Burke is back!

by John Holbo on July 15, 2004

Oh, happy day! Timothy Burke is back and blogging after his long hiatus! He’s got a nice post up about alleged third-party infantilism, responding to Henry and others; and a long outline proposal for a new model ’21st Century college’. Now all he needs is a PayPal button to help him raise $500 million; and a comments box for all the feedback he’ll needs to help hone these revolutionary ideas. Allow me to solve half these problems by providing the comments box. (No need to thank me, Tim. It’s the least I could do.)



Matthew 07.15.04 at 8:50 am

I don’t understand this debate about how silly 3rd parties are. Of ~course~ someone like Nader is not going to go from 3 to 60% overnight and be elected president, whatever his policies are. Of course he will not easily gain enough power to reform the voting system.
But he can push the Democrats to the left, because they need his percentage points, and will make some progressive talk which otherwise they would have no incentive at all to do. After all it’s not very difficult to be to the left the Bush admin.
The role of third parties, in the absence of proportional representation, is to gain enough bargaining power to influence the big parties, which are often locked in close races.
What is childish is to see everything in a manichean way, and begrudge third parties for failing to win the vote!

Of course, wether Nader in this case will be good at this, and “forget” to urge his supporters to vote Kerry at the last minute is another problem….


blurry 07.15.04 at 9:07 am

What’s wrong with university health services? What’s wrong with university subsidized housing? Why the disdain for academic and personal counseling? This seems a strange and unpleasant place to spend one’s college years.


Ralph Luker 07.15.04 at 9:12 am

Tim Burke has additional posts up at Cliopatria on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 and on Photography and History.


mc 07.15.04 at 9:23 am

I think elections themselves are a form of infantilism. Candy treats. A delusion of importance. They only allow you to change the frontmen, but you can’t vote the whole band out and the song always remains the same. If we were all grown up enough to _accept our responsibilities_ and our limits, elections should be abolished.


best trousers 07.15.04 at 2:11 pm

The 21st Century College sounds great, but I’m already going to it. A lot of the ideas can be found at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. http://www.hampshire.edu


djw 07.15.04 at 2:15 pm

Matthew, there is no particularly good reason to believe that a left third party movement won’t push the Democrats to the right, rather than pull them to the left. There are two directions they could go to try and pick up the votes lost, and moving to the center in search of votes is what they’re institutionally and habitually inclined to do. I don’t think Nader/Green style third partyism is going to change that. I don’t see much evidence that it has.


Timothy Burke 07.15.04 at 2:20 pm

Actually, I don’t have disdain for all those things; as I lay it out in the proposal, shucking it all off is one part a financial necessity and one part a radical thought-experiment about how to deal with the “nanny-state” character of the modern university.

Hampshire is a good example of a philosophically coherent, daring approach to the liberal arts. I’ve always admired both Hampshire and St. John’s College even though they take opposite approaches precisely because of their clarity. My sketch is sort of a hybrid of both in some ways.


harry 07.15.04 at 2:25 pm

djw the Dems have been going consistently further to the right for years. Nobody should expect a thrid party to reverse that trend. Maybe it could slow it. Or slow its acceleration.
I agree that Nader doesn’t seem interested in that goal, particularly, and having had a great deal of experience in the extra-Democratic Party left I can say that lots of people, indeed, have unrealistic outlooks, or are only interested in self-expression. Having had some experience with Dems, I can say exactly the same of lots of them; lots are unreflective hooligans who think that thinking about politics and trying to sort out goal, strategy and tactics is a kind of treachery — and these ‘third-party as infantilism’ posts bring them out of the woodwork.

I’ve always been highly sceptical of left-wingers running for high office even within the Dems, let alone outside them, because the kind of ideas I have simply don’t have the kind of popular support that would allow a high-elected official to act on them with integrity, and because participating in elections you hope to lose is odd (as Dean showed). But, the left needs organised forums in which it can work through strategy and tactics without being constsntly in the eye of its enemy, which is wealth and corporate America. The Democratic Party might be such a place in some locales — nationally it certainly is not. We need our own party, even if we don’t ever run for office with it. Can we agree on that?


Timothy Burke 07.15.04 at 3:42 pm

1. Why is a political party a necessity for “working through strategy and tactics”? The religious right actually seems to do a bang-up job of thinking in that way strictly through civil society, both churches and other organizations.

2. In what respect does a political party allow thinking about strategy and tactics to take place “out of the eye” of one’s enemies? What, is the hypothetical party of the Left going to have secret handshakes and such before you can come in the clubhouse and talk about strategy?

3. Who is “us”, exactly? I get a lot of sniping criticisms every time I try to talk about the very particular lineage of the American left that I find problematic–the critics observe that the left is highly pluralist and can’t be pigeonholed and that the things I find troubling are just fringe or marginal sentiments. Ok. I don’t know that I agree that the things I might criticize are marginal, but I accept that the left is pluralist. So who ought to be in Harry’s Party of the Left? Would all the possible constituencies in it regard “wealth and corporate America” as Public Enemy #1?


Henry 07.15.04 at 4:18 pm

I can’t speak for Harry on this one – but a couple of observations.

First, the reason that the religious and conservative right can do this is precisely because they have a thriving presence in civil society – a really very impressive network of institutions, groups, churches etc. The US left doesn’t – unlike its counterparts in Europe it never really succeeded in creating a real social democratic network. I posted on this a couple of days ago – the best account I know of on the US left is Lipset and Marks’ “It Didn’t Happen Here” (but I don’t know the US literature that well). On Europe, Carlo Trigilia’s _Grande Partiti e Piccole Imprese_ has a very interesting historical account of civil society in ‘Red’ (Communist) and ‘White’ (Christian Democratic) Italy, for Italian readers. But the point is that we on the left don’t have that option. A third party is only an inadequate substitute – in some ways it is shutting the barn door long after the horse has disappeared – but it seems to me to be the only realistic option for adding some intellectual coherence.

And this addresses the third point – again, I can’t speak for Harry – but I think that the left is currently fragmented, in part because it is too much of a catch all, trying to be all things to all men and women. In particular, I’m rather suspicious of left politics as identity politics. My personal, rather unrealistic ideal would be something like left European Social Democracy, shorn of some of the suspicion of the market (which can be a good thing) and of anti-globalization etc.


harry 07.15.04 at 4:58 pm

I wrote all this below before seeing Henry’s response. So I am speaking for myself here, not Henry, but I agree with everything he said, right down to the detail of finding Lipset and Marks to be the best, (but not flawless) account. It seems to me that people like Texiera and Joel Rogers are working to construct a ‘party of the left’ in the sense of party I use below. Anyway…

That wasn’t meant as criticism of you, Timothy — I agreed with most of what you said. But I also agreed with Matthew’s point that sometimes, especially given the realities of the US electoral system, the point of an third-party run can be to influence policy — maybe of the party next to you politically, maybe of the all parties. I’m consciously using the term ‘party’ loosely, more in the old fashioned sense of ‘grouping of the like-minded or like-goaled’ — I didn’t capitalize, and didn’t preface with ‘Political’. Partly this is because in the US context, it’s not clear to me even what counts as a political party.

When you are trying to formulate your goals and policies, strategy and tactics, it helps to be doing so without the enemy at the table with you. IN the old European social-democratic parties there were always a wide array of disagreements, and most even contained socialists who aimed to overthrow capitalism in their lifetimes. But large capital was not, usually, directly represented. It had its own party or parties. And it was in practical terms the enemy. As it still is. Even now, although Blair’s Labour Party is extremely friendly with big business, it is still fairly clear that capital does not really belong there — though that may, obviously, change, especially given the massive changes in the electoral system for most bodies other than the national parliament.

Now, I refrained from saying this because I thought of writing a post on it, but I actually think all the talk about a third party is a bit unhelpful on both sides; and I realsie that we wouldn’t be talking about this if Nader hadn’t decided to run again which is one of many reasons I wish he hadn’t. I realise the left is highly diverse and hard to define, and my own understanding of it is probably pretty narrow. But what seems to me to be urgent is to think through left policy responses to long-term policy problems. By left, here, I mean, something like ‘that would plausibly work to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged 1/3rd of the population’. I.e. policies which would eliminate child poverty, more-or-less eliminate it in old age, and provide much better schooling and healthcare to those who get the worst. If you don’t see these as the most urgent goals in domestic politics, you don’t count as being on the left as far as I’m concerned. So, tax policy, education policy, health policy, social security policy, welfare, etc. I think this is much more interesting and much more important for the development of a serious left ‘party-in-the-old-fashioned-sense’. I don’t think Nader is even beginning to think about most of this, and my reading of most left-third-party efforts is that they have given these very little thought, precisely because they rightly belief that they will never be held accountable for any policy pronouncements they make because they will never win power. But other people on the left do think about these issues, sometimes even do so here. Lots of them are in the Democratic Party, some are even DP elected officials. I even believe some of them are in the Republican Party and if I had a vote I wouldn’t hesitate to use it for a RP candidate who scored better on these issues than a DP candidate. But, I think that limiting ourselves to the assumption that the DP is the only option, and that any alternative is wrongheaded by fiat is not at all helpful. (And, just to show that I can read, you didn’t make either of those assumptions, in a post which seemed mostly right to me — but if you read through previous threads here and at Brad De Long’s site you’ll see them over and over again).


Timothy Burke 07.15.04 at 5:00 pm

I had your post on civil society in mind, Henry, because I think it’s the really apt point here. A party in the US is definitely the cart before the horse for almost any social movement–it is not the place to think and rethink, which is what I would hold that any constituency on the left in the US needs to do.

And I share your suspicion of identity politics–it’s one of two major fractions of the left that I’d like to see definitively and decisively on the outside of any kind of reformulated American progressivism. The other would be old-line socialism and anything that is redolent of it–Jim Livingstone, among others, has observed that there’s a old lineage within American progressivism of incorporating the market respectfully into radical thought which got lost somewhere around the 1930s and has yet to be decisively reclaimed. But the main point is that whatever the left wants to become, it ain’t gonna get there by forming a political party. I would have thought that was already amply demonstrated, and well before Ralph Nader stuck his nose in the tent.


harry 07.15.04 at 5:11 pm

bq. Would all the possible constituencies in it regard “wealth and corporate America” as Public Enemy #1?

I suppose my answer to this is definitely ‘no’. But that’s not what I implied above, just that very little if any of Corporate America likely to be in the constituency of the left as I — and henry — undertsand it.


Dan 07.15.04 at 5:21 pm

I find the 21st century college concept intriguing and appealing, but I agree that it probably isn’t on the horizon, on a wide scale, anytime soon. In addition to the problems Mr. Burke notes, I think the “philosopical commitment to the adulthood of students” (don’t know that I got that quote exactly right) might be a problem. On my campus, it seems that a majority (or at least a very large minority) of students are there precisely to escape from adulthood for as long as possible!


Ophelia Benson 07.15.04 at 5:31 pm

Here’s another vote for suspicion (not to say flat rejection) of identity politics as central to, indeed often the definition of, the left.


E. Naeher 07.15.04 at 6:26 pm

What’s wrong with university health services? What’s wrong with university subsidized housing? Why the disdain for academic and personal counseling? This seems a strange and unpleasant place to spend one’s college years.

It’s sounds incredibly refreshing to me. The intensely insular and communitarian nature of most academic institutions has always seemed smothering to me, though most of the students don’t seem to notice it. Even my current part-time job at a university library makes me a little claustrophobic. The atmosphere in such a place can come across as cult-like.


blurry 07.15.04 at 8:38 pm

When I defend university health services and student housing it is partially on preservation of their communitarian nature, which I suspect is helpful to the general academic climate.

My primary concern is that doing without these services merely transfers cost burdens from the university to individual students and undermines the equality that these free and reduced costs services create. Many students live in the dorms because they’re cheaper. The university would likely have to more heavily subsidize financial aid to help students with standard rents. Same for medical costs. The ethos of these programs may be all wrong, but for many students I suspect they’re more necessary than Burke & Naeher suspect.


Brey 07.15.04 at 11:50 pm

I like the concept of how the years are divided up. But, it seems like an elitist institution in that it limits the student population. Just locate it in a big city and you’ll have all the services necessary for a limitless student body.

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