the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 October 26


Presumably politics was never as simple as I thought it was; in fact, it is probably always more complicated than anyone thinks it is at any given time. Politics is at least as complicated as the entire number of thoughts held by the entire number of persons in the affected society, taken in aggregate and each related to the other. I cannot do the math in my head, but it seems that the number would be fairly large.

In past presidential elections, as I have previously noted, I have always cast a symbolic, strategic vote. The Democratic Party has always been too conservative for my tastes, and has spent much of the last decade and a half angling further to the right. This was not a rightward drift; it was a deliberate choice to reposition to the right. Prior to that, in the 1988 election, Democrats felt comfortable nominating a liberal. But this liberal, Michael Dukakis, in refusing to acknowledge and defend his ideology, allowed this ideology ― my ideology ― to be painted as shameful. A Democratic Party that would not defend or practice liberalism was no home for me. And thus, in four straight elections, I cast a vote for the candidate most likely to be perceived as the liberal alternative. I wanted both major parties and all analysts to recognize my vote as an expression of disaffected ― and more to the point, alienated ― liberalism. And I am confident this was the actual interpretation. (Dan Rather: “So Ford goes for Nader. Obviously he thinks Clintonism is as tasty as a mug of fermented spinach.”)

Things have changed dramatically. Presumably most liberals would agree, but not, I am sure, for the same reason. There has been a rejuvenation of liberalism in the US ― witness the anti-war movement and the candidacy of Howard Dean ― and there is, relatedly, a stern conviction among liberals that this general election is not a time for symbolism. Across the United States, liberals are dressing for battle, unwilling to contemplate defeat (or perhaps not expecting to survive it). They have but one object: the head of George W. Bush. This accounts, presumably, for the nomination of John Kerry, deemed the electable candidate. It certainly accounts for the vitriol directed at Ralph Nader’s independent candidacy. And it accounts for the way liberal activists have thrown themselves into the general election campaign with everything they have. It may not suffice, but surely liberals are proving themselves a force in society, not to be dismissed.

These same liberal activists supported Nader disproportionately in 2000. The shift in sentiment this year can be partially attributed to the closeness of the last election. But to judge from the rhetoric, from the rationale presented by liberal activists themselves, this shift in sentiment has more to do with Bush. His presidency is so bad, they assert, that it must be ended at any cost. It follows, therefore, that Bush is worse by far than they expected. They were willing to risk a Bush presidency in 2000 in order to shake up the Democratic Party. Having lived through a Bush presidency in actuality, they are unwilling to risk its extension, even if that means giving the Democrats carte blanche. What else explains the Democratic National Convention, with its glorification of military service, and military service in Vietnam in particular? Those were Democrats, weren’t they?

On virtually all issues, there is no excuse for this change of mood. Bush is exactly what we should have expected; he has done exactly what he said he would do. He has cut taxes for the wealthy and the middle class, as pledged; he did not mention the debt escalation, but it was easily predictable. He has handed control of social policy to rightist Christians, of civil liberties to law-and-order absolutists, of environmental policy to the extraction and manufacturing industries. Promises made, promises kept. He has proven himself a bumbling fool in thrall to the dons; who expected otherwise?

In one way and one way only has Bush been a surprise. As a candidate, he ridiculed intervention, and knew nothing about foreign policy. As president, he has run the most interventionist foreign policy since Harry Truman, and has made the United States’ relationship to the rest of the world the centerpiece of his reelection strategy. September 11 is responsible, of course, and few honestly saw it coming. Without the attacks on New York and Washington, he would not have cared about Afghanistan and would not have dared about Iraq.

If, then, liberals are insisting that four years ago Bush was a justifiable risk, whereas now nothing is more important than ending his time in office, they can only be thinking of his proclivity to go to war. It is imperative, apparently, that he not be allowed to invade any more countries. I personally suppose that, having passed on the opportunity to hang a left at Baghdad and storm into Syria, the Bush war machine has wreaked all the invasions it was going to. Even the Bush administration recognizes that we don’t need to be occupying yet another part of the world; we’re obviously not that good at it. Too bad, really; there are many countries where the populations would gladly be rid of the local thugs who make Hell of their lives. But even were I a single-issue voter, I would not vote for Bush in the hopes that he would topple a few more totalitarian states, because I do not expect that he would.

How to vote, then? Bush, shorn of his value as a tyrant-slayer, can only offer the possibility of further trashing the United States, which probably would not be as much fun as it sounds. Anyone to Bush’s right would likely offer an even-worse domestic policy, and Bush’s former smug isolationism. That leaves Kerry and anyone to Kerry’s left.

The problem, as you will no doubt discern, is that the left-right distinction is no longer adequate in the post-Iraq world ― for me, at least, things are much more complicated. A vote for Kerry is likely to be read as a denunciation of Bush’s wars ― even though Kerry voted for both of them. (Who actually knows what Kerry thinks now? Perhaps not even Kerry.) But a vote for Ralph Nader or the Green candidate, David Cobb, is likely to be seen as a denunciation of Kerry’s endorsement of Bush’s wars. Nader and the Greens are genuinely opposed to the war in Iraq. Nader in particular has embarrassed himself with the shallowness of his reasoning. If that is liberalism, it is not a liberalism I can identify with.

And yet that seems to be liberalism these days. The obtaining definitions in political discourse are certainly not under my control. What, though, is left for them to convey? The policies of the ideological camps are in some ways historical accidents, much like the red-blue distinction that has emerged from television news election coverage ― coincidence and randomness taken as revelation. We could just as easily say ‘tory’ and ‘whig’. The Democrats are clearly whigs; and yet they sold their candidate during the convention as a soldier, and a hunter, and a tall person. This is not whiggery; it is marketing. John Kerry’s height (6'4") must have impressed the focus groups. But it has nothing to do with ideological principles. Nor do the party names, nor do the colors. Even ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are tortured words. George Bush’s precipitous and even radical actions (invading countries, deposing governments, adding expensive entitlements, three massive tax cuts) are not conservative: they are not cautious, and they do not conserve the status quo. And in opposing the end of tyranny in Iraq, the majority of Democrats were not being liberal: they did nothing for rational progress or the spread of human freedom. So the party and ideological distinctions derive not from any original principles, even the supposed principles of these ideological camps.

The last Democrat I supported enthusiastically was Bruce Babbitt, who ran on a platform of genuine fiscal austerity, promising to raise taxes to reverse the debt build-up. His campaign, as you might imagine, went nowhere. Four years later, Paul Tsongas was credited with telling harsh truths by running on a platform of supply-side economics. No kidding ― he promised tax cuts and was hailed as a straight talker. By that point, though, I was no longer a Democrat. But Ross Perot’s “sensible” centrism (“Can he be a sensible man, sir?”) appealed to me even less. ‘Independent’ has generally meant centrist, seeing each party as equally likely to be correct. To me, by contrast, anyone who can look at the national Republican Party and say “That’s me.” is automatically disqualified. I cannot position myself between the Democrats and the Republicans; as I said, I have always thought the Democrats were too conservative.

That ought to make me a liberal. In the past it has seemed merely inconvenient that self-styled liberals held so many opinions I opposed. I support genuinely-free trade among genuinely-free individuals, because free trade helps everybody and especially the poor in developing countries, while even under the most optimistic theory first-world protectionism keeps first-world jobs in the first world. I oppose capitalism and the private control of natural resources, but world integration is a general good, and economic integration is a specific good. Other liberals oppose both free trade and “globalization”. I do not believe that they think of themselves as parochial, but their rhetoric is, as is the result of their policy.

I also differ from most liberals on the question of gun control. Of course they are right that handguns and assault rifles are meant to be used against persons. And of course the National Rifle Association and its allies are dominated by those who want guns for hunting; while the other major private use for guns is gang-related thuggery, road rage, and other inhuman brutality. But the liberal case for the private ownership of anti-personnel firearms is simple: it is much more difficult for governments to oppress and kill their subjects if those subjects are comparably armed. Those who would deny private citizens the right to own guns must be able to say, with a straight face, “Our government would never oppress or kill anyone.” Picture your favorite liberal saying that.

Finally, most dramatically, I break from most liberals on the question of Iraq. I should be able to say that I differ from them on the question of military intervention; but the military interventions in Haïti, Somalia, and Liberia were all liberal ideas, which liberals would have pursued more vigorously, as I recall; and Bosnia and Kosova were military interventions that only took place because one set of liberals prevailed over another. Conservatives wanted nothing to do with any of these military interventions. So in practice other liberals are only opposed to military interventions where the United States might lose, which is a practical consideration but not a particularly liberal one. Of course, those liberals who supported the African interventions but opposed the Balkan and Iraqi interventions could be supposed to have some sort of racial motive: either the black victims were more worth protecting from oppression, or the black perpetrators were less frightening as opposition, or the blacks who were inadvertently killed in these interventions were less of a concern. But I do not really believe that. Instead, I believe this: liberal opponents of the Iraq war were unable to see the inconsistency in their arguments, or the contradiction between their policies and their principles.

Such inconsistency and contradiction is the norm on these issues: We should not have free trade with México, but we should have removed all trade barriers with Saddam’s Iraq. Our government is deceitful and malicious, but it should have a monopoly on firearms. Our government is deceitful and malicious, but Saddam Hussein’s was trustworthy and unthreatening. Disarming street gangs in Chicago is a proper function for the US government, but disarming fanatical theocratic or fascist bands in Baghdad is imperialism.

Ralph Nader is running as an independent, but he is also carrying the banner of the Reform Party, which, after endorsing Ross Perot and then Pat Buchanan, is now revealed as a party that cares about absolutely nothing, except ending free trade with México. The unknown David Cobb has the Green nomination this time, making this candidacy more about the Greens’ standard liberal agenda than (as with Nader) their candidate’s personality. The Greens represent much of the liberalism that I support, but unfortunately all of the liberalism that I oppose. On every issue I have examined, they, and Cobb, share the liberalism of Ralph Nader. I call it ‘liberalism’, but the term is meaningless. I could say ‘whiggery’, or ‘leftism’, or whatever abstract noun belongs to the color blue. My desire for some alternative is as strong as ever. I was never enchanted with John Kerry; he is a pandering politician with the consistency of Bill Clinton. It is not so much that he flip-flops, as he has been accused of doing. It is that he cannot articulate or possibly even take a single simple position on anything. Sadly, though, given the alternatives, even the ‘liberal’ alternatives, that may be a good thing.

Ralph Nader and David Cobb, to say nothing of George Bush, are steadfast and clear ― and steadfastly and clearly wrong. John Kerry, by contrast, could take either side of any given issue from one day to the next; but that does at least give him an even chance of being right. I’m not crazy about the odds, but I’ll take the bet anyway.


Original version


Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford