Inevitably, strategizing for the mid-term elections over the past several months produced amongst Democratic influentials a debate about pragmatism versus principle. With his March essay “Party In Search of a Notion,” the executive editor of the American Prospect, Michael Tomasky, kicked off a (temporary) national debate about the Democrats' ‘vision,’ or lack thereof. Now that Democrats have retaken both houses of Congress, this question has new urgency. It is especially pressing since one important reason for the Democrats' success appears to be the emergence of a crop of even more centrist candidates than those from elections past. Moreover, if Democrats are going to turn a temporary electoral victory, whose proximate cause is public disenchantment with this particular administration, into a more lasting re-alignment, then they need to be more than pragmatic, they need to enchant.
Here is where the problem of ‘vision’ reconnects with questions of ‘practicality’ and pragmatism. Pragmatism is self-defeating if it means abandoning precisely those aspects of principled, ideological consistency that gives a party substance.
Enter the project of liberal renewal.
The past three years have been rather productive for those seeking to create new intellectual spaces and ideological projects along the liberal-left trajectory. The Euston Manifesto was the first moment in what has been really a trans-Atlantic process of liberal renewal. It has also included a series of books, such as Peter Beinart's earnest, ignorant and conservative tract The Good Fight. Along this spectrum of political opinion has come a number of self-critical pieces accusing liberals of political capitulation and intellectual dissolution, not least of which is Tony Judt's recent piece, Bush's Useful Idiots. In direct response to Judt's article, the liberal public intellectual, Bruce Ackerman, along with ex-radical Todd Gitlin, have taken up the cause of renewing liberal ideas. In mid-October, they published a new manifesto for liberals called ”We Answer to the Name of Liberals“ in which they claimed “this is a moment for liberals to define ourselves.” But the nature of these efforts does not bode well for their success.
Ackerman and Gitlin lay out the familiar litany of Bush regime abuses, and make important sounding pronouncements about the process of public reason and “true patriotism.” But what, exactly, is being renewed here? This is undoubtedly not the renewal of a full-fledged liberal doctrine, as it has conventionally been known in the United States. The social democratic element, traditionally associated with 20th century American liberals, is barely found - a distant target towards which they want debate to be “refocused.” Much more prominently featured is a series of foreign policy critiques and proposals. We have identified some of the pathological tendencies of this international orientation of contemporary liberalism before. Its most fundamental problem is its inability to come to terms with domestic politics and the public. It reflects a tendency to seek renewal abroad, rather than at home, or, insofar as it seeks to focus debate on domestic issues, it does so only in an uninspiring, technocratic way, rather than through a vision that articulates shared interests in a compelling fashion.
But the content of these manifestos and tracts is not their only problem. The problem lies not just with the specific ideas they seek to renew, but also in the manner by which they hope to represent a liberal movement. The form these manifestos take — as internet petitions bearing the names of important public figures, sent to the right magazines, websites, and listservs — reflects a vision of renewal as an oddly passive experience. These manifestos ask nothing more than acceptance, or at most for signatories to their petitions. There is little active engagement with the ideas, such as they are. Their passive character provides little hope for a real liberal renewal. Instead, it indicates that liberals face more of the same problem that has plagued them for a great while: a reluctance to engage in sensuous political activity. Much has been made lately about the sophistication of Republican canvassing, and the Democrats’ inferiority in grassroots organization. Democrats have tried to combat this Republican edge through “technological” innovations and “outsourcing,” none of which addresses the reality that politics demands human contact. That is, it requires convincing those with whom you currently disagree of your arguments, a process that both builds movements, and refines the ideas on which they are based. No short-cut that aims to circumvent this basic, difficult, and intimate aspect of politics will work. Certainly, liberalism is in need of an intellectual renewal. But for those ideas to develop, both in substance and currency, they must arise out of an active process of political engagement.