Liberalism is a mighty big tent

Freddie writes:

Before I get to it, can I just say that I find the endless posturing about the term “neoliberal” tiring and a dodge? The various poses that the term is meaningless, that the people called it don’t know what it means, or that it is a uniquely unhelpful word for making distinctions are just that, poses. Yes, the term is imperfect. Yes, it is imprecise. It shares that quality with absolutely every other term for broad political movements and ideologies that’s used in conventional discourse. Yes, we all imagine that we are unique political snowflakes who cannot be pinned down to reductive terms, most certainly including me. And, indeed we are, after a fashion. These terms persist because we need them. To say that neoliberal is any less demonstrative than, say, conservative, a term that somehow applies to Daniel Larison, Pamela Geller, Andrew Sullivan, and Maggie Gallagher, seems to me to be absurd on its face. But look, if the various bloggers involved in this discussion will agree to abandon progressive, a weasel word if I ever heard one, or even worse, “classical liberal,” a self-imposed title of nobility, I’ll drop neoliberal.

The thing about labels is that people use them in two different ways. On the one hand, people use them to describe their own views. On the other, people use them to describe other people’s views. So in a sense, when we label our own political views we do so in a way meant to strengthen and protect ourselves intellectually. Or we do it because we want to belong (or not to belong) to a particular team. This is why some people are not only liberals but also Democrats and why Tea Partiers are conservatives but not necessarily Republicans. These labels give us meaning and membership.

But they can also give our opponents power over us, either by twisting self-identification into jokes (Teabaggers, for instance) or through guilt-by-association (likening modern progressives to the very different breed of progressive of the early 20th century) or by simply designing a term to lay at your opponents’ feet and hoping that it sticks, such as ‘neoliberal’. It’s no wonder, really, that people who don’t self-describe as ‘neoliberal’ don’t particularly like the term, since it has been used almost universally as a pejorative.

I suppose I’ve come to the point where I would rather just call people by their own labels. If Freddie doesn’t like progressive, I won’t call him one. I’ll call him a leftist because I think that’s what he self-describes as (he can correct me if I’m wrong). I’ll call Matt Yglesias a classical liberal because not only do I not find it a ‘self-imposed title of nobility’ I actually think it is pretty accurate from a political-science standpoint. I will call Jason Kuznicki a ‘libertarian’ and Andrew Sullivan a ‘conservative’ even though at any point you could probably find a reason why all these people were not exactly this or that.

But even once we get past all of that, I think the labels leave much to be desired. The left flank keeps calling neoliberals ‘technocratic’ but I really see no way in which they are any more or less technocratic than anyone else on the left. And while I sympathize with neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it, I personally prefer a much less technocratic approach to policy-making if and when possible. But there will always be someone more or less technocratic, more or less ‘statist’ or ‘anarchistic’ or what-have-you. In the left/neoliberal debate it’s largely come down to support for unions. Even there I fail to see how this is really an issue of technocrats vs. non-technocrats. Perhaps if the debate were between libertarians and neoliberals the issue of who is more technocratic would be more relevant. On the issue of education reform, which is at the center of Freddie’s post, the actual dividing lines between various groups are far more complex than any neoliberal/left divide. Much of that debate does focus on the unions, but even there I suspect that the actual sentiments are quite a lot less black and white than our little blog spats would have us suspect.

Then we have foreign policy, healthcare policy, war-on-drugs, civil liberties, and on and on and on the many, many issues which some on each side agree or disagree on. Not every leftist is anti-war. Not every neoliberal is a civil libertarian. More clear divides come between those on the left who are adamant Democrats, staunchly loyal to the president regardless, and the, ahem, ‘professional left’. (On this last point, please read this excellent Op/Ed by Ta-Nehisi Coates who really, truly deserves a permanent spot at the gray lady).

But the fact is, liberalism is a big tent. It has room for neoliberals and leftists (and I think libertarians, too), I think, though I may be naive in thinking so.

Next up…open-source unionism.

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22 thoughts on “Liberalism is a mighty big tent

  1. “But the fact is, liberalism is a big tent. It has room for neoliberals and leftists (and I think libertarians, too), I think, though I may be naive in thinking so.”

    Where I have so much trouble with this is because, as you point out, people are complicated and often have a wide-range of positions. How would liberalism embrace a pro-lifer?

    I think what you really need is an un-official parlimentary system within the government that works on a case-by-case basis (basically coalition governing).

    More and more I just self-identify based on the issues. I’ll say, “I’m conservative on most issues”.

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    • Identity politics is important to a lot of people, so the case-by-case governing would probably just morph into larger groups. Of course, in a parliamentary system, that wouldn’t be so bad either.

      This whole thing is less about objective purity tests and more about how people form social groups online. The original theme, I thought, was that Yglesias was being excommunicated from certain online leftist communities for not being “pure” enough, but they didn’t want to actually say something that mean, so they shifted it into a discussion about the failures of neoliberalism (as some sort of pejorative codeword), which morphed into the Great Neoliberalism Debate. Talk about a runaway conversation.

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    • More and more I just self-identify based on the issues. I’ll say, “I’m conservative on most issues”.

      I do exactly the same. The set of my views is X; liberals tend to embrace more of those views than any other ‘major label’, so in conversations with people I self-identify as a liberal; Democrats embrace more of those views than any other political party, so I identify as a Dem. Even tho I tend to not agree with many, or sometimes even most, Democratic legislation.

      One thing I don’t understand is the purpose of attributing a new semantics to an understood word. ‘Neoliberalism’ refers to both the ideological commitments of it’s adherents as well as the economic systems that derive from implementing them, even if the ideal isn’t attained. Same for ‘libertarianism’, in which there often seems to be a desire to cleave off what is viewed as the negative connotations of that word for something which more accurately describes a preferred understanding by the speaker. Same, of course, for ‘liberal’ and etc.

      If we just skip the infatuation with labels and focus on policy, and the complexities of the merits of that policy from practical and political vantage points, then all the label skirmishes dissipate in any event.

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  2. It’s a mean think ol’ Freddie does judging poor neoliberalism on its performance in the realm of education. I mean is there any ideology that fare well when dumped into that particular policy pit? I’d submit no.

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  3. A good approach. The best way to get past a person’s defenses and engage them in nuanced discussion is to talk to them like a member of their group, so you’re not actually threatening them. Since when was being polite in politics a revolutionary idea?

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  4. Couldn’t we just get over labels? They’ve become the political equivalent of gang signs, signaling who’s in and who’s out of your or their particular herd (to mix metaphors). They do real intellectual harm in debates where they’re used to block thought — e.g., in liberal-left circles it’s enough to label a particular argument as “right-wing” in order to derail any further consideration of its merits. It’s not to say that ideas and arguments don’t clump together in patterns that can be categorized in various ways. But here’s a suggestion: take people’s labels, whether self-applied or pasted on you, with both skepticism and indifference, and stay focused on the actual argument, regardless of label.

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  5. I want to try to think about whether I think neoliberals are as consistently market-ideology-driven ed reformers as freddie says they are, but then I realize that trying to be that precise about the term is an entirely bad-faith pose, so I just back off the matter entirely and retreat to my unexamined, comfortable assumptions that my neoliberal preferences (which on education policy happen not to coincide with Freddie’s understanding of neoliberal education reform ideas, but that’s just me) are supported by a combination of sound theory and empirical observations, and that hence they exist above and beyond politics, whose grimy messiness I don’t want mussing up my neat determinations.

    And that’s the way it was.

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  6. If you start from a more fundamental separation — statist and anti-statist — then you see less diversity on the Left — the tent is really big, but all the clowns and jugglers and ringleaders basically look the same. When the State is threatened, as by limted government proponents, the tent is big and active in defense of the statist system — the differences among players on the Left are pragmatic choices within the statist system — for instance, none really consider private assistance over the welfare state, or private education out of the hands and control of government, or free market healthcare. This is true of both political parties — statism is a Right and Left system used to control in different ways. From the position of the anti-statist, the distinctions under the big tent, even if some are moderate Republicans, Big Government Republicans, and such, hardly constitute a difference.

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