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January 21, 2007

Obama the Anti-Boomer

Advice to Barack Obama: There is a right way to take advantage of your youth, and there is a wrong way—and you seem close to taking the wrong way.

It’s silly to argue that the baby-boomers as a generation are responsible for America’s polarized politics and that you can overcome the nation’s divisions because you came of age after the 1960s.

Polarization is the result of two distinct but related developments—neither of which is generational in origin.

The first is a polarization of the two major parties resulting the realignment of the south. The Democrats used to have more southern conservatives, and the Republicans used to have more northern liberals and moderates. But as the south has flipped to the GOP, the two parties have become more ideologically consistent and farther apart from each other. As a result, there are fewer members of Congress who cross over in their voting from one party to the other. This aspect of polarization is likely to be a long-term change.

The second development is the shift to the right of the Republican Party, partly resulting from the influx of southern conservatives. Polarization has not been symmetrical. The Republicans have moved much farther to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left; indeed, the Democrats continue to occupy much of the center: That was why Democrats were able to capture independent voters in 2006. This may or may not last.

Before the last election, Republicans seemed to benefit from the deliberate strategy of polarization promoted by Karl Rove: playing to their base rather than reaching into the middle. If Republicans shift to a less polarizing politics, it will be because the Rovian strategy has stopped working for them—not because of any generational turnover.

Of course, John F. Kennedy touted his age and presented himself as the leader of a new generation. So I can see, Barack, what example you may have in mind. But Kennedy didn’t make his case by criticizing the generation that preceded him.

In today’s New York Times, writing about your appeal (“Shushing the Baby Boomers”), John M. Broder quotes Eric Liu as saying to the baby-boom generation: “Thank you, here’s your gold watch, it’s time for the personal style and political framework of the 1960’s to get out of the way.”

Liu is identified as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House “who now runs a mentoring program in Seattle.” I take it he is not mentoring political candidates.

The baby boomers remain a large voting bloc. Insulting them by suggesting they share a dysfunctional “personal style and political framework” is just plain dumb.

But, Barack, there is a way for you to make a progressive generational appeal.

Many of the problems that Americans face today hit young people especially hard. I’m referring not only to the high rate of child poverty, but also to the difficulties faced by young adults in their twenties: high college costs; lack of access to jobs with good health benefits; the high costs of buying into the housing market. We need a Young America program to help create the kind of opportunities that the World War II generation enjoyed under the GI Bill.

Now that’s a generational appeal that not just the young, but their parents could go for.

Paul Starr


January 16, 2007

Reclaiming the idea of American greatness

What is liberalism’s relationship to America--to its traditions and to the vision of the United States as a great nation that can be a force for good in the world? For the past several years, these questions have been at the heart of a debate among American liberals about how they see themselves and what they stand for.

In a recent article in the Nation arguing that liberals need not just intelligent policies but a compelling story of America, Bill Moyers calls my forthcoming book Freedom’s Power “a profound and stirring call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.”

Moyers is alluding to a theme that runs literally from the opening to the close of the book. In the first paragraph of the Introduction, I write: “The proposition that each of us has a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ remains as good a definition as anyone has ever come up with of liberalism’s first principle and America’s historic promise.” And the final paragraph ends:
The story of America is of a nation that has grown greater and stronger by becoming more diverse and inclusive and extending the fruits of liberty more widely among its people. American liberals do not have to invent something new or import a philosophical tradition from abroad. They have only to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.

The idea that liberal purposes are closely tied to “the promise of American life” has been a recurring theme through American history. The leaders of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the New Frontier—TR and Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, as well as many other public figures—conceived and framed their ideas about the future with a keen sense of how to ground them in America’s traditions and build on its achievements. And not all of our politicians have forgotten how to do this: Barack Obama’s June 4, 2005 speech at Knox College is a brilliant and inspiring contemporary example.

But for a long time American liberalism has seemed to distance itself from a vision of America as a great nation. In the opening salvo of his effort to formulate a national greatness conservatism—a speech at the Library of Congress, published in The Weekly Standard in March 1997 as “A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed”—David Brooks implicitly threw down a challenge to liberals.

“For much of this century,” Brooks wrote, “liberals possessed high aspirations and a spirit of historical purpose. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier—these were efforts to aim high, to accomplish some grand national endeavor. Liberals tried to use American preeminence as a way to shape the world, fight communism, put a man on the moon. But then came the 1970s, and suddenly liberalism became a creed emphasizing limits. Small became beautiful. A radical egalitarianism transformed liberalism, destroying hierarchies and discrediting elitist aspirations. An easygoing nihilism swept through academia, carrying away any sense of a transcendent order.”

Brooks was so dismissive of contemporary liberalism that he said that it should not even be expected to propose any vision of national greatness. And he criticized conservatives too for being so hostile to the federal government that they were unable to conceive of it as an instrument to carry out important national missions, which historically had included “settling the West, building the highway system, creating the post-war science faculties, exploring space, waging the Cold War, and disseminating American culture throughout the world.”

There was nothing in Brooks’s article, nor in a September 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed with William Kristol, that pointed to foreign affairs, much less war, as the avenue for reasserting American greatness. Indeed, Brooks was a little vague about the mission he had in mind: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself,” he wrote, “as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.”

The fate of national greatness conservatism shows that, in fact, it does matter “what great task government sets for itself.” With Brooks and especially Kristol cheering him on, George W. Bush has certainly set a great task for America: promoting democracy in Iraq and throughout the world. Rather than inspiring “confidence and vigor,” however, the Iraq War has backfired against the nation, his own presidency, and the Republican Party.

Originally, national greatness conservatism was identified with John McCain and his campaign for the 2000 presidential nomination. But the very notion of a national greatness conservatism—like McCain’s own political career—has now become inextricably linked with Bush’s disastrous, missionary foreign policy.

In using the phrase “national greatness,” I am not suggesting that liberals ought to adopt a belligerent nationalism or the aggressive promotion of democracy favored by neoconservatives and some liberal hawks. In a 2005 TNR article, “The Case for National Greatness Liberalism,” Noam Scheiber writes that Democrats have to “convince voters to trust them on national security,” which I agree with. But Scheiber then goes on to say, “We’re not just talking about calling for a larger military, but something dramatic to signify the shift—like a plan to strike an Iranian or North Korean nuclear facility if need be.” The last thing Democrats ought to do, however, is to show that they can be just as reckless as the Republicans have been in starting wars.

Other liberals have responded more sensibly to the intellectual challenge of restoring greater energy and ambition to American liberalism. In a short 2005 book, Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton University Press), Alan Wolfe distinguishes between two ways of thinking about common purposes. On the one hand have been those who have been deeply distrustful of national power and conceived of a good society primarily in local and voluntary terms. On the other are those who have embraced the nation as a positive force and conceived of America as capable of advancing freedom and equality both at home and in the world.

My view of liberalism falls into the second category. I believe that liberals ought to aim high: to set ambitious goals in reforming our society and in seeking to uphold liberal values internationally. That requires a strong and capable national government, bearing in mind, however, that America achieves its strength partly through the protection of our liberties.

Conservative leadership has not only recklessly plunged us into a failed war but weakened those liberties at home and done incalculable damage to America’s good name in the world. And it has utterly defaulted on the problems of climate change, rising inequality, stagnant or declining incomes for the middle class and the poor, increased health costs, and a long-term fiscal crisis threatening programs Americans want to preserve and seeming to rule out new measures in their common interest.

A new leadership will need to confront those problems instead of denying them. At home its program ought to concentrate on creating a shared prosperity and restoring the respect for our freedoms, the integrity of our democracy, and the competence of our government that the Republicans have abused or neglected. Internationally, it ought to rebuild a broad democratic partnership with other nations based on mutual recognition of our shared fate and common interests in prosperity, security, and survival. The Republicans have had their shot at a “return to greatness,” and they have blown it. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to settle for a politics of small ambitions. Liberalism has provided the high aspirations that have galvanized America in the past. America needs that leadership again, and the rest of the world needs that leadership from America.

Paul Starr

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January 11, 2007

Power party versus peace party?

According to an analysis of public opinion by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard, the Republicans today are the “power party,” while the Democrats are the “peace party.” It’s a familiar conservative framing of the differences over foreign policy. And last night’s speech by President Bush may have seemed to fit the pattern. A conservative president calls for more American muscle, and those weak-willed liberals shy away from it.

But is that really what is going on?

Far from making the United States stronger, Bush’s policies have dissipated American power. In his speech, the president suggested that if the United States failed in Iraq, Iran would be emboldened. But Iran has obviously already been emboldened because its leaders believe that an America mired in Iraq can make only empty threats.

To use power ineffectually is to destroy it. Conservatives may have believed that the unilateral assertion of American military might is the best way to extend American influence abroad and promote democracy. The experience of the past several years, however, show how limited an understanding of power that is. The Bush strategy has undermined not just America’s soft power--its ability to attract support throughout the world--but its hard power as well.

Despite the conservative stereotype, most Democrats and liberals who have opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq have not done so because of an instinctual pacifism. They have opposed the war because of doubts, first of all, that it was justified as part of the “war on terrorism,” and, second, that it could succeed in establishing a “beacon of democracy” in Baghdad.

Those doubts have, alas, proved to be well-founded. Personally, I would have liked to have been wrong about the war. A multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq would be a good thing. But the war never made sense, and the president’s new strategy is unlikely to turn things around.

In support of his view that Republicans are the power party and Democrats the peace party, Continetti cites polls that show sharp partisan differences on the use of force and other questions. But public opinion surveys tap attitudes toward immediate events on respondents’ minds. The split in public opinion today is an effect of the Bush presidency and the deep partisan divisions that Bush has created. If Al Gore had been president these past six years, we would probably have fought the War in Afghanistan successfully and not invaded Iraq at all. And the partisan differences on the use of force might have been minimal.

The true objective of foreign policy, as Walter Lippmann argued years ago, is neither power nor peace but security. Power and peace may be means toward that end, but neither ought to be confused with the end itself. Peace can never be an absolute requirement, lest aggressors elsewhere in the world know that they can act without fear of retaliation.

Each political party today has a wing with a narrow and distorted view of America’s role in the world. Among the Democrats, there is a pacifist faction on the left, just as among the Republicans there is a faction that favors the aggressive, unilateral use of force. The difference is that the leadership of the Democratic Party is not drawn from the pacifist left, whereas the current occupant of the White House has followed the policies of the unilateralist wing of his own party.

Last night’s speech showed once again that Bush will not be able to end the unfolding disaster in Iraq. That will be left to his successor, who will need not only to bring the soldiers back home, but also to bring American foreign policy back to the hybrid of realism and liberal internationalism that served the country so well in the critical years of the Cold War. How to adapt that outlook to the conditions of our time is the great challenge in America’s foreign relations.

Paul Starr


January 10, 2007

The modern liberal theory of freedom's power

Modern liberalism has extended and revised the classical liberal understanding of freedom and its relationship to power. Through various strategies of exclusion and evasion, the classical liberals denied equal rights to unpropertied men, racial minorities, and women. Modern liberals have called for a democratization of citizenship--for equal civil rights and political rights. They have also come to understand freedom as involving a right to basic requirements of human development and security necessary to assure equal opportunity and personal dignity.

To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported an increased economic and social role for the state, but at the same time, they have insisted on stronger safeguards against arbitrary power. Modern liberalism calls, therefore, not just for broader social protections, but also for more robust guaratees of civil liberties and equal rights and greater transparency of governmental decisions.

In addition, whereas conservatives have treated private business corporations as analogous to individuals and deserving of the same liberties, liberals have regarded corporations as a phenomenon of power, requiring control like government itself.

In all of these respects--the extension of democracy and equal rights, the assurance of basic requirements of human development and economic security, stronger protections of civil liberties, and the regulation of business--liberals have come into conflict with conservatives.

So, too, have differences emerged in international relations, where liberals have been more supportive than conservatives of a system of international institutions and norms intended to thwart aggression and war and to protect human rights.

The split between modern liberals and conservatives involves fundamental differences in the conception of freedom and its relationship to equality. But the conflict also involves different theories of power. Modern liberalism has been a way of meeting the demands of power as well as justice. As I put in Chapter 1:

[L]ike constitutional liberalism, modern democratic liberalism seeks to promote
the creation as well as the control of power. Rights for the unpropertied,
racial minorities, and women are not simply a check on the powerful; full
inclusion also promotes a more creative and productive society. The expanded
sphere of state action has enabled liberal governments to contend successfully
with war and other crises and to promote economic growth and stability. In
disciplining the market as well as the state, the central liberal objective has
been not just to circumscribe power in private hands, but also to make the
market more productive within its appropriate scope. A liberal international
order promises to conserve and augment national power as well as properly
regulate it.

In describing these ideas as a theory of freedom’s power, I don’t wish to give the impression that liberals first formulated the theory and then carried out policies consistent with it. Rather, modern liberalism emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a series of ad hoc responses to the challenges of war, economic crisis, social degradation, despoliation of the environment--and political competition. Liberals are committed not just to high ideals, but to making them work in practice. In that sense, “theory” has played a more limited role in liberal politics than it has in the more ideologically driven spheres on both the left and the right.

In speaking of theory, therefore, I mean only to refer to the interrelated political ideas that gradually emerged as characteristic of liberal thought. Liberals continue to disagree about the deeper philosophical basis of these ideas--and some would not admit the creation of power as a relevant consideration. But liberalism would not be around today if the liberal democracies had not satisfied the imperatives of power and overcome the threats of totalitarian regimes and economic collapse. And liberalism will not be around tomorrow if it does not continue to summon the power to meet new threats to our freedom, prosperity, and survival.

Paul Starr

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January 9, 2007

The classical liberal theory of freedom's power

I follow the historical convention of dividing liberalism into two broad phases of development: classical liberalism, dating from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and modern democratic liberalism, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In discussing the classical phase, I emphasize the priority of classical political liberalism--constitutional liberalism--as it was elaborated in the work, for example, of Locke, Montesquieu, and the American founders. Classical economic liberalism--the liberalism of laissez-faire--was largely a nineteenth-century development. Modern liberalism rejected laissez-faire but built on the political foundations of constitutional liberalism.

From its beginnings, rather than simply being antistatist, constitutional liberalism offered a strategy for creating legitimate and effective governmental power. Indeed, the two classical liberal revolutions--1688 in England and 1776 in America--led to the rise of what became successively the two most powerful states in the world. But how did constitutionally limited states ever become more powerful than states with unlimited powers? A key part of the answer lies in the concept of an enabling constraint. As I put it in the Introduction:

By binding those in power, making their behavior more predictable and reliable,and thereby increasing the trust and confidence of citizens, creditors, and investors, constitutionalism amplifies the long-term power and wealth of a state. Constitutional liberalism imposes a further discipline by dividing power within the state and between state and society and requiring public disclosure and discussion of state decisions—all of these serving as limits on the ability of officials to pursue their own private interests and enabling the citizens to control their government. Liberalism wagers that a state so constructed can be strong yet constrained—indeed, strong because constrained. This is the classical theory of freedom’s power.

Chapter 1 adds the following:
[Constitutional] constraints protect citizens from tyranny, but that is not all they do. They also serve to protect the state itself from capricious, impulsive, or overreaching decisions. A central insight of liberalism is that power arbitrarily exercised is destructive not only of individual liberty but also of the rule of law. Limiting arbitrary power encourages confidence that the law will be fair and thereby increases the state’s ability to secure cooperation without the imposition of force. Limiting the scope of state power increases the likelihood of its effective use as well as the ability of society to generate wealth, knowledge, and other resources that a state may draw upon in an hour of need. That, at least, has been the theory of power—of freedom’s power—implicit in constitutional liberalism.

The enabling constraints of a liberal constitution work in a variety of ways. Guarantees of rights, including property rights, enable individuals to plan their lives and make long-term investments. Guarantees that the government itself will abide by its laws make it more likely to repay its debts and enable it to borrow at lower interest rates (a source of advantage to both Britain and the United States at key points in their history). Freedom of public discussion generates new information that makes it more likely that a government will correct its mistakes. The transparency of representative government makes liberal states more reliable partners for other countries and better able to assemble and sustain international alliances.

In other words, it is a mistake to believe that freedom comes only at the expense of power; constitutional liberalism is a method of using freedom to build a society and state capable of exerting immense power. I am not suggesting that liberalism is the only method of power creation or that it will always triumph over the illiberal alternatives. But for the past several centuries, it has been a surprisingly effective strategy for both the creation and the control of power.

The classical liberalism of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, had major limitations. It was not democratic: the great majority of people were excluded from political rights. Although it called for limits on arbitrary power, including equality before the law, classical liberalism left most people without an equal chance in life, and it had no effective means for dealing with the economic dislocations and periodic panics and depressions in an industrializing capitalist economy. These problems threatened the stability and survival of liberal states, Only by overcoming these problems was liberalism able to become the dominant strategy for building successful modern states.

Paul Starr

Next: the modern liberal theory of freedom’s power

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January 8, 2007

Why Freedom's Power?

Shortly after the 2004 election, I mentioned to a friend that I had begun work on a book about liberalism and power. He said, “I feel better already. You must see some connection.”

The main connection I was thinking about, however, wasn’t about how liberals could obtain power. It was about how a liberal society and liberal politics create power—how they generate the capacity to realize the aims of liberty, justice, and security. Critics have often accused liberalism of being weak. But liberal governments have repeatedly proved stronger and more durable, in both war and peace, than their adversaries have expected. Liberalism doesn’t just stand for noble ideals; it also aims to promote the creation of the power and wealth that make freedom a realistic aspiration.

I particularly wanted to make this case because of the false claims about power, freedom, and security advanced by conservatives today. Through the Iraq War, disdain for international alliances, infringements on civil liberties, tax cuts favoring the rich, and other policies, the Bush administration and its supporters have claimed to be defending, exerting, and expanding America’s power, but they have actually dissipated and degraded it.

The problems go much deeper than the strategic errors that President Bush made in Iraq. They involve the basic theory of power—and of power’s relation to freedom—that underlies the contemporary conservative worldview. Liberalism has its own theory of freedom’s power, and a central purpose of my book is to explain that theory and to make the argument that it offers better guidance about how to deal with the world’s realities.

And, yes, if liberals can articulate why their ideas will make America and the world freer and secure, they will have a better chance of winning their fellow citizens’ trust—and finding their way back to power.

Next: the classical theory of freedom’s power.

Paul Starr