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Thursday, April 08, 2004  

The Aesthetics of Vision

Maybe it's not really the vision that matters--maybe it's the aesthetics of the vision. Anyway, Neal Gabler suggests this may be a big part of how liberals lost power in his article "Liberalism's Lost Script," in this month's American Prospect.

I've been beginning to explore what a liberal vision of America might look like this week, talking yesterday about the Environmental Vision. With some luck, this discussion may grow a bit in the next week or two, as some of the blogosphere's bigger brains get in on the act. (Mum's the word for now.) For now, ruminate on Gabler's notion. (What follows is a narrative constructed from selections of the article; it's pretty much a cut and paste job, so I've left out the elipses. Go read the article if you want the fuller, more elegant version.)

The war planners never really thought there was any downside to going in, or that anything could go wrong in the aftermath. They assumed that the troops would sweep across Iraq without resistance, that Iraqis would greet them as liberators and stick flowers in the barrels of their rifles, and that an Iraqi government would be installed in relatively short order. They made these assumptions, we now know, not on the basis of any intelligence or understanding of the Iraqi situation. They made them because it seems they were in thrall to an idea that has become a fundamental component of modern American conservatism generally. It is the idea that, in the end, everything turns out well.

But if conservatives act as if happy endings are always in the offing, liberals, by contrast, have come to act as if nothing can ever go right, as if a cloud surrounds every silver lining. Just compare the old liberal version of the "domino theory" in Southeast Asia with the new conservative version in the Middle East. In the first, the dominoes of communist expansion tumble, creating a threatening world. In the second, the dominoes of democracy tumble, creating a free and peaceful world.

It was not always so. Conservatism has its roots in Thomas Hobbes, with his jaundiced view of human nature, and in Edmund Burke, with his emphasis on a natural order with which one tampers only at grave risk. This was hardly a prescription for optimism, much less Pollyannaish faith that all will end well. Rather, it was a form of hard-boiled realism. You had to take the world as it was and hope for the best. Translated into politics, conservatism -- at least in its American incarnation -- encouraged social Darwinism, economic rapacity, protectionism, a minimal government, self-reliance, and independence.

Liberalism has its roots in John Locke, with his faith in human possibility, and in William James and John Dewey, who thought man was less a passive victim of history than an active shaper of it. In political terms, liberalism encouraged social welfare, economic justice, free trade, compassion, and a sense of community. In foreign policy, at least by the 20th century, the outlook was largely internationalist, encouraging democracy and cooperation that would release goodness. This was the ideology of optimism, pointing not to how things inevitably were but to how they should be, and not to man's helplessness in the natural swirl but to his greater destiny.

While conservatism was serving up economic brutes, liberalism was serving up Woodrow Wilson, the last century's first and perhaps greatest idealist who laid as the basis for war not the realpolitik of conservatives but the larger principle of freedom. But somewhere between Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, conservatism and liberalism changed places.

Reagan's major contribution to conservatism was not ideological (he basically followed the old Goldwater line). It was aesthetic. While deploying simplistic sound bites like "government is the problem" that drove liberals to distraction, Reagan, who had been a great admirer of Roosevelt, was accomplishing something much more profound. He managed to graft Roosevelt's implacable optimism and sense of destiny onto a conservative movement that had long resisted those things, and he did so at the very time when liberalism had turned pessimistic.

The aesthetic of certainty, Reagan's gift to the conservative movement, has been a gift that keeps on giving. This is what Bush political guru Karl Rove constantly stresses. Act as if you are the Chosen One. Be certain. Be confident. Don't entertain any doubts. Don't call for sacrifice or introspection. Keep telling everybody that everything will be all right.

Nothing could be more contrary to the new liberalism, which has eschewed simplification, gloss, and certitude for nuance, honesty, and contingency. But while it may be foolish and even dangerous to view the world as anything but tragic, doing so isn't a very promising way to win votes. Twenty-five years ago, conservatives stole liberal optimism, and George W. Bush, currently bumping from one disaster to another, is relying on it to pull him through this election. He may succeed -- unless liberals can rediscover their Rooseveltian sense of hope and convince Americans that they again have a rendezvous with destiny. That is both liberalism's tradition and its traditional appeal.

posted by Jeff | 1:32 PM |
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