The authoritarian impulse of clerics

It’s easy to find intelligent, principled, informed men & women of good will on the Left and the Right;  the disagreement is rooted in different operating assumptions about how the world works or different visions for how it ought to work.

Democracy is messy, which frustrates some “experts”.  Political differences – which will always be with us – get in the way of “progress” as divined by the impartial reasoning powers of the well-credentialed.  When the political process forces one to contend with the “other” who perhaps finds your reasoning neither powerful nor impartial, well… we all tend to be at our worst when we grow impatient.

The Left’s been calling the Right a lot of names recently:  “Hezbollah,” ” suicide bombers,” “hostage takers,”  “terrorists” and “traitors.”  Nancy Pelosi at least avoided the 9/11 imagery (on the approach of its 10th anniversary) when she said, “They want to end life as we know it on this planet.”  The Right has answered in several places with “root cause” analysis (!):

Peter Berkowitz, in The Debt Deal and the Progressive Crack-up, says “Liberal contempt for the workings of democracy and for diversity of opinion reflects not just hypocrisy but panic.”

The evident panic of the progressive mind stems from a paradox as old as progressivism in America. Progressives see themselves as the only legitimate representatives of ordinary people. Yet their vision of what democracy requires frequently conflicts with what majorities believe and how they choose to live.

Add to this the progressive belief that human beings can be perfected through the rule of experts, and you have a recipe—when the people make choices contrary to progressive dictates—for generating contempt among the experts for the people whose interests they claim to alone represent. And not just contempt, but even disgust at diversity of opinion, which from the progressive’s perspective distracts the people from the policies demanded by impartial reason.

The progressive mind is on a collision course with itself. The clash between its democratic pretensions and its authoritarian predilections has generated within its ranks seething resentment for, and rage at, conservatives. Unless progressives cultivate the enlightened virtues they publicly profess and free themselves from the dogmatic beliefs that undergird their political ambitions, we can expect even more harrowing outbursts to come.

Berkowitz, again, in Obama and the state of Progressivism, 2011:

In the annals of American progressivism, Obama’s predicament is hardly unique. Indeed, the mismatch between leaders who put forward partisan ambitions in the name of the people and majority sentiment reflects an enduring paradox with deep roots in the progressive tradition. Like Obama’s new progressivism, the old or original progressivism championed a vision of democracy that sometimes conflicted with ordinary people’s opinions and preferences. The old progressives often realized it and said as much, clearly and with a clear conscience. One of the distinguishing marks of the new progressivism at whose head Obama stands is the determination to conceal the gap between what majorities want and what progressive leaders want to enact in their name while insisting proudly on the purity of their democratic credentials…

At their best, the original progressives responded to dramatic social and economic upheavals generated by the industrial revolution, opposed real Gilded Age abuses, and promoted salutary social and political reforms. They took the side of the exploited, the weak, and the wronged. They fought political corruption and sought to make political institutions more responsive to the will of the people. And they advanced programs and policies that, in a changing world, brought liberal democracy in America more in line with the Declaration of Independence’s and the Constitution’s original promise of freedom and equality for all.

But progressivism went astray owing to a defect in its basic orientation. It rejected the sound principles of government embodied in the Constitution, because of a critical difference of opinion about human nature. Progressives believed that great improvements in the moral character of humanity and in the scientific understanding of society had rendered the Constitution’s scheme of checks and balances — or better its separation, balancing, and blending of power — unnecessary to prevent majority tyranny and the abuse of power by officeholders. Whereas the makers of the American Constitution believed that the imperfections of human nature and the tendency of people to develop competing interests and aims were permanent features of moral and political life, progressives insisted that progress allowed human beings, or at least the most talented and best educated human beings, to rise above these limitations and converge in their understanding of what was true and right. Indeed, according to the progressives the Constitution’s obsolete and cumbersome institutional design was a primary hindrance to democratic reforms to which all reasonable people could agree and which upright and impartial administrators would implement. It is a short step from the original progressives’ belief that developments in morals and science had obviated reasonable disagreements about law and public policy and dissolved concerns about the impartiality of administrators to the new progressives’ belief that in domestic affairs disagreement is indefensible and intolerable.

In the same piece, Berkowitz outlines the political theories at the root of the problem:

According to Rawls, justice concerns the principles that free and equal citizens would adopt to govern themselves if they thought impartially, objectively, and rationally about their condition as human beings. It has two basic parts: fundamental and inviolable liberties, and an obligation on the part of the state to adopt “measures ensuring for all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their freedoms” [emphasis added]. In one respect Rawls reflects the weight of opinion about justice in a liberal democracy, which recognizes fundamental individual rights, and affirms the obligation on the part of the state to prepare citizens for freedom by making provisions for those who can’t provide for themselves. Partisans divide over which rights take priority, and concerning the size and scope of the state’s role.

Officially, Rawls’s theory is distinguished by the articulation of abstract principles and rules the purpose of which is to structure public debate in a liberal democracy. The rules are supposed to determine what kinds of policy arguments are legitimate in public and what kinds are not. But unofficially and in practice, Rawls’s theory of justice, certainly as adopted by professors of practical ethics and applied to public affairs, is distinguished by more. It also purports to derive from “public reason,” or the abstract principles and rules that structure public debate, substantive public policies and disqualify others. It’s as if the rules of baseball told you not only how to play the game, but also who ought to win and who ought to lose.

The obligation Rawls’s theory imputes to the state to adopt “measures ensuring for all citizens adequate, all-purpose means to make effective use of their freedoms” turns out to be more than a merely formal obligation. “Justice as fairness” builds a great deal of government intervention and redistribution of wealth into the words “adequate,” “all-purpose,” and “effective.” Put differently, Rawls’s theory infuses the formal reasoning that is supposed to structure public debate with considerable substantive content.  Suffice it to say that the Rawlsian is rare who has derived even a single public policy position from Rawls’s theory that conflicts with the progressive political agenda.

Walter Russell Mead, in The Progressive Crisis at The American Interest, thinks those who “studied business administration in cheap colleges rather than political science in expensive ones” aren’t in need of so much administrative oversight:

The progressive state has never seen its job as simply to check the excesses of the rich.  It has also sought to correct the vices of the poor and to uplift the masses.  From the Prohibition and eugenics movements of the early twentieth century to various improvement and uplift projects in our own day, well educated people have seen it as their simple duty to use the powers of government to make the people do what is right: to express the correct racial ideas, to eschew bad child rearing technique like corporal punishment, to eat nutritionally appropriate foods, to quit smoking, to use the right light bulbs and so on and so on.

Progressives want and need to believe that the voters are tuning them out because they aren’t progressive enough.  But it’s impossible to grasp the crisis of the progressive enterprise unless one grasps the degree to which voters resent the condescension and arrogance of know-it-all progressive intellectuals and administrators.  They don’t just distrust and fear the bureaucratic state because of its failure to live up to progressive ideals (thanks to the power of corporate special interests); they fear and resent upper middle class ideology.  Progressives scare off many voters most precisely when they are least restrained by special interests.  Many voters feel that special interests can be a healthy restraint on the idealism and will to power of the upper middle class.

The progressive ideal of administrative cadres leading the masses toward the light has its roots in a time when many Americans had an eighth grade education or less.  It always had its down side, and the arrogance and tin-eared obtuseness of self assured American liberal progressives has infuriated generations of Americans and foreigners who for one reason or another have the misfortune to fall under the power of a class still in the grip of a secularized version of the Puritan ideal.  But in the conditions of late nineteenth and twentieth century America, the progressive vanguard fulfilled a vital and necessary social role.

The deep crisis of the progressive ideal today is that it is no longer clear that the American clerisy is wanted or needed in that role.

At bottom, that is what the populist revolt against establishments of all kinds is about.  A growing section of the American population wants to think and act for itself, without the guidance of the graduates of ivy league colleges and blue chip graduate programs.

James Taranto makes essentially the same point – “the authoritarian impulse and the cult of Obama” – in Weisberg vs. the People:

Weisberg’s latest amounts to a lament for democracy. Even if the American people aren’t as racist as he suspected you were back in 2008, you aren’t up to the challenge of being governed by the handsome, brilliant and cool Barack Obama.

We would offer an alternative hypothesis: The American people, while imperfect, are basically OK. You just made a mistake in choosing a president. Oh, there were any number of reasons why Obama seemed better than Hillary Clinton or John McCain, and who knows? Maybe either of them would have been even worse. But the point is, Obama was never all that, or even nearly what, he was cracked up to be.

It takes an authoritarian mindset to look at a failed leader and fault the people for failing to follow him. This is not just an ideological authoritarianism, although it does have that element, as evidenced by Weisberg’s peremptory dismissal of opposing viewpoints. But he treats Obama not as what he actually is–a human being and a politician–but as a sort of religious figure–a potential savior in 2008, a martyr in 2011.

This is the Cult of Obama. Many of the then-candidate’s supporters–especially highly educated ones who pride themselves on their superior rationality–saw Obama as a sort of idealized version of themselves.

William Voegeli at No Left Turns has this to say about Weisberg’s column:

Even for those conservatives who are not unreservedly pro-Tea Party, it gets ever easier to be anti-anti-Tea Party.  The latest evidence that the Tea Party is fortunate in its detractors comes from Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg.  The culmination of his Krugmanic argument that wise and necessary economic policies are being thwarted by troglodytes is the assertion “that there’s no point trying to explain complicated matters to the American people.”  Weisberg doesn’t explain how he arrives at this doleful conclusion, apparently feeling he would be wasting keystrokes trying to lay out the bitter truth for readers so dim they haven’t already grasped it.  The core problem, apparently, is that complicated matters are, well, complicated and the American people are, well, simple.

Given the entire rhetorical cast of his article, which never admits the possibility that the complex choices before our republic are ones about which decent and reasonable people can disagree, there’s every reason to believe that what qualifies as successfully explaining complicated matters to the American people, in Weisberg’s mind, is getting a large majority of them to assent to Weisberg’s policy preferences.  The healthy thing for a small-d democrat to do after a political defeat or disappointment is to commit new energies and arguments to the task of persuading his fellow-citizens to adopt his viewpoint.  Weisberg is having none of that.  If the American people don’t agree with him it’s because they’re stupid, and our experiment in self-government cannot possibly survive such stupidity.  We are, instead, doomed to a slow, “excruciating form of self-destruction.”

Weisberg’s article is the latest attack on the Tea Party that inadvertently clarifies why there is a Tea Party.

VDH asks the president to “spare us the sermons” and “explain why your policies aren’t working.”

During the last three years, in almost every debate — deficit reduction, taxes, illegal immigration — Obama has smeared the motives of his political opponents. He suggested that critics of illegal immigration wished to add moats and alligators to help close the border and that they planned to arrest parents and children on their way to get ice cream. He advised that Latinos “should punish our enemies.” He accused opponents who wanted balanced budgets of abandoning children suffering from autism and Down syndrome.

Obama’s partisan rhetoric has always been rough. He called his political adversaries on taxes and the debt “hostage takers” who engaged in “hand-to-hand combat,” and needed to be relegated to the proverbial back seat. Obama even suggested that AIG executives were metaphorical terrorists: “They’ve got a bomb strapped to them and they’ve got their hand on the trigger.”

In an appeal to voters, Obama urged that they not act calmly, but get angry: “I don’t want to quell anger. I think people are right to be angry!” The polarizing talk was the logical follow-up to his campaign hype of 2008, when he ridiculed the “clingers” of Pennsylvania, called on his supporters to confront his opponents and “get in their face,” and at one point even boasted, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” His jokes about Nancy Reagan and the Special Olympics were needlessly tasteless and crass.

Obama’s inflammatory language and tough metaphors are not all that unusual in the American political tradition. But what is odd is that a habitual participant in brass-knuckles political combat should call for the sort of civility that he himself did not and will not abide by.

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