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June 15, 2007

Do Philosophies Matter to Political Parties?

Andrew Sullivan's argument that the gay rights movement has been, in a sense, of a platonic ideal of conservatism, is an interesting one.

the basic argument for gay equality these past two decades has not been "left". It's been a classic integrationist argument: let us serve openly in the military; let us embrace the responsibility of family; leave us alone. In some ways, as I have quixotically been arguing for too long, the gay movement since the 1980s has been pretty conservative. (And Kinsley got me to write the first serious conservative argument for gay marriage back in 1989.) For example: Can you think what people would call a mobilization of African-Americans to tackle HIV without government assistance - a mobilization that helped arrest the HIV epidemic in a matter of years? They'd call it a paragon of self-help and individual responsibility. But we're gay, and so we don't qualify for conservative support, help, or encouragement, let alone what we deserve, which is admiration and respect.

More than anything else, this demonstrates how weak the philosophical lines in American politics are. I've never met a liberal who is against self-help. Indeed, one of the main liberal arguments for an expansive safety net is that it confers a baseline level of security that, in turn, increases individual autonomy. I think of universal health care as being the most pro-entrepreneurial policy currently on offer.

But then, the political parties are largely collections of interest groups -- some rent-seeking, some ideological -- which come together and compromise on a program they can agree on. Conservatives are in coalition with the Christian Right, and so sexual equality is not on the agenda. Liberals are in coalition with more marginalized groups, including gay-rights groups, and so equality is closer to the platform, if not quite there yet. In both cases, the philosophies are, I fear, relatively beside the point. One could easily imagine a left win that's closer to the Dobbsian/Christian Democrat compromise of social conservatism with economic progressivism.

June 15, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Wait ... reducing the HIV infection rate and increasing life expectancy didn't require gov't intervention? What fantasy land is Mr. Sullivan living in?

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 15, 2007 12:52:58 PM

It's been a classic integrationist argument: let us serve openly in the military; let us embrace the responsibility of family

The integrationist strain of conservatism hasn't been strong in this country since Eisenhower, if not before. And the rest of Sully's arguments seems to be based on liberal strawman and the kind of people the basement dwellers at (pick your favorite reactionary website) imagine themselves to be. Actual liberal positions and the net affect of conservatism don't seem to enter into Sully's world-view ... I second Mr. Beaudrot's question.

Posted by: DAS, (Possibly Mad) Scientist | Jun 15, 2007 1:03:16 PM

I've never met a liberal who is against self-help.

That's because you don't make a habit of chatting with Republican strawmen.

The American political system is not designed to have parties that have consistent philosophies -- it's designed to have parties that can put together pragmatic coalitions to win votes and it has always been this way, it's just that the coaltions that belong to the two parties have shifted over the last two centuries.

Paraphrasing some nattering fool from the other week, we don't have a Parliament in the US. If we did we could have political parties that are philosophically consistent. Instead we have two parties that are made up of groups formed through political philosophy, identity politics, and elites whose interests all mesh 'well enough' to get things done -- pragmatically.

Identity politics plays a big part in the American political system, and identity politics does not mesh well with philosophical purity.

Posted by: NonyNony | Jun 15, 2007 1:05:53 PM

Sullivan seems to be saying that the movement for gay equality is "conservative" because gays are merely asking the government to leave them alone. But that's like saying the civil rights movement was conservative when they sought the repeal of laws that oppressed them (the poll tax and such like). Nor would Sullivan likely call abortion rights activists conservatives. It's a silly argument, and typical of conservatives to re-define the term to serve the needs of the moment: today it means libertarian, tomorrow it means respectful of tradition, next week it's what the "silent majority" wants (i.e., populism).

Posted by: kth | Jun 15, 2007 1:58:51 PM

Nicholas: the US government didn't get involved in the HIV epidemic for many years after its start in the US in the late 70's/early 80's. HIV was then known as GRID (gay related immunodeficiency disease). Reagan in his first term and most of his second term never used the words AIDS or HIV in a public speech. Bush I wasn't much better. The NIH, CDC and FDA were politically handcuffed from acting by conservative opposition within the Reagan administration and outside conservative (largely religios) groups.

During all this time, activists were self-organizing and self-caring within their community. Essentially all of the support for sick people came from volunteer activities, with some financial aid from a few large cities like NYC, LA, SF where the political apparatus reacted positively to local organizing.

Until Rock Hudson's HIV disease became public in 1985, the US media largely ignored the very large number of gay men dying in major cities. Only when Hollywood celebs reacted to the Hudson death by organized fundraising (largely led by Liz Taylor) did substantial funds flow into research, education and care from outside the gay community - which fought alone valiantly and effectively well before and after that turning point. The standard model of helfpul community and social response was called the "San Francisco Model", and was the first instance in modern times when a disease was fought by those infected and their supporters within a social group.

So, yeah, Andrew is correct. The most available, and most faithful, but still imperfect, recounting of that story is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts - a SF Chronicle reporter at that time. If you don't like crying while reading, avoid this book, because there is no avoiding your highly likely response. Read the Amazon reviews - this book made a huge impact.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 15, 2007 2:02:30 PM

More than anything else, this demonstrates how weak the philosophical lines in American politics are. I've never met a liberal who is against self-help. Indeed, one of the main liberal arguments for an expansive safety net is that it confers a baseline level of security that, in turn, increases individual autonomy.

Seconded. This reminds me of something John Cole wrote, or maybe just linked to, not long after the Schiavo fiasco, about how he was a lifelong and principled Republican but now didn't feel at home in either party. As I read a list of core principles, I kept thinking, "So, who are the Democrats who disagree with that? Fine, Kucinich only agrees with half of them. Anyone else?" Either the Democratic Party was really, really horrible until the early 1990s, or Republicans were really, really deluded since the 1970s.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jun 15, 2007 2:11:45 PM

There are a zillion ways to elaborate the theme that conservatives and liberals actually mix together more than one idea each.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 15, 2007 2:14:47 PM

Conservatives favor integration? I don't recall it figuring very strongly in their Southern Strategy for the last several decades. Sure don't see much integration talk among all those conserva-folks who sunk the immigration bill.

Posted by: clb72 | Jun 15, 2007 2:28:21 PM

Saying the political parties are simply allied interest groups isn’t any better. Why do these particular groups ally? And why don’t they all get together instead of struggling against eachother? And what animates their voters to support the purely tactical allies (especially when we know how bad voters are at voting for pure economic self interest)?

I’d say what ties the parties together is Narrative. Not just philosophy, but a simple philosophy that can describe most of the world. These cultural beliefs define how you see the world and the principles you live by, and so will be pretty strong when you consider what politicians to support. And some people (but not all) will derive their narrative from what is the most self-serving and self-exalting.

Modern conservative narrative: those who are well off worked hard to get it and deserve it, and the biggest fear is irresponsibility, be it sexual/social irresponsibility or lazy people looking to get a free dollar.

Modern liberal narrative: those in power and well off are there largely because of luck, and the minorities who are oppressed or the poor who fell through the cracks should be taken care of and protected.

It’s a weak system of philosophy without much introspective – but it is a philosophy. It also aligns with certain coalitions, basically the more powerful vs the more powerless.

Posted by: Tony V | Jun 15, 2007 2:33:31 PM

Historically, the national parties were coalitions of political parties, composed at a local or regional level from interest groups or power centers.

The usual, and stable pattern, was for a political Party to be regional mirror images of each other, with one Party being dominant in at least one region, where the other Party was very weak, and only a few States or regions having genuine two-party politics. But, the regional composition tended to work against any kind of national cohesiveness or ideological consistency: neither the ideas nor the interest groups, which were key to building a political majority in a particular State were consistent across States or regions.

The national Parties were usually shy about associating with any national political movement, partly because a consistent national ideological or interest group identity could work to erode State-level or regional support.

The result was that partisan politics, on a national level, were often bizarre, with regard to ideology and interest group coalitions. Great national movements, like abolition, temperance, women's suffrage, were organized outside the political parties, while both Parties had among their members, Progressives, liberals and reactionary conservatives. On a State-level, one-party politics were common, and not just in the South; Rhode Island, for example, was a Republican Yankee dictatorship until "one-man, one-vote" forced reapportionment.

Republicans and Democrats, nationally, are divided ideologically in a way that has never happened before. Worldview questions can predict party identification better than candidate support questions, and better than issue questions. That's amazing. And, it interacts in strange ways with State-level politics. Some very Red States, like Oklahoma and Mississippi have two-party politics, where the Democrats can actually compete to control the legislature, even while there is no doubt about the disposition of their electoral votes, or even their Senators.

The thing about a Party "philosophy" is that it is very hard to come up with a "philosophy" that gets you to 51%. So, in a two-party system, a "philosophy" can be a liability. The other Party can define itself as "everybody else".

As Bush and, even more DeLay with his majority of the majority leadership in the House, have pushed the Republicans in the direction of authoritarianism, they've made themselves repulsive. The Democrats gained control of the Congress by taking in more conservatives.

The underlying dynamic is one where the Republican President and the Republican Party is generally perceived to be pretty far Right of center, while the Democratic Party is perceived to be closer to the center than the Republicans. But, Democratic candidates (for President) are perceived to be left of the Democratic Party, while Republican candidates are perceived to be more moderate than their Party. And, while Democrats and Republicans would agree about where the Republican Party and candidates are on the political spectrum, Democrats are people who see Democratic candidates as more centrist, while Repubicans are people, who see the same Democratic candidates as more radical and far left. That's the dynamic of a Party (the Republicans) who have a well-defined ideological identity versus a Party that is building a broader coalition, on the basis of not having a philosophy beyond a pragmatic determination to get some things done.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 15, 2007 2:39:18 PM

Sullivan sees what he wants to see. Not exactly man-bites-dog... Federal government didn't do shit about AIDS until Reagan left office, but LOCAL governments DID--and it was mostly Democrats who did the heavy lifting. And, no, Jim, from my having lived in NYC at the time, I can pretty safely say that it was not private activism that made taking a position palatable to city and state officials. City health officials were on the bathhouse beat long before ActUP was on the case. Awareness may have been spearheaded by talented individuals in the private sector, but enforcement of health codes is what made awareness into action.

"One could easily imagine a left win[g] that's closer to the Dobbsian/Christian Democrat compromise of social conservatism with economic progressivism." On matters of civil rights?! Come on, Ezra, that's a load of hogwash.

Posted by: binny | Jun 15, 2007 2:58:31 PM

binny: Ezra is not wrong on that, it is what all the pundits long for when they talk about the "party of FDR". They are talking about economic progressivism without all that messiness of black people and women and gays being in front of the camera and insisting on talking as if they have anything interesting and important to say.

Posted by: ellenbrenna | Jun 15, 2007 3:10:57 PM

Hey, wow, Andrew Sullivan wrote a blog post on how gay men should be allowed access to the same privilege as straight men while keeping out the other, less desirable sorts of people.

I'd say that this was "dog bites man," or even pun that it's "bear bites man," but in all honesty, this is "sun rises in east."

Posted by: Kimmitt | Jun 15, 2007 4:03:16 PM

Sullivan is trying to spin what he is into what he believes. He slaps conservative on it because otherwise he would have to admit that he's liberal on this. That can't be possible. Where's that book on the political brain again?

Posted by: akaison | Jun 15, 2007 5:05:27 PM

Re AIDS

It was both private and public action together. Anyone trying to reduce it to their personal believes (on the right or left) is full of it.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 15, 2007 5:07:31 PM

Sullivan is making a boneheaded attempt to write religion out of conservatism. Religion is the glue that holds the disparate elements of conservative ideology together.

"Strong" i.e. interventionist national security is also essential to the conservative cause. You can't do that without cannon fodder, and gays and lesbians simply don't make enough babies.

Posted by: Steve | Jun 15, 2007 5:57:02 PM

Sullivan's argument is absurd as is demonstrated by removing one key word to get "the basic argument for x equality these past two decades has not been 'left'".
The defining principle of the left is support for equality. Sullivan attempts to define the left as the un-Sullivan. He thinks people should accept "the responsibility of the family", so he concludes that the "left" is opposed to responsibility or families or both. Or the bit about how community and solidarity are inconsistent with leftism as in "Can you think what people would call a mobilization ... a paragon of ...individual" I don't think so. A "mobilization" is not the actions of an "individual".

As to Eisenhower and integration, he wrote to Warren asking the court to find for the board of education in "Brown Vs Board of education." This is a documented fact (Warren kept the letter).

On the government and AIDs, Sullivan is, as usual, full of it. The NIH developed the test for HIV (before which no one knew how many people were infected and it was not just stolen from the (publicly funded) Pasteur institute) and demonstrated the effectiveness of AZT (also protease inhibitors were only developed by pharmaceutical companies after publicly funded proof of principle). Before all that, mobilization was not stopping the spread of HIV. Sullivan is delusional.

Also what KTH said.

"leftis

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Jun 15, 2007 10:32:41 PM

Just a little bit of legal history- the GOP choose Warren because they thought he would maintain the status quo. What is often seen as a liberal court now wasn't predicted at the time. Indeed, it is because Warren was a progressive justice that the conservatives decided to make certain whoever is nominated would pass their litmus test by being movement conservatives. Where the felt they failed with Warren and later justiced, including with OConnor, was with the fact that unlike say a Thomas or Alito, these justices put the Constitution and the American people over their idealogical bent. I may have disagreed with OConnor in some of her rulings, but I never questioned as I do with say a Scalia, whether she was motivated by anything more than Con Law and the American people. For Sullivan to take what weren't conservative (and frankly I would argue not liberal values) and turn them into such is silly. The fact is what these justices were trying to do- especiall Warren- in the words of one my law professor was the following: America doesn't give special rights or greater rights. It merely includes more groups in the rights that the of the society already possess. In that light, the GOP desire to maintain the status quo of the time was a hinderance to that goal.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 16, 2007 12:34:17 AM

They are talking about economic progressivism without all that messiness of black people and women and gays being in front of the camera and insisting on talking as if they have anything interesting and important to say. - ellenbrenna

But then how is this meaningfully economically progressive if you are excluding so many people from benefitting from your proposed economic policies?

Posted by: DAS | Jun 17, 2007 12:43:25 PM

I think your discription of Sullivan's conservatism as a sort of platonic ideal is apropos. It's always seemed to me that Sullivan was a political hybrid produced when quasi Randian notions of libertarianism filtered across the Atlantic to pollinate with the traditional tory politics of the UK. Thatcherism was a side product, with all its blather about creating an opportunity society while it got about the serious business of breaking the trade unions.

Sullivan is what you get when a typical conservative, middle class Brit discovers that his sexuality simply can't be fitted into the dominate frame of social respectability. In times past he would have remained cautiously closeted, his personal pecadillos treated as a private eccentricity so long as he paid tribute to popular prejudice through hypocrisy and avoided being arrested in public toilets.

It's Sullivan's fortune that he came of political age at a time when the modern Gay Rights movement had exploded on the scene. A rebellion that was fundamentally anti-conservative from its inception. It was this movement that provided the material and political conditions that allowed Sullivan the option to live an openly Gay life. The irony of a conservative liberated in his sexuality by the very forces that he despises is thick and one that Sullivan seems incapable of digesting.

This may be the central contradiction in Sullivan's thought. He wants to reconcile the irreconciliable. He believes in an idealized traditionalism in social, institutional and political life even as he desires the repudiation of such sentiments in a crucial area effecting his personal life. He attempts to paper this over with his transparent and anachronistic evocation of an "integrationist" agenda.

This is yet another thick irony. As others above have suggested, this standard for "conservatism" would embrace everything from the civil rights movement to women's suffrage to abolitionism. There are many ways to describe such movements but "conservative" is not among them. To use conservatism in this way is to empty it of all practical meaning, as anyone with a basic grasp of US political history would know.

Here, I think, one can locate the fundamental incapacity of Sullivan as pundit and theorist in the environment of US politics. He really doesn't understand much about the US politically, historically or culturally. Despite his attempts at "americanizing" himself, he remains what he began as: a worshipful, British accolyte of an imagined and idolized US. Not so different from those of the post WWII generation in the UK who, intoxicated by the flash and noise US pop culture in the form of rock and roll, repackage it in an idiosycratically British sensibility and shipped it back to us via the "British Invasion". In that instance, the US audience embraced the offering, not for its American roots but as an authentic expression of contemporary British pop culture.

In Sullivan's case, his target audience didn't really buy his brand. The US Right has neither the need of, or interest in, any perspective the beyond the self referential. That Sullivan failed to recognize this from the beginning illustrates how much he confuses his wishes with reality.

After all, the social and political current that he sought to identify with reacted to rock and roll by urging it be banned and making bonfires of Beatles records.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jun 17, 2007 12:55:56 PM

W.B. Nicely written, and you hit the nail on its head. I had forgotten the part where he acts as if he speaks for conservatives where in fact he clearly doesn't speak for anything remotely approach American conservatism. It reminds me of this guy one time who said he was a Hamiltonian Republican rather than a modern conservative. I asked him as politely as I could- what year is it?

Posted by: akaison | Jun 17, 2007 2:23:41 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 9:22:24 AM

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