We have just concluded a very long political campaign that culminated in the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. As is typical in such campaigns, you heard a lot of different political labels thrown around. Candidates were called “extreme right-wing conservatives” and “extreme left-wing liberals” – depending on which candidate the speaker wanted to marginalize, at which end of the political spectrum.
Then, toward the end of the campaign, we were hit by a shot from left field. Just as the Democratic and Republican conventions finished and everyone got ready for the final sprint to the November 4 elections, the world was hit by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Over the next weeks we saw the Bush Administration implement a series of economic programs, collectively referred to as The Bailout - the largest government interventions in the private sector since the New Deal.
What is going on, people asked themselves? Has the Bush Administration - generally considered among the most conservative in the history of the US - all of a sudden embraced socialism in its final few months? Or could it be that political labels, like “liberal” and “conservative” are not what they used to be? Do they need to be re-defined for the 21st century? Let me offer some reflections on the topic.
"There are two major political parties in America, but there are at least three major political tendencies," writes Brooks. "The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom. But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility."
Brooks goes on to explain this third, centrist tendency, which he calls the "great moderate strain in American politics," and proceeds to write, "In some sense this whole campaign was a contest to see which party could reach out from its base and occupy that centrist ground."
Brooks, a self-proclaimed moderate conservative Republican, bemoans the fact that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party succeeded in moving toward the center and successfully controlled the middle in this election, whereas John McCain and the Republican Party did not.
What does it mean to be a liberal, a conservative, a moderate or a centrist these days? I think that you have to look at this question along two main dimensions. One is economic, the other social. Brooks's column was primarily about the economic dimension.
So was an excellent guest op-ed column in the Times, published the day before the election, that looked at the role of ideology in economic policy. The column, “No More Economic False Choices”, was written by Bob Rubin and Jared Bernstein.
Their column examined three major economic decisions that the new administration will have to make: fiscal recklessness versus fiscal rectitude; capital versus labor; and free trade versus protectionism. Many economists and policy advisers feel that these decisions are polar opposites, along the classic liberal-conservative political spectrum. Rubin and Bernstein disagree:
“The next president, the prevailing wisdom goes, will have to choose between these polarities. But how real are these differences? Our view - and we come from pretty different analytical perspectives - is that in many important ways, they are false, and serve as more of a distraction than a map.”
After a detailed analysis of each of these issues, they conclude:
“Public policy in all these areas - and a host of others - has been seriously deficient in recent years. It has led to a great increase in federal debt, inadequate regulatory protection against systemic risk and underinvestment in our people and infrastructure. Regressive tax policies have increased market-driven inequalities that could have been offset through progressive taxation."
“False choices, grounded in ideology, have kept us from effectively addressing all these issues. The next president must do his utmost to avoid being drawn into these Potemkin battles. At this critical juncture, we face both the most significant economic upheaval since the Depression and the long-term challenge of successfully competing in the global economy. We have no choice but to move beyond such false dichotomies and toward a balanced pragmatism whose goal is broadly shared prosperity and increased economic security.”
I could not agree more. In my opinion, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are alive and well when it comes to social issues, but they are increasingly irrelevant when applied to economic policy.
If we were discussing appointing an executive to a tough management job in a company like IBM or Citigroup, it would make no sense for you to ask me whether that person's management style leans liberal or conservative. If we were discussing appointing a chief engineer to lead a really challenging project – say, designing the next plane for Boeing or the next microprocessor for Intel - it would be puzzling if you asked me whether that engineer follows a conservative or liberal engineering style.
Companies need to appoint managers and engineers who are very good at solving real problems and making decisions based on all the available information. You want to appoint the best possible people for the job based on talent, skills and competence. It would be reasonable to discuss whether an engineer or executive is open-minded and willing to embrace change and innovative ideas in his or her work. But no good company would even begin to consider political ideology in any such appointment.
How about government, especially as applied to managing very complex issues concerning the economy, health care and energy? Isn’t politics the proper sphere for ideology? Well, yes and no. We’ve just been given an eight-year object lesson in what happens when ideology trumps expertise. Think of FEMA, or the Iraq Provisional Authority, or the Department of Justice under Alberto Gonzalez.
Of course, it would be naive to believe that ideology can be eliminated from politics and government. But when paradigms are shifting, ideologies inherited from an earlier era – ideologies that have, almost by definition, calcified into rigid strictures that limit fresh thinking – can be very destructive.
I honestly think that in our complex, global and unpredictable world, ideology should play a significantly reduced role. At this time of great change, we want to elect or appoint the best possible leaders, the kinds of leaders who will address real problems in as realistic a way as possible, and who know how to get things done.
However, the labels “liberal” and “conservative” are alive and well when it comes to social issues. That came through loud and clear as we all watched this year’s election. For major parts of the campaign, we seemed to have returned to the culture wars, that is, conflicts on social issues between those espousing traditional or conservative values, and those espousing more liberal or progressive values. These differences were particularly embodied by the fresh new faces of each party, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.
At their core, I get the feeling that today's culture wars are primarily centered on the role of religion in public life. In general, social liberals are committed to the separation of church and state as a guiding political principle, whereas social conservatives hold political positions that are generally guided by their religious beliefs.
This polarization between social liberals and conservatives is most apparent when it comes to issues like reproductive rights, stem-cell research and same-sex unions. But it also spills over into education. Many social conservatives would like the public education system to reflect their personal religious beliefs, which has led to controversies over the teaching of creationism in science classes, and to limiting sex education to teaching abstinence.
Each family is obviously free to make its own decisions regarding the religious education of their children. For some it will be a central part of their lives, and for others the role of religion will be minimal. But I think that bringing religion into public schools and the general curriculum is bad for education, at a time when education is of increasing importance to individuals, families and the nation as a whole.
I worry that those parts of our country distracted by debates over religion and education - instead of charging full steam ahead to better educate their children - will be left behind economically, not just by the parts of the country were there are no such distractions, but by the many countries in the world where education, innovation and economic advancement are of the highest priority.
In his op-ed, David Brooks referred to those who follow the centrist, balanced, pragmatic economic path he advocates as progressive conservatives. I suspect that many of the people he would put in this category, perhaps including himself, would actually support positions on social issues that are closer to those of social liberals than of social conservatives. For such people, myself included, I believe that the label moderate liberal best reflects our centrist, moderate positions on economic issues, and our more liberal positions on social issues.
I believe that the range between progressive conservative and moderate liberal best characterizes the majority of our country. Barack Obama was successful in positioning himself and his party in this range, freed from constraining ideologies, so his administration can focus on solving the tough problems that the country, as well as the world at large, faces. Let’s hope that we can all unite in attacking these problems with the proper spirit of pragmatism.
It is the only way forward.