those most likely to vote for us, regardless of whether it serves the national interest (the rest of us) or not.  Democracy is all about the rest of us.  Liberalism, obviously, is not.

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2 Responses to “Conservatism=liberal capitalism?”

  1. Monex Says:

    ……….A review of Sheldon Wolins Democracy Incorporated Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism……..It..is not news that the United States is in great trouble. The pre-emptive war it..launched against Iraq more than five years ago was and is a mistake of..monumental proportions one that most Americans still fail to acknowledge…Instead they are arguing about whether we should push on to victory..when even our own generals tell us that a military victory is today..inconceivable. Our economy has been hollowed out by excessive military spending..over many decades while our competitors have devoted themselves to investments..in lucrative new industries that serve civilian needs.

  2. Badiganc Says:

    What is your real name? Maybe I can reply you on your Facebook page.

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