Risk and politics

by Henry Farrell on April 29, 2005

Matt Yglesias talks about the difficulty that liberals and the left have in saying what they’re for and what their opponents are against, in a pithy one-sentence format.

the problem was that people didn’t even seem to understand the right kind of thing to be doing. What makes the conservative pitch work is that while it’s general enough to be broadly appealing, it’s specific enough that liberals will have to reject it. The submissions we got tended to either operate at an overly-broad level (“we’re for good things happening and against bad ones”) or else to just be policy laundry-lists.

It’s important to recognize that for these purposes you need an idea that conservatives would reject as a self-description. If you say, “we’re for the middle class, not just the wealthy” conservatives will say, “no, we’re for the middle class.” You may think (correctly) that this is an inaccurate description of the consequences of conservatism, but it’s not how conservatives see things. Liberals, on the other hand, really aren’t for low taxes. And part of the genius is that we wouldn’t say that we’re exactly for high taxes either.

I don’t have an answer for him; I’m not that good at snappy one liners. But I do have a strong feeling that the answer lies somewhere in the left and right’s attitudes towards risk. Modern conservatives tend to fetishize risk as being a good thing in itself – see John H’s extended interrogation of David Frum’s claims that the risk of hardship and privation are character-building. There’s something similar going on in the insistence of many conservatives that the welfare state destroys character, and that Social Security, universal health care, bankruptcy protection and so on are bad things in themselves. This points towards the same conclusion as the libertarian argument that markets are good, but for different reasons – it’s less concerned with increasing individuals’ ability to make choices, than ensuring that they’re exposed to the brisk winds of chance and market forces. The left wants to provide a safety net in case you fall from the tightrope, but for people like Frum, the risk that you’ll break your neck is a _good thing_. It concentrates your mind wonderfully on staying up there, and makes you bulk up your moral fibre. There are some varieties of American conservatism for which this isn’t true (there’s a subdued strain of Catholic corporate responsibility, for example, here and there), but they aren’t politically dominant. Now the statement that the left’s motive is to mitigate risk isn’t a one-liner; at most it’s a loose animating philosophy. But whatever one-liners we come up with should reflect that philosophy, or something like it – it’s what really divides the left (as broadly conceived) from the currently dominant version of American conservatism.



abb1 04.29.05 at 11:50 am

…the difficulty that liberals and the left have in saying what they’re for and what their opponents are against

The left has no such difficulty, only the liberals, the left has plenty to say.

Liberals need both left and right to ‘triangulate’ and pose as an acceptable compromise; in the absence of the left their ‘third way’ concept becomes a mere travesty, obviously.

That’s why they are always in search for poor leftists to deride and scorn, from Michael Moore to Noam Chomsky to Ward Churchill; note the same reaction to our friend Louis Proyect here.


P ONeill 04.29.05 at 12:06 pm

This is an issue that Sullywatch has expounded upon in some detail and I’m inclined to agree with their view is that it’s a particular rhetorical style that conservatives are good at which explains some of their success. Not so much easy for/against statements, but a structure where every sentence is on the attack.

I think liberals need to get better at on-message name calling e.g. a week where Republicans are referred to as “economic supremacists” at every opportunity. Frum loves that tightrope, for sure, but does he ever really think that he would fall off?


Steve LaBonne 04.29.05 at 12:08 pm

Right, abb1, all that abundant leftist talk has proved so effective- at persuading moderate voters to defect to the Republicans. [rolls liberal eyes]


chris y 04.29.05 at 12:09 pm

But, as William James pointed out a hundred years ago, the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success, together with the squalid cash interpretation of the word success, is the American national disease. And if this is where you worship, then it’s obviously true that the risk of breaking your neck which concentrates your mind on stsying up there is a good thing. To suggest otherwise would be heresy.

What the non-right really faces is the task of convincing the great American public that there are more important things in life than coming a long way from St Louis. It’s a taller order than merely arguing about degrees of risk mitigation.


Randolph Fritz 04.29.05 at 12:22 pm

The “conservatives” are wrong, of course–competent teachers will tell you that scared students are bad students. Arranging threats for people is in no way a truly conservative practice. But this garbage appeals deeply to bravado, and especially the bravado of men. It’s another damn masculinity doubt problem, I think, and I have no good answer for it; “motherly” advice to men who fear unmanliness is not going to be taken kindly, even if it is likely to save their lives.


abb1 04.29.05 at 12:24 pm

Steve, what ‘abundant leftist talk’? Seen any sign of it since, say, 1975?


Steve LaBonne 04.29.05 at 12:32 pm

abb1 the first: “the left has plenty to say”
abb1 the second: “what abundant leftist talk?”
Does he contradict himself? Very well then he contradicts himself.


Ben Alpers 04.29.05 at 12:54 pm

I think abb1’s point is that:

1) leftists are pretty clear about what they want


2) they are shut out of the national political conversation, so that although they show up occasionally on the so-called left of the blogosphere, they are virtually absent from TV and major news outlets

Where’s the contradiction?


Ben Alpers 04.29.05 at 12:58 pm

Do you have any evidence that the right likes _actual_ risk? Many of their policies are in fact designed to significantly reduce risk for their constituency (that’s what corporate welfare is all about).

At least at first glance, conservatives celebrate “risk” the same way they celebrate “responsibility”: it’s a steady and dependable talking point, but in practice it is only applied to other people.


abb1 04.29.05 at 1:00 pm

Ah, OK. Let me clarify: yes, the left has plenty to say, but the left doesn’t exist in the US politics. To make it real simple: where are leftist NYT ot WP or LAT opinion columninsts? Where are the leftist TV talking heads? Do you know one?


abb1 04.29.05 at 1:01 pm

Oh, sorry, Ben, I didn’t see your post. Yes, exactly.


diddy 04.29.05 at 1:02 pm

As an actuary I love reading about risk in a practical sense as opposed to a theoretical sense, but Frum and conservatives don’t seem to be singing from the hymnal on this one. The implication of risk is that sometimes the thing will happen. You can be a risk seeker or a risk averter; you can welcome the higher returns (financial and otherwise) that reside in the presence of risk; and in limited cases you can actually hedge your risk perfectly. But the thing about risk is, you can do all these things, and sometimes the thing you are at risk for will still happen, and you will find no shelter in the definition. Conservatives fail because, as ben alpers was getting at, they believe that as long as they are hedged everyone else can take a flying leap.


Steve LaBonne 04.29.05 at 1:06 pm

OK, I’ll bite. Since you don’t feel that, say, Moore (whose pronoucements are hardly a secret) is one of the leftist voices we should be hearing, please direct me to the ones you would like me to listen to.


abb1 04.29.05 at 1:10 pm

Yeah, so, basically what the liberals need to be saying is this: we’ll take good ideas from the egalitarian internationalist left and from the libertarian nationalist right and mix them together into something acceptable to almost everyone. But there’s nothing on the left of them, so they have to keep trying to prove that they are not communists and traitors. That’s sad.


abb1 04.29.05 at 1:14 pm


Steve LaBonne 04.29.05 at 1:20 pm

On a quick perusal, no different to my centrist – liberal eyes from the more widely publicized pronouncements of such windbags as Chomsky and Moore. (Wow, a speech by Hugo Chavez- be still my beating heart.) Giving more outlets to this stuff is supposed to hurt conservatives? Dream on.


Urinated State of America 04.29.05 at 1:20 pm


“Steve, what ‘abundant leftist talk’? Seen any sign of it since, say, 1975?”

No, but the Republicans have doen a good job of placing anyone to the left of Lindsey Graham with being a stone-thrower at the 1968 Democratic convention. One of the talents of conservatives – a long memory for the sins of others, a short one for their own.


HP 04.29.05 at 1:25 pm

If I were the kind of person who gets to dictate the public framing of issues, I would make sure that every sentence that starts with “Conservatives” uses “fear” as the verb. As in: “Conservatives fear future terrorist attacks,” or “Conservatives fear women’s reproductive rights,” even “Conservative fear paying taxes.”

I would consistently link conservatism with fear and cowardice, with aversion to change and progress, and with giving in to threats and intimidation. I think it would be an effective frame, and it has the advantage of being true.


RSL 04.29.05 at 1:36 pm

First a caveat: I don’t like the tendency to label every idea and every person as either left or right. I think this stifles creative thought and constructive compromise. Plus the real world is too complex for such simple dichotomies.

But, with that caveat, two reasons why conservatives are more effective in getting their message across:

1. Conservative people tend to be comfortable viewing the world in black and white. Liberals love shades of gray. Conservatives don’t have a lot of patience with doubt–they want to decide what’s right and wrong and then act on it. Liberals love ambiguity and subtlty. I won’t make a judgment on which mindset is better–they just are different, but the conservative one makes for clearer rhetoric and more forceful action, while the liberal one tends to love debate and complexity.

2. Another argument can be found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on this topic: conservatives are comfortable with the current status quo and therefore their arguments always seem to be very firmly based in the reality of the here and now (you could argue whether this applies to some of today’s so-called conservatives who deny evolution, etc., but in general I think it’s true.) Liberals on the other hand are always trynig to change current reality and therefore are always making “flights of fancy” away from the accepted conventions and, in making those flights, are prone to disconnecting with reality and making errors. Emerson argues that both mindsets are useful–liberals pull us toward change (making many crazy errors along the way, but also advancing us to new and better states), while conservatives keep us grounded in the pragmatic realities of today.


Barry Freed 04.29.05 at 1:50 pm

I’d like to keep this practical and incorporate your suggestion as to the risk component. How’s this for a slogan:

Vote Democratic: It’s like fucking in the Seventies.


Barry Freed 04.29.05 at 1:53 pm


IIRC, Louis Proyect took it on the chin here because he reviewed a book that he hadn’t read and then proceeded to defend the same in a most, well, indefensible mannner. It would do well to remember that this is a predominantly academic blog.


dipnut 04.29.05 at 2:13 pm

You’re getting warm, Henry.

Speaking as a conservative, I’ll grant that my worldview entails a cavalier and somewhat cold-hearted attitude toward personal risk and disaster; and I agree with David Frum, more or less as you present him. This attitude necessarily rises from the moral, historical, and philosophical foundation of American conservatism. However, it should not be mistaken for the foundation. I do not start with a grin at my own callousness, then think “where do I go from here?”

Like any informed person, I have seen many efforts lately, to come up with a handy rhetorical container for conservative principles. Conservatives want a “strict father” government; are a coalition of bigots, scared animals, dupes and rogues; regard risk as a good thing; etc. There may be a bit of truth in these assertions, but it’s all rather presumptuous, like psychoanalyzing someone you never met based on his shopping list. And the result, invariably, is a handy rhetorical container…with nothing in it. Conservatism isn’t in there, because the container doesn’t fit.

No amount of rhetorical inventiveness (or think-tank investment, or talk radio) will improve the fortunes of the left-of-center in America. Believe me, there is no “difficulty in saying”; everybody hears what you’re saying, and knows what you mean by it. Everybody knows, in aggregate and detail, in practice and in principle, what you stand for.

Some of us disagree, is all.


dipnut 04.29.05 at 2:16 pm

To illustrate that there is no “difficulty in saying” I present this Time Magazine article. It was written in February 2004, is jam-packed with socialist sentiment, and bewails the way (Republican) lawmakers have “introduced risk to American life”.

We hear you.


abb1 04.29.05 at 2:16 pm

Steve, but I am not saying that the left is necessarily better or more coherent than the right. All I’m saying is that when one side of the argument is not presented at all, then the other side’s dogma achieves legitimacy it doesn’t necessarily deserve. Concepts like ‘capitalism’, ‘free trade’, ‘individualism’, etc. win by default, just like when one of the boxers fails to show up for the fight.


Steve LaBonne 04.29.05 at 2:22 pm

Aside from my personal distaste for the sort of people who think that Israel is somehow more illegitimate than other nation-states or that an authoritarian bully like Hugo Chavez is anyone a sane person would want to listen to, I’m just talking practical politics. And anything I might say about that was said far better long ago by Orwell in _The Road to Wigan Pier_.


jet 04.29.05 at 2:27 pm

Heh, the reason the left can’t come up with snappy one liners that hit home with the right is that if they are premised on something like this “[For the Right]…it’s less concerned with increasing individuals’ ability to make choices, than ensuring that they’re exposed to the brisk winds of chance and market forces.” they’ll think you’re a loon.

Hah, can you imagine Rush spouting off, not about liberty, but how corporate corruption builds character in investors. HAHAHAHAHAA, that is crazy talk. Seeing the right through the eyes of the left, what a trip.


Neil S 04.29.05 at 2:42 pm

I believe that the characterization of the Right as believing that they “tend to fetishize risk as being a good thing in itself” is a misunderstanding. A more nuanced interpretation is that the right believes that the unintended consequences of the safety net programs proposed by the Left tend to create incentives that increase the likelihood that people will make bad decisions.

For example, I think it’s more accurate to say that the Right believes that generous welfare programs reduce the incentive for people to work, that performing productive work is in the best interests of both the individual and the society, therefore tightly controlled welfare progams are in the best interest of both the society and the potential recipients, as opposed to believing that the risk of economic deprivation is good in and of itself.


dipnut 04.29.05 at 2:44 pm

I would consistently link conservatism with fear and cowardice, with aversion to change and progress, and with giving in to threats and intimidation.

That would explain the Iraq war, Social Security reform, and the pathological fear of guns.

Conservative people tend to be comfortable viewing the world in black and white. Liberals love shades of gray.

I’m a conservative, and I prefer color.

Emerson argues that both mindsets are useful—liberals pull us toward change (making many crazy errors along the way, but also advancing us to new and better states), while conservatives keep us grounded in the pragmatic realities of today.

When Emerson wrote that, the words “conservative” and “liberal” meant the opposite of what they do today.


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.29.05 at 3:27 pm

“All I’m saying is that when one side of the argument is not presented at all, then the other side’s dogma achieves legitimacy it doesn’t necessarily deserve. Concepts like ‘capitalism’, ‘free trade’, ‘individualism’, etc. win by default, just like when one of the boxers fails to show up for the fight.”

The left has had its side of the debate presented at nearly all times in the last 150 years. Quick, who is the conservative social theorist who gets as much discussion as Marx? The left hasn’t succeeded in America because most Americans don’t like its ideas. The left can sort of succeed in Europe becuase Europeans can rely on the US for defence spending allowing for more European social spending.


RSL 04.29.05 at 3:30 pm

“When Emerson wrote that, the words “conservative” and “liberal” meant the opposite of what they do today.”

I haven’t read Emerson’s essay on conservatism in about 20 years (and I don’t feel like looking it up and re-reading it right now so I’m going out on a limb here a bit), but from memory I don’t think the way Emerson defines liberalism in that essay necessarily links with the kind of 19th century liberalism you are refering to, which indeed does resemble current laissez faire conservatism. So liberal may have meant something different to many people at the time (and opposite of today’s meaning), but if I recall correctly, Emerson’s idea of liberal in his writing is more akin to “revolutionary” and more like what we currently think of when we think of liberals.

Anyway, his point is really to compare people who seek to change things with people who are comfortable with the way things are. Call them what you want. One more reason why I try to avoid the silly terms conservative and liberal and ultimately reject the whole dicotomy.

Where would I put myself? I think the 2nd amendment is absolutely as important as the 1st and I own (and use) guns . . . and believe Americans have an inalienable right to own assault weapons if they want. But I give money to the ACLU and don’t like the NRA. I believe, like Scalia, that the Constitution is essentially “dead” as he jokes and am a strict interpretationalist. But I think the 9th amendment means something and I think one of the (possibly infinite) 9th amendment protected Constitutional rights is a right to privacy. (Isn’t that conservative that the government should stay out of our private lives? But most people think supporting a right to privacy is a liberal position . . .) So am I liberal or conservative? Beats me . . .


jet 04.29.05 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for saying that so eloquently. It does pretty much sum up the basic core belief of conservatives.


Ben Alpers 04.29.05 at 3:32 pm

I would agree with dipnut about at least one thing (which probably surprises him as much as it surprises me): today’s conservatives are much more active change-agents than today’s liberals. That’s why the word “radical right” better describes the current leadership of the GOP than does “conservative.” They decry present-day realities as something only political wimps need to deal with; real men make their own facts. They appeal to much of their political base by claiming that America is headed straight to hell (quite literally) and that massive change is necessary to prevent that disaster.

By contrast today’s liberals (or at least the leadership of the Democratic Party) truly have been guided by fear and cowardice in the face of these right-wing challenges to American traditions of pluralism, science, and so forth. I wouldn’t agree with dipnut’s examples of this, of course, or at least not as he means them. The vast swath of lukewarm and cynical Democratic support for the IWR in October 2002 was an act of supreme cowardice, in my view, as was the party’s decision to nominate a Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate who supported this war. Their current stance on Social Security, by contrast, is relatively brave (though the vast public opposition to GOP plans to dismantle our most successful social program makes the Democrats’ decision to take a stand a little easier). To give the Dems some credit, in the last few months, they’ve shown some renewed signs of life.


hope 04.29.05 at 3:33 pm

Liberals think that one’s actions that affect no one but oneself (like using contraception, having sex with someone of the same gender) should be totally private matters but that one’s actions that affect others (like polluting, running a business) should be public matters, and that we have an obligation to help those who can’t completely take care of themselves (like children, the poor).

Conservatives think the government’s highest purpose is to protect private property, except for the social conservatives who think that the government’s highest purpose is to impose their own set of moral beliefs on everyone else.


Decnavda 04.29.05 at 3:42 pm


THAT is the simple phase suggested by this post that describes something popular with the public that conservatives do not like but cannot actually come out against either.

Of course, conservatives ARE for economic security, but only for a select group of people. Creditors and shareholders.


DGF 04.29.05 at 3:47 pm


No amount of rhetorical inventiveness (or think-tank investment, or talk radio) will improve the fortunes of the left-of-center in America. Believe me, there is no “difficulty in saying”; everybody hears what you’re saying, and knows what you mean by it. Everybody knows, in aggregate and detail, in practice and in principle, what you stand for.

As a liberal, I agree with this analysis, and it doesn’t worry me. All of Norquist et al.’s proclamations about a “permanent majority” betray a weak understanding of history. I have confidence that our time is forthcoming, which ironically puts me more in touch with people of faith. Imagine that . . .


abb1 04.29.05 at 3:57 pm

Sebastian, are you implying that Marxism is somehow ubiquitous? Name one Marxist oped writer for any major (hell, even minor) US newspaper. What was the last time you saw a Marxist on TV? Maxism is all but banned from the US mainstream political discourse. ‘Socialism’ is a swear-word. The dialog is between the far-right and the center-right. It’s obvious, then, that the center-right has nothing exciting to say; their only slogan is: we are like them, but not extremists; ‘capitalism with a human face’. Not too arousing.


dipnut 04.29.05 at 4:01 pm

Thanks, rsl.

I try to avoid the silly terms conservative and liberal and ultimately reject the whole dicotomy.

We haven’t got much to work with, have we? I mean, isn’t “conservative” a synonym for risk-averse? Yet now we’re told it means the opposite, and the most entrenched and illiberal elements in politics are now called “liberals”. Wow.

I’m not happy to call myself a conservative, but I’m stuck with it. At least I have a definite idea what I mean by it; which leads to the point I’m trying to make:

There is, there really is, a dichotomy. It’s not about risks or status quos or war or religion or any of the “issues”; the divisions which spring up around those are not parallel to the fundamental division in American politics. And that division is…

Oops. Gotta go. See you all Monday.


RSL 04.29.05 at 4:18 pm

One observation on the broader issue of the left’s current inability to articulate an effective position on anything right now . . .

We shouldn’t forget that until Ronald Reagan came along, no one on the right really connected with the American people in any significant way. FDR’s New Deal was the dominant political ideology and the Republicans were the “me-too-but-less-of-it party.” Success in American politics depends on connecting with the vast Middle Class. For many years, the New Deal made that connection and most Middle Class people identified themselves as Democrats. Lots started to change in the 60s and especially the 70s though. The Democrats (smug in their power) failed to notice the changes and lost out when Reagan was able to define a new paradigm that connected with the Middle Class’s new reality.

Here’s what happened:

1. A new generation of Middle Class Americans who were more likely to be college-educated than their parents began to identify themselves with their employers and management rather than identifying themselves with labor. The Democrats, however, continued to define themselves as a labor party, even as children struggled to realize their parents’ dreams and move from blue-collar to white-collar jobs. The Middle Class changed its loyalties and the Democrats missed it altogether.

2. In the 70s in particular, the American Middle Class went through a real crisis, where it’s economic opportunities suddenly seemed to be drying up. There was stagflation and the first signs of significant global competition and the loss of a manufacturing jobs. Through all this, the Democrats seemed to be focused only on expanding programs for the poor. The Middle Class in America doesn’t think of itself as poor and doesn’t like to be called poor (it’s a sign of personal failure in the land of opportunity), so the Democratic message was missing the Middle Class completely (to accept the Democratic message meant accepting the notion that you were poor and unempowered and hence a failure–the psychology of this was impossible for the proud sons and daughters of the immigrants that made up so much of the working Middle Class). It wasn’t hard for Middle Class people to begin to believe that the Democrats were no longer their friends, but were instead taking their hard-earned economic success away from them and giving away their money (through tax transfer programs) to the poor.

3. The race issue was big and not just in the South. Democrats seemed to be a party that put minorities first . . . and a lot of the white Northerners losing factory jobs resented this.

4. For generations, the military has been highly revered by Americans. FDR won world war II and increased our military might. He was revered for this. With Vietnam, though, Democrats were on the wrong side of the ever-popular military. Lots of the Middle Class people were turned off to the party by this.

5. As the Middle Class began to see the Democrats as more and more the party of the lower class, Reagan came with a simple four-part message;

A. You are rich and can be a success in business (not just a manager, even an entreprenuer!) if only the government gets out of your way (ah, no more need to be a weakling and failure, like the Democrats say I am)

B. You are right, your taxes are too high and all your money is going to welfare cheats. You work hard, you deserve to keep your money. (Finally, someone who understands!)

C. The military is good and we’re gonna make it even better so we can punch a few commies if we need to. (I feel so much more empowered already!)

D. America is still the great land of opportunity, the shining city on a hill your grandparents thought it was when they came here from Italy and Poland and Germany and Ireland to create a better life for themselves. You will be a success here, if only you follow my lead! (I’m voting for this guy!)

Suddenly, Reaganism was the new dominant political ideology and the Democrats became the “me-too-but-a-little-less-of-it party”–essentially accepting Reaganism (as Clinton did) but trying to soften the edges a bit.

Now, however, the Republicans are starting to show some signs of losing touch with the vast Middle Class themselves. The economy is in real trouble and it’s gonna get worse if we don’t get the deficits (both trade and budget) under control. The Middle Class (which did quite well in the 1990s) is starting to feel an income pinch–and health care and retirement security are declining fast . . . not to mention the vast cloud of personal debt that hangs over the Middle Class thanks to their ever-larger mortgages and credit card balances (and the new bankruptcy bill on top of it!). While all this is happening, the Republicans are caught up trying to please their “moral values” crowd–their own version of the Democrat’s antiwar crowd. There’s lots of danger here for the Republicans and an opportunity for the Democrats. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.


jon stan 04.29.05 at 4:27 pm

Fuck Matt Y. The guy is obsessed with slogans. He wants a slogan? How about “we don’t do slogans”. Superficial bullshit at a time of real crisis……..


james 04.29.05 at 4:37 pm

Liberals and Conservatives both have fear issues. With liberal ideology it tends to be health, environment and job security. With conservative ideology it tends to be national security, personal safety, and job opportunity. At this moment in US politics national security and personal safety issues trump the rest. Eventually it will move to health and job security.

All political ideologies in the US attempt to enforce their moral position on social issues. It is ironic that neither position recognizes this trait in themselves.


dipnut 04.29.05 at 6:08 pm

Back for the moment. dgf:

I agree with [dipnut’s] analysis, and it doesn’t worry me. All of Norquist et al.’s proclamations about a “permanent majority” betray a weak understanding of history. I have confidence that our time is forthcoming…

You have reason to be confident, which is yet another reason why I find lefties’ frantic efforts to “reframe” the “debate” so tiresome. There’s no arguing over moral postulates, and the drift of history is to the left anyway.


almostinfamous 04.29.05 at 6:55 pm

rsl, it seems to me the religious far-right(or the ‘moral values’ crowd) is already chomping at the bit, having been totally shot down by the courts during the schiavo debacle and not getting anything from el presidente on the gay marriage ban. however, methinks it would be better to let that particular beast starve to its death than be fed by the democrats to further an opportunistic goal.

the problem with coming up with a catchy slogan for the democratic party is because they have all these things to defend(social security, environmental protection et al) that are already under severe attack. before they can move on to attacking the republicans for their policy failures or whatever.


roger 04.29.05 at 7:29 pm

Wow. Is this really a big puzzle to the liberals out there?
Huey Long pretty much broke it down a long time ago in Every man a king. Get out your harmonicas and sing along:

“Why weep or slumber America
Land of brave and true
With castles and clothing and food for all
All belongs to you

Ev’ry man a king ev’ry man a king
For you can be a millionaire
But there’s something belonging to others
There’s enough for all people to share
When it’s sunny June and December too
Or in the winter time or spring
There’ll be peace without end
Ev’ry neighbor a friend
With ev’ry man a king.”

As an addendum, in Randy Newman’s song about Long, The Kingfish, there are several other boilings down of the liberal credo. I like this one:

“Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?
Who put up the hospital and built you schools?
Who looks after shit-kickers like you?
The Kingfish do.”

Who looks out for shit-kickers like you would be the motto of any Democratic party with guts.


Gareth Wilson 04.29.05 at 8:34 pm

A recent letter to an American magazine whose name escapes me proposed the three slogans of American conservatism:
1)The United States is the greatest country on Earth.
2)If you work hard, you can get rich.
3)Faith and family are the basis of society.
All of the slogans have obvious weaknessess, but the point is they’re popular, even with people who aren’t conservatives. Heck, Noam Chomsky has said something close to 1) in an interview. Find three liberal slogans that would be just as popular with Americans, and half the battle’s won.


Jack Lake 04.30.05 at 12:31 am

For poor sloganeers: We are for
– health care for everyone
– equality of sexes, colors, orientation
– free speech for everyone and not only the rich
– efficient and strong military to defend us from real dangers
– affordable education on all levels
– the right to work and the right to strike
– Children and old people and everyone in between
– eating a lot of organic bananas and French speaking monkeys


bi 04.30.05 at 3:48 am

May Day a.k.a. International Workers Day is coming. If the “liberals” have any brains, they’ll be doing something on that day. And they shouldn’t be worrying to no end about people labelling them as “communists”. because the history of the United States is on their side.


Clever Leftist 04.30.05 at 8:09 am

I think Matt himself had a great one-liner a while back, “fuck the small businessman”. I think that sums up the left-wing position pretty well, eh?


RSL 04.30.05 at 8:13 am

A brief comment on Henry’s original point about the distinction between conservatives and liberals having to do with differing attitudes (or comfort with) risk. There’s something here, but I think the more fundamental difference may really be in their attitudes toward individual and collective action. Conservatives tend to glorify individual action (and hence things like competition, risk-taking, etc.), while liberals are more likely to appreciate collective solutions (emphasizing cooperation, compassion, etc.). One reason I so dislike the division of the world into liberal and conservative camps is that I feel there are merits to both views, and effective (i.e., pragmatic rather than ideological) government policy requires an ability to balance individual and collective approaches. In fact, every successful society in human history has succeeded by achieving such a balance–and swinging too far toward one pole is certain to send a society into decline.

This may seem like a plea for moderation . . . and maybe it is . . . but I prefer to stand at both poles at once, rather than sit in the middle. I like the two extremes coexisting in tension more than I like a placid middle.


Stentor 04.30.05 at 8:27 am

I actually think conservatives are quite risk-averse. More on my blog.


Ray Davis 04.30.05 at 12:04 pm

Like many other commenters here, I take issue with the notion that right-wingers like “risk”. George W. never risked a thing in his life. How does eliminating the estate tax count as character-building or thrill-seeking?

What they want is for *everyone else* to take risks.


abb1 04.30.05 at 12:23 pm

Isn’t it kinda irrelevant, though, whether they like risk or not? It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything useful about the dogma itself. Let’s say, for example, that I don’t like carrots and try to avoid eating them, even though I do think that people in general need to eat more carrots. Or, say, most of the liberals believe that taxes need to higher, but most liberal individuals probably don’t like paying taxes.


Nicholas Weininger 04.30.05 at 3:14 pm

abb1: on an earlier comment of yours, Barbara Ehrenreich had a column in Time for quite awhile in the recent past (don’t know whether she still does) and is a bona fide Marxist.


Publius 04.30.05 at 4:33 pm

This is so damn simple, it’s silly. Democrats just need to hire the ad agencies and PR agencies and branding geniuses that are well-paid by the gigantic HMO’s and insurance companies. They know *exactly* how to communicate core Democratic values in a heartwarming, all-American way. They do it all the time. They do it very well.

Democrats are there for you. We’re here to stick up for the little guy (and gal). We’re here for the average American. We keep you safe, and healthy, and prosperous. Vote for us.

Basic, simple, “nurturing parent” (in Lakoff’s terms) stuff. This is not hard. Anyone who has ever been in brand marketing or on Madison Avenue knows how to do this. Take it even further, and we’re there for not just Americans but “we’ve got the whole world in our hands”– and all its people, creatures, and plants. We must take care of it. It’s our responsibility, it’s our joy, it’s what makes us fulfilled as human beings. It’s a spiritual, moral value– a duty.

Just about every Democratic principle can be summed up with this moral/value statement. We are here for the average Joe and Jane, the workers, the soldiers, the immigrants, the people who make this country (even planet) go, who make it great. Think “Chevy truck commercial” and add in HMO and/or insurance commercial and you’re halfway there.

When the message and the images makes your heart fill with pride and joy and fulfilment, *against your will*, they you have found the right message– and the rest of the country will follow you. Even the right-wingers. They won’t be able to help themselves. Hey, they did it to us after 9/11– don’t you remember them playing with your emotions? Well, two can play at that game. Now it’s our turn.

Think of how you felt when your first child was born. When Democratic brandmeisters can come up with a message that makes people feel that way about their fellow Americans– indeed about our whole planet–, we’re done with our branding exercise. “We Are the World” made people cry. Maudlin as it was, it worked– it engaged emotions. That’s where we need to go. Now let’s go take back our country, and help heal the wounds of this planet too!


sara 04.30.05 at 6:51 pm

The Republican fetishinzing of risk leads to (a) military incompetence (Iraq). Advertised as averting the risk of WMDs for the American public, it actually represents a gamble for Empire, what the British used to call “the great game.” They gambled with our soldiers’ lives.

(b) Corporate crime. In a word: Enron. What is more risky than breaking the law, or at least bending it into a tangled mass, and assuming you are smart enough to get away with it?

(c) Political corruption. In a name: Tom DeLay.

(d) The sabotaging of the social safety net, as discussed above, but the Democrats should take back moral discourse from the Republicans and emphasize that this machismo of risk is criminally irresponsible.


RSL 04.30.05 at 10:57 pm

In my line of work, I spend a lot of time looking at Americans’ tolerance for financial risk. I don’t know if there’s a difference between the risk tolerance of people who call themselves conservative and that of people who call themselves liberal (we don’t ask about our clients’ politics). However, I can tell you that most Americans are very risk-averse when it comes to their money, at times even to the point of making completely irrational financial decisions. Many people like to think of themselves as risk takers, but in actuality behave as extreme risk avoiders. The disconnect between the way people think about their risk tolerance and the way they actually behave when faced with real risk may explain why the Republicans have stumbled so much with the Social Security initiative (and the “ownership society” theme in general). Because people like to think of themselves as risk takers, I bet these ideas polled fairly well and were popular in focus groups. But once Americans see the policy implications and are faced with the fact that gaining greater “ownership” of their health and retirement plans also means taking on more individual risk, then their support for the ownership concept crumbles. I assume the Republican strategists were mislead by opinion research that showed the ownership society as a winning issue. However, it was probably a dud from the beginning . . . one which the Kerry campaign could have attacked and destroyed, simply by claiming that what “ownership” really means when the Republicans talk about it is: “you’re on your own buddy–your company’s already cut your health and retirement benefits and now we Republicans are gonna do the same with your government-provided benefits. If you want to own anything now, you’ll have to buy it yourself. And if your job gets shipped to China and you lose your health coverage and you happen to get ill and you didn’t save enough ahead of time, well that’s your fault schmuck. We gave you a tax break on your capital gains and investment income didn’t we? And we also gave you that nice estate tax break on the millions you would have inherited if only your parents had been virtuous enough to be rich. Too bad you and your wife were working for the lousy median family income of $40,000 a year for the last couple of decades (imagine tyring to live on that . . . I really don’t know how you people do it!). If only you had started your own oil company, like my great-granddaddy did . . . oh well, that’s life, I guess. Win some, lose some. It builds character, you know. By the way, did I mention our new bankruptcy bill . . . ”

Kerry meanwhile was re-fighting the Vietnam War . . .


Publius 05.01.05 at 1:09 pm

“The ownership society” means the rich own the society.

King George III would be proud. No concept could possibly be more anti-democratic and anti-American than that.


bi 05.01.05 at 2:03 pm

You know, this whole discussion makes me wonder if the whole world should just go back to dictatorship. See, with a dictatorship, in order to get a sound policy implemented, you just need to convince _one_ person to implement it, and that person just needs to be intelligent enough to tell good stuff from bad stuff. With a democracy, in order to get a sound policy implemented, you need to convince _a huge group of people_ to vote for it, and on the average, people are just stupid.

And besides, it seems that what’s happening in the US isn’t that much different from the dictator situation either. Or maybe it’s worse. It’s like, people need to convince the Democrat higher-ups to adopt good PR practices. And the good PR practices are in turn aimed to convince the people to vote for good policies… Yeah, now we have _two levels_ of persuasion to take care of.


SqueakyRat 05.01.05 at 3:35 pm

Mitigating risk takes money. If you already have more money than you need, your risk is already mitigated: bad economic stuff can happen without actually harming you. Therefore you will be disinclined to spend anything on mitigating other people’s risk. It’s a benefit you don’t really need. So, you vote Republican.

Simple as that, really. It’s not that conservatives have a different attitude toward risk. It’s that rich people are in a better position to face risks.


Steve Burton 05.01.05 at 6:31 pm

There is a pretty fundamental misunderstanding going on here – encouraged, I suppose, by that silly, snarky and superficial piece by John Holbo to which Henry Farrell links.

Conservatives do not value risk *as such* – let alone “fethishize” it. On the contrary: conservatives welcome social and technological advances that reduce risk as much as anyone else does.

Yet risk remains. I.e., for all our advances, certain courses of behavior still remain more likely than others to lead to bad results. (Conceiving children outside of committed relationships, for example.)

So the issue between left and right is not: “shall there be more risk in life, or less?” It is, rather, “who shall bear the costs of risk-taking?”

The conservative answers: “those who take the risks.” The liberal answers: “the state.”

The conservative answers as he does because he wishes to encourage the development of the virtue of prudence.

The liberal answers as he does because he cannot tolerate the possibility that someone might be punished for bad luck rather than moral failure.

That is the real issue here.


rob stowell 05.01.05 at 10:31 pm

Hi Steve. You’ve shown us another way of characterising conservatives- by a tendency to conflate economic and moral failure. By these standards- Ken Lay good, Jesus bad.


Steve Burton 05.01.05 at 11:14 pm

rob stowell: some economic failures are also moral failures. Ken Lay’s bankrupting of his company would be an obvious example. Other economic failures are not moral failures – e.g., someone who lost money on Enron because he was fooled by the company’s fraudulent accounting. Conversely, some (perhaps most) moral failures are not economic failures *per se* – e.g., conceiving children outside of committed relationships.

Can you explain why you thought that I was conflating economic and moral failure?


bi 05.02.05 at 1:57 am

Steve Burton: well, your distinction between moral and economic failure is just empty talk. When it comes to the effects of both kinds of failure, you want to handle them the exact same way.

You talk about bearing the costs of risk-taking. Ken Lay took a risk. The investor who was fooled into throwing his money into the drain called Enron also took a risk. One person committed a moral wrong, the other did not. Yet you’d treat both the same way. What’s the use of distinguishing moral and economic failure if it doesn’t translate to a difference in policy?


abb1 05.02.05 at 6:16 am

I don’t think their idea is, necessarily, to encourage people to take risk; rather they want people to be subjected to risk, thus unleashing forces of social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is, apparently, supposed to eventually create a race of supermen or something. Survival of the fittest, eugenics, this kind of stuff.


Steve Burton 05.02.05 at 7:23 am

bi: Ken Lay committed fraud and is legally subject to punishment. The investor was defrauded and is entitled to compensation. What’s this “handle them the exact same way” stuff?

Quite apart from state action, Ken Lay and the defrauded investor should also be treated differently by the community – the former with censure, the latter with sympathy and, if necessary, support. The same goes for other cases where economic failure results from irresponsibility or malfeasance, on the one hand, or from bad luck or victimization, on the other.


Steve Burton 05.02.05 at 7:38 am

abb1: you don’t get it at all. Conservatives want people to develop certain virtues, or excellences of character. When one shields people from the consequences of their actions, one encourages them to develop instead the corresponding vices, or defects of character. In the present case, conservatives want to see the growth of prudent individuals – not the birth of “a race of supermen.”


abb1 05.02.05 at 8:55 am

But Steve, isn’t it pretty much what I said? Growth of prudent individuals, prosperity to the fittest, most developed, – and well-deserved demise to the weak, corrupt and defected, the whole Nation becomes stronger, healthier, more excellent, more superior. This seems to be the concept behind it, even if you don’t like the phrase ‘race of supermen’.

This is basically a dystopia the opposite of the communist utopia where…

…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus [enables] me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I [wish], without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.


LowcountryJoe 05.02.05 at 9:17 am

I don’t buy into the assertion that the so-called conservatives are less concerned with risk and may in fact thrive on it.

Some of the most risky public policies ever devised have come from so-called “Liberal/Progressives” (misnomers?). Any political movement that overlooks the deadweight losses associated with taxation, the unproductive tendencies of bureaucracy, the harmful effects of class warfare and the disincentives that the “corrective and just” policies to level the playing field bring, and to all of the other anti-growth measures that the Left can drum up, I’d have to say that today’s liberal is decidedly not averse to risk.


Armed Liberal 05.02.05 at 10:05 am

Why do I get the feeling that people here have forgotten Schumpeter?

The ability to politicize and externalize risk means that every interest group has a vested interest in making sure they don’t have to take it; corporations want to know that tariffs, subsidies, or regulation will protect them and encumber their opponents. Labor wants to know that workers will be protected, etc.

And presto – “interest group liberalism” which remains the best description of what we’ve got that I’ve seen. Of course it cuts both right and left…



Steve Burton 05.02.05 at 10:24 am

abb1: “growth of prudent individuals” is not “pretty much” the same as “prosperity to the fittest, most developed.” Growth in prudence is open to anyone. The “fittest, most developed,” on the other hand, sound like some sort of genetic elite.

Nor do conservatives call for the “demise” (“well-deserved” or otherwise) of “the weak, corrupt and defected [sic].” They call for those who have made foolish or malicious choices in the past to make better choices in the future – that is, to be better and to do better.

I don’t understand why you are so anxious to put into my mouth words that I reject. I don’t think that I have expressed myself unclearly. If anything I have said is wrong, then you should be able to criticize it without resorting to paraphrase.


Steve Burton 05.02.05 at 10:43 am

armed liberal cuts to the heart of the matter. Henry Farrell writes that “the left’s motive is to mitigate risk,” but it would be closer to the truth to say that the motive of left and right alike nowadays is to “politicize and externalize risk,” shifting it from one’s own client interest groups to the other side’s clients. (If by “left and right” we mean “Democrats and Republicans.” Real conservatives, on the other hand – well, that’s another matter entirely.)


abb1 05.02.05 at 12:21 pm

Steve, I understand what you mean, I’m simply saying that social Darwinism is the underlying concept here, with all its unpleasantness, that’s all.

I’ll agree with you that a certain degree of meritocracy is a good thing, people should be able to realize their potential, whatever their motivation is – humanism or greed or vanity, whatever.

But subjecting people to risk in order to improve them is a completely different thing. Aside from serious moral issues, this technocratic idea simply doesn’t work, for the same reason communism doesn’t work – intricacies of the human nature.

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