Things Change

by John Holbo on November 12, 2006

On my stack of yet-unread 2006 politics books – Thomas Edsall’s Building Red America [amazon]. I cannot help but think events have somewhat overtaken it, though I still plan to read it. (I took particular satisfaction in that NY Times graphic – with the blue and the babyblue and the pink and the red. Red for anywhere that got painted red. And, of course, there was no need to open that can of paint. So it sat there, lonely in the legend.) What politics books do you say will survive the season, in terms of relevance?

I have a semi-scholarly interest in this question because I’m trying – I’ve been trying – to write about the relationship between liberalism, as it gets discussed in political philosophy; and liberalism, in the Democratic party sense. Obviously it is anything but a simple relationship, and I just indicated it in the most approximate fashion, but who has discussed it well? Who has written well about the point where the rubber of liberal political theory meets the road of liberal politics (if indeed there is such a point.) One problem with political philosophy is, of course, the perennial suspicion that its abstractions make it be … well, not about anything. (I don’t really mean it. You know what I mean.) On the other hand, the books about partisan politics – typically journalistic – don’t have a long shelf-life. What books do a good job of splitting the difference in a happy way? Relevant, and they stay that way.

Our own Looking For A Fight – Is There A Republican War On Science? [amazon] is a prime example. Will it still matter in a year? Well, I’ll take this opportunity to report that we have so far sold a grand total of, like, 16 copies. And there were about 110 downloads of the free book. That’s sort of an interesting result. Not wonderful, not terrible. It’s a good sign that paper sales are more than 10% of total distribution, even with free PDF. It means people do value the paper. (More titles coming soon!) One rather curious thing that making the book has caused me to notice: on the Amazon page there are presently 14 new and used copies for sale from third party sellers, including some marked up to $26.79 (from someplace called Best Dictionaries). Amazon is selling it for $11. I’m used to sort of seeing that stuff down the page on any given Amazon page, but in this case I am reasonably certain those copies don’t actually exist. A few could be author copies or sold copies that were promptly resold. But presumably for the most part these sellers have just generated these offers in some automated fashion and marked up the price more than %100. If someone orders it, then they’ll buy a copy from Parlor and simply resell it. It’s like the old Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin is sitting at his lemonade stand, suspended between grim and glum. The sign says: lemonade $20. And there are little unsold cups, waiting. “I’ve just got to sell one.” An interesting business model. Of course, in a sense it’s perfectly rational. Find the idiot who doesn’t comparison shop. (Is there a person who always buys from Best Dictionaries?)

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A Blog Around The Clock
11.12.06 at 11:21 am



abb1 11.12.06 at 9:40 am

What books do a good job of splitting the difference in a happy way? Relevant, and they stay that way.



bob mcmanus 11.12.06 at 10:02 am

Well I am still slowly working my way thru Geoff Eley’s Forging Democracy, which is a dense history of European Social Democracy. Intended I guess as history of the mix of theorey and practice for the purpose of determining what worked in the past and what did not. I am inspired by what appears to be a new social organization (netroots) and its conflicts with the old stale coopted liberal structures (DLC).
This stuff may be covered by more recent and better-informed thinkers (Markos) but still wondering if I can find something that might have been overlooked in what appears to be an almost cyclic battle.

Slow reading, because a page of Eley sends me off to read Sorel, Kautsky, Bernstein, etc. Just finished 20 pages:notes include Victor Adler, Hjalmar Branting, Edward Carpenter. I will let you know if I learn anything.

Liberalism, bleh. Thirty years of declining wages and Bernanke will likely kill the New Deal. Rahm and Matalin-Carville will help them do it. Then maybe we will start again, rebuilding what a century of leftists died for.


bob mcmanus 11.12.06 at 10:12 am

Do We Need an Independent Committee

Retitled;via Mark Thoma and LA Times;

Let’s put Medicare and SS under a totally independent, democratic, unbiased structure like the Federal Reserve Board. That way we can rape the trust fund, screw the worker, and keep our tax cuts without any politicians taking blame! And entrench it for generations! Looks like process liberalism!


Minivet 11.12.06 at 10:14 am

The End of Liberalism? Lowi isn’t a political philosopher, and he’s a bit eccentric, but it has interesting insights into the intersection of ideology and policymaking New Deal to 70’s.


bob mcmanus 11.12.06 at 10:26 am

Jodi Dean vs Berube

I did follow this discussion. I suspect Jodi Dean is very wrong, especially in the vanguardism; but I think she is more on the right track than you guys, and it felt good to know she is out there.

Signed: Ignorant, desperate prole.


Russell Arben Fox 11.12.06 at 10:30 am

“I have a semi-scholarly interest in this question because I’m trying – I’ve been trying – to write about the relationship between liberalism, as it gets discussed in political philosophy; and liberalism, in the Democratic party sense.”

Is this a book project of yours, John? I’ve been wondering if you’ve continued to work on your conservatism stuff.

The best book I’ve read this political season is Brian Mann’s Welcome to the Homeland, though obviously one of the reasons it appeals to me is that it talks seriously and somewhat sympathetically about the rise of a particular form of populist social conservatism in America (white, rural, Protestant, etc.) which has become important to my own research and teaching. Obviously, that makes it very much a book about the Gingrich-Bush era. Still, I think his book will have a decent shelf life, if only because he does a good job mixing journalism, history, and a little bit of political sociology and theory together in order to capture the attitudes of this particular demographic minority, and–more importantly–because the white, rural, Protestant minority he describes still has (depending on how seriously you take the thinking of people like Richard Florida Ruy Teixeira) a few decades of life left to it, if not more. The New Deal coalition survived a long time and a lot of social transformations (suburbanization, the decline of blue-collar industrial power, etc.) along the way; we may be only at the halfway point of the long march of this new kind of conservatism through American life, and who knows what America will look like when all is said and done? So good books on this topic, like Mann’s, will be relevant for a while yet, I think. (The book is far from perfect; he’s sometimes sloppy with his numbers and anecdotes. But it stands up pretty well nonetheless.)


Adam Kotsko 11.12.06 at 11:39 am

I agree on the matter of the New York Times graphic.


Colin Danby 11.12.06 at 12:46 pm

“Who has written well about the point where the rubber of liberal political theory meets the road of liberal politics (if indeed there is such a point.)”

I doubt there is one such point, and I suspect that to get a handle on this you would have to put together a combination of History and Cultural Studies — the vernacular political maps that stump speeches and 30-second ads reflect are a product of events that forced choices (e.g. Civil Rights, Vietnam) plus perhaps politicians who successfully articulated new syntheses (e.g. FDR, Reagan). The cultural realignment around the 1968 election seems critical. (One might start with the speeches of Spiro Agnew.) Neither “liberal politics” nor “conservative politics” *as the terms are commonly used on the blogosphere* are coherent objects if you lift them out of cultural/historical context much less try to deduce them from first principles.


Alan Bostick 11.12.06 at 12:47 pm

One consideration in the difference between theoretical liberalism and what was actually practiced by liberal politicians in the US is the way in which, for a long time, liberal principles seemed to vanish at the US border. Liberal leaders would, for example, collaborate closely with labor unions within the US while at the same time supporting the suppression of unions and assasination of union leaders abroad, particularly in Central and South America. And then there was the liberal adventure in Viet Nam.

From contradictions like these, we get the epithet “Cold War Liberal” — much more damning to my mind than “bleeding-heart liberal” ever was.


abb1 11.12.06 at 12:57 pm

Liberal leaders would, for example, collaborate closely with labor unions within the US…

They would? When was that?


C. L. Ball 11.12.06 at 2:39 pm

Who has written well about the point where the rubber of liberal political theory meets the road of liberal politics (if indeed there is such a point.)?

No one because liberal politics (as understood in the US) is not only about liberal political theory but also about responses to socialism and a healthy dose of pragmatism. Conservatives (as understood in the US) are no different: they draw on liberal political theory and respond to the American liberal response to socialism. All are flummoxed by the need to reconcile liberal conceptions of autonomy with solidarity among aggrieved groups (liberals) or with community among citizens (conservatives).


astrongmaybe 11.12.06 at 3:08 pm

Not sure what you mean by “liberalism in the Democratic party sense” – does that only mean today, or historically too? Only the centrist “liberal as self-differentiating from socialist” or leftist “liberal as right-wing curse word” too? Econ-lib or soc-lib or both?


bob mcmanus 11.12.06 at 4:17 pm

Re:RAF at #6

Funny, that. The section of Eley this morning dealt with the tragedy of the various socialist etc movements prior to WWI failing (mostly, Sweden did well) to incorporate the agrarian populations. Of course, each rural Protestant or Catholic population of Germany, Russia, Spain, France etc was completely different from all the others, with unique historical etc conditions, but dammit Kautsky or Lenin shoulda figured it out. I have of course, utterly mischaracterized Eley, who provided much more accurate detail, careful qualifiers, and tentative and modest conclusions than in my synopsis.

And none of this would have any much application to a populist appeal to the contemporaneous American white, rural, Protestants of Prof Arben Fox.

If I were a student looking for a grade, I would come up with some variation on Tolstoy’s AK epigram modestly saying this political science stuff is really hard, huh. If I were an arrogant twit I might say that all happy political scientists are alike because each object of scientific study requires a brand new book.


abb1 11.12.06 at 4:30 pm

The way I see it, pragmatism (including solidarity with aggrieved groups and all that) is, in fact, the liberal response to socialism, aka ‘liberal politics as understood in the US’. Saving capitalism from self-destruction – by whatever it takes, but not more than necessary.


bob mcmanus 11.12.06 at 5:39 pm

More on topic, and having read the most recent threads at Tim Burke’s and your own at the Valve:

The relation of “classical liberalism” to “current Democratic liberalism” could be one of exclusion, a reaction to the excesses of the past, in particular the 60s, that prohibits the discussion of tactics and substance not acceptable to conservatives.

For example, if I were to say the the netroots/Moveon/Kos-Stoller wing of the Democratic Party might find useful the history and ideas of the syndicalists and anarchists of the early 20th in their struggle with Schumer and Reid and the Washington Establishment, I might be banned from the room. I don’t know where he stands now, but at one point Stirling Newberry advocated something close to a separation, tho of course he didn’t or wouldn’t call it “syndicalism”. And of course it really would be quite different from the Spanish or French models.

The “liberalism” of “Democratic liberalism” is a very narrow and controlling consensus of elites. I actually don’t think academia is part of it, but I do think it seeks not to be overly offensive, in part because it already has enough enemies.


Russell Arben Fox 11.12.06 at 5:45 pm

Bob (#14): “And none of this would have much application to a populist appeal to the contemporaneous American white, rural, Protestants of Prof Arben Fox.”

You’re almost certainly correct; the question is why? What changed over the past century, both intellectually and in the ordinary economic and religious lives of people in the South and the Great Plains, to move us from an era when white, rural, Protestants–in other words, America’s agrarian population–were (in contrast to Europe) the very strongest supporters of various socialist movements, to an era where they are the complete opposite? Thomas Frank and a dozen others all have their answers, but there’s still more to be said.


Dan Simon 11.12.06 at 6:29 pm

I’ve been trying – to write about the relationship between liberalism, as it gets discussed in political philosophy; and liberalism, in the Democratic party sense.

Is there a point–any point–at which you’d be willing to concede that the “relationship” is so tenuous as to be nonexistent? One would think that merely looking at the spectacular inconsistency of views of “liberal” (or, for that matter, “conservative”) parties over time and from place to place, would be enough to cause a political philosopher to throw up his hands and concede that there is no meaningful, coherent philosophical strain that runs through enough of them to matter.

As I’ve said a million times before, “left” and “right” are not labels for political philosophies, but rather for large, constantly evolving coalitions of interested constituencies. Trying to establish a link between, say, the philosophical left and the political left makes about as much sense as trying to establish a link between Catholic mass and gravitational mass: they may (or may not) have had something in common back when the words were coined, but by now the two concepts have evolved independently for so long that any meaningful link has been lost.


John Holbo 11.12.06 at 6:42 pm

Dan Simon writes: “Is there a point—any point—at which you’d be willing to concede that the “relationship” is so tenuous as to be nonexistent?”

Yes, that point would be the point where the rubber failed to meet the road, per the post. (You did read the post, didn’t you?)

To put it another way: your point seems sort of obvious. But equally obvious would be the point that although, although there is no possibility of a simple, direct order, the notion that, say, John Rawls is more likely to vote Democrat than Republican is not absurd. And we take it from there.


John Emerson 11.12.06 at 6:51 pm

Nothing but wackos today. I feel right at home! Hi, guys!

My understanding of Schmitt and Strauss is that they regarded any non-authoritarian government as liberal. A person named “Craig” from “Long Sunday” may show up to tell you I’m full of shit, but it seems to me that he rgarded the Social Democrats as liberals.

This kind of question came up recently and I surprised even myself with my cynicism. I’ve ended up thinking that the actual government has its institutions, power structures, procedures, etc., established at the end of whichever power struggle or civil war it was that established the government, and then ideologies like liberalism are like a ex-post-facto paint and wallpaper job intended to make things look good and seem right. And liberalism worked OK enough during certain periods, except for little details like slavery, Indians, or the Freikorps running wild.


John Emerson 11.12.06 at 7:13 pm

I guess I should say that I think that American liberalism is a sort of scam patching a little bitof social democracy onto liberalism by calling it an aspect of, or further development of liberalism. “Freedom from want” was certainly not a part of classical liberalism.

I don’t know what “freedom from fear” meant at all.

Something similiar may have happened in Britain, but I think that continental social democrats were liberalized marxists rather than marxified liberals.

From either point of view this mushy compromise strikes me as a pretty good thing, certainly compared either to marxism or freemarket liberalism.

Since 1968 some other things have been happening which are harder to describe. In general, though, the idea that “government should help people who need help” doesn’t fit well with “I can do whatever I feel like doing”, especially when the absolute individualist is also demanding government help.


Colin Danby 11.12.06 at 7:39 pm

“the notion that, say, John Rawls is more likely to vote Democrat than Republican is not absurd.” Perhaps not absurd, though as a New Englander in the early 1960s he could quite plausibly have been a registered Republican. But I still don’t see why Rawls’ likely vote is all that interesting. A complete record of Rawls’ voting might be of biographical interest but would be a pretty impoverished mapping of his thought.

Check out and look at where Adlai Stevenson got his electoral votes. The site is a great tool for watching realignments.


Colin Danby 11.12.06 at 7:50 pm

To put it differently, I would want to step back and ask what *kind* of a decision, what kind of an act, voting is. What do people, even John Rawls, understand themselves to be doing when they vote?


sara 11.12.06 at 9:02 pm

Slight digression (topic the final paragraph, not the main subject of thread).

This also happens with Google. If you have ever written a rather obscure academic book, and it was published a few years ago, Googling your title or name shows that your book is offered for sale by dozens of unlikely on-line retailers.

The conclusion is not “I’m famous!” but “Someone is using a bot to mine ISBNs.” Ego receives additional reality check when Borders has never heard of your book.

I wonder if these listings are created with human intervention at all.


Rich Puchalsky 11.12.06 at 9:49 pm

Yeah, John Emerson, the wackos are indeed out. From all directions.

If you’re looking for a description of where philosophical liberalism meets political liberalism, I think that you need something that studies (sociologically, perhaps? ideologically?) the professional class of liberalism. That is not academics, who are, with rare exceptions, almost universally clueless. I mean the political consultants and staff, the think tankers, those members of the netroots who obtain a significant part of their income from blogging, and the employees of interest group organizations. Those are the people who both think about where liberalism is supposed to be going and have the power to do something about it. (Politicians have much more power, of course, but only the exceptional ones have time or ability to think.) Examining the belief of the mass of liberal voters doesn’t work, because voters almost never directly get what they want.

That’s for substantive liberalism. If you’re talking procedural liberalism — which is a large part of what philosophical liberalism is about — then you have to look much more broadly at various agents of the state, scattered through the legal system, the army, the educational system, and so on.


fyreflye 11.12.06 at 11:16 pm

To respond to the second question: the kind of seller who waits for a sale and then orders the book from the publisher is common on Amazon; the technique called “dropshipping” and is righteously reviled by the mom and pop sellers who are hurt by it.

Dropshipping violates two basic Amazon rules: that the seller must have the item in stock at the time of sale and that the order must ship within two working days. It just so happens that these often large sellers are Amazon’s bread and butter and so Amazon rarely enforces its own rules against them. In many cases the seller will not deliver the item on time or at all and if the customer complains Amazon, not the seller, will issue a refund and never penalize the guilty party.
If you want to practice a little social justice never buy from sellers with 239858 feedbacks, sellers who offer no more than a very general description of the item, or those who fill their comment sections with self advertisements. They may offer the lowest prices due to volume but they’re crooks.


John Holbo 11.12.06 at 11:38 pm

Thanks, fyreflye, now I know the word for this practice. It does sound rather nefarious.


Dan Simon 11.12.06 at 11:58 pm

although there is no possibility of a simple, direct order, the notion that, say, John Rawls is more likely to vote Democrat than Republican is not absurd.

Of course it’s not. Since the 1970’s, the left/liberal/Democratic coalition has tended to include the well-educated, white-collar professionals, government and nonprofit employees, and those affiliated with cultural and creative work. These are demographic and interest groups, not philosophical communities–and John Rawls falls squarely into all of them. If he’d been a professor of biology rather than political philosophy, one would still consider him more likely to vote Democrat than Republican.

Now let’s consider a more interesting case. How do you think Allan Bloom tended to vote? Personally, I’m not at all sure. A brief Web search offers one claim that “Bloom argued that his cultural concerns were of a more radical nature than any party affiliation could satisfy, whether conservative or liberal.” I could certainly imagine him refusing to vote for any standing candidate; picturing him voting for, say, Ronald Reagan is rather more difficult.

Do you disagree? And if not, then why should John Rawls’ hypothetical Democratic party ballot be taken as implying some kind of connection between political philosophy and party affiliation?


John Holbo 11.13.06 at 12:10 am

Dan, sorry my original response was a bit sharp. The point of my post was: getting any sort of alignment between these two things is very problematic (for the rather obvious reasons you point out.) Your response seems to be: but getting any sort of alignment between these two things is very problematic (and you cite some of the more obvious reasons.) In short, you seem to be agreeing with me, while acting as though you disagree with me. I knew Allan Bloom (very slight undergraduate acquaintance at the U of C). I’ll bet he voted Republican.

The reason why Rawls would be a Democrat is that he is preoccupied with progressive redistribution of wealth, within the bounds of respect for individual freedom. That makes him a Democrat rather than a Republican, if the choice is one or the other. Because Republicans find proposals for redistrubition to be ideologically anathema.


Colin Danby 11.13.06 at 12:43 am

“Because Republicans find proposals for redistribution to be ideologically anathema.”

There’s an obvious qualification about the *direction* of redistribution that I’ll give someone else the pleasure of making! But to turn in the other direction, most of my Republican relatives support public education and veterans’ benefits, which are progressively redistributive, and they don’t really think in terms of ideological anathemas. The basis of this statement “Republicans find…” is unclear. There *are* some sophisticated polling projects — I’m thinking about the Pew Center’s work — that try to work out in some detail what people believe, and you might want to start there.


tps12 11.13.06 at 1:11 am

I’ve always said that one of the big fast food corporations should sell a $20 burger. Whoever did it first would make a couple bazillion before everyone else jumped aboard and diluted the cachet (no mixed metaphor).


abb1 11.13.06 at 3:31 am

The whole huge Hayek-Friedman branch of liberalism is squarely in the Republican camp. Not to mention a notorious group of liberal nationalists, aka ‘neocons’.

Liberalism is the ideology that unites the two major American parties. Liberalism is pretty much the raison d’etre for this whole political system.


John Emerson 11.13.06 at 8:38 am

I’m sure that Bloom voted Republican. He held his nose, all right, but neocons close to him were officials in the Reagan administration.

The question of Rawls’ voting patterns is highly relevant to the actual question about the relationship between philosophical liberalism (Rawls) and actual political liberalism (th Democratic Party). If Rawls were a classical (pre-New Deal) liberal, the question would be different, but he wasn’t.

Veterans benefits aren’t really redistribution. They’re back-payments on an underpaid, slavish job which is often fatal. Non-combat soldiers are probably overpaid, but when people go in they don’t know that they’ll stay out of combat, and that line is being blurred anyway.

It’s more reaonable to think that the US relies for its soldiering needs on a bunch of guys who are willing to accept a very bad deal.


abb1 11.13.06 at 9:21 am

Ah, so this is all about Rawls; ‘liberalism’ is the dream John Rawls dreamed. Yeah, it is highly abstract indeed. It sure isn’t about anything.


Belle Waring 11.13.06 at 11:40 am

abb1, I assure you that if I ever write a post that’s all about Rawls, I’ll manage to label it more clearly as such.


abb1 11.13.06 at 1:30 pm

I know, I was responding to #33, John (or Belle or whoever you are).


gmoke 11.13.06 at 3:04 pm

Saw Edsall speak at Harvard a month or so back. You don’t need to read his book.


Mark Schmitt 11.13.06 at 5:27 pm

There’s a ton of interesting stuff in Edsall, even though he overstates the stability of Rove’s paradigm and holds a retrograde view of the role of race in American politics. But there are lots of fascinating points, most notably his discussion about the role of risk and perception of risk, mostly near the end. The book is an effort to show the elements of the Republican system that are stable enough to survive an electoral loss, and he’s got a lot of it right.


John Holbo 11.14.06 at 12:15 am

abb1, I stand corrected. And sorry for being signed in as my wife. (It must make people wonder about us sometimes.)

Thanks, Mark, I am planning to still read it.


Martin James 11.14.06 at 11:16 am

Richard Rorty seems as pragmatic on the question question of liberal theory and politics as on everything else.

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