Notes From Babel

On Political Affiliations and the Importance of Choosing Sides

with 4 comments

As I mentioned here, blogger E.D. Kain recently disavowed conservatism.  I mentioned this sort of thing intrigued me, and apparently it’s intrigued a lot of others, too.  Here’s Andrew Sullivan:

Apropos yesterday’s post about E.D. Kain’s break with conservatism, I want to add something: ideological conversions are often interesting to discuss, as evidenced by Daniel Larison’s post here and Mr. Kain’s response. And it’s always refreshing to read someone who is forthrightly working through their beliefs in public, especially when that includes grappling with critics in an earnest attempt to arrive at the right answer.

But it’s worth remembering that what a writer ends up calling himself shouldn’t ultimately matter nearly as much as it does. An insightful mind remains so regardless of ideological affiliations. Arguments should be evaluated on their merits, as opposed to whether the idea therein or the proponent advancing it is authentically liberal, conservative, or libertarian. Heretic hunters on the right and the left very much resent it when dissidents lay claim to an ideological label. Almost always it is irrational when they do so.

So long as Mr. Kain persists in offering intellectually honest writing that advances conversations, I’ll follow his stuff wherever it’s published, regardless of whether he calls himself a liberal, an independent, a socialist, a centrist, a neocon, a neo-liberal, a conservative, an atheist, an Islamic bridge builder, or a centaur advocate. The thoughts he expresses on any given issue are themselves a lot more important and informative than whatever label he finds most accurate, and I don’t see why I’d ever rely on a vague proxy to judge one of his pieces when I could just read it and agree or disagree as appropriate.

I’ll go ahead and take the contrary position.  Yes, yes, I concur in all the flattering remarks about an insightful mind despite ideological affiliations and a rose by any other name and so forth.  But the labels are important for the fundamental reason that it lets people know where you hail from.  Or whether instead you’re an ideological nomad or expatriate.  In politics as in international travel, people are going to want to see your papers so they can know what they’re dealing with.

Thus, for my part, Kain’s disavowal of conservatism profoundly affects the import and meaning of his ideas.  A conservative who supports the PPACA and the individual mandate?  This suggests there must have been some very serious thought put into the question of federalism/states’ rights, why tort reform was not a better first step, the potential negative constitutional consequences of further expanding the Commerce Clause, etc.  I had assumed these were enormously difficult questions for Kain if he adhered to some form of “conservatism.”  Perhaps not so much now?

Or, take another example:  A conservative who believes the federal Constitution guarantees a national right to same-sex marriage?  Perhaps he recently experienced a profound, life-changing event or has been personally and emotionally influenced by someone close to him?  There’s little else to explain Ted Olson’s decision to enforce the same-sex marriage agenda through the courts.  And it’s tough to explain expressly because Olson has been such an iconic conservative.  If this were a man who just announced his positions on views as they occurred to him, he would not be such a meaningful figure in the political and legal communities—and his change of tack on the same-sex marriage issue would not have been so important for same-sex marriage advocates.

I know Kain does indeed think critically and deeply on nearly everything he writes about.  But it puts a great burden on his readers, and takes something important away from his work, to distance himself too dramatically from ideological affiliations.  It is too much to expect a reader to refer back to a writer’s entire body of work to discern and reconcile seeming contradictions.  Unless a person identifies himself with an ideology, even with substantial qualifications, it becomes enormously difficult to get any kind of rough picture of how that person associates ideas such as to determine whether taking a pro or a con position on an important issue is a profound deviation from an undercurrent of ideological positions, or a natural outgrowth of them.

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Written by Tim Kowal

September 4, 2010 at 10:42 am

4 Responses

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  1. Dear Tim,

    Since democracy decides things by voting, we polarize in order to achieve the majority we would prefer. You know this, of course.

    In order to combat this, politicians aim for the median, to target those voters who believe, for example: the soldiers should come home, but that the US is obligated to rebuild Middle Eastern infrastructure; as well as those voters who believe they have no obligation to single mothers and disenfranchised children, but that abortion should be outlawed; et cetera, et cetera, forever.

    Therefore, as far as I can tell, labels arise from the democratic method, ja? And it would seem that they become increasingly meaningless, too, except for the wacko crazy fringe crews. David Duke’s fans were aptly labeled, I should say, ha ha.

    -B

    BothEyesShut

    September 8, 2010 at 8:34 am

    • It is true at least to some extent that the positions of political parties are expedient. But parties cannot long last if they do not suggest some innate order and consistency. Where they lack this, they suffer and must reorganize. Republicans, for example, are struggling to patch the hole they created by betraying their “fiscal conservatism” during the 2000-2006 period. Their positions during that period were expedient, but this did not make those positions de facto part of the Republican platform. There is some organizing principle that a political party must identify and adhere to if the party is to have long term legitimacy. Perhaps this is what did in the Know-Nothings.

      Tim Kowal

      September 8, 2010 at 9:00 am

      • I agree.

        Just for fun, do you think the so-called greens have been sufficiently standardized? And if so, will this pay off in the long run in your opinion? I remember the “green wedge” idea was pretty influential in the first G-Dub election.

        BothEyesShut

        September 8, 2010 at 9:32 am

        • I haven’t looked very closely at the Green Party. They might have assembled some good positions, but my sense is that, like the Democratic party, it’s a “shopping cart” platform–a bunch of positions that don’t seem to have an organizing principle. This is why I identify with the Republican party–because, in a good many instances, their positions comport with the political theory of conservatism. And it is why I don’t like the Democratic party–because, in a good many instances, their positions comport with the political theory of progressivism. Neither party has a one-to-one correlation with these respective systems, and they resort to the “shopping cart” quite often. But I find it helpful to think about the political parties along these lines.

          Tim Kowal

          September 8, 2010 at 9:46 am


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