Mr. Clinton’s Lament
In 2014, when the editorial staff of The New Republic resigned en masse to protest its looming corporatization by a publisher aiming to convert it to “a vertically integrated digital media company,” I was a bit smug in my surprise. Ironic, I thought: the magazine, which lurched from “popular front” indifference to Stalin in the 1940s to being the loudspeaker of DLC “Third Way” Liberalism in the 1990s, was destined to be done in by its own compromises with the democratic left that TNR, along with The Nation, traditionally represented. I thought TNR was pretty much finished as a publication. While I am far from a Luddite, any mission statement announcing a transformation into a “vertically integrated digital media company” seemed to my tech-literate brain to be the kiss of death. I assumed TNR would morph into a shallow mishmash of trendy, “knowing” news-bites and opinion-morsels, aimed at a readership of budding young “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” neoliberals. That is, a dead-center Slate or Salon. Sad fate.
This guess turned out to be wrong. For the most part, the new TNR staff has kept the magazine serious – at least a lot more serious than I thought it would become – and, if anything, it has taken a leftward tack. All to the good. (Although it would be nice if they found another Andrew Sullivan to grace their ranks, as Sullivan is pretty much the only conservative writing these days toward whom I can muster respect, let along admire, without necessarily agreeing with him. There have to be others out there.)
Before the 2014 meltdown at TNR, it held a 100th Anniversary Gala, where the keynote speaker was former President Bill Clinton. I am assuming that both old guard and new guard members were present, and the speech, which somehow recently found its way into my Facebook feed, rhetorically straddles, as Clinton often did so engagingly, the space between the New Left of the 1960s and the Neoliberalism of the 1990s. The speech has much wisdom in it, but also much neoliberal dross, and is fairly dripping with charm. As I have raised some red flags about “charm” elsewhere in Public Seminar, I thought it appropriate to make some comments about the content of Clinton’s presentation, and about what exists between its lines.
The fulcrum of Clinton’s speech was where he addressed – seriously – “our one remaining bigotry”:
So we need inclusive economics. We need inclusive governance. And we have to give back to systems of cooperation which minimize the happening of big, bad things and maximize the chances that good things will flow. And we have to do it through networks. That is the business of the 21st century. We can do it. But you can’t do it by ignoring the evidence and going back to economic strategies that always fail on that score, and top-down economics does every time. It never works. And you can’t do it if you refuse to talk to people that disagree with you and to work with them.
You know, Americans have come so far since, let’s say, the era of Joe McCarthy. I mean, think about it. We’re less racist. We’re less sexist. We’re less homophobic than we used to be. We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.
Against my better nature, I will cut Mr. Clinton some slack here: this was months before Charlie Hebdo and a year before the Paris Attacks and the San Bernardino massacre, which have unleashed all manner of blanket-bigotry against Muslims. And I will ignore the hatred, always far less subterranean than thought by the neoliberal intelligentsia, based on race and class and gender. The fact is, Clinton has a point. Political, ethical, and religious disagreement is, nowadays, characteristically met with online and in-your-face harassment rather than civil disagreement with an aim to rationally understand and then persuade your opponent, even if the result is an agreement to disagree and a shot at a modus vivendi. Argument has become, as in the Monty Python sketch, “the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says”. In other words, contradiction, histrionic outrage, and saying “It isn’t!” in a louder voice, with significant attitude.
Clinton muses on this paucity of true argument, and makes the following observations:
I read the other day that 47 percent of self-identified conservatives will only watch Fox News on television. That’s good for Fox News. I mean, it’s a good business model. My mother-in-law, who died a couple years ago at 91, and whom I love dearly and who lived with Hillary in our Washington home while she was secretary of state and senator, was the most liberal member of our family. She watched Fox News every day. I asked her if she was trying to give herself a heart attack. She said, “No, I’m just trying to keep my blood pumping.”
But then . . . she said, first of all, Bill, I need to know what they’re saying so I have an answer and I need to know what they’re saying in case they’re right. She said, nobody’s wrong all the time. It’s like almost biologically impossible. So it was really interesting to see for me—as I had time to study this in the last few years—how much we are disaggregating ourselves from people who disagree with us. So one of the things that I hope The New Republic will do in the coming century of its life and innovation is to actually make people debate an issue instead of labeling each other.
There is so much right about these observations that it is all too easy to miss what is wrong about them as well.
First: the suggestion of a false equivalence between the intransigence on the right and on the left. While intransigence is almost always a bad thing, it exists not just in different degrees but, I think, in at least two different types. There is a kind of intransigence that leaps to judgment about an argumentative opponent’s intelligence – an unwillingness to see that opponent as anything other than vile or stupid. Kevin Drum, in a recent piece in Mother Jones, makes this point: liberals and leftists must endeavor to genuinely understand the point-of-view of one’s rightist opponents before issuing in condemnation. It is a failure to be charitable to the other. But there is a kind of intransigence which flows not from a failure to give the others their due, but from a failure to examine oneself. That is: a failure to see argument as an essentially ethical enterprise in which you yourself have an unconditional and unconditioned responsibility to be accountable to all who track and evaluate your claims to know and understand. It is a failure to think oneself: a failure to subject your own opinions to the tribunal of reason, fact, dialogue, and criticism. It is a kind of dogmatism rooted in a willful ignorance, a refusal to be disturbed by the task of actually taking oneself seriously by doubting what one believes in and acts upon, by rising to the challenge of others in the conversational and argumentative agora.
Once upon a time, there were self-styled conservatives who eschewed this kind of systematic thoughtlessness as vigorously as their counterparts on the left. However wrong one thinks that the likes of Allan Bloom, F.A. Hayek, and Leo Strauss were – and I believe they were plenty wrong – they took their adversaries seriously and respectfully, and their adversaries (generally) responded in kind. Few conservatives do that today (with, again, Andrew Sullivan being the chief outlier), and many of those who do, and do so vocally, are pretty much ejected from the fold of the right-wing elect, or leave of their own accord.
One such self-described conservative is Mike Lofgren, former Republican senior analyst for the House and Senate Budget Committees, who left after 28 years of service on the grounds that while the Democrats were clueless and spineless, the Republicans were an insane “cult” that cared nothing for the truth or rationality of their convictions, only that their convictions won the day and the opposition was crushed. In Lofgren’s words, the contemporary Republican party realizes that the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance (from a state of ignorance one can always move forward and upward) but “anti-knowledge” – a farrago of half-truths, falsehoods, and malicious lies that are put forward as absolute certainties, and eagerly received by the faithful as such. Fact, dialogue, and argument are irrelevant to them.
That being the case, one wonders whether, in Clinton’s example, Mrs. Rodham’s magnanimity about Fox news was just so much wasted effort. It is one thing to try to rationally engage with the thought of, say, Hayek or Strauss (because it is, after all, thought) and quite another with the bloviations of a Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or, more likely, one of their minions. Because, first, to make my rational engagement worthwhile, the willingness to rationally engage on the part of my opponent has got to be at least a possibility, and second, there has to be enough agreement (on facts, the rational importance of “fact”, on the value of civil dialogue and mutual respect, on canons of evidence and good reasoning, etc.), to make our disagreements meaningful disagreements.
I am not sure either is the case with the right today. I do not see how I can have a meaningful disagreement or discussion with someone who, for example, dismisses a priori the overwhelming consensus among scientists about anthropogenic global climate change, or the ample historical evidence that upper-margin tax trimming has no beneficial effect in stimulating the economy, and so on. The dismissals are reflexive, not reflective. Nothing could change their mind – at least, nothing on display as yet. Trying to argumentatively engage with those with whom one’s disagreements are not meaningful is like mud wrestling a pig: you get nowhere, you get dirty, and it’s unpleasant. And the pig likes it.
My point is not that we on the left shouldn’t be civil, or that we shouldn’t articulate our convictions rationally. That is the whole point of having convictions – their ethical point. But it is rash for Mr. Clinton to suggest a symmetry between the left and the right on avoiding people “who disagree with us.” There is no such symmetry anymore. Much ink has been spilled about the utter decay that has settled into contemporary “conservatism”, which is actually less “conservative” than a manifestation of a radical right wing. I will not add to it here, nor will I suggest that the left is entirely free of intellectual and moral rot. But any honest appraisal of contemporary political culture needs to admit that at this present time, the clown car drives on the right side of the road. And if any political organization defines the unwillingness to take seriously and charitably the opinions of those who disagree with it, it is the Republican party, not the Democrats (spinelessness, rather than bullheadedness, is their chief flaw), and not those others who represent the small-d democratic left.
Second: it is not just, or even primarily, that we segregate ourselves into communities of opinion. More importantly, economic classes do not mix. Corporate executives do not live within the same physical space as their lawyers and IT professionals, who in turn do not live next to policemen and construction workers or delicatessen owners, who in turn do not live near service sector workers or janitors, and so on down the scale to the homeless and those whom the right dubs “the underserving poor.” They share little time, as well as space, in common in their everyday lives. In effect, the common world where classes knew enough of each other, and interacted with each other enough to recognize their conflicting interests, has pretty much vanished with the advancement of “postindustrial capitalism.” The “global village” promised by the prophets of “the information economy” has actually been supplanted by a series of digital enclaves, which mirror pretty tightly the ubiquitous social micro-communities that dominate our lives.
I do not want to unduly “dump” on Mr. Clinton: his presidency has had some signal accomplishments, and was a damn sight better than anything his immediate Republican predecessors and successor had on offer. But “a damn sight better” is not the same thing as “good enough”, and I think it is reasonable to say that his neoliberal, “centrist” outlook accelerated, rather than slowed, the splintering of society not into classes (that was always the case), but into classes that could safely ignore the existence of other classes. He can bemoan all he wants the fact that no one wants to be around people who disagree with them anymore – it is worth bemoaning. But one reason why we have this state of affairs to lament is that neoliberals like him – and neoconservatives like the Bushes – did everything to make it possible, indeed easy, for people to withdraw into cocoons of the placidly like-minded and like-employed, unperturbed by the possibility of deep conflict, and, more distressingly, unruffled by the obligation to justify, to others and themselves, the shape and direction of their lives.