Greetings from a Loyal Democrat

I’ve been invited to contribute here at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, even though, as you can tell from my name, I don’t quite fit the “gentleman” label.  That aside, I’m proud to join and I hope I can add something to the excellent work being done by each of the other authors.  For the past couple of years, I’ve been blogging at Free Silver, a forum I set up primarily as a personal outlet in an effort to stop trying to coax my friends into lengthy email discussions.  My intention, at this point, is to continue posting there, and cross-posting items that fit in with the L.O.G. mission of “sustained discussion.”

In a 1905 address, George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall defended “honest graft” by arguing that “every good man looks after his friends, and a man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular.”  To me, that first half is an unchanging value, but the tricky job of gauging popularity shows how much things have evolved since 1905.  We spit “cronyism” as a curse word, the way Jimmy Stewart snarled “liar” at the press corps in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  We imagine that there are objective measurements that determine who is worthy of reward.  Rewarding friends has no place among the new values.

Part of the change in values is due to the fact that loyalty is, at its core, irrational.  It requires a person to stick by her friends when her friends are wrong, stay with a job when another job pays more, live in her hometown when there are better opportunities elsewhere, follow a tradition that serves no tangible purpose beyond its own perpetuation, and support a particular baseball team when said team begins the season 16 and 41.  Such is the nature of loyalty, the one value I most want to rescue from the long list of out-of-fashion ideals.

Of course, Oscar Wilde had a different take on the value, describing loyalty as “lethargy of custom” and “lack of imagination.”  But he would, the dilettante.  The assumption that imagination can only be stimulated by constantly changing settings itself betrays a stunning lack of imagination.  The world traveler is downright dull in comparison to the local fixture who knows all the rhythms and eccentricities of a particular place and the life histories of the people who inhabit it.

Here in Baltimore, that could mean the old-timers who weathered some tough years in the city throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, survived the later gentrification boom in the neighborhoods near the harbor and spend summer evenings sitting on their front steps, chatting it up with neighbors and passersby (the marble steps in front of this city’s rowhouses are every bit as iconic as the front porch in the rest of the nation.)

There is certainly a political translation here.  While I always have been, and always will be, a loyal Democrat, finding an ideological niche has proven much more difficult.  I mostly identify with the small (but growing?) “Laschian Left;” some mix of personal and cultural moderate conservatism, economic and democratic populism and a genuine regard for historical continuity.

With much of today’s tiresome debate on the Left knotted between the DLC centrists and Netroots progressives, there is little recognition of even the existence of left-leaning reactionaries. But as oxymoronic as that term is in today’s ideologies, it was standard fare for the 19th century Populists, who (usually rightly) feared that “progress” meant greater concentrations of wealth at the top and the upending of a life that may be, in market-terms, inefficient or even irrational.  Also, like all good loyalists, the Populists saw no use in an objective view of politics.  They knew who they were fighting for, who they were fighting against, and they concerned themselves with particularities rather than abstractions.

Personally, life circumstances have made populism a bit of an odd fit for me.  I grew up not in Kansas, but in a planned community between Baltimore and Washington D.C., the kind of place in which people move to raise the kids, and leave when the kids go to college.  So much for historical continuity.  And as for the romanticism of those “old-timers” on their marble steps?  Well, I moved to the city four years ago, and am sadly just one of the passersby they encounter throughout the day.  It is my intention, however, to stay in this city (which I am proud to say is the most provincial on the East Coast) until I become the kind of custom-bound, unimaginative person Wilde would scorn.

I imagine many of my posts here will apply that populist and loyalist perspective to whatever topic has sparked my interest on a particular day, whether the topic is politics, history, culture, economics, religion, movies, or anything else that comes to mind.  I appreciate the chance to play a part in these discussions, and I’m looking forward to the give and take that will follow.

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28 thoughts on “Greetings from a Loyal Democrat

  1. Welcome!

    I lived in Baltimore (Fell’s Point and Butcher’s Hill) from 1996 until 2001. I loved it. Provincial? You don’t know the half of it. And I say that knowing full well that I was in about the eighth wave of gentrification. Still, I feel like my personal timeline allows me some degree of credibility. (I drank at Kislings when it was EASILY the best bar in America.)

    As for that planned community, I assume you mean Columbia? I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as a rootless place. Even if the young families grow up and move on, that can still make it a place ripe for tradition. Think of colleges. By design, their residents go away. But the perpetuation of that transience becomes almost a tradition unto itself. So if Columbia is a place designed for the sole purpose of raising kids in a safe place? I can imagine places dedicated to worse things.

    Moreover, I am not at all sure Columbia is as transient as all that. What’s interesting to see now is how some of the “old neighborhoods” are moving forward in time. Some are falling apart and becoming “ghetto,” in the youthful parlance. But some show signs of more permanance.

    It was never my favorite place in the world, but it seems to me that it’s possible for real traditions to spring up there, too.

    Remember, the Southern Agrarians used Pittsburgh as an example of all that was bad and terrible and awul about industry. It wasn’t just dirty and smokey, it was a culture-eater that destroyed family connections and made men mean.

    Then somehow, it became accepted as fact that mill-life was a builder of culture and connections and local color and accents. People came to this conclusions right around the time the mills closed, of course.

    So just you watch. When Peak Oil or Global Warming or whatever destroy planned suburban communities, you will IMMEDIATELY see society reach a consensus that planned suburban communities were really what draws people togther, and that whatever replaces it is a sham.

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  2. Welcome. I would just say loyalty and values have a lot in common. Loyalty for the sake of loyalty, even though values have changed and there’s a conflict between my values and that to which I’ve been loyal, is not very virtuous. I can think of so many cases of blind loyalty which turned out tragic, that a defense of loyalty needs many more qualifications than you’ve given. Cronyism, as criticized in politics, seems to be related more to power connections than friendships.

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  3. Mike sez: “cronyism, as criticized in politics, seems to be related more to power connections than friendships.”

    I think that’s generally true, but slightly off-base. Bad cronyism is indeed about power connections; but typically accusations of cronyism come off the hip from One Side criticizing The Other.

    When members of my party hire/appoint friends, that’s a case of Good Judgment of Character, and Continuing Lifelong Relationships. When members of the other party hire/appoint friends, that’s Cronyism.

    It’s masked under the label of “power connections”, but that’s used more as typical boilerplate justification than rational analysis.

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    • @Pat Cahalan,
      Is it really “cronyism” if you hire a friend you know will do a good job? You can’t be promoting hiring someone JUST because they are a friend, even if they are incompetent or unscrupulous. Yes, I have friends who I would’t hire — someone has to love them, though.

      This is how Free Dictionary defines cronyism:

      Favoritism shown to old friends without regard for their qualifications, as in political appointments to office.

      So, it’s not a matter of good and bad cronyism, all cronyism in government is unethical, and in business, stupid.

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  4. Welcome Lisa!

    As a matter of interest, what do you see as being the main points of difference between the Laschian Left and someone like Phillip Blond (who considers himself a Red Tory) or Daniel McCarthy who blogs as “Tory Anarchist”? Superficially it seems very similar – socially moderately conservative but economically populist.

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    • @Simon K, I really like the Red Tory movement in theory, and I agree with much of what Blond has to say (but I admit I know very little of Daniel McCarthy). The only line I would draw is with implementation. My fear is that the emphasis is so strongly with the problem and with the cultural changes that are needed that it offers too few policy solutions. I’ve kind of watched from afar, partially rooting for them to succeed, and partially wishing they would retool their message to add a little more meat to it. What’s your take on it?

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      • @Lisa Kramer, Well, personally I’m more libertarian than liberal in the modern sense, although it does depend on the day of the week, but definitely more liberal than conservative so there quite a few things I can’t agree with Blond about.

        To me a truly free market is not the atomizing, alienating thing that Blond complains about, but the most miraculous machine for discovering and filling human wants. And to me the welfare state isn’t merely the last resort of people desperately searching for some institution to care for them, which Blond thinks it is, but a device for ensuring that people will take the risks the free market needs them to take by protecting them from utter destitution.

        In essence I think Blond in error (and following a very long and illustrious lineage of similar errors) in blaming liberalism in the philosophical sense for the current state of society. That just isn’t so – liberalism is the political face of efforts to deal sensibly with an increasingly non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian society where wealth and power are quite evenly distributed (by historical standards – by ideal standard obviously they’re not). The various ills Blond complains about aren’t consequences of excessive liberal zeal, but consequences of material forces that liberalism itself is also a consequence of.

        That said I’ve no real problem with most of the concrete reforms Blond proposes, which makes me think that his philosophical complaints about liberalism are sort of beside the point. Again he’s part of a long conservative lineage in complaining about philosophical liberalism while basically standing by almost all of actual liberalism, when push comes to shove. For example he seems to like local control and regional variation and especially in the British context I think thats a very good idea (the lack of regional policy variation in the UK would shock most Americans). Providing you preserve a strong right of exit and protect certain minimum standards who can object to local control? But he’s well within the liberal mainstream here- indeed he seems to basically be siding with Tony Blair.

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    • @Simon K, I realize my last response was inadequate in explaining what I saw as distinctions between the “Laschian Left” and the “Red Tories.” To be more specific, what I meant by “policy solutions” boils down to this: I believe there are some things a government has to do that cannot be accomplished at the community level.

      Second, I consider myself to be democratically – in addition to economically – populist. I lean majoritarian, and this can sometimes run counter to my support for traditionalism and institutions (for instance, here in the U.S., I would like it to be easier to amend the Constitution, I would like to reform the Senate filibuster, etc…) I take this to be a fair extension of my reading of Lasch, as it assumes better policy outcomes from “the masses” than “the elites,” but my sense is that the Red Tories place a higher importance on social stability and observance of traditions, even when that stability depends on the support of a decidedly (in the case of the current economic and cultural elite) anti-traditional class.

      Hope that clarifies. I still think the two have a great deal in common.

      *I seriously could be wrong about the second point. I can’t recall ever reading anything of Blond or the Red Tories that dealt with what I consider democratic populism. Just going on what is a core ideal of Toryism, regardless of flavor.

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  5. Thanks for the welcome everyone – it’s great to be here.

    Sam – yup, Columbia. My parents bought there in the very earliest stages of development in the early ’70s. I have enough great memories of the place, and a natural attachment to it for the simple fact that it IS my hometown that I could never join the chorus of Columbia-bashers. That said, my experience there did reinforce the picture of it as a spot for starter-families. The parents were upwardly mobile and tended to move to larger houses or even other parts of the country as jobs and opportunities allowed. Pleasant as it was to grow up there, it would have been nice to have more people who simply settled down and stayed. By the way, I live in Butcher’s Hill too – so I guess that makes me part of the 9th wave.

    Mike – Loyalty has certainly been responsible for a great amount of evil in the world, but so has every single other value. To me, loyalty is an acknowledgment that we can often rationalize away our own definition of the good. When we claim to judge things based on our internal values system rather than an external standard, it’s difficult to know if that system is more than just a rationalization of the values we *wish* were true. But if we (with obvious exceptions for things such as state-sponsored genocide or jihad in the name of loyalty to a faith) subjugate our internal code to the dictates of something outside ourselves that we also believe to be good, we are acting out of humility and acceptance of our personal limitations. Of course, that usually raises the issue of divided loyalties, or whether adherence to an external value is the same as loyalty to a particular person/group of people, but that’s a whole other matter…

    Mike & Pat – As for political cronyism, I just think about the difference between John Quincy Adams, who refused to replace government officials with his friends and Andrew Jackson, who invented the spoils system. However you weigh the pro/con list on Jackson, it’s not hard to make a case that he was significantly more effective in achieving his ends than Adams.

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    • @Lisa Kramer,

      My cronies and I lived at 2028 bank Street, then 2026 bank Street, then 315 South Chapel.

      Is the J&H Saloon still open on Eastern Avenue, near Collington? They had Kenny Rogers karaoke there, plus they sold canned goods and spatulas. Not sure why on any of these counts, but such was life way back when.

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  6. “When we claim to judge things based on our internal values system rather than an external standard, it’s difficult to know if that system is more than just a rationalization of the values we *wish* were true. But if we (with obvious exceptions for things such as state-sponsored genocide or jihad in the name of loyalty to a faith) subjugate our internal code to the dictates of something outside ourselves that we also believe to be good, we are acting out of humility and acceptance of our personal limitations. Of course, that usually raises the issue of divided loyalties, or whether adherence to an external value is the same as loyalty to a particular person/group of people, but that’s a whole other matter…”

    Good lord, I don’t know where to start. Becoming fully human means using reason and judgement to develope values. I suppose someone who’s never learned much about life and human nature developes a value system based on wishes, but I assumed we were discussing adults who’ve thought deeper than the values of magical thinking. While genocide is obvious, many standard values are not so obviously bad, but not good, nonetheless, and unless I use reason and judgement, based on my knowledge of human nature, philosophy, ethics, etc., I can never internalize my values to become the best I can become — many values which have been standardized by Church, State, Community, etc. follow the dictum — when all else fails, lower your standards.

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    • @mike farmer,
      Are you using reason and judgment to develop values or are reason and judgment solely post-hoc rationalization of non-rational moral judgments? The line between internalizing rational judgments and rationalizing internal judgments is a fine line that cannot be casually shrugged off.

      It may be the mid-day malaise but I don’t understand the “lower your standards” bit. I don’t see how that connects to anything else you’ve said. Maybe I should just come back later, but humor me.

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      • @Endevour to Persevere,
        Yes, I’m sure.

        The “lower your standards” bit was aimed at accepting values standardized by some group, be it the Democrat Party, Church, State, community, etc — I’m saying be careful about accepting standards, because groups tend to lower their standards over the course of time. I found this line on the wall at an old job I had — “When all else fails, lower your standards” — that seems to be right. So, what I’m saying is use reason, education and judgement to develope value-judgements — always re-evaluating based on new learning, personal growth and spiritual progress.

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  7. I loved Baltimore when I was a young man and spent a great deal of time there. I loved that you could go to a random bar and be pals with everyone there in a half-hour’s time and they have the best accent in America. I have a fear of rats, which was a problem in the neighborhoods where most of my friends live. But I have a fondness for formstone, so it all worked out.

    Welcome!

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