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Ron Radosh

Monthly Archives: May 2014

You may not have heard of reform conservatism, but you should. For those who want conservative ideas to be taken seriously and to gain adherents of market-based reforms addressing the plight of the working middle class and the remains of the blue-collar class, the movement is imperative. It is simply not enough to yell “repeal Obamacare.” The conservative movement desperately needs new thinking that shakes things up and provides the kind of reforms that will address the problems our nation faces.

I view it as a most encouraging development that American Enterprise Institute, along with the Young Guns Network and National Affairs, hosted a major event last week to present leading reform conservatives, who spoke alongside both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Other prominent speakers included Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Peter Wehner, and Yuval Levin.

To understand precisely their approach, you can download their new e-book, Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. The book has important essays by some of the most important and talented of serious conservative thinkers, who present new ideas on health care, tax reform, K-12 education, what kind of safety net conservatives should support, and almost every major policy issue. The thrust of their approach is what Peter Wehner notes to be the importance of developing policies that will “assist and empower working families — those who are, and those who want to be, in the middle class.”

Without the kind of effort these reform-conservative intellectuals have put forth, conservatives will always be vulnerable to the charge constantly made by left/liberal and social-democratic Democrats: Republicans don’t care about those who work, or about the poor and minorities. In his essay, Yuval Levin builds upon that task, and writes that conservatives have until now failed to put the call for limited government within the context of taking on what he calls the Left’s “technocratic approach to American society,” as well as its demands for an ever-expanding and limitless welfare state that avoids dealing with “the decentralized vitality of American life” while proposing programs that undermine its moral and economic foundations.

What these writers and thinkers are doing is taking on the ideology and assumptions of the Left’s vision of the world, both by challenging it head-on as well as offering alternative proposals that address the issues the Left always claims conservatives do not care about.

Already, only a scant few days from its unveiling, the left-wing is responding, realizing that this new effort is not just more of the same politicking. First came New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, arguing that a great gap exists between the group’s ambition and its actual ability to influence any Republican politicians. Chait goes back to what the Republican journalist Josh Barro told him last June, which is that “Republicans lack the imagination to come up with ideas to get higher wages, more jobs and affordable health care to the middle class. It is that there is no set of policies that is both acceptable to conservatives and likely to achieve these goals.”

Of course, the new effort precisely addresses Barro’s previous concerns. Of course, the skeptics are like E. J. Dionne, who has evolved over the years from a sharp centrist liberal to an apologist for the Obama administration, and who argues that whatever their intent, they will not succeed. He writes: “they are also limited by an increasingly conservative Republican primary electorate, the shift in the GOP’s geographical center of gravity toward the South, and a rightward drift within the business community.” In essence, his advice is give up — it won’t work, no one will listen, and everyone should accept the inevitable triumph of the Democratic Party and a forthcoming social-democratic European-style welfare state. Dionne, in other words, does not want the reform conservatives to succeed. As he puts it, “reform conservatism is better than the conservatism we have had. … But the conservatism we have had — and the politics it entails — will make it very hard for members of this movement to be as bold or as creative as our national moment requires.”

The Left, as Ross Douthat told Chait, believes that “American conservatism in its very essence is intent on soaking, punishing and immiserating the poor.” The goal of these reformers is to show that this is indeed not what conservatives want. One might ask Chait what he makes of the failures of LBJ’s “Great Society” program, which turned out to be an abysmal failure on many levels, and which they are now celebrating on its 50th anniversary, proclaiming the need to return to and finish Lyndon Johnson’s programs.

One positive sign that goes against the grain is Danny Vinik’s article in TNR, in which he admonishes liberals to take reform conservatism seriously. He suggests that the approach of Dionne and Chait is a cop-out, since instead of taking their ideas seriously and debating them, they respond by simply arguing that Republicans won’t act on any of their proposals. He has one point: there is a tension between trying to get politicians to listen while at the same time critiquing what they have come up with so far. Josh Barro, who is now with the New York Times, comments on what some of the problems are and argues that conservatives do address the deficit, but have not come up with ways to implement the tax cuts they propose.

At least Vinik is honest enough to write that “responding to valid conservative ideas like increasing the child tax credit or converting antipoverty programs into a universal credit is more intellectually challenging. Many liberals are concerned that after eight years of Barack Obama and potentially eight more of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s agenda will grow stale. Without a contested primary, how will the party continue to improve and adapt? Democrats can start by evaluating their policies in comparison to those of reform conservatives.”

I don’t think many on the Left will listen to someone who actually uses the words “valid conservative ideas.” Instead, they will continue to push for a shift further to the left, arguing that their party of choice should follow the lead of either Elizabeth Warren or, God forbid, Bernie Sanders. But, if they have their dithers, the Left should instead take Vinik’s advice: “Liberals should not dismiss [the reform conservatives] because reformers may have underestimated the gap between their ideas and the Republican Party’s current platform.”

If that happens, then we can have a real and meaningful and honest debate between those of us who hold a conservative vision and others who adhere to a leftist and social-democratic one. In the meantime, the smart group of reform conservatives have made a challenge to all conservatives and Republicans to come up with new ways of thinking. It’s about time.

The Soviet Union and the United States were involved in an ideological, political, and military fight almost as soon as World War II came to an end. The United States took the leadership of the fight for freedom against the forces of totalitarianism, then under the control of Joseph Stalin. The situation has some similarities with the one existing today, especially with the emerging differences over Ukraine and Putin’s attempt to revive the Soviet empire in a new form.

With the new deal between Russia and China, Putin has managed to gain the funds he needs to feed his ambition, just when the economy of Russia was beginning to tank. During the Cold War, the Nixon administration managed to play Mao’s China against the Soviet Union, thereby weakening Russia’s grip on the world and its desire for hegemony. That option does not exist today.

There are, however, other major similarities that are pointed out today in a very important speech by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. Together with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who has been writing some of the most insightful articles about Ukraine (such as this one, and this blog in the New York Review of Books), they put together a major conference of Western and Ukrainian intellectuals in Kiev, which was held a few days ago.

Wieseltier, in his introductory remarks, makes a telling analogy. He argues that the events in Russia bring to mind the historic Congress for Cultural Freedom, held in Berlin in the early days of the Cold War, in which anti-Communist liberals and conservatives put aside their differences. They sought to work together to let those in the West understand why it was imperative that the Soviet Union — then still run by Joseph Stalin — not be allowed to succeed in its goals of building a Communist world. The Congress, as Peter Coleman subtitled his book, was a “struggle for the mind of postwar Europe.” Wieseltier writes:

All historical analogies are imperfect, but they are not for that reason false. The analogy between 2014 and 1950 is in some ways imprecise and hyperbolic: Putin is not Stalin, for example. But Putin is bad enough. Putin is very bad. It is not only evil in its worst form that we must resist. The discontinuities of recent histories must not blind us to the continuities. It is also the case — here is another discontinuity — that the United States and its European allies are not inclined now toward a geopolitical struggle that would in any way resemble the Cold War, which many Westerners regard as a dark and cautionary tale. I am not one of those Westerners: Unlike many American liberals, among whom I otherwise count myself, I regard the Cold War as a mottled tale of glory, because it ended in the defeat and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which was indeed (for American liberals this is a heretical prooftext) what Ronald Reagan said it was — an evil empire.

Wieseltier considers the condition of Ukraine as one of “the proving grounds of principle in our time,” and it is a “modern struggle for democracy” akin to that which took place in the 1950s against Stalinism. So he and Snyder sought, in creating this event, to show the solidarity of Western European and American intellectuals with their Ukrainian counterparts. He argues that the Ukrainians were fighting for principles Americans endorse: liberty, truth, and pluralism. He marvels at the arrogance of Putin, whose propaganda proclaims the Ukrainian activists fascist, when it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black — “a fascist regime [which] has the temerity to call you fascist.”

Wieseltier, one must stress, is indeed a man whose position is similar to that of a once-large group, but now a dying breed: the so-called “Cold War liberals.” This was a favorite term of hatred used by the Left to describe those who fought the Popular Front initiated by the Communists in the days of World War II and the U.S.- Soviet alliance, and which they sought to maintain in the early days of the Cold War.

Nevertheless, today’s liberals — really those who take the positions of the far Left — have already sought to attack Wieseltier’s speech. The first culprit, and I am sure more will follow, is well-known liberal writer Jim Sleeper, whose response appears at the Huffington Post. He titles his article “Ukraine’s Neo-con Champions Champion Mainly Themselves,” a title meant to show his leftist readers that he has nothing but disdain for their efforts at solidarity. In so doing, he ironically shows that his position is analogous to that of the fellow-travelers and Communists who attacked the Congress of Cultural Freedom in similar terms in the 1950s.

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At the very start of the early New Left — circa the 1964-65 academic year — students in Berkley, California, started what was called the Free Speech Movement (FSM). Back in those days, university administrators did not allow early supporters of the civil rights movement to try to gather support on campus or solicit donations to various civil rights organizations. The police were called in to arrest the offenders, mass arrests were made, and giant rallies surrounding the Sproul Hall steps had nationwide repercussions, including a backlash to the protests from California residents who backed Ronald Reagan’s campaign for governor of California a few years later. Reagan emphasized his opposition to the actions of the student radicals.

It also led to a speech by a young student named Mario Savio, whose following words sound today like a clarion call by a libertarian:

But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be — have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings! … There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

How times have changed. The very New Left students of that era — so many of whom now run the universities against which they once protested — have moved from support of free speech to what might be termed the “No Speech Movement.” Or, perhaps more accurately, speech for which only those whom they approve should be allowed. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the various incidents surrounding invited graduation speakers at some of the most well-known private liberal arts colleges as well as one state university.

Last week, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund,  announced that she would not appear at Smith College in order “to preserve the celebratory spirit” of graduation ceremonies at the college. One must wonder what anyone objected to in the choice of Ms. Lagarde, a woman who by any standards ranks as highly accomplished. The answer came in an online petition signed by 480 students and 120 faculty members, all of whom believe that Lagarde works for an institution that is part of “imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Even the public statement by Smith’s president, who wrote students that an invitation to speak did not mean an “endorsement of all views or policies” of the IMF or Lagarde and that their petition was “anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion,” did not succeed in stopping Lagarde’s decision to step down.

Then, following Lagarde’s withdrawal by one day, Haverford College made known their strong opposition to scheduled commencement speaker Robert J. Birgeneau. Ironically, he was the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley — the very university in which the FSM was born. Moreover, Birgeneau was a man of the political Left. Indeed, he was well known as an advocate for LGBT rights, the rights of undocumented immigrants (that is, illegal aliens), and “faculty diversity,” which many of us would call hiring by racial and gender classifications. What, indeed, could the student activists find objectionable in his scheduled commencement appearance?

One might consider his forced withdrawal a case of irony, as the chickens came home to roost, except for the fact that  it revealed only how far the collapse of free speech has taken place. Fifty students — 50, mind you — hardly a huge number, revealed that Birgeneau could appear, if only he accepted nine conditions they then laid out. First, they objected that in 2011, he had supported police being called to campus to deal with “Occupy Wall Street” protestors demonstrating at the infamous Sproul Hall. They demanded his admission that he played a role in police arrests and actions at the site, that he “support reparations for the victims of the November 9th beatings and arrests,” and that he publicly admit in a letter to Haverford students that his own “actions have not been in line with the values of peace, non-violence, and political participation.” This brings to mind  China’s Red Guards in the era of the ’60s “Cultural Revolution,” when the guilty had to confess their sins in a ceremony of humiliation. Birgeneau simply responded: “First, I have never and and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”

Thankfully, Harverford’s president told students in a letter that they sounded “like a jury issuing a verdict.” And as Daniel Henninger put it in a superb column in the Wall Street Journal, “No one could possibly count the compromises of intellectual honesty made on American campuses to reach this point. It is fantastic that the liberal former head of Berkeley should have to sign a Maoist self-criticism to be able to speak at Haverford. Meet America’s Red Guards.”

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I was a friend of Marty Sklar since 1955, when I first met him as an entering freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  His name had been given to me by a friend in New York City, who said that Marty was a leading figure on the left in Madison, and would gladly take me under his wing. He was also my graduate teaching assistant in the U.S. history course I took in Madison.

Since that meeting, I have been engaged with Marty for over half a century, agreeing and disagreeing with him about history, politics, and the state of American society. Throughout these years, one thing was constant about Marty: he said in 1955 — and held to this belief up to his passing — that he was a socialist.

Marty’s definitions of socialism, however, were something other than how most people would define that system. I have written about his concept before at PJ Media, particularly in this column, in which I tried to explain his original theory called “the mix,” in which he argued that all modern societies are composed of elements of both socialism and capitalism. This led him to argue that he considers himself to be a “Freedom Leftist” who believes in a pluralist-democratic and “publicly accountable left,” as opposed to Obama, whom he considers to be a “left sectarian doing his mass work.”

At his core, Sklar writes, Obama’s “world view is ‘Third-Worldist sectarianism.’” Moreover, he argues that Obama’s economic proposals are a high-tax, protectionist, and slow-growth program. Those of Republicans, in contrast, were based on a lower-tax, low-cost energy, “high-growth/job stimulus” program, and are not “ensnared in the green business/academia lobby agenda of high-cost energy,” which would work to both restrict economic growth and workers’ incomes.

Here is what Sklar wrote in 1999 in an essay titled “Capitalism and Socialism in the Emergence of Modern America,” which appears in Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society. His paragraph defines how he looks at both capitalism and socialism:

Social change in [the Progressive era] inaugurated an incessant interaction, both antagonistic and complementary, between capitalism and socialism that shaped and reshaped American society in the twentieth century. The continuing corporate reorganization of enterprise and the national economy has in its essence involved the meshing of capitalism and socialism in an American society distinguished politically by liberal democracy. … The rise of corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century may therefore be understood as also representing the early phases of a sociopolitical reconstruction of American society based upon a hybrid of capitalism and socialism in a liberal democracy.

Sklar was insistent on the principle that state and society had to be separate from each other, and that the individual and liberty had to be protected against all encroachments by the state against individual citizens. Capitalism, he believed, broadened individual initiative and guaranteed principles of liberty and efficiency, as well as egalitarian values and behavior.

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