Nation-Building >> Letting history do your work | return to front page

"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

Add to Google Reader or Homepage Subscribe in Bloglines Subscribe in NewsGator Online Add to netvibes

website stats

Previous Posts
Netflix, Inc.
ThinkGeek T-Shirts will make you cool!
illy coffee - 2 cans, 2 mugs for just $26.

Sunday, November 14, 2004


Letting history do your work

posted by Razib Khan at Sunday, November 14, 2004 permalink View blog reactions
Update: I have cross-posted over at my blog. Feel free to join any discussion threads that might pop up over there.

Last week I linked to a page which indicated that my political preferences were "Right Libertarian." In four words I could be described as "socially liberal fiscally conservative," but that's a simplification, because my emphasis on process and localism means that I am a republican federalist before I am an ideologue. As a background for this post I would like to offer that I have lived for the past four years in a very "blue" small town in southern Oregon, but I went to a high school in a very "red" small town in eastern Oregon. On an individual level I have known people who were convinced that Democrats worshipped Satan and Republicans were Nazis. In a Republican milieu I often feel somewhat like a Democrat, and in a Democratic milieu I feel like a Republican...

During the last election cycle I voted for John Kerry, mostly because I thought that George W. Bush's foreign policy had a high probability of failure, and, I wanted the Republican Congress to begin behaving like Republicans again.

Now that we are going to go through the second phase of Bush II, many of my friends are rather frightened. In the arena of foreign policy, I tend to share their qualms, though with less rabidity. On the other hand, I think the terror over a restoration of pre-1960s social conservatism is overblown. The America that I see at the end of 2004 is simply not anymore socially conservative than Bill Clinton's America. In fact, it is far more "progressive" in many ways.

Why don't we start with porn, an issue many men would rather not speak of, but which is near & dear to our "hearts" when we are single. When John Ashcroft became Attorney General there were some well founded concerns that there would be a "rollback" of the relative pornotopia of the Clinton administration. The breaking of the Internet during the Clinton years was a boon for the adult web because the Clinton Justice Department viewed porn with benign neglect, choosing to focus on other more pressing issues. With the election of Bush in 2000 many were concerned that prosecutions might ensue. And certainly there have been clamp downs on the most extreme porn purveyors, but though I haven't done a scientific survey, I suspect the growth of the adult web continues apace during the Bush administration. Some of you might think this is a trivial observation, but it is a metric, a leading indicator on the pulse of the country. Britney is more lascivicious than she was during the Clinton years, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire seems tame now and my 12 year old brother is deleting "Zoo Lovin'" porn spam from his hotmail account. A repressed Victorian Age has not been ushered in because the concerns of social conservaives have been superseded by technological realities and pop culture inevitabilities.

In the area of gay rights the debate has also moved quite far. Remember, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act! Today, George Bush is trying to one up him, but no one believes that Congress will actually pass the Constitutional Amendment. Civil Unions are part of the everyday parlance and some jurisdictions have even solemnized gay marriages. Far from being a trailblazer of social conservatism in this area, the Republican administration is fighting a losing rearguard action. Most young people, even Republicans, agree that gays are here, and they are going to stay. Queer as Folk arrived in 2000 with the Bush administration and now homosexual make-out sessions on T.V. don't have the capacity to shock as they once did. All is not good in the world of gay rights, and equality is not here, but there has been a sea change in my lifetime. It took 100 years between 1865 and 1965 for black Americans to become fully normalized as citizens of our republic, it stands to reason that it will take another decade or two for homosexual individuals to become just another banal feature of our civic world.

OK, abortion. I favor abortion rights. But if Bush appoints a conservative Supreme Court Justice to team up with Scalia and Thomas, I still don't think Roe vs. Wade will be overturned. Additionally, even if it is, I don't think it will matter. States will then have the right to do what they want about abortion according to popular consensus. That means Utah and a whole bunch of conservative states will restrict it. That means almost nothing will happen in states like California and New York. But you know what, in terms of raw numbers, it won't matter much, because it's already difficult to find a place to get abortions in extremely conservative states anyhow! Unlike the United States, Europe legalized abortion through popular mandates, and so you have a patchwork of laws, with some states like Ireland and Portugal banning the practice, others like England with relatively liberal abortion laws, and others like Germany somewhere in the middle. And unlike the United States abortion is not nearly the controversial issue it is on this side of the Atlantic, and I think part of it is that the democratic process worked its way through the issue.

This is just a general sketch with a few issues, but my overall point is simple, the cultural Left has won the substantive battles, leaving the Republicans with rhetorical victories in "values." The rise of South Park Republicans is a leading indicator. The fact that "Christian rock" is hard to differentiate from "lite alternative" aside from its relatively positive message is another indicator of the acidic effect that worldly pop culture is having even on the explicit bastions of pre-1960s culture. History marches on. The fact is that many social conservatives are so vehement because in their hearts they know they are losing. The anger and contempt that some on the cultural Left direct toward "hicks" or "white trash" does nothing more than inflame them (I do not presume to say that this is a common or universal sentiment, but I've heard it often enough). Here you have the peculiarity of a culture moving Left, but economically depressed people shifting Right because of values issues. Ultimately the elites continue to push the envelope, but the masses can make their voices heard through democratic means.

To make arguments on cultural issues I believe Democrats have had to shift to the far Left simply because their central planks have been conceded (don't discrimate against gays, don't outlaw abortion, etc.). John Kerry defending public funding of abortion is something most people are not comfortable with. The gay rights movement making a push for marriage equality through the courts simply slots into the stereotype promoted by Rightist culture warriors toward the masses. Howard Dean saying he didn't want to "listen to evangelical preachers anymore" when they minister to 1/3 of the American population at the same time when those who have "No religion" doubled in the past 10 years emphasizes what the cultural Left opposes rather than what is promotes.

You can probably gather from the above that on the core issues I tend to be in agreemant with the cultural Left. My main difference is that I do not believe in such an aggressive national promotion of social change when core principles have already been secured, as the winds of American history tend be on the side of shifts toward more freedom, more tolerance and more pluralism. Rather than rowing ahead I would prefer to allow the winds to fill the sails and just glide on.

Personally, though I disagree with the party of the Left on economic issues in general, I tend to agree with the analysis of my friend John Emerson that economic issues have been neglected by Democrats. Now, I am not saying there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans on social & economic issues, but my current perception is that the Republican elite tends to pay lip service to social issues while focusing in economic issues in execution while the Democratic elite tends to pay lip service to economic issues while focusing on taking an absolute stand on particular social issues (abortion rights for example).

My own feeling as a libertarian who is often dismayed by the megalomania displayed by leaders of the Republicans and Democrats is that we need a vigorous two party system to maintain a balance. At this point I feel we have a choice between the tax & spend party on the Left and the borrow & spend on the Right. For the Left to take up its proper role in checking and blocking the party of the Right, it needs to refocus in a substantive non-symbolic fashion the importance of bread & butter issues. But any shift will not be accepted as sincere if the Democrats do not pull back from a massive cultural push on all fronts for social liberation through the federal judiciary, and I'm not just speaking of gay rights, but social issues in general. If a shift does not occur I suspect that the Democrats will always remain at the cultural center of American politics, but ten years shifted out of phase (that is, always about a decade ahead of its time), always at the wrong place at the wrong time.


Post a Comment


View blog top tags
The Assault on Reason

Obama 2008 - I want my country back

I want my country back - Obama 2008

About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.