January 21, 2005

Liberal Life Stories

I’ve been thinking a lot about Errol Morris’ op-ed piece in the NewYork Times. In it, he attributes Kerry’s loss in November to his inability to communicate his own life story as a convincing, authentic, and complete narrative. In particular, argues Morris, Kerry’s near-total silence about his opposition to the Vietnam War, his failure to claim that as a life-defining and shining moment of conscience and courage, was his downfall.

I find this a fairly convincing argument, particularly because Morris also clearly understands something that many on the left do not about George Bush. Namely, that calling attention to Bush as a youthful ne’er-do-well, whether it is his lack of military service, his frat-boy wealth, or his alcoholism, actually strengthens the coherence and authenticity of the story that Bush tells of his own life, and deepens his appeal for many Americans. It makes his evangelism vastly more powerful than Jimmy Carter’s, for example: Bush can self-present as a sinner who was redeemed, whereas Carter could only present as someone for whom evangelical religion was his cultural habitus. As Morris notes, Bush’s narrative of redemption covers all the sins that his critics might try to attribute to him and makes powerful use of them. You don’t even have to be a born-again Christian to find the story of a middle-aged person undergoing a profound positive transformation appealing. I suspect most of us know one person who credibly tells his or her life-story that way. Heck, it’s one reason I ended up loving the character of Theoden in the Lord of the Rings films, having found him kind of uninteresting when I was a teenager reading the books. Middle-aged depressive with feelings of worthlessness and mediocrity shakes off his slump and rides forth to glory. Cool.

Where I’m not so sure Morris is right is that Kerry could have won if only he’d told his own story with the same confidence and clarity. Maybe. There were other problems and other issues.

At a deeper level still, I don’t think that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has much of a story to tell any longer, or more precisely, it is complicatedly ashamed of or confused by the story that it could tell about itself.

Told honestly, without leaving anything out or trying to slickly paper over complexities, the Democratic Party today is fundamentally sustained by a coalition between educated professionals, urban interests, the shrunken core of the union movement, the equally reduced remnants of the Southern Democratic Party, people of color, and some other local interests and traditional factions in various places around the country. If you were going to tell the story of that coalition as if it were an individual’s biography, it would have to explain how these groups ended up with a shared sense of political interests.

One of the biggest problems in that story would involve the relationship between educated professionals (and associated groups like people in the entertainment industry) and the working-class or impoverished parts of the coalition. When the Eastern Establishment’s position in national political power was somewhat taken for granted, prior to the 1960s, that relationship needed little explanation. After that, for a long time, the civil rights movement and other new social movements coming out of the 1960s provided a strong narrative to explain a relationship newly noticed and commented upon: liberal educated whites were united to the other interests in the Democratic Party because they shared a common morality, a common sense of values, joined in opposition to manifest social injustices.

That’s the problem. That story doesn’t carry much water any longer, but that’s still the only one on offer for many. If the Democrats were a person telling us their biography, often they’d be one of those annoying old bastards who tells the same war story over and over again, perpetually living in the past.

The complication of that relationship runs deep. The modern Western left, speaking very generally and loosely, has always struggled with the problem of why elites would or should cast themselves into political struggle against their own ostensible interests. Highly “scientific” Marxism could explain it well enough: an intelligent person sides with the truth of history. Highly humanistic Marxism of certain kinds could also explain it: you do it because you recognize what is morally true, because you can achieve a sentimental empathy that overcomes your own class subjectivity. But any position on the left that relied too strongly on reading off the moral or political character of individuals from their class status or social position, or was insufficiently interested in a contingent view of individual agency, had to cough awkwardly and look away when it came time to explain why a significant portion of the postwar educated elite cast themselves as broadly sympathetic to left or liberal politics. There’s some very good historical explanations, but those are explanations rooted in the non-repeatability of events, not soaring narratives whose force can continue to construct legitimacy in the political present.

A certain variety of Marxist argument—echoed in other ways by some American conservatives—could explain that story well enough by noting that the business elite in Western Europe and the United States mostly did not drift leftward, but that the professionalized elite benefits in a great many concrete economic ways from an expanded social-democratic state. That’s obviously not a terribly good story to tell from the perspective of people on the left who want to mobilize people: join the left for reasons of self-interest.

In any event, the shared moral universe story also doesn’t really work any more. The profound structural and legal injustices that mobilized the alliance between the educated elite and other social groups have been largely dismantled, leaving far more complicated and heavily embedded forms of inequality and injustice behind. Educated left-leaning American professionals today don’t live in the same moral universe as inner-city African-Americans, speaking in highly generalized terms. The everyday concerns and animating issues in those two social worlds overlap largely at points that are somewhat abstract.
In a way, telling the story of the Democratic Party honestly, as I’ve suggested before, may mean breaking up the Democratic Party. I don’t know that there is any point in pretending that educated professional elites share a meaningfully foundational set of interests or views with some of the other historic constituencies in the Democratic Party.

I think in the end one of the only things left to educated elites who identify as liberals is in their collective life story is this: We Know Best, And That’s Why You Should Elect Us or Give Us Power.

That doesn’t sound like a terribly promising story to tell for political purposes. It could carry a lot of water in the 1950s, at the most soaring and hubristic moment in the history of American technocracy. Right now it sounds like confirmation of every anti-intellectual stereotype and sneer.

Perhaps that’s because the entrepreneurial nature of modern expertise means that most professionals are constantly on the make for new domains of everyday life into which they can insert themselves and say, “We Know Best”. Professionals invent social problems and then send an invoice offering to fix those problems. No wonder many Americans feel anti-intellectual skepticism and allow themselves to be seduced by various opposite kinds of hucksterism that promise to allow jest folks to be jest folks. I'm largely sympathetic to observers like Gary Jones who have a presumptively skeptical view of expert assertions on a wide variety of issues.

But even given that a tremendous amount of knowledge production and professionalized interventions into civil society are excessive, unwanted and unhelpful, We Know Best still has some teeth to it as a story. If it’s told with humility and generosity, with an eye to confessing error and correcting overreaching, it still can be a tremendously whiggish tale about the triumph of postwar America and the promise of America in the 21st Century. Why are we so wealthy, so happy, so much better than we were? Because we know a lot of things that we didn’t know before, and because we’re so much better at educating many of our people to know those things. The “we” of We Know Best is potentially a capacious We, not just a few tweedy intellectuals or behind-the-Beltway policy wonks.

And We Know Best has a powerful reply to offer to crude or manipulative anti-intellectualism. Just as Morris argues that Kerry could have done much better if only he’d told his own story with confidence and passion, We Know Best might score a point against mean-spirited or instrumental anti-intellectualism if it added this reply to its life story:

OK, Then Let’s See You Do It.

Let’s see you do open-heart surgery. Let’s see you program software. Let’s see you design new drugs. Let’s see you design a successful counter-terrorism strategy that goes beyond telling people to take off their shoes in airports. Let’s see you figure out how to deliver effective aid to tsunami victims after we get past the immediate provision of food, water and medical supplies. If the We don’t necessarily Know Best, they do Know A Lot.

I don’t mean to say that most or even many of the people who do Know these various things vote for the Democrats, or would figure in the life story of that party. Paul Wolfowitz is just as much a part of the elite that says We Know Best as Noam Chomsky is.

I do mean to suggest that liberals who fit in this category, whose political ideology derives from their sense that they know more and better about the world and many of the things within it, could maybe benefit from Morris’ advice. Rather than telling the story of their political values as a kind of moral fantasy of their own compassion and boundless emotional commitment to selflessly aiding the less fortunate, perhaps they could say more, and say it more authentically, about the roots of their social vision. At the very least, this might prove a more potent and honest—if not particularly democratic—reply to the kind of anti-intellectual populism that is embodied in something like the resurgence of creationism in many parts of the United States. It might also reconnect educated liberal Americans with a hopeful, progressive story of American life as opposed to a bitter story of alienation from America. (Without having to cover over or ignore that feeling of alienation where it is honestly present.) Errol Morris suggests that John Kerry might have been able to remind people that he opposed American policy out of deep love for American society. Perhaps some liberals can remind Americans of something similar by exploring the roots of their own political journeys and their own social identity.