People are interested right now in the “Straussians”–the somewhat cliquish followers of the late Leo Strauss, some of whom hold influential political positions in the Bush Administration. In my Nietzsche book, I argued that Leo Strauss was not the conservative proponent of natural law that he appeared to be on the surface; he was actually a secret Nietszchean with radical, “postmodern” beliefs. This interpretation became the basis of my novel Something to Hide. I’ve summarized the arguments in a previous blog. Recently, I was interviewed on the subject for an Australian radio program. The audio file is available here.
Yesterday, I heard Sarah A. Soule, an Arizona sociologist, present a paper on “Student Protest and Youth Collective Action in the United States, 1960-1990.” She and her colleagues have coded thousands of stories from The New York Times that mention a wide range of collective political actions, from riots and “melees” to lawsuits and petitions. Their huge dataset allows them to observe the frequency of youth protests over time, the rate of collective action on any particular topic (e.g., civil rights), the percentage of protests that involve violence, and many other matters. I won’t “scoop” Soule by describing her results in any detail, but they are deeply interesting. One unsurprising result is a substantial decline in student protest between 1970 and 1990, partly offset by a rise in campus events that favored White supremacy during the 1980s.
Reliance on The New York Times raises methodological issues. It’s certainly possible that The Times has a consistent bias–or worse, has changed its bias over time, thus giving an inaccurate impression of trends in actual political behavior. Soule is something of an expert on media bias, so she is well equipped to handle the methodological problems. Nevertheless, most of the questions from the floor yesterday pressed her hard on the potential for bias. I may be reading too much into these questions, but I thought I detected the following implicit idea: The Times (a representative of what one person called the “corporate media”) avoids reporting on leftist protests, especially those led by students and youth. In reality, youth opinion is further to the left than we think, but the press overlooks the evidence, thereby making elites feel that they can move to the right.
All I can say is, I wish it were so. If anything, I suspect that The Times is biased in favor of reporting certain types of liberal student protest. For example, it gave very intensive coverage to the anti-Apartheid student movement that developed at Yale while I was an undergrad there. (After all, there’s a Times stringer on campus.) It gives hardly any attention to campuses of comparable size and location whose students are more likely to be mainstream conservatives. Quinnipiac University, Albertus Magnus College, and Southern Connecticut State are all very near Yale but never make The Times. Meanwhile, The Times has mentioned the Campus Crusade for Christ just 76 times in the last 33 years, according to Nexis; and most of those mentions were incidental. Campus Crusade for Christ claims 110,000 staff and trained volunteers.
I mention these factoids not because I am conservative or angry at the “liberal media,” but only because I believe good strategy begins by facing reality. Soule’s data, major opinion surveys, and personal observations all tell us that committed young leftists are relatively rare today, and there is a groundswell of genuine grassroots support for conservative causes. That should be the beginning of the conversation.
Suzanne Morse has launched a blog. She’s just getting started, but this is a significant development, since Suzanne, President of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, plays an important role in our increasingly coherent and robust movement for civic renewal. The movement, as I see it, encompasses all efforts to enhance the capacity of citizens to address common problems–including civic education, national and community service, community planning and asset-mapping, public deliberation, civic journalism, and new collaborative uses of the Internet. Suzanne has been deeply involved in many of these fields. I’ve been learning from her since I was a sophomore in college–or, as she says, since before my hair turned gray.
Suzanne’s blog mostly reports news from the civic renewal field. It joins a set of “newsy” sites on related topics, all structured as blogs. See, for example, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools Community Exchange, the Public Journalism Network, and the National Council for Dialogue and Deliberation’s Thataway Forum. It occurs to me that a page (possibly the one you are looking at) could present the latest entries from all these blogs via RSS feed and thereby indicate what’s going on, day-by-day, in the movement. Can anyone recommend software that places RSS feeds on a blog page?
Bill Galston has an important article in the Washington Monthly entitled, “Taking Liberty: Liberals ignore and conservatives misunderstand America’s guiding value: freedom.” Although Bill is my boss and friend, we have never discussed this essay or its arguments. I basically endorse it, but I would put the matter in a slightly different way.
The deepest political change in North America, Europe, and East Asia since World War II has been a great increase in the importance and value of individual choice. We can observe this change in family structures and courtship practices, labor markets and educational institutions, media offerings and cultural identities, and religious denominations and political parties across the industrialized world. It is bad news for traditionalists, communitarians, trade-unionists, and democratic socialists, but good news for libertarians of all stripes.
Indeed, three major libertarian groups are influential today:
1. Right-libertarians argue that unregulated markets are the linchpin of all freedom. To be sure, markets require certain virtues that do not arise naturally or automatically. However, right-libertarians are confident that voluntary associations can promote these virtues better than states. Governments are prone to use their financial and police power to restrict choice in insidious ways.
2. Liberal libertarians argue that people are freer when they receive government financial support; but state funds should come without strings attached. For instance, schools, welfare systems, and arts programs should provide students, poor individuals, and artists (respectively) with economic resources, but should not intervene further in their individual decisions. I think that liberal libertarianism has been the dominant ideology of the national Democratic Party since the 1970s.
3. Radical libertarians and anarchists criticize both states and markets for restricting liberty. In contrast to liberal libertarians, they are deeply suspicious of governments, so instead of decrying cuts to welfare and education, they try to build private non-market alternatives.
I am somewhat libertarian myself, but I worry that choice isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Choice trades off against solidarity, equity, and security. It can even be a kind of trap, when we make decisions based on our own past experiences and preferences and are never forced to expand our horizons. It seems to me unfair to give young people lots of choices and then expect them to bear the consequences of their mistakes. As for poor people–I’m not sure that they can gain substantial political power without belonging to disciplined organizations (like unions) that restrict their choices. Finally, there is something to be said for what Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients”, that is, the ability to participate in weighty group decisions. To the extent that individuals make all the important choices for themselves (the “liberty of the moderns”), collective decision-making becomes inconsequential, and then we lose a kind of liberty.
Notwithstanding all these worries, I agree with my boss Bill that the tide is running with individual freedom. To criticize choice in favor of equity or solidarity is a losing strategy. Galston recommends: (1) emphasizing that classic liberal programs, such as Social Security, actually benefit individual freedom; and (2) revising some progressive programs so that they promote equity in maximally libertarian ways (for instance, via vouchers). I’m afraid that this strategy will never allow us to address some of the real disadvantages of choice. In fact, to paraphase Churchill, I suspect it’s the worst strategy–except for all the others that we’ve tried already.
Last Wednesday, I was privileged to visit an arts program in Washington. A very diverse group of more than 50 kids work together all year, starting by discussing the issues that concern them most and ultimately producing an original musical about those themes. The students come from fancy private schools, from ordinary suburban schools, and from troubled DC schools. They represent diverse cultural backgrounds, but all seem to be articulate and confident, mutually respectful, artistically talented, and skilled at handling their differences.
As far as I can tell, they address issues connected to individual behavior and attitudes. For instance, a gay member of the group had recently been attacked by pipe-wielding bigots, which launched a discussion. Apparently, the group had previously discussed why its white members tend to take over conversations. One participant said she balances strong Christian faith with liberal attitudes toward sexuality–evidently creating some tension inside her family.
These are the concerns that will animate their musical production. They are important issues, they emerge from the students’ daily experience, they can be dramatized in a theatrical performance, and they allow kids to use the interpersonal and expressive skills that they are good at.
While I was talking to these kids, my wife happened to be attending a DC City Council hearing on education. There she learned that the DC school system spends $11,000 per student per annum, but only about $5,000 is spent in schools for each pupil who attends. Part of the extra $6,000 goes to an extremely expensive system for leasing private buses to transport special-ed kids. Some of it goes for overhead in the downtown headquarters.
As they work on their musical, it’s unlikely that the kids in the arts group will move from their personal experience with racism, sexism, class-inequality, and homophobia to issues like the DC school budget, or unemployment, or criminal law. Several said that they loved the program because it forced them to “take risks” and “move outside their comfort zone.” I respect those feelings, but I note that a different kind of program might confront them with the budget for their own school system and teach them to analyze it critically. I suspect that a balance sheet would fall much further outside their “comfort zones” than even the most emotional discussion of sexism. After all, they can observe other young people discussing personal behavior on reality-TV shows. They have volunteered for the arts program because they are interested in such discussions. But it’s unlikely that anyone has ever taught them to perform roles that are essential in their community: fiscal watchdog, policy analyst, expert witness, reporter, lobbyist.