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Pelosi v The Squad (aka Liberals v Progressives)

19/07/2019

David Brooks at The New York Times

In this excellent article Brooks makes several good points. A key point and one of great relevance was about how as much as anything is what is at issue in the reported conflict.

What’s at stake in the struggle between Nancy Pelosi and the four progressive House members known as the squad? Partly it’s just the perpetual conflict between younger members who want change fast and older members who say you have to deal with political reality.

But deep down it’s a conflict of worldviews. No matter how moderate or left, Democrats of a certain age were raised in an atmosphere of liberalism. I don’t mean the political liberalism of George McGovern. I mean the philosophic liberalism of people like Montaigne, John Stuart Mill, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass — people who witnessed religious and civil wars and built structures to restrain fanaticism.

This is key. In my view the Progressives,of whom the Squad are amongst the most visible, but are found across the globe, e.g. Corbyn and his ilk,Ardern, many Greens although often called liberals are in reality not liberal. They are better seen as regressive,often oppressive and given to authoritarian behaviour e.g. Maduro, Ardern with her Captain’s Call on Oil&Gas .

Philosophic liberalism, Adam Gopnik explains in his essential book, “A Thousand Small Sanities,” begins with intellectual humility. There’s more we don’t know than we do know, so public life is a constant conversation that has no end. In the liberal view, each person contains opposites and contradictions. You flatten and dehumanize complex individuals when you see people according to crude dichotomies and assign them to tribal teams.

Then we get to the nub of Brooks argument.

Critics on the right argue that liberal pluralism creates a society that is too thin. It lacks the tight bonds of clan. It lacks a single coherent moral culture. When you take away the idea of a single divine order, you create a fluid world in which a few shrewd elites may thrive, but everybody else falls into chaos.

A leading example is probably Trump, but Xi, Putin, Kim Jong Un plausibly fit into that mold, as do many commenters on blogs, news site, Twitter etc.

Critics on the left argue that liberalism is a set of seemingly neutral procedures that the privileged adopt to mask their underlying grip on power. Left-wing critics detest liberalism’s incrementalism and argue that only a complete revolution will uproot injustice.

They do not share liberalism’s belief in the primacy of free speech. They argue that free speech sometimes has to be restricted because incorrect words can trap our thinking. Bad words, like insensitive gender pronouns, preserve oppression.

Here we see the likes of The Squad, Corbyn,Ardern,Golriz Ghahraman and Marama Davidson (NZ Greens),Trudeau, Antifa,many in academia and the media, plus blog commenters, Twitter users etc

These Regressive/Oppressives, for that is what they are, are people who as Brooks writes:

They embrace essentialism, which is the antithesis of liberalism. Essentialism is the belief that people are defined by a single identity that never changes. A cisgender white male is always and only a cisgender white male.

You only have to glance at Twitter, for example, or many blogs either left or right, or read news article comments to see the veracity of Brooks comment.

In short, many of today’s young leaders, and their older allies, don’t want to work within the liberal system. They want to blow it up.

Here we can cite The Squad, Bernie Sanders in the USA, certainly Corbyn’s followers at least some of them, Antifa, and in NZ people like Golriz Ghahraman, Marama Davidson and certainly some in the Labour Party.

So which side will prevail?

Brooks asks and goes on to offer his answer

This section of the article was probably the most dispiriting because Brooks whilst probably correct in his summation was quite gloomy.

Over the short term, I’d put my money on the anti-liberals. Liberalism suffers from a series of weaknesses. First, many Americans have already betrayed it. The adventure of liberalism is constantly encountering people and ideas that are new and different. But Americans of both left and right moved into lifestyle enclaves with people like themselves. Americans have stopped seeing each other accurately. Conversation, the very lifeblood of liberalism, is blocked.

We see this elsewhere as well. Here in NZ, but in the UK,with Brexit and Corbyn with Labour. Another example would be France with Macron and the gilets jaunes. Regrettably I think Brooks is right

Second, liberal institutions have deteriorated. A liberal society needs universities where ideas are openly debated, it needs media outlets that strive to be objective, it needs political institutions, like the Senate, that are governed by procedures designed to keep the process fair to both sides. It needs people who put the rules of fair play above short-term partisan passion. Those people scarcely exist.

Indeed many academics and universities have led the Progressive charge with ‘deplatforming’ i.e. censorship and oppression, the nonsense over trigger words and safe spaces – on which The Simpsons had this marvellous pisstake

In addition the attitudes displayed by many in this culture war is very reminiscent of the McCarthy era.

Third, Donald Trump. Trump marshaled illiberal groups in the G.O.P. and easily defeated the old guard. He turned the G.O.P. into an illiberal force. It’s very hard for Democrats to play by the rules of liberalism when the other party won’t.

Indeed,the threat is both from the Right and the Left. Donald Trump is often called a populist,he may well be,but he is a populist who, in my view, seeks to harness bigotry,prejudice and race and religious hatreds in the furtherance of his ends, much like e.g. Hitler.

However,I would say that the GOP was in many respects well on it’s way to becoming the party of racists and bigots that Trump has made it, under the aegis of men like McConnell and Sessions. In addition he has revealed the hypocrisy of many Evangelical Christians who preach Christianity but in fact are very far from that when they support a man like Trump.

Furthermore, Trump has a vested interest in keeping the progressives atop the Democratic Party, and he powerfully influences that party. When Pelosi tried to marginalize the squad, Trump issued a racist tweet against the squad’s members. Democrats responded predictably, and the squad was back as the party’s defining element. Expect this pattern to recur.

I am not certain that Brooks is entirely right here,though I agree that is Trump’s aim. In that respect The Squad have allowed themselves to become enablers of Trump and Trumpism. They are in many respects a Progressive mirror of Trump and are a key element in his campaign for a second term.

Liberalism’s ultimate problem is that its achievements have been taken for granted. It’s moderate in an age made for reality TV. It’s an attempt to restrain passions, not inflame them. Liberalism is about treasuring your opponents, not calling them racists or traitors.

In the current moment, “Let’s not get carried away” and “Let’s play by the rules” are not great campaign slogans. Trump’s primary opponents learned that the hard way in 2016. Pelosi, Biden and the other Democratic liberals, I’m afraid, may learn that in the months ahead.

Ultimately Brooks comes to the conclusion that on neither side are the forces of light in the ascendancy. It is as if the dark hand of Mordor has triumphed by a two proved pincer movement, at least we hope only temporarily. It is worth recalling the political situation when Tolkien wrote his tale,as the times bear some similarities to today.

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