Democrats, shocked by Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia, are reflecting on what they might have done differently. They’ve reached a remarkable conclusion: Ossoff should have run further to the left! This has conservative commentators hoping the Democrats take that advice.
Others draw different lessons from the Battle of Atlanta and the Democrats’ other special election defeats: that money doesn’t win elections, for example.
Money matters — but only if you have something to communicate. You need an effective message, a message that will persuade and motivate. To do that, you need a message. Full stop.
Ossoff didn’t have much of a message. Neither did Hillary Clinton. "I’m with Her"? "Hillary"? Those aren’t messages; they’re nametags. "Make American Great Again"? That’s a message, and, it turns out, an effective one.
The need for a message means that the Democrats don’t have much choice: they have to run to the left. Their problem is deep. The liberalism the Democratic Party used to espouse has no philosophical foundation. The conservative movement rests on a coherent worldview, developed by a series of great thinkers: Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Burke, Madison, Hayek, and many others. Liberalism, in contrast, rests on no such thing. The thinkers who have influenced them, Rousseau, Marx, and entourage, support something much further to the left.
The left, in other words, rests on a worldview and an intellectual tradition that is profoundly anti-democratic, even totalitarian. But it’s the basis for messages that have real power. Justice! Equality! From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Liberals, having no such tradition, can craft messages only by borrowing from their comrades to the left. That leaves them vulnerable to attacks from both sides. "A little more justice!" "Equality, kind of!" Not very inspiring, are they?
Some political philosophers try to lay foundations for liberalism. The most prominent over the past century was John Rawls, who tried to reformulate the social contract theory of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau to support the welfare state. The principles of justice, Rawls said, are those that free, equal, and informed people would choose to govern their association if the choice were fair. What would they choose? First, maximal equal basic liberties — that is, liberties basic to political decision making, such as freedom of speech and assembly; second, a system that would make the least advantaged as well off as possible, with equal opportunity for all.
The problem with Rawls is that his principles don’t strike most people as very plausible. On his view, the justice of the entire social order depends on the welfare of the least advantaged. Everything else ought to be sacrificed to improve their lot, even a tiny bit. Granted, the least advantaged matter, but that mean we can ignore everyone else? Many of our policies transfer wealth from the middle to the upper classes, and that’s supposed to be irrelevant?
Second, Rawls bases his conception of justice on what we’d do in some hypothetical situation. Our actual circumstances, our actual history, what we actually want and need don’t matter. Would we, in his imagined scenario, really agree? On the principles of justice Rawls prefers? Given our current degree of polarization, it sounds unlikely.
Third, Rawls ignores the tradeoffs necessary to make intelligent choices. What if we can obtain modest improvements for the very poor, but only at vast cost? (This isn’t just a theoretical issue: the ADA and Obamacare come to mind.) For Rawls, it doesn’t matter. There’s no room for balancing different things we care about, for sacrificing some goods for the sake of others—in short, for most of the practical political issues we face.
The problem is fully general.
How do we balance liberty, privacy, and security? How do we craft an immigration policy that is humane and fair while advancing our national interests? How do we take care of the poor and sick while promoting self-reliance and economic growth? Voters ask these questions, and liberals have nothing to say. Like Ossoff and Clinton, they have no message. They likewise can’t say what social justice is, how much welfare spending would be enough, or how much would constitute paying your "fair share." It’s because there is no underlying theory.
Liberalism: There’s no there there. The only messages they can find are to their left. And that poses a deep danger for them and for the rest of us.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over sixty articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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