Liberal Procedural

Michael Berube’s most recent essay on academic freedom deserves wide exposure: it would make a good pamphlet to be sent and circulated not just among academics, but between academics and their various publics, including legislatures and pundits.

One part of it that caught my eye in particular was Berube’s observation that the defense of academic freedom should be one part of a wider commitment to procedural liberalism (not “liberalism” in the sense of “those Democrats are liberals”, liberalism in the wider sense that includes most American conservatives save for the religious or cultural right). It caught my eye partially because it reminded me of what frustrates me in some discussions of academic freedom: that more than a few scholars who rise in defense of academic freedom are either agnostic about procedural liberalism in the wider sense or actively antagonistic or dismissive of it.

This is what allows some academics to rise to defend academic freedom from David Horowitz and yet strongly endorse campus speech codes, for example. In other areas of argument, the same duality is what allows critical legal theorists to argue that “law” is largely a mechanism of power, that the claims procedural liberals would make about how law works are not in fact how law works, and yet at the same time, often to invoke legal or procedural standards to defend or protect what they politically value; for anti-foundationalists to suddenly plant their feet on the foundations they otherwise tear down when they find themselves threatened.

My frustration with this pattern, at least what I see as a pattern, conditions my initial approach to an intense discussion produced by a recent posting from Scott Eric Kaufman at The Valve. Kaufman’s entry is a relatively (and to my view, atypically) well-worn attack on symbolic politics on the left, as one respondent puts it, an “ew, hippies” post.

I’ve been accused of making similar comments at times in the past, with some justice, and I’m about to make such comments again. The problem with Kaufman’s entry is that it glosses the intellectual and political history of the New Left, but on the other hand, unpacking that history may actually sharpen the antagonism that his post invokes and that the comments exemplify.

As some of the Valve commenters note, a more nuanced history of the New Left actually recapitulates the division between Kaufman and some of his strongest critics, such as Turbulent Velvet. Kaufman is wrong in many ways to associate the kinds of symbolic politics that he disdains with the Students for a Democratic Society. In many ways, SDS was at least initially the fraction of the New Left that was more distinctly establishment, more oriented towards both procedural liberalism and older lineages of mass-movement radicalism; the SDS of 1962 was eclipsed both by a situationist left whose politics were largely symbolic and representational and by a would-be vanguardist fractional left that made the move into violent confrontations with the state that it took to be anything but symbolic. The “old” New Left was dragged along in the wake of that double move, dropped out of late 1960s political struggle, or made the formal transition into mainstream political and social institutions.

The discussion at the Valve that follows is pretty intense. In some cases, I think it’s simply a case of people talking past one another, or not noticing odd points of congruity. Turbulent Velvet argues that Kaufman is complicit in the kind of patterned media coverage that allows the cameras to show the “five guys dressed as Batman” at a protest of a million people otherwise dressed in suits and ties, that the “ew, hippie” trope is one that authorizes that sort of selectivity. To some extent, stepping outside of the debate for a minute, I’d say more commonsensically that if I was the guy editing the nightly news broadcast, I’d probably show the five Batmen as well: it’s just a better picture. But it is precisely that calculation that is part of the deeper problem: the best situationists understood the representational logic of public culture very well in the late 1960s.

T.V. is right to ask, “Why aren’t the million well-dressed people the main political fact that becomes news?” and maybe right even to say, “You’re legitimizing the fact that it’s not news by stigmatizing the five Batmen”. He’s not asking, “Why are there five Batmen there in the crowd of a million”, because he thinks that’s an irrelevant question. And he’s actually agreeing with Kaufman implicitly by suggesting that it’s the million people who are there to be counted for a statement made within normative politics who matter, not the five who are there to make some very different and anti-normative point.

This is what the situationists challenged from the outset: that the million matter more. They rejected that procedural liberalism is a value system which legitimately constrains and directs our actions rather than a straightjacket which coerces a performance of consent. There is a legitimate antagonism here between procedural liberals and anti-foundational radicals, and I get as wary and tetchy as Kaufman when I hear anyone trying to either argue that no such legitimate antagonism exists, or that I have misperceived the nature of the problem. I’d rather hear, forthrightly, the accusation that I’m siding with the establishment or with conservatives, because that is in many ways accurate, and because that accusation at least begins to chase out into the open some of the real issues, many of which lie within and are defined by the wreck of the history that Kaufman raises from the deep.

Based on that history, people with a commitment to liberalism are perfectly correct to be on guard against both situationist and vanguardist attempts to outflank them to their left. Right both in the sense that each of those responses seeks to substantively void or evacuate the core commitments of liberalism and seeks to somehow shackle liberals to a political strategy not of their own making. Situationism by making procedural responses seem impotent, humorless and complicit; vanguardism by laying its eggs parasitically inside the body of more establishment left or liberal institutions. I’m more concerned by the latter, because there’s a very real history of such political practice on the left in the United States.

On the opposite side, there is equally legitimate historical reason for various radicals to regard liberals as fundamental enemies. I’m always minded of Garry Wills’ brilliant indictment of liberals in Nixon Agonistes, of the clueless, patronizing response that many offered to undeniably substantive radical arguments. Of the disengaged and anti-intellectual disdain of some liberal intellectuals now for postmodernist and poststructuralist critiques, their unwillingness to engage arguments that by the standards of liberalism one is obligated to engage and take seriously. More tangibly, there’s no denying that some mainstream liberals in the 1960s and 1970s were all too willing to report radicals to the state, to participate in political suppression well outside the bounds of the public sphere and civil society–in fact, to violate their own commitments to proceduralism in order to score transient political points or puff up their credentials as anti-communists.

To get past “ew, hippie” (or “communist dupe”) on one hand and “establishment pawn” or “sell-out” on the other does not free us from the antagonism that history (and our present) have in ample measure. Because there is a real, possibly unbridgeable, political struggle involved, one that is made all the more intense by the fact that both groups imagine a common relationship to some unmobilized, relatively silent, general and possibly fictional constituency. Both imagine within the United States that they are speaking for and with some of the same social constellations, and competing for leadership of same. And here both groups are, in some measure, wrong.

It is a caricature to say that liberals want to “move to the center”: that is in some sense more coherent than the actual floundering tactical vision of the political that many liberals have on offer. It is a caricature to say that various flavors of radical, anti-foundationalist, or left consciousness just want to do street theater with puppets or smash windows in Seattle. They don’t even have that clear a collective sense of direction. Clarity for either (or more than either, because I think there are really more than two bodies in this room) really does lead them in completely opposite directions, but clarity for either probably doesn’t lead in any immediate sense to political victory inside or outside the electoral system.

In a way, the aimlessness of contemporary strategy has much to do with the fact that neither constellation of thinkers and activists is willing to face their own inauthenticity to the present moment. The radical constituency conjures visions of conspiracy and mass false consciousness; the procedural liberal putters around peddling his own technocratic excellence and managerial ability and wondering when the decent majority is going to buy some of that product. What neither grasps is that something subtle has changed in the underlying normative architecture of social alliance and social identity in America. We go looking for explanation and settle on cartoonish one-note sociologies: it’s the religious right! it’s the soccer moms! it’s fear of Osama! it’s Karl Rove’s diabolism! it’s Diebold and gerrymandering! it’s culture, stupid! it’s the economy, stupid! and so on. It’s all and none: there may be one geist, but the spirit is a composite, and the sum does not tell you the parts.

There is no single move to make to unlock the future. It doesn’t help to think about everything in a way divorced from any strategic conception of the political, which I think could be said fairly about both procedural liberals and various flavors of radicals and leftists. John Kerry trying to filibuster Samuel Alito isn’t about anything more than building his credentials for another run at the Presidency with people who are going to vote Democratic whether the Democrats nominate Hilary Clinton or Attila the Hun. Don’t bring that shit if you don’t have a hope of winning the game, of blocking the nomination, particularly not if you’re otherwise staking your reputation on the defense of normative institutional ways of doing politics. A filibuster is a rupture in normative deliberation, a power-play.

Don’t play power if you don’t have the tools to play. A protest is the same thing: a million Mormons or a million transvestite Batmen, I don’t care, it doesn’t add up to anything unless that’s a million committed votes that weren’t committed before, or the protest is a tipping point that moves a new constituency into a different political position, or if the protest threatens the continued functioning of something that a persuadable or vulnerable interest doesn’t dare allow to be threatened. If you can get a general strike going, that’s real power. If you can compel a response from the powerful that makes them look worse that the protestors, that’s symbolic power. If you can get people who voted one way last time to vote a different way next time, that’s electoral power. But if your protest breaks the thing you came to save, good luck fixing it. If it ends up accumulating symbolic power for your enemies, good luck getting it back. If it ends up losing more votes than it gains, what was the point?

Don’t play at the politics of symbols unless you know what symbols mean, how they circulate, and about how to transformatively alter their meaning and circulation. Most of the people, many of them radicals, who argue for a symbolic understanding about why people think and act they way they do have painfully empirically and conceptually thin understandings of processes and institutions of cultural production, of the mechanisms of cultural circulation, and of mass audiences and their capacities. Sure, perhaps the media pictures the five Batmen at a protest of a million, but what does that mean? Is that why some unnamed viewing public who is presumed to be potentially sympathetic to the million protesters is instead unmobilized and unmoved? There’s a lot of missing steps in between point A and point Z in that claim. Maybe much of the mass audience is just as smart in some respect as Turbulent Velvet and pay no more attention to the five Batmen than he does. Maybe that’s not why they aren’t pouring into the streets themselves to join the protestors.

In the end, because I’m essentially a classical liberal, possibly even of the more conservative kind in many respects, my view of the road ahead runs through liberalism. I would be the first to say that the cartographers presently trying to lay down that asphault mostly are rolling out circles, at least in the United States. If there’s an argument to be made for liberalism at its deepest and most authentic levels, it is going to have to connect to, and possibly be subsumed within, hybrid compositions of common sense and everyday interpersonal decency in American life. It is not going to find those formations evenly spread through American life, either. Politics is about mobilizing discrete constituencies, and liberals are mostly confined to a kind of urban, technocratic, expert-educated elite in the United States, a confinement that is comprehensive from values to culture to political philosophy.

Radicals of various forms and inclinations have a similar problem: for the most part, they’re located within a kind of lumpenbourgoisie that arises within and around the same social formations that sustain contemporary American liberals.

My personal inclination, much as it appears to be Kaufman’s, is to think that many diverse kinds of radicals are even further from having a clue than mainstream liberals about how to connect their convictions to any kind of political power, whether it’s through mass action or winning elections. Trying to collectively impede business as usual when the people conducting such business can just retreat behind even more protected redoubts (physical and otherwise) usually means you end up hassling people who are not (or were not, until you hassle them) in any sense your opposition; a lot of radical mass action ends up being the left-wing version of bombing the shit out of a bunch of innocent Sunnis in order to kill one terrorist that you suspect of being present. Here, yes, I cry, “Oh, noes! Here come the puppets!” half with a kind of nasty intent to mock, and half with the deliberate desire to make it clear that I’m not to be found in any part of the street theater–both because I judge such action ineffectual and because even were it effectual, symbolic politics of that kind, or even most mass action, centrally attacks my political values, my vestment in liberal institutions and liberal proceduralism. I might forgive that politics the latter if it at least could boast of the former, but even at that, I’d be making the devil’s bargain, in my view retrospectively foolish, that many establishment leftists made during the 1960s.

The core point is that the antagonism here is not superficial. It runs all the way to the foundational bottom. We’re not fighting about whose fault it is that the television cameras zoom in on Batman or on broken windows at Seattle Starbucks: we’re fighting about what politics and society have been, are, and ought to be. If American liberals and leftists have a hard time signing the dotted line on a popular-front agreement, however high the stakes, it may be partly because both sides know that in the history of the 20th Century, such a concord is usually reached with knives held behind the back and fingers crossed, and because both sides genuinely are interested in and potentially identify with social and political constituencies who are not at the table and who will be actively antagonized by the existence of such an alliance.

It’s not about buying respectability with a mythical middle for liberals, or street cred with the Multitude for the radicals, nothing that generic. For me, it’s that I want to communicate seriously with many conservatives (both within the establishment and outside of it) not just because I think that’s the road to political victory but because the seriousness of my values demand that I do so. That’s liberalism, warp and woof!

Indeed, because I think that many conservatives or libertarians are procedural liberals, one and the same thing. The seriousness of my values demand I try the same with radicals, because the critique many of them offer is absolutely substantive; even situationist or symbolic responses are.

The same is true for many radicals, postmodernists, anti-foundationalists, latter-day situationists, you name it: they may have their Others whom they can only oppose, but that’s not the liberal; liberals are just close enough to create an accursed intimacy, a need to furiously ask why the liberal hates the leftist. To accuse the liberal of self-loathing is to suggest that the liberal is really a radical and ask why the liberal keeps committing fratricide. To ask, as Turbulent Velvet asks, why the self-loathing liberal can’t just call down the energy of the men dressed as Batmen and the puppet-carryers, mobilize his own fringes.

In part the reason they can’t is because that is the substantive liberal critique of the procedurally-minded conservatives and libertarians: that they have failed to protect the institutions and practices which are the substance of democratic politics, the essence of contemporary freedom, that they’ve sold out to their own fringe in pursuit of power. The radical asks the liberal, “Why can’t you do the same? Why must you show contempt for all the various constituencies that are deeply alienated from contemporary American life, for all the varieties of political practice?” The liberal’s answer, at least mine, is that I’m trying to make the world safe for carrying puppets to rallies but that “making use of the energy” or the incorporation of various radicalized constituencies is destroying the village that I’m trying to save, just as I think the Republicans have done. I readily agree that’s the key to recent Republican electoral success, that they’ve embraced a political faction that hungers for the demolition of many of the structural underpinnings of liberal democracy, tried to catch that lightning in a bottle. They’ve already burned their enemies that way; I think they’re going to end up burning themselves, too. Cynically, quietly, my answer to the radical is also, “It wouldn’t work anyway”, that whatever it is that the radical yearns for as a praxis in the contemporary crisis isn’t just morally wrong, it’s beside the point, even more ineffectual and self-defeating than weak defenses of business-as-usual.

What this amounts to is this: don’t think I’ve made a mistake when I distance myself from what I perceive to be various forms of radical praxis or argument. Nor do I believe that really the radical is just a liberal who doesn’t know it yet.

I do think that he ought to be. I think the same about the cultural or religious right, that they scarcely dream of what they’re asking for, or the general consequences of what they’re trying to bring about. In neither case is that a claim of false consciousness in the classic sense of the term. It’s more, “I know best”, a preemptive version of “I told you so”, which I readily grant is a response that rarely (never) endears the person offering it to anybody.

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16 Responses to Liberal Procedural

  1. From now on I should just send what I write to you first and post your response as my own. Esp. egregious, in retrospect, was the speed with which I danced from the Port Huron Statement to the SDS to the post-’68 SDS . . . and the fact that I didn’t make explicit the fact that I wasn’t blaming the PHS for the excesses of say the Weatherpeople and their Weatherideas, but that I was, in the manner of a literary scholar, saying that you can see in the PHS the origins of the New Left’s implosion. I should’ve clarified that connection.

  2. Bradley Reuhs says:

    “If there’s an argument to be made for liberalism at its deepest and most authentic levels, it is going to have to connect to, and possibly be subsumed within, hybrid compositions of common sense and everyday interpersonal decency in American life.”

    This is the most succinct summary of the current state of liberalism that I have read to date; however, commonsensical declarations are a violation of the university speech codes. Only emotive, counterfactual, tendentious descriptions of reality are allowed (Gramsci speaks!), and decency hightailed it over the horizon a long time ago.

  3. barry says:

    Timothy, two comments:

    1) “Don’t bring that shit if you don’t have a hope of winning the game, of blocking the nomination, particularly not if you’re otherwise staking your reputation on the defense of normative institutional ways of doing politics. A filibuster is a rupture in normative deliberation, a power-play.”

    More and more I remember 1992. At that time, the GOP was well and truely screwed. They no longer had the Cold War; the Gulf War gave Americans massive confidence in our national strength. The religious right had succeeded in frightening a lot of Americans. And the Democratic Party, in Clinton, had found a Great Communicator of its own.

    The reaction of the right was, in effect, to deny the legitimacy of President Clinton. They fought back, procedurally and politically, every chance that they got. Remember the first budget? 100% GOP opposition, which, from a short-term viewpoint, failed miserably.

    However, this relentless fighting did succeed, in establishing the idea that opposition to Clinton was legitimate. In the same way, every time that the Democratic Party fights back against Bush, it establishes that this is allowable. Remember that Bush and the GOP will continually assert their viewpoint; if the Democratic Party doesn’t counter-assert, we know whose viewpoint will prevail.

    2) “I readily agree that’s the key to recent Republican electoral success, that they’ve embraced a political faction that hungers for the demolition of many of the structural underpinnings of liberal democracy, tried to catch that lightning in a bottle. They’ve already burned their enemies that way; I think they’re going to end up burning themselves, too.”

    The same could be said of the Bolsheviks, back in the (soon to become) Soviet Union. Many of them found out that their worst enemies were other Bolsheviks. But that didn’t help the White Russians. It wouldn’t surprise me, if the GOP did succeed in establishing dominance in the US for the next few decades, that many Republicans would feel the full force of the unleashed oppressive apparatus of the Republican state. But that wouldn’t help us.

  4. Doug says:

    1. Read this right after reading the Salon review of At Canaan’s Edge. Contention there is that MLK’s openness to talking with his enemies was at the heart of his strategy, and that it establishes his moral greatness. Interesting complement to what’s here.

    2. You want to communicate with conservatives. Do they want to communicate with you? If not, what is to be done?

    3. Conservative politics, as I read it, is movement politics, in which prestige accumulates to people who push things most. At the moment, it is also politics of loyalty to a single person. What does a procedural liberal do in the face of this essentially authoritarian stance?

  5. Bill McNeill says:

    Here’s another crosscutting of political ideas which lines up to some extent with your situationist vs. institutional liberal distinction and also looks at things from the other end of the political spectrum (assuming you believe in poltical spectrums)…

    The standard model for political conflict is that you go out and fight
    for your ideals because you want them to prevail. Under this model
    ideologues are people who really, really want to win–want it to the
    point of being dogmatic, intolerant, irrational etc. Sometimes,
    though, I think the worst ideologues are the ones who don’t
    want to win. For them the struggle is an end, not a means, and the best
    struggle is one that can be perpetuated indefinitely. These people will crave a nebulous, omnipotent, untouchable foe, so as to never run out of fuel for their righteous anger.

    Obviously, one example of this sort of ideologue could be the
    “situationist” liberal you describe above. The puppet-building hippie who makes a lifestyle out of attending demonstations is a
    familiar left-wing caricature. I don’t think the phenomenon is
    confined to the left however. An analogous impulse underlies
    a certain right-wing obsession with trumpeting asceticism over decadence. Part of the reason why sex, drugs, and
    pleasure in general are perennial targets of “conservative”
    regulation is because they are so stubbornly resistant to regulation.
    No matter what variety of sexual behavior you define to be perverted,
    there will always be some perverts out there breaking your rules.
    Which is great if a delight in rule enforcement was your whole
    motivation to begin with.

  6. withywindle says:

    “You want to communicate with conservatives. Do they want to communicate with you?”

    Some of us conservatives do indeed want to communicate with the good professor. At any rate, I’m reading him, and will say something in return, when I have something interesting to say.

  7. Mary Catherine Moran says:

    “In part the reason they can’t is because that is the substantive liberal critique of the procedurally-minded conservatives and libertarians: that they have failed to protect the institutions and practices which are the substance of democratic politics, the essence of contemporary freedom, that they’ve sold out to their own fringe in pursuit of power.”

    I believe this critique is shared by a type that you don’t mention, a type that I’ll call, for want of a better term, the “radicalized liberal.” Though maybe partisan (or just seriously p.o.’ed) liberal would be a more apt term, I’m not sure. Anyway, as I see it, this type is radicalized not in terms of substance (i.e., this liberal type does not say, The system is so hopelessly corrupt/compromised/etc that the only response is to stand outside the system, with maybe the ocassional attempt to disrupt it as means of protest or bearing witness or what have you) but rather in terms of methods/tactics (given the success of “conservatives,” who have sacrificed the institutions and practices of liberal democracy in their pursuit of power, we need to adopt some of their tactics in order to reclaim/recapture the institutions and practices that have been abandoned).

    To take the failed filibuster as an example. The line that I heard and read most often went something like this: “We need to stand up and fight on principle.” This is not necessarily a radical position; and the attempt to use a filibuster in order to take a stand on principle strikes me as well within the bounds of the procedural liberalism of which you speak. After all, while it is obviously an obstructionist tactic, a filibuster is not really a disruption of the system. It is carried out from within the system, in accordance with a clearly defined set of rules and procedures. Nobody (or almost nobody, I guess) who supported a filibuster said, And if the other side gets the 60 votes, we’ll walk out en masse, or storm the Chamber, or bring out the puppets. To attempt a filibuster in accordance with the rules and procedures which govern a filibuster is to accept, and to at least tacitly endorse, those very rules and procedures. And as I understand it, one reason why the “gang of 14” arrived at a deal (where Dems agreed to filibuster judicial nominees only under “extraordinary circumstances”) was that even some Republicans felt uneasy/queasy about a “nuclear option” which would throw out a set of rules that had been developed/refined over the course of two centuries or so of liberal democratic procedure. You can say that a filibuster that is bound to fail is an empty gesture, nothing more than a piece of theatre. But I don’t see how you can equate a lawful, procedurally bound protest (i.e., a filibuster attempt) with, say, an unlawful smashing of a Seattle Starbucks window.

    So the problem (or one problem) that these “radicalized” or partisan or
    I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore liberals face is that even when (or I should say, even though) they use liberal proceduralist means, the game is now rigged such that procedural liberalism in the service of substantive liberalism is now equated with window-smashing, if not bomb-throwing. Which I think goes some way toward explaining the “ew hippie” trope (No, no. I’m not like *those* people. I’m all about Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration and the Constitution, and so on). But which doesn’t really offer a way out/forward, given the erosion of liberal proceduralist practices and institutions.

  8. Tim,

    As always, your open-mindedness–your commitment to living out the classical liberal creed in all its proceduralness–is profound. I’m a lot more willing to embrace the possibility of transformative, communal, radical politics than you, but on a prudential level your warning is pure wisdom. A great post.

    I read today a post by Ed Kilgore (here) that vaguely touches on a similar mental habit, one that conspires to allow the thinker to believe they know longer need to engage in liberal discourse and can go straight to radical critique: the discovery of secret agenda that “unlocks” (as you put it) one’s opponents, the I’m on to you trope. “Why, he’s just a Straussian–that explains everything! No more need to talk to that fascist!” And so on and so forth. Good stuff.

  9. akotsko says:

    If the procedures are so trashed, why go through the motions of following them? If the voting machines are rigged, why beat oneself up over not appealling to enough of the NASCAR contingent in southeastern Ohio? If the other party views the constitution as having been suspended, what good is it going to do to throw the constitution in their face?

    (I’m not saying I know what to do.)

  10. Dan says:

    “A filibuster is a rupture in normative deliberation, a power-play.”

    I agree with Mary: in an otherwise excellent post, Tim, you lose me here. Contentious politics, i.e., non-routine political activity, is a far cry from elected representatives attempting to use a traditional procedural rule to block a (very probably) significant change in American jurisprudence. Indeed, the extension of debate is not a rupture in normative deliberation under any reasonable interpretation of that phrase. The Republican threat to re-write the rules to disallow the procedural motion — under transparently bogus appeals to Constitutional doctrine — sounds more like a “power-play” than the attempted filibuster war.

    This strikes me as the heart of the matter — appealing to what you call “procedural liberalism” in discussions with libertarians and conservatives only makes sense in a world of sufficient symbolic commonplaces. If Hartz was correct that we Americans are all just irrational Lockeans, then you’ve got hope. But my faith in Hartz’s thesis is being eroded by the ascendency of illiberal elements, many of whom hold the reigns of institutional power.

    Regardless, you’re right about campus radicalism and campus speech codes.

  11. joeo says:

    John Emerson was particularly good in that thread. Leftists didn’t have a ton of options in 1968.

    Democrats are in a hard position, but it isn’t that hard of a position. 2000 was pretty much a tie. Whoever won 2000 would have won 2004 because of 9/11. If things were slightly different, the republicans would be the ones who are whining. Plus, no Iraq war.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Dan and Mary, you make a good point on the filibuster. I think what I’m thinking here is about the internal culture of the Senate itself as an institution–that a filibuster is an established procedure for disrupting procedure, but that this contradictory character means that it’s an unwise thing to turn to for a symbolic gesture, that you threaten it when you’ve got a good hope of sustaining it. Symbolically, I think the votes against Alito accomplished much the same purpose–the Democrats can come away saying, “This judge had the lowest confirmation votes of a Supreme Court justice: what does that say about how the Republican Party has run roughshod over the political traditions of this country?” That’s one of the themes that a proceduralist needs to hammer on now. But then Dan is right to note that this theme will get you nowhere if it turns out that libertarians and conservatives (both inside the political system and among the electorate) have genuinely and profoundly turned to illberalism. It won’t pluck on any heartstrings then to decry brute instrumentalism or the gutting out of checks-and-balances.

    Adam’s question is easier for me to answer. I think it’s partly because I’ve spent time in Africa, especially Zimbabwe, that it seems clear to me that bad as things seem at the moment, they’re really not nearly as bad as Adam’s description might imply. That even if many conservatives and libertarians are falling into illberalism or rejections of proceduralism, they haven’t fallen all the way as yet, and the structures of American democracy are still fairly intact even if sullied, even if they’re being chipped away. I’m particularly concerned when we fall into the habit of talking about voting fraud. Not because it’s impossible that there was some in the last election; certain there was chicanery in Florida in 2000–but to dwell on that lets us ignore the fact that even if space aliens landed and supervised our next elections with absolute and final impartiality, the voting public in the United States is very nearly divided down the middle. E.g., that even if we squeak out a Presidential victory, or manage to swing some Congressional votes, the political impasse is a real one. That’s what I’m really thinking about when I talk about both liberals and radicals being inauthentic to the present: until we ask what’s changed, what’s in motion out there, about the habitus that both Democratic and Republican voters occupy, in a way that is open, curious, investigatory, and accepting of the possibility of our own transformation, we’re not going to really make any headway.

    I think this is why I choose to believe, sometimes against some sobering evidence, that libertarians and some conservatives do have sufficient symbolic commenplaces with procedural liberalism still; that we are all irrational (or inconsistent) Lockeans; that there is a kind of distributed decency and sense of political decorum that will rise slowly but persistently in response to indecent and self-destructive uses of political power. In truth, I think that is precisely one of the reasons that liberal and radical Americans find themselves on the political outs, that for a brief window in the 1970s and 1980s, identarian projects that many associate with the left bullied their way into civil and institutional life and misused their power at the same time that party Democrats at many levels of government became careless and arrogant about fiscal responsibility, issues of corruption (esp. municipal governments), about the alienating character of technocratic policy formation, and about social constituencies who felt excluded from political and social change. It may take a while for such a reaction to build, but the odd thing about it is that the opposition to the Republican machine in the meantime is better off being excluded from power–as long as we’re persistent and organized in criticizing the indecent misuses of power by the current majority.

    One instance that gives me that hope would be what happened recently in Dover, much more the election than the judge’s decision. This is where I think the proceduralist response is just so much smarter than a more radical counterattack–where the political line should not be “believe in evolution or you’re a dumb religious ignoramus”, but “don’t force your religious views on other people, especially not through the schools”. There are a lot of hooks that the opposition should steal back from the Republicans, in fact–small government appeals, critiques of fatcat corruption, attacks on “activist judges”, and so on. That should be the content of some kind of popular-front opposition, in my opinion.

    This is another reason I get annoyed with various left fractions–is that they come into some kind of coalition effort of this sort and immediately demand that the oppositional effort expand to include their own dedicated concerns. The Republicans had the discipline to shove a lot of that off to the side during the 1980s. They couldn’t do so indefinitely–eventually the religious right in particular pulled off a putsch within the party. Various left fractions are welcome to try the same in the really longer-term, that’s democracy for you, but I wish they could learn to put aside their dearest projects in the short-term.

  13. tom says:

    The liberal’s answer, at least mine, is that I’m trying to make the world safe for carrying puppets to rallies but that “making use of the energy” or the incorporation of various radicalized constituencies is destroying the village that I’m trying to save, just as I think the Republicans have done. I readily agree that’s the key to recent Republican electoral success, that they’ve embraced a political faction that hungers for the demolition of many of the structural underpinnings of liberal democracy, tried to catch that lightning in a bottle.

    Try it the other way around. Neither “pole” or party is actually accomplishing anything. Neither has a strategy. To “embrace” hungry folk is different from embracing, or attaining, what it is they hunger for. The only significant difference between conservative and liberal in this game – a game in which they both understand that they are entirely ineffective – is in how they respond to the demolition. Cons fall back on platitudinous material that compels assent because it sits at the knee of the Great White Father. Rads point up the withered loins of the underpinnings, and talk of what to do to create something new. But the rhetoric of the “new” implies the death of the old, which puts some folks in the procedural lib camp in something of a quandary – they adhere to what is by all accounts on all sides falling apart – the old structural underpinnings, and yet they persist in posititing the possibility of finding a middle path between paternalistic apodicticity on one hand, and the unpromising, untried, uncharted, unstable visioning of the not yet. The problem is the denial of the gaping void where that village, the center used to be. How much more seductive to joyride that bottled heat than to look if anything might be done in the failing light. Paralyzing, and then, in very practical terms: where do you stand – what’s left to stand on?

  14. Timothy Burke says:


    I think it’s a good question. One of my big frustrations with some of the critical responses I’ve met with elsewhere is that the instant, knee-jerk reaction from some on the left to my arguments is to assume that procedural liberalism of the kind I’m talking about it is necessarily party politics, or the endorsement of the Democrats, or that it requires a hostility to changes in society which are radical in their scope and intent. I think none of the above are true. I’d be the first to agree that party politics are largely void now of political possibility, that the Democrats are the most hopeless of all, and that a serious commitment to procedural liberalism in fact carries some really serious, sustained radical implications in terms of the scope of the transformations of practice that commitment points to.

    I guess what defines procedural liberalism as I think of it, however, is an assertion that liberal institutions are the source of freedoms and of empancipatory possibilities rather than an impediment to them; that the problem is interference with those institutions. So, for example, this lines me up very strongly against the kind of radicalism embedded within critical legal theory, which looks at the law and says, “There’s nothing *but* power there: the law is simply an instrument of social power”. My response is, “If the law is not what it purports to be, let’s make it so” but also a suspicion that the critical legal theorist is overlooking ways in which the law already embodies at least some of the hopeful premises of its best nature. So this is a two-pronged reply: that things are not so void of accomplishment or existing liberty as some radical critiques suggest; and that the answer is to work institutions towards their promise rather than sweep them away.

    You’re right, however, that this becomes a much less persuasive reply as the situation of liberal institutions becomes more dire. In all honesty, as that prospect looms, I’m certainly open to hearing a “visioning of the not yet”. What I don’t think I’d ever be open to is something like Negri and Hardt’s sense that one must write a blank check to the Multitude on the grounds that whatever a future shorn of liberal institutionalism brings, it’s bound to be better than the present. I just think at this point, I can’t see past seeing that as either naively stupid or actively conniving: there have been too many such requests from too many people who then cashed the check written in the blood of millions. I’m not asking for an anal-retentive late-19th Century utopian socialist plan of all the details of a future society, but I do want to hear more about what new vision might be besides faith that the contradiction of the present must be better.

  15. hestal says:

    Mr. Burke:

    Mr. Berube defines “Procedural Liberalism” as the governmental institutions and procedures established by the Founders in the letter and spirit he believes they intended. He includes Constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the conduct of their everyday lives and he includes NGO’s such as academics lecturing across the country. He says “…no one political faction should control every facet of a society.” He is right of course. He also says that some radicals and conservatives are reasonable and could likely agree with his position.

    You point out, with some feeling, that it is frustrating to see some people attack these institutions but then rely on institutional protection when they are under threat. You also say, if I understood you, that using or threatening to use the filibuster is extra-procedural and therefore not worthy of a good citizen. Also you seem to be a little annoyed at those who rally, march and demonstrate when they really have no chance of making a change. Even though those acts may actually be part of our institutional procedures, as is the filibuster. But you warned that you were more conservative in some aspects than many liberals.

    As someone once said, “I feel your pain.” But my feeling, while it may be as strong as yours, stems from a different issue. I am a systems analyst who has spent decades watching real people use real procedures and systems to try to achieve real goals. The kinds of disputes that you and Mr. Berube discuss are found in the world of commerce as well as politics. This is not surprising because the same people inhabit both worlds. In commerce there are basically two kinds of leaders: those who make something out of nothing, and those who exploit what others have created. And that exploitation often, perhaps more often now than in years past, includes gross personal enrichment at the expense of others not in power.

    The way to handle the same problems brought on by the same people, even though they operate in two different spheres, is to recognize the weaknesses of the systems and procedures being used. In commerce, if a procedure leads to poor performance as measured against the common goal, someone gets fired or the procedure/system is changed, or both.

    When the Founders wrote the Declaration they were establishing a common goal. They then wrote the Articles of Confederation to implement, by system and procedure, the common goal. Didn’t work. So, those practical, levelheaded, realistic, idealistic, liberal, conservative heroes changed the system. They wrote the Constitution. They created a beautiful example of early systems engineering.

    Since that time, the system and procedures have been working with frequent modification by the exploiters, not the guys who made something out of nothing. The art of exploitation has now progressed to a science and our systems are in the hands of exploiters who accrete power and excrete corruption.

    Our national systems need to be overhauled. So long as the debate continues as it is now, with one side arguing about what is “right” and the other side nodding and laughing, then things will definitely get worse.

    But politics lacks one critical factor: it does not have a common goal. The Founders had one, but it has long since been accomplished. Commercial entities always have a goal so performance can be measured. So we need a common goal, actually several goals, some long-term and some short-term. Then the systems need to be changed to free us to work toward reaching the common goals.

    So the argument should not be about the proper or improper use of the current systems and procedures, but how to change them and what to change them to.

  16. Gerry says:

    So, for example, this lines me up very strongly against the kind of radicalism embedded within critical legal theory, which looks at the law and says, “There’s nothing *but* power there: the law is simply an instrument of social power”. My response is, “If the law is not what it purports to be, let’s make it so”

    Nice try, but you have had a lot of time to make it so, and the evidence is that the system is sliding ever more rapidly to a state where your critics’ claim is true without qualification. What I’m puzzled by is why you have so much bile for the left, and none for your compatriots on the right who give lip service to the idea of “liberal procedural” in all of its libertarian and related variations while tacitly supporting the radical authoritarians in power. What you are ignoring is the visceral politics that joins the radical right to the reasonable center, and makes you and yours out to be liberal wimps. You still have nothing to say to Captain Blowtorch and his ilk.

    Also, you have profoundly misunderstood the concept of the Multitude from Negri and Hardt. Look around the world a bit, just how many of the 5 or so billion souls do you think get any benefit from those supposed liberal institutions? More likely they are trampled by them. This is the core of the hatred that the neocons have stired up against you and liberalism generally, and you remain blind to how these institutions are felt in the lives of average Americans much less the rest of the world.

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