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November 15, 2008

Partisan America (2)

In a New Republic review, I argue that the rise of partisanship in the United States is the result of the regional and ideological realignment of the two major parties. Moreover, as Nancy Rosenblum argues in the book under review, partisanship is by and large a necessary and a good thing in a democracy. It's a good thing, I suggest, in its place. Here is how the essay ends:

Contrary to progressive "antipartisanism," Rosenblum insists, "what is
needed is not more independence but more and better partisanship." And this, I
think, is how we ought to approach the current American political condition. The
philosophers as well as the high-minded sermonizers ought to lose the vestigial
anti-party and anti-partisan impulses. Polarization along party lines may be
uncomfortable, but the parties now actually stand for something, and it makes
more sense than ever to stand with one of them. The voters have a clearer and
better basis for holding parties and party philosophies accountable. Partisan
identity is now a more important aspect of Americans' personal identities, and
we are going to have to live with it. We should not be averse to doing

And yet we must take care not to be too partisan about partisanship. It
ought not to be welcome in every aspect of life--certainly not in arenas such as
the schools, the churches, and the sciences, where concerns for other values
ought to dominate, and under ordinary circumstances completely exclude, the
partisan mentality. Yet in a society in which the parties stand for different
worldviews that encompass education, religion, and science, maintaining those
limits is increasingly difficult. Even in a partisan America, or perhaps
especially there, the ethic of partisanship has to include rules for keeping
partisanship in its place.


October 14, 2008

Partisan America (1)

Here is the first of two articles I've written this fall on the rise of partisan antagonisms in America. This is a column from the October issue of The American Prospect; the second article will be out shortly in The New Republic.

In this column, I emphasize that the 2008 election confronts voters with two presidential candidates who embody two different images of American national identity. And this contrast grows out of the deep sociological as well as philosophical divide between the parties.
The American Collision
By Paul Starr

Earlier in this election cycle, many observers suggested that if Barack Obama and John McCain became their parties' nominees, they would each moderate the polarizing tendencies in American politics. In the wake of the two parties' national conventions, that notion seems like a frail hope. Something is driving polarization, and it isn't the personalities.

It also isn't trends in public opinion. As Morris P. Fiorina argues in his book, Culture War?, public opinion surveys show that on most issues Americans are still bunched in the middle, contrary to the widespread belief that they are more deeply divided than they were a generation ago.

Of course, party differences have sharpened as a result of the ideological sorting out that's come with the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats and the conservative revolution within the GOP. At first glance, it looks like two opposite and equal shifts. The Democrats have become more liberal with the loss of Southern conservatives as the Republicans have become more conservative with the disappearance of liberals and moderates from their party.

But that nicely balanced picture doesn't fully reflect what's happened. Compare an older generation of Republican leaders to their successors--for example, George H.W. Bush to George W., George Romney to Mitt--and the younger ones are distinctly more right-wing. Democrats haven't seen a comparable generational shift. To borrow a term from Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker, what we've had is "asymmetrical polarization": Republicans have moved further right than Democrats have moved left.

This year, McCain was expected to bring the GOP back toward the center, not just because of who he is (or is supposed to be) but because of the dismal condition of the Republican brand. Instead, after locking up the nomination, he veered to the right, turning away, for example, from his earlier positions on the environment that gave him a reputation for independence (he had already changed his stance on immigration, Bush's tax cuts, and other matters). The base demanded concessions, and he made them. And nowhere was that pattern more evident than in McCain's choice of Sarah Palin after he backed down from picking Joe Lieberman.

Was all this inevitable? No, the McCain of Bush's first term might have resurfaced to wage a more centrist campaign, but the pressures to conform--the imperative to rouse the party--were formidable. And those pressures ultimately reflect social realities--the social make-up of the Republican Party, which was on full display at the party's national convention.

What is really at the root of party polarization is social tensions. Sociologically as well as ideologically, the two parties have become a stark contrast. The delegates to the Republican Convention were nearly all white (only 1.5 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic). Their hearts would not have been in a centrist campaign. What got them excited were the old denunciations of the liberal media and "Eastern elites" by speakers who tried to reignite the culture wars. With a more socially and culturally diverse base, the Democrats seek to downplay polarization, while the more homogeneous Republicans cannot resist trying to inflame it.

Despite the changes in its regional support, the GOP occupies the same sociological space today as in the 1920s, when it was a party predominantly of small-town Protestants fighting off a rising urban, immigrant America. At that time, the dominant conception of white Americans excluded recent immigrants, such as Jews and Italians, whereas now it includes them. But structurally the situation was the same: a white, self-consciously Christian party against a more diverse, urban one, with the former inclined to see the election as a contest between the virtues of honor, patriotism, and moral uprightness that its members identify with their own group (and their candidates) and the vices that they project onto the other.

McCain and Obama stand in as proxies for two versions of America. When voters hear Obama, they are responding not just to him but to a new multicultural America that they find attractive or frightening. And when they hear McCain, they are responding to a traditional America--or rather, an idea of that America--that they are determined to preserve or willing to see change.

McCain's America has historically dominated Obama's. White has dominated black, old has dominated young, the appeal of soldierly virtues has dominated those of the peacemaker. If Obama wins the presidency, it will turn the traditional order of things on its head.

But that has happened before. After the 1920s, FDR assembled a new majority, and in the 1960s LBJ helped to build another one. BHO has a fighting chance to do the same.
I wrote that column in early September. Since that time, the financial crisis has reduced the salience of national identity in the election and raised Obama's chances of victory. As of now, not only does Obama have more than a fighting chance; we may be on the verge of a Democratic victory that could open a new chapter in the history of American liberalism.


July 30, 2008

The Year of Passion

Belatedly, I am posting here my column from the July-August issue of The American Prospect, which was written in June just after Clinton conceded the nomination. Contrary to those who believe the Democrats are guaranteed to sweep in November, I continue to see the election as a toss-up.

Now that Barack Obama has secured his party's presidential nomination, it is a good moment to assess the extraordinary and improbable thing that the Democrats have done. It was not intuitively obvious, particularly to those who saw the party's central task as winning back the Reagan Democrats, that the best way to retake the presidency would be to nominate an African American with an Islamic-sounding name. In the abstract, before Obama emerged, that concept had not suggested itself, and some political insiders may be excused for not immediately grasping its genius.

Let us recall the leading explanations in recent years as to why Democrats were losing and what they had to do to win. To appeal to the Reagan Democrats, some held that the party needed a candidate who was culturally and religiously close to middle America--say, a moderate (white) Southern governor along the lines of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, the only Democrats to get elected in the past 40 years. Central casting sent over Mark Warner to play this role, but he dropped out before the primaries began.

Others said that the party should wage its fight on economic grounds and nominate a populist. John Edwards used this script, but given his wealth and style, he wasn't the best choice for the part.

The populist strategy also had elements of a related theory. Instead of trying to appeal to voters who had moved right, this approach called for reaching out to millions of nonvoters, many of them minorities, women, and young people, who simply haven't seen any connection between politics and their own lives. This strategy, however, requires something that cannot be planned and that conventional politics rarely provides--inspiration. Obama and Hillary Clinton drew upon these cultural/religious and economic theories in framing their campaigns. But they also stirred Americans at a deeper level than politics ordinarily does, raising the prospect that the Democrats might win the presidency this year by enlarging the electorate. Obama tapped into a repressed memory of what politics can be like when it lifts our aspirations instead of dashing them. His novelty is partly that he is very old-fashioned, a political leader who has risen largely on the strength of his oratory and the eloquence of his writing. In the course of the fight, Clinton became a better candidate, too, and found her own voice, though it was no match for his.

No recent campaign has had the same emotional intensity, and no voter could fail to be conscious of the election's symbolic importance. Once the nomination became a battle between Obama and Clinton, the party was certain to "make history"--it was just a question of which historic breakthrough it would make.

The contest was also riveting because at times it was painful to watch, infuriating, and unjust. The thought crossed my mind more than once: Can't somebody make this stop? The collision between Clinton and Obama at history's doorstep put many Democrats in an agonizing position, the electoral equivalent of "Sophie's choice," as if they were being asked: Which of these two, each embodying a cherished cause, will you turn your back on and sacrifice?

We ought to resist the impulse, however, to give any transcendent meaning to Obama's edging out of Clinton. The popular vote was essentially a tie (you can argue it either way); Obama won more delegates chiefly because his campaign invested in the caucus states and his supporters turned out for caucuses at a higher rate. With different rules (for example, winner-take-all state elections, as it will be in the fall), Clinton could have won.

Nonetheless, Obama did win, and the world stands astonished, awaiting November's verdict. In the fine tradition of American self-congratulation, many people, including some who will vote against Obama, are already declaring that his victory proves how enlightened the country is and that racism is a thing of the past. That inference is premature.

Racism runs deep in American society, and looking at the polling this year, it is hard to miss it in the demographic patterns, particularly in the data on older voters. Some analysts believe that the economy and other underlying factors are so overwhelmingly in the Democrats' favor that they can accept the "cost" of nominating an African American and still prevail this fall. You could say that is the bet that the party is making, except to describe it as a "bet" implies too much calculation. For Democrats, this is the year when passion reawakened--and although passion had its reasons, it paid the voice of calculation no mind.


May 24, 2008

Soft Power, Smart Power, Principled Power

Recently, there's been a debate among some liberal writers about the problems with the term "soft power," which lends itself to misunderstanding as being "soft" in the sense of weak and ineffectual. Others suggest "smart power," which may well be a better term for political leaders to use, and still others prefer "principled power."

If we set aside the question of what's a good slogan and instead consider what's a good conception of power, then I think "principled power" is on the right track. It implies not just that power ought to be used in a principled way, but that the power of a liberal society grows directly out of its principles -- first of all, out of its principles of constitutional constraint (the idea that constitutionally limited power can be more powerful than unlimited power); and second, out of its principles of equality and social inclusion.

The experience of recent years ought to reinforce those convictions. Bush hasn't trespassed constitutional limits with marvelous results; he's degraded American power in both senses of the word "degrade." And a more inclusive conception of our interests (inclusive internationally as well as at home) has a far greater chance to achieve the ends Americans want. This is why I argue in Freedom's Power for a liberalism that takes power (as well as rights and justice) seriously. Among the various conceits of conservatism is that it alone knows power, when it's actually failed on the very ground it sees as its own. There has been no better time to make that case than this election year.

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May 6, 2008

Freedom’s Power: A New Subtitle (and the Thinking Behind It)

When the paperback edition of Freedom’s Power comes out in August, the subtitle will be The History and Promise of Liberalism. Unlike the original subtitle, The True Force of Liberalism, the new one should make it clear that the book is a history of the liberal tradition as well as an argument about its possibilities.

Here’s my thinking about the change. Many people make an instant judgment about a book from its title and subtitle and never read a word of the text. I wanted to appeal to a broad audience, to put freedom back at the center of liberalism, and to reclaim the idea and image of strength from the right, but the phrase “freedom’s power” carries two primary risks. The first is a mistaken impression of the book’s viewpoint. On seeing the words “freedom” and “power,” some readers may infer the book is conservative. And, second, they may regard the title as mere rhetoric and infer that the book is insubstantial. Both the original and new subtitles clarify the viewpoint, but The History and Promise of Liberalism should help in conveying the book’s substance and seriousness. (I hope it also has the effect of winning more of an audience among historians.)

When I began the book, the working title was “Liberalism and Power,” which I soon realized led to a misunderstanding that I was writing about how liberals could regain power. That misunderstanding would have played into the hands of right-wingers who argue that power is all liberals want. Along the way I tested out various other titles for the book but ultimately arrived at Freedom’s Power because it expresses something important about liberalism that is at the core of the book and that I don’t think other writers have emphasized enough.

Liberalism has an implicit theory of power—that is, a theory about how to create the power necessary to achieve the ends of freedom, equality, and the public good. Constitutional liberalism shows us how a government can be “strong but constrained—indeed, strong because constrained.” And modern democratic liberalism shows us how a more inclusive and comprehensive conception of freedom can contribute further to the overall capacities of a society both to defend itself and to realize its ideals.

Many people will simply read the title Freedom’s Power as referring to the power of freedom—and although that is not the whole meaning, it is not a mistaken interpretation. As I write in the Preface, “The free encounter of conflicting ideas, the methods of organized skepticism, and the system of economic and democratic political competition have been rich sources of knowledge, abundance, and human possibility. They are part of the story of freedom’s power.” But the book is also about the proposition “that freedom requires power in the form of a strong and capable constitutional state … In a sense, the liberal state and its laws are freedom’s power, the indispensable basis of freedom’s survival. Liberalism isn’t just a set of fine aspirations. Historically, it has emerged from the pressures of political conflict, domestic and international, not least of all from the pressures of war. Freedom’s Power, therefore, is about both the power that free societies generate and the power that they demand.”

Did I make a mistake in the title? Is the effort to claim the terms “freedom” and “power” for liberalism too much at odds with the dominant sensibility of “progressives”? Or do people just see the title Freedom’s Power as empty rhetoric? Let me know.


April 27, 2008

Liberalism from Another Anglo: Three British Reviews of Freedom's Power

One of the distinguishing aspects of Freedom’s Power is that it deals with British and American liberalism as a single political tradition, albeit developing along different branches. The interplay between them has continued through all phases of the history of liberal thought and political activity. England’s Revolution of 1688-89 provided the template for the American Revolution, and the influence of British ideas on the American Founding was immense (regardless of whether one characterizes that influence as republican or liberal). Likewise in the nineteenth-century rise of laissez faire—and in its later reversal on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain’s New Liberalism of the 1890s and early 1900s had its parallels in American Progressivism, and Keynes and Beveridge were a direct influence on the New Deal. Even in recent decades, there have been mutual influences and parallel tendencies—for example, between Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s efforts to adjust their parties’ policies in line with a neo-progressive, “third way.”

Strangely, much of this interplay is missing from historical accounts that focus on the development of liberalism in one or the other country. One of my objectives in writing Freedom’s Power was to bring the two sides together (though my publisher refused my offer to revise the Introduction and the final chapter for the British edition to address the book more directly to a British audience).

I gave attention to the British story because it’s essential to understanding liberal ideas and institutions, not because of any personal roots or experience; to my regret, I’ve spent little time in Britain and have few connections in its academic or literary worlds. For that very reason, I’ve been especially gratified that the book has received some serious attention from British reviewers. And in the near future, I’m going to be visiting Britain twice—to speak first at the Anglo-American Historical Conference at the University of London in early July and then at a conference on “comparative liberalisms” organized by Timothy Garton Ash in Oxford in January 2009.

Reviewing Freedom’s Power in the December 2007 issue of the European Journal of Sociology, Michael Freeden, professor of politics at Oxford and the author of several books about the history of modern liberalism, writes:

... this is the best short book on liberalism that has been written for a very long while. It is wonderfully concise, packing in insight and good sense into almost every page; it hardly misses a trick in assessing the variegated nature and impact of the traditions operating under the umbrella term liberalism; it combines a strong historical purview with an acute sense of the fine points of liberal theory; the author does not talk down to his readers; and it is punchily and elegantly written. All told, it is plumb in the tradition of L.T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism, published almost a century ago, and written with the dual purpose of spreading out liberal wares in all their richness and of providing a tract for the times—in this case for an American, rather than a British, public.

Hobouse’s Liberalism (1911) was actually my model for the book. It seemed to me that no one had recently done for liberalism what Hobhouse had done nearly a century ago—given a concise and persuasive account of liberalism that made sense of the continuities as well as the changes in the tradition.

In his review, Freeden gives a British perspective on American liberalism with which I have little disagreement:
Liberalism is a European product but, of course, its American incarnation has had its own moments of glory. The American constitution is, on the whole, an exemplary liberal document, remarkable for its resilience and prescience as one of the oldest working constitutions in the world. Under the name of progressivism, American liberals attempted to match the British new liberalism, though with a more pronounced patriotic edge. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a further instance of what a regulatory liberalism could do, even if its interventionism pushed liberal sensibilities to their limits. In the 1960s and 1970s US liberals showed impressive flair and courage in their pursuit of civil rights and women’s equality, securing international acclaim—a momentum currently, though one would hope temporarily, halted in its tracks. But, as Starr demonstrates, American liberalism has always been at its weakest in social policy, operating within an individualist and ethnocentric political culture highly suspicious of an egalitarian and redistributionary ethos, and of the frequent dalliances of liberalism with a mild collectivism. Instead of the helping hands offered by social democrats to liberals in the British and Scandinavian cases, a reactionary conservatism—of the likes long relegated to Europe’s sidelines—blunted the drive of American social liberalism. When the fingers of blame and fury are now pointed from outside the Western world at the US as the (satanic) representative of Western civilization, Europeans are prone to mutter to themselves that civilized Western thinking and conduct is mainly to be found east of the Atlantic. That gulf identifies the real American exceptionalism. Although Starr is bent on retrieving significant liberal practices in the US as a service to an uninformed citizenry, he tellingly does not mention the durability of the death penalty in the US—a practice that alone sets that country apart from all other current Western societies, and constitutes an acid test of the liberal texture of a country’s moral mettle. Though punctured by a short hiatus in the 1960s and 1970s, judicial murder is once again neither cruel nor unusual, and no liberal President has dared to voice public opposition to it.
Freeden’s main disagreement with my book has to do with what he views as a “lack of clarity” that comes from my view that in the past several decades, Europe has been moving in a liberal direction despite the tendency of Europeans to identify “liberalism” with right-of-center free-market ideas. Here is how he introduces the criticism:

In a bravura survey of the history of English and American liberalism, Starr argues that the mixing of power (England) or the ring-fencing of certain rights (US) both gave rise to vigorous states. He is also insistent, and rightly so, that an account of liberalism cannot rest content with an isolated investigation of its ideas and theories but must incorporate liberal practices. On the whole, that task is very well discharged. Starr relates the redistributionary push of liberalism to economic growth policies, to earnings support, to the encouraging the free flow of information through bourgeoning technologies, to the regulation of pollution, and to international multilateralism.

But in emphasizing those features, a lack of clarity creeps into two areas. The one concerns a running boundary problem between the traditions and thought-patterns of liberals and the conduct and policy of states that are very roughly, and often questionably, assigned to the liberal domain. Take Europe as an example. In countries such as France, Germany and Italy, the liberal tradition has become almost invisible to their inhabitants and even to their intelligentsia. Liberalism is either considered to be limited to a right-of-centre market variety or hidden—in the French case—amidst strong republican or solidarist traditions that have promoted liberal ideas sans le nom. Those latter enclaves, past and present, notwithstanding, the continental political spectrum is packed too tightly for a party-political liberalism, even for its intellectual agenda, to find sufficient breathing space. Starr, however, verges on the other extreme. For him the entire European Union project is a liberal one. But is for instance the British state, led by New Labour, a liberal state? Its ostensible liberal credentials have been dented no less by its unitary moralism in the name of a national community than by its campaign against terrorists. At best it offers a hybrid between liberal and social authoritarian practices. Are states led by Christian democrats, or Gaullists, liberal states? Is Japan, forsooth, a liberal state (p.131)? Larger magnification might have allowed for more intricate configurations to emerge.

This leads to the second, related, problem area: Starr’s predilection for identifying as liberal any belief system that has some liberal components, without considering whether it has accumulated sufficient critical mass to be entitled to membership of the liberal family. Constitutionalism may have been liberalism’s gift to the world, but to embrace it no longer singles out a liberal from a conservative or a social democrat, even from some forms of populism. And when Starr writes perceptively that dissenting voices in Eastern Europe revitalized a pan-European awareness of human rights, civil society and democracy, he then over-eggs the argument by claiming that ‘the intellectuals and movements that … ultimately overthrew communist rule contributed to a renewal of liberalism all over Europe’ (p. 186). Rather than aver that socialists, populists, conservatives, greens—and the Churchill of World War Two!—are all liberals now, it would be more nuanced to suggest that liberal ideas have seeped into non-liberal viewpoints and groupings while performing very different work in each of them, and while being contained by a variable range of non-liberal notions that put a different gloss on ideas of liberty and democracy. Thus for many European conservatives the ‘social market’ is a method of ensuring not only justice but order; for many European greens the free individual choice component of democracy needs to be constrained by scientific expertise about the environment; and for many European populists liberty is harnessed to the unfettered expression of national values. Earlier Starr astutely noted the changing rankings liberals accorded to various liberties (p. 86), a comment that could have been extended to the latter chapters of his book. In sum, liberal ideology, liberal states, and liberal features shared with other ideologies are three analytically distinct categories.

One point of correction: I never characterize the Churchill of World War II as a liberal, except in writing that Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941 “negotiated a statement of Anglo-American aims known as the Atlantic Charter, setting out the principles of a liberal world order.” And only a few pages later, however, I write, “While Roosevelt viewed the Charter’s language as a commitment to decolonization, Churchill rejected that interpretation.”

I don’t disagree with Freeden that certain liberal ideas have been adopted so widely that an acceptance of them no longer distinguishes liberals from nonliberals. But I do hold to the case that the European Union is evidence of a liberal ascendancy on the continent, the result of which is a “hybrid ... perhaps best thought of as social-market liberalism.” Here is the relevant passage from Chapter 7:
The creation of a European liberal order on a continental scale has been the quiet, underappreciated revolution of our time. Differences in terminology ought not to diminish or confuse the significance of this achievement. Many Europeans use the term “liberal” interchangeably with “neoliberal” to refer to a political economy that relies on the logic of the market. The contrast is usually with a social-democratic or social-market economy in which the state plays a stronger role in social welfare, and bargains struck between representatives of organized business and labor provide a high level of economic coordination. This distinction highlights important differences in the workings of capitalism between the Anglo-American economies, on the one hand, and those in Nordic and continental Europe, on the other. Whether closer to the free-market or social-market models, however, all of these societies are liberal, constitutional democracies, and in recent decades even the social-market countries have adjusted their economic policies in a market-oriented direction. The resulting hybrid is perhaps best thought of as social-market liberalism. Recent attempts to update social democracy as the “third way” or “neoprogressivism” also typically emphasize such characteristically liberal ideas as competition, choice, and pluralism. In its intellectual and political life, Europe has become distinctly more liberal than at any time at least since 1914. Throughout the continent, except for the Balkans, aggressive nationalism has given way to a politics of conciliation, and the major political parties operate within the bounds of a constitutionalist consensus. Nowhere is this general turn toward a continental liberal order more apparent than in the pooling of sovereignty in the European Union, with its commitment to the free movement of capital, goods, and labor as well as the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
A second review from Britain, by John Lloyd in the Financial Times, begins:

Liberalism is a series of paradoxes. It weakens autocratic power, and strengthens the democratic state. As it builds a strong state, it limits that state’s power over its citizens. Classic, pre-19th-century liberalism held out the promise of rights for all, but in practice denied them to the majority. As liberal democratic practice developed in the 20th century, state intervention to provide welfare grew - and liberals became less censorious, and more respectful, of private behaviour. Private life became more truly private while public life, the practice of government, ecame more open.

Paul Starr has in his comparatively slim book, Freedom’s Power, provided an account of the historical flow and present state and travails of liberalism that is limpid in brevity and graceful in judgment. As an evocation of the central importance of liberalism to the modern world, and the shape it takes in democratic states, it will be very hard to beat.

He gives two warnings, which are apposite. First, that politics in the US (and less dramatically elsewhere) is increasingly dominated by the rich - who are now demanding more political power. And, linked to that, the fact that citizens are disengaging. “For some time,” he writes, “the imperative has been clear. Liberalism has no way to advance without a majoritarian politics capable of restoring the kind of inclusive democratic partnership that was the basis of modern liberalism’s achievements.” American liberals seeking the key to a “majoritarian politics” had better read this.

Where Lloyd disagrees with me is the Iraq War. “Here,” he writes, “[Starr] lapses from a tough-minded to a conventional liberal posture, and it is the most unsatisfactory part of the book. The arrogant, deeply illiberal and incompetent conduct of the war is a fit subject for any pen, liberal or conservative, but the responsibility of the critic is to consider the object of the attack - the regime of Saddam Hussein - and give some account of why refraining would have contained the threat.” In fact, as we now know, Saddam Hussein was already boxed in at the time of the war and did not represent a threat to the wider world, whereas the war itself allowed jihadists to find support in Iraq and has served to strengthen Iran. Refraining from an invasion would have been the wiser course

Finally, there have been two other reviews from Britain. One of them, by Stein Ringen, professor of sociology and social policy at Oxford, is unfortunately beyond my linguistic abilities, as it has appeared in Norwegian (the TLS apparently having turned it away). The other comes from The Economist and reflects the particular slant of that magazine. The reviewer notes that the first part of Freedom’s Power argues that from its beginnings in the eighteenth century, liberalism proved to be a basis for a strong and capable government. Then the reviewer writes:

“Freedom’s Power” is worth reading for this first part alone. However, Mr Starr’s opponents could be wrong on their history but correct that freedom and equality are now in conflict. Arguing to the contrary—that the two ideals reinforce each other—is by no means impossible. But to do it convincingly is a tall order that would need a much broader conceptual and geographical framework than Mr Starr’s.
In his later chapters the timescale shortens and the policy detail grows denser as Mr Starr limits himself in effect to the contemporary United States. ... It ends, alas, sounding more like erudite and thoughtful notes towards a platform speech at a Democratic Party convention.

Two things to note here. First, counterposing “freedom” and “equality” as two separate and distinct values is not, in my mind, a helpful way of understanding either one. Freedom means little without equality; equality little without freedom—although it is certainly possible to pursue one value in so partial and single-minded a way as to undermine and potentially destroy the other.

But the reviewer in the Economist also points to a genuine problem in the book. It is inherently difficult to write a general essay on liberalism and its history, while also addressing the immediate concerns of the moment. In Freedom’s Power, I have tried to do both, and there inevitably will be some readers who find the theory and history too remote and other readers who find the contemporary concerns too parochial. I have tried to connect the long trajectory of liberal ideas and institutions to today’s challenges in the United States, hoping to encourage a robust sense of liberal possibilities after a dreary era of political frustration. As I mentioned, I would have liked to revise the book for a British audience—indeed, I still hope someday to do an international edition that is less tied to American developments. But if readers from Britain and elswhere focus on the core of the book, I hope they will see that the arguments have broader reach and relevance. Perhaps, in their own work, they can pick out the elements that make most sense and pick up the story where I have been unable to go.

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March 24, 2008

Candidate vs. Circumstances: Which Will Decide the Election?

The 2008 election may prove to be a test of an old question: How much do individual candidates matter in determining who gets elected president? At this point, the underlying economic circumstances and trends in party identification favor the Democrats, but John McCain has gained in the polls and enjoys higher favorability ratings than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

The economic models predict a Democratic victory. In a Bloomberg article today, Alison Fitzgerald writes:
Recessions shaped four presidential elections in the past half-century -- in 1960, 1976, 1980 and 1992. Each time, the candidate from the party trying to retake the White House won. A model that uses economic data to predict presidential race outcomes has the Democrats getting 52 percent of the votes cast for the two major party candidates, says Ray Fair, the Yale University professor who developed it.

The economy may be a factor in the shifting balance of party identification among the electorate. This past week, based on 5,566 interviews during the first two months of 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that Democrats enjoy a significant advantage, with 36 percent of registered voters identified as Democrats and only 27 percent as Republicans. The Republican share has dropped by six points in the past four years and represents "the lowest percentage of self-identified Republican voters in 16 years of polling by the Center." What is especially striking is the change in swing states:
Four years ago there were about as many Democrats (35%) as Republicans (33%) in the 12 states where the voting was closest in 2004, and the balance was similar in the 2000 election cycle. But so far in 2008, Democrats hold a substantial 38% to 27% identification advantage in these states.

Looks good for Democrats. But McCain's image may enable him to avoid the burden that Republicans would normally carry into the election. And Clinton and Obama each carry burdens of their own that have no historical precedent and that models based on past elections can't possibly incorporate.

Given the trends, this ought to be a good Democratic year. But for months (and even more strongly in recent weeks), my sense has been that the presidential race is at best a toss-up. Just as in 2000 the Republicans benefited from the misperception of their candidate (who campaigned that year as a "compassionate conservative"), so they seem likely again to benefit from public misperception of their candidate as a moderate centrist, when on the crucial issues of the day--the war and the economy--McCain's positions are indistinguishable from the incumbent president who's got a 30 percent approval rating. It's going to be the Democratic candidate's job to make that clear.