An update to my 'liberalism' post, after a critique

I wrote a piece this morning with the headline: Elena Kagan and the meaninglessness of the term ‘Liberal’.  My intent was to show that the numerous appeals to Kagan’s “Liberalism” we’re seeing from the blogosphere should be insufficient to convince progressives she’s a good choice because “Liberalism,” when defined by service to two presidents, is not an ideologically coherent philosophy.  If you don’t know anything about a politician’s or judge’s specific beliefs, but everyone says, “trust me, she’s a liberal,” you don’t really know what she thinks other than, generally speaking, the role of the government is to provide for the common good.

That seems like a relatively simple and uncontroversial point to make, but fellow T/S writer Jamelle Bouie seems to have misinterpreted or misread my article.  I’d like to address his points and make a few extras of my own.

Using a Nate Silver post in which he argues that since Kagan worked for Clinton and Obama we can trust she has a “liberal worldview” as a jump off, I went on to write this:

She has worked for the Clinton administration and the Obama administration, which, Silver states, “suggests her basic worldviews is that of a liberal.”  We can assume, then, that what the Clinton and Obama administrations have done — the policy they’ve advocated — is basically what it means to be a liberal.  If that weren’t the case — if Clinton and Obama weren’t liberals — then Silver’s statement would be meaningless.

Bouie, in his critique, then claims that what I attributed to Silver — that service during the Clinton and Obama administrations makes a person certifiably Liberal, and therefore trustworthy — is actually what I believe.  I do not believe that service to any Democratic politician is sufficient evidence of someone’s worldview, which is the entire point of my post.  Bouie writes:

Knefel goes on to selectively detail the ways in which ostensibly liberal presidents have pursued conservative or illiberal policies. NAFTA in the case of Bill Clinton, and “preventative detention” in the case of Barack Obama. His argument seems to be that anything pursued by a liberal president is itself liberal, and if he believes that, it’s no wonder that he finds the term incoherent. Of course, “liberalism” isn’t defined by whatever a president does. [emphasis added.]

That was not my argument.  My argument, as I just said it, is that Liberals who appeal to Kagan’s service as sufficient evidence for her being Supreme Court-worthy are in error, precisely because presidents pursue such incoherent policies.  That’s why the argument, “she’s been a lifelong Democrat” is so empty.  So she’s been a lifelong Democrat.  So what?  What does she, specifically, believe?  We don’t know, so Liberals are saying, “oh, trust her, she’s worked for Liberals.”  But as Bouie correctly points out, presidents’ policies are all over the map.  “She’s a liberal because she’s worked for these Democrats, so we can trust her,” shouldn’t convince anybody that she’s the best choice for the Court.  That was my argument, and, judging by Bouie’s piece, I don’t think he’d disagree with me on that.

Bouie continues:

The simple fact is that “liberalism” is informed by, but distinct from, the policies pursued by 20th and 21st century Democratic presidents.

Okay, fine.  I completely concede that point, but in the context of my post, that statement isn’t a rebuttal to my argument.  It’s more evidence for dismissing the argument that she worked for Democratic presidents, so we can trust her.

Bouie then somewhat bizarrely writes this:

Knefel is making two huge mistakes here. First, he treats liberalism like a set of commandments brought down from on high by our leaders, when that isn’t the case at all.

Here’s what I actually wrote:

“Liberal” is a floating category that isn’t (rightly or wrongly) ideologically rigid enough to inform the public about someone’s beliefs.  There’s no Liberal Manifesto to point to — Obama’s advocacy of preventative detention should be enough to persuade someone of that.

Bouie’s definition of Liberalism:

Liberalism, like any governing tradition, begins with a basic set of propositions that change and adapt as circumstances change and adapt.

And mine:

[i]f an American says, “I’m a Liberal,” that tells you a little bit about their philosophy on the role of government — its job is to provide for the common good…

I don’t think he and I are actually in any substantial disagreement here.  I think he’s attacking an argument I didn’t make.

Then he ends with this jab:

The constraints of politics and policy make it impossible for any president to be as ideological as they’d like to be. In fairness to Knefel though, he’s not the only person who doesn’t understand this basic fact of political life.

Hey now, that seems excessive and somewhat insincere.  I think Bouie and I most likely see eye to eye on most issues, and probably aren’t even that far apart on Kagan, though I don’t know.  Either way, I hope this has cleared up what I wrote earlier for Bouie and anybody else who thought I was maybe making a broader argument than I intended to.

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3 Responses to An update to my 'liberalism' post, after a critique

  1. Jamelle Bouie says:

    Thanks John, it has cleared up a lot, and I’m sorry that I misread your original post. I wasn’t entirely sure throughout what you were attributing to Silver and what you yourself believe. In any case, good rebuttal (and sorry about the dig at the end!).

    • John Knefel says:

      Thanks Jamelle. And, like I wrote, I think you and I probably see eye to eye on most issues. Especially if you guest blog for Ackerman sometimes.

      And no worries about the dig. I’ve been known to level a few insults at people myself.

  2. jeremywinter says:

    “The constraints of politics and policy make it impossible for any president to be as ideological as they’d like to be”

    This “basic fact of political life” is nothing more then a description of what money can do for political change. I’m guessing that Jamelle doesn’t understand the extent that corporate donations and lobbying has on policy change in America.

    Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”[1]) is the belief in the importance of liberty and equality. (via Wikipedia)

    Obviously when someone says Elaina Kagan is a liberal, you are too assume that is where she stands, but is that where she stands? That would mean she is pro gay rights, pro abortion rights, pro immigrant rights, and pro drug rights. I am going to make another guess here and say, she isn’t for all of of those rights and may even be for almost none of those rights.

    All republicans claim their not liberals, but at the same time claim to be for liberty and equality. That is what I would call a blatant contradiction. Democrats do the same.

    So yes the term Liberal is meaningless when used by politicians, but at the same time, is a very meaningful word when looked at subjectively. That means your both right about the word liberalism and if your both right, Jamelle’s post is wrong.

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