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Who Won The Ideology Wars?

By       Message David Michael Green       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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This week we said goodbye to Teddy Kennedy, the last of a breed.

There are other progressives in the government of the United States, and even some in the Senate with voting records further left of Kennedy's. But none are as iconic as Teddy. With high admiration and sincere apologies to the likes of Bernie Sanders or Russ Feingold, Lloyd Bentsen would have been the first to admit, I'm sure, that he knew Teddy Kennedy, and these good folks are no Teddy Kennedy.

Does the death of the last great liberal voice in America also coincide with the end of an era? Happy Barack, the nice kid now playing president with his buddies in the big house that's white, would probably like to think so, as he continues to extend the remaining parts of his hand that haven't already been chewed off by Republicans, hoping to create a kinder, gentler bipartisan America, where we all just get along.

If that was ever going to happen, Obama would have all his fingers still intact, and his job approval rating would not be rapidly sinking under fifty percent. Not a single Republican in the United States Congress voted for Bill Clinton's economic package in 1993, and since then they've essentially never looked back.

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But Teddy's death gives me cause to consider a bigger question I think about a fair bit, namely: Who won the war of ideology? There has been a struggle inside Western democracies for arguably two centuries now, certainly intensifying in the nineteenth century with the rise of industrialization, and then again in the mid-twentieth century with battles over the welfare state, and yet again in our time with America's culture wars.

Do we have a winner? Have we achieved the 'end of history' as Francis Fukuyama once claimed? Is there any reason to believe that the struggles won't continue into the future? These are all difficult questions, and my sense is that the answers are fairly nuanced, requiring some analytical complexity to do them any justice.

To begin with, I've always thought that it's a mistake to think of ideology as existing along a single dimension. Consider, for example, Paul Wolfowitz (sorry), who was about as hawkish on foreign policy questions as one could imagine, but has claimed (perhaps disingenuously) to be a liberal on domestic issues. Or, consider the proverbial so-called "fiscal conservative". Why don't we simply call this person a plain old vanilla conservative? Because he or she is liberal or even libertarian on social issues like abortion, drug use, or gay rights, while conservative on economic issues. What these folks and many others like them have in common is an absence of ideological conformity across issue domains, thus strongly suggesting that there is not one but several ideological dimensions, over which individuals may mix or match in forging their own particular basket of political commitments.

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By my count, there are four main dimensions -- or separate sets of meanings -- of ideology, though one could surely aggregate the pieces in other ways. The first, and oldest of these, concerns the question of change -- how much one favors rearranging society, generally speaking, and how rapidly. The second is the economic dimension, which basically boils down to the question of how much government intervention in the economy -- in the form of redistribution policies, government ownership of industry, regulation and taxation -- is considered appropriate. On the social dimension, the same question applies with respect to government intercession on questions of personal and social behavior, such as religious practice, sexual orientation, drug use, reproductive matters, euthanasia issues, and so on. Finally, there is the security dimension, which has both a domestic aspect with respect to crime, and a foreign aspect with respect to relations with other countries and sundry international actors.

Each of these dimensions of ideology has moved to its own separate rhythms, and in some cases even in opposing directions at given moments in time. American society assimilated substantially large volumes of political, social and cultural change beginning in 1950s, peaking in the late 1960s, and ending in exhaustion by the middle of the 1970s, leaving in its wake powerful reactionary attitudes seeking to re-invert a society that appeared to disoriented conservatives to have been turned on its head. This regressive element seems, if anything, even more powerful today. While its ranks are probably shrinking, the sheer hostility and volume of the dispossessed -- what might be called the Limbaugh cohort -- still makes it a force to be reckoned with, as the current healthcare nightmare masquerading as a policy debate well attests.

Economic liberalism peaked at roughly the same time, albeit for mostly different reasons. By the end of the 1970s both American hegemony abroad and the economic growth of the middle class and its prosperity at home were beginning a long period of erosion, though the signs were not always clear at the time. Among other things, this set of events produced a new hostility to taxation and anti-poverty programs that was sometimes ripe for regressive politicians to exploit, and was at other times created by their exploits. This greed-encouraging focus was always the core of Reaganism-Bushism, and remains so to this day. Bolted on to it was a set of predations masked as principles -- such as economic globalization, union busting and regulatory slashing -- that were never anywhere near as popular with the public, but which could be attached to the more basic tax and spending expressions of naked greed by a set of clever marketing gunslingers hired by elites for the sole purpose of reconfiguring the distribution of wealth in the country. To, that is, launch what regressives accuse anyone else of doing who catches them in the act of actually practicing it themselves: engaging in class warfare.

Along the social dimension of ideology, however, constant attempts at blocking or rolling back the equality agenda have largely failed, and the liberal project of opening society further and wider to guarantee the participation and dignity of all has not only been among the greatest successes of the ideology, but continues its march up through and including this very day. America is hugely imperfect in this regard, and countless lives have been lost and tears shed just to bring us where we are now. But anyone who doubts the efficacy of this agenda should compare the place and especially the societal claim of minority groups today with fifty years ago, let alone in the late eighteenth century. Only a generation or two ago, African Americans could barely vote, women were at home, barefoot and pregnant, and gays were never even spoken of in polite company, let alone legally protected from discrimination. There is, of course, much to be done, and the continual set of regressive rearguard harassment actions continually to be countered, but the very moral standing of these questions makes clear the achievement realized. Whatever they may say in private, and however they may act with respect to legislative particulars, no national political figure -- no matter how paleolithic in disposition -- argues that it is morally correct for these groups to be subjected to discrimination. That's a big leap from where we were not so long ago.

Attitudes along the security dimension are to some degree subject to real events on the ground, such as actual foreign threats or the rise in violent crime at home. That said, history is littered with cases of politicians exploiting and often fabricating just such threats in order to advance their careers. Unfortunately, it works all too well, and such shamelessly nefarious techniques are not going away anytime soon. And yet one has the sense that regressives have jumped the shark -- in the currently all too ubiquitous parlance -- by advocating one too many failed and bogus wars. Even public support for the US presence in Afghanistan -- supposedly the good war of the last decade -- shows signs of weakening substantially. Regressives still love to play the national security card, but increasingly they get less and less traction from doing so, especially when the wolves baying at the front doors of middle American homes are economic in nature, rather than national security oriented. Americans may even be showing signs these days of fatigue in the fame we've achieved as the undisputed incarceration capital of the world, if only because the costs are strangling the country.

Altogether, we find ourselves today in a moment of the Two Hundred Years' War of ideology which might best be described as a period of precarious stasis. The stability aspect seems to derive as much from exhaustion on both sides as from any sort of broad consensus or victory. With the exception -- astonishingly enough -- of George W. Bush's prescription drug legislation (which, truth be told, was actually pharmaceutical corporation enrichment legislation) and the quiet revolution integrating gays into full status in the society, American liberalism has achieved little since hitting its high-water mark in the early 1970s.

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Meanwhile, the regressive movement of the last three decades has had fantastic success in accomplishing what it really came to Washington for -- the upward redistribution of wealth from the middle class to elites. At the same time, however, this achievement has come with some serious costs attached. The Bush administration was the absolute apotheosis of regressive politics. It was also so disastrous that the right is forced today to virtually pretend it never existed. All that was needed during the last five years was a moderately bold set of progressive politicians to condemn regressive ideology in overtly ideological terms in order for it to have had to face the same fate it did in the 1930s, namely, a total repudiation of its policy failures, ironically driven almost entirely by the success of its politics.

But no such cohort is on the horizon, largely because the Democratic Party has become coopted by the same corporate forces that own the Republicans. A Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama will surely put on a kinder and gentler face than a Bush or a Cheney, but Wall Street could nevertheless hardly ask for more from what was once the party of the people. The most astounding thing about the moment we live in is that progressive politics could beg all day and almost not possibly be dealt a more winning hand to play, and yet no one is picking up the cards. The utter and absolutely complete vacuousness of the right, on the other hand, is revealed daily in the desperation of its current daily diet of inanities, which are shocking precisely for how inane they truly are. Obama's a "socialist". No, wait, he's a "fascist". He's a socialist and a fascist! He wasn't born in the United States. His healthcare plan (which the hapless president, ever deferential to Congress and the GOP, didn't realize he even had) will kill grandmas and Sarah Palin's children. And so on. What will be left for next week? He's a cannibal? He's going to sell his daughters into a Muslim slavery ring in exchange for Gaddafi allowing him the privilege of apologizing for America's sins, live in Tripoli?

The only two things more astonishing than watching this nonsense being purveyed are that so many people believe it, and that so many people get furiously worked up about it. I had a seeming out-of-body experience this last week, observing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma at work, talking about healthcare at a town hall meeting. Some poor old lady stood up and utterly fell apart into hysterical sobbing pieces, asking the senator how she was going to be able to care for her sick husband now that their healthcare plan was refusing to do so. Though I'm sure this sort of thing happens thousands of times a day in households across America, we're not often exposed to it, and it was one of the most heart-wrenching and searing displays one might be unlucky enough to witness. Coburn's response was astonishing. To begin with, he displayed all the compassion and emotion of a slab of solid granite. Then he vaguely volunteered how his office would try to be of assistance, followed by a lecture to the crowd on the false hope of reliance on government. Both he and his appreciative audience seemed completely unaware of the profoundly incongruous irony entailed in the senator -- as big a part of government as anybody short of the president could be -- offering to help this lady out while simultaneously warning people of the perils of reliance on government service to the public.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)

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