Matt Stoller, the former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute has a couple of very interesting articles posted at Naked Capitalism, Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals, and the follow-up, Naked Capitalism, “A Home for All Sorts of Bircher Nonsense”
These are thought-provoking, in many ways insightful, and strike me as required reading, for a variety of reasons, including some valuable historical insights. However, one thought they provoke from me is that the main thesis is spectacularly wrong-headed. Stollar talks about what a great ally Paul’s staff was, when working on certain issues. I should say, “when working against certain issues” or things, like war and the unfettered evil workings of the Federal Reserve. The correct vocabulary is worth emphasizing. Liberals and Libertarians may find common ground in what they are against, but it is quite unlikely that they will ever find anything substantial that they both are for.
Stollar goes on to point out what he calls “a big problem” with liberalism. This is the mixture of two elements, support for federal power and the anti-war sentiment that arose with Viet Nam and has continued though today. In the same paragraph, Stollar says, “Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore.” This is an important thought, but he doesn’t pursue it, and as he goes on seems to conflate Democrats with Liberals, as suits his convenience. In the final paragraph of the first post he refers to: “a completely hollow liberal intellectual apparatus arguing for increasing the power of corporations through the Federal government to enact their agenda.” Seriously, WTF? I have absolutely no idea what the hell that is supposed to mean.
The second article is especially weak, and essentially devoid of any intellectual content. Stollar decides to “highlight a few of the reactions here without much of a rebuttal.” Why would anyone do that? Does he believe the reactions are self-refuting? Is he too lazy to rebut, or does he simply not have a good rebuttal?
At least he clearly sets forth the thesis of the first article: “that the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety.” Here is the source of Stollar’s alleged intra-liberal conflict, that Paul is somehow supposed to illuminate and inform. Though Stollar says: “I’ll be describing in much more detail the shifting of the social contract underlying this failure, which has nothing to do with Ron Paul and would exist with or without him.” So referencing Paul in the first place was a bit of a red herring.
He then goes on to provide extended quotes from posts by David Atkins, who he describes as “wrestling with what liberalism is” and Digby, who he simply rejects out of hand, though with a lot of words that don’t quite reach the level of snark
What Stollar describes as “contradictions within modern liberalism” boils down to liberalism needing big government to be interventionist, as Atkins demonstrates, but not imperialistic. But this is a totally coherent position. The problem lies not with progressive liberalism, but with the practical realities of managing a power system – which is what governemnt is – in a way that advances the common good, while holding the drive for imperialistic and domestic domination in check. This is going to be a central practical problem with any governing system or political philosophy – at least for one that takes seriously the idea of advancing the common good. To say it is the problem of liberalism is to ignore human nature, political reality, and the entirety of history.
Thus, a liberal can hold the positions that American involvement in WW II was necessary, but that our involvement in Viet Nam was not. Ditto Kosovo, vis-a-vis Iraq. One can also recognize that the only entity with enough heft to balance the power of trans-national mega-corporations is government, but Stollar does not choose to give that any consideration.
Stollar concludes: “As the New Deal era model sheds the last trappings of anything resembling social justice or equity for what used to be called the middle class (a process which Tom Ferguson has been relentlessly documenting since the early 1980s), the breakdown will become impossible to ignore. You can already see how flimsy the arguments are, from the partisans.“
I don’t know how one gets from the systematic dismantling of the New Deal by successive Republican administrations (and you can include both Clinton and Obama in this list) to the New Deal model shedding anything at all. And, no, I can’t see how flimsy liberal partisan arguments have anything to do with an assault on the middle class that has taken place from the right.
Stollar has constructed a straw man problem. Which is a shame, since there are real problems to be dealt with. One is the growth of right wing populism, as exemplified by the Tea Party – at least to the extent that is is real, and not a Fox News fabrication. Another is to harness the energy of the Occupy Movements, which provide some evidence that there is progressive populism that could be a source of real political strength. Most critically, though, as things stand now, there is no political left in this country with any actual power.
Corey Robin describes the central problem of American liberalism in the 21st Century, and closes the loop back to Stollar’s Ron Paul idea like this.
Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating. The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support). But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.
Digging a level deeper, the reason we don’t have such a spokesperson is that our political system is essentially owned by corporate interests, which is why we get alleged liberals like Clinton and Obama in Democratic leadership, while genuine progressives like Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, and even Alan Grayson are marginalized. On top of this, the right has a vigorous and powerful propaganda machine – hence the Tea Party; and the small number of progressive voices in broadcast media is nowhere close to providing a balance.
Money owns politics, and corporate interests, along with a small entrenched elite, own the vast majority of the money. The key to achieving progressive solutions is to get the money out of politics. But in the wake of Citizens United, that prospect is a forlorn hope. That is my “coherent structural critique of the American political order” in one short paragraph.
Cross posted at Retirement Blues