Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Liberal Leadership and Liberal Followership

It was I getting all petulant the other day about liberal leadership so it seems only fair to allow equal time for Andrew Brown who offers a different view. it's not the leadership, he says; it's the liberal followership.  Writing about the unfortunate Nick Clegg and Clegg's unfortunate election debacle, Brown says:
[W]e had failed to notice that when they are given a vote, the British do not in fact want liberal policies much, and they certainly don't get excited about them. They don't actually believe they live in a secular democracy, and they don't much want to, either. Compare the excitement generated by the royal wedding with that about the AV referendum. If we really thought that democratic politics said as much, as interestingly, about being British as the wedding does, there would surely have been a great deal more excitement about this.
 I'd sign on to this, and I'd elaborate: the failure of liberalism is at least a failure of salesmanship.  In AV, for example, Lib Dems in Britain may have offered a superior electoral scheme, but it was so abstruse they could barely understand it themselves, let alone explain it to others.  In Canada, Michael Ignatieff resigned over what was perhaps a worthy issue--government secrecy.  But the populace thought it a yawn and the party was never able to persuade them otherwise.  So also in the US: the "liberal" elite (if you can still call it that) may like health care and financial reform.  But however self-evident the virtues of these programs to the chatters, the chatterers have never come close to selling them to the masses.  Over and over, they are reduced to clucking over how the yokels are just don't understand their own interest.

So far, so good, but Brown offers an extra spin: maybe liberal policies are not that liberal after all.  His particular example is higher education fees--Clegg's going soft on these fees probably has more to do with his present obloquy than any other  single issue.  But hostility to higher education fees, Brown darkly suggests, is not really a liberal program to begin with.  Free higher education is a benefit that flows chiefly to the comfortable and the well-protected:  "The outcry against [higher education fees] comes from people who see themselves losing a privilege they had considered as a right. There's a word for that, and it's not 'liberal'."

I suppose the American analog is unions, particularly public employee unions (the only ones left, after all).   To dismantle public employee  bargaining may be a bad idea (I think it is a terrible idea).  But the virtues of public employee unionism are not all that evident to the masses of have-nots who don't enjoy the protection that unionism brings.  Fighting to protect unionism is a worthy undertaking. But moral indignation about your adversaries, especially when your adversaries are less well off than you, is not as good an idea as it may seem to those in the inner circle.

So as Brown says, don't blame Nick Cl-- no, wait, he still looks like a time-serving toff.  Go ahead and blame him if you like, but don't kid yourself that you are getting to the heart of the problem.

Afterthought: Defending Clegg, Brown also asks--well, what is the alternative?  Brown argues that Clegg's shadow,  Vince Cable, wouldn't have done much better last week.  Maybe not, but I must say I've always felt more comfortable with Cable as a person.  He seems more genuine, more committed, more rooted in his electorate.   Also he wears two wedding rings, and how cool is that?  


Ken Houghton said...

When you spend two years betraying all that can be fairly described as "liberal," expecting the liberal masses to come out to give you a political win is probably not the best strategy.

As noted elsewhere, W's first two priorities were "faith-based initiatives" and cutting funding for f\a\m\i\l\y\ p\l\a\n\n\i\n\g\ s\e\r\v\i\c\e\s\ abortion overseas. He got those done to placate his base.

Obama promised card check and closing Guantanamo. The 2010 midterms were the result.

The LibDems originally campaigned on AV, but Nick Clegg has stood behind everything else the Cameron government has attempted, until the recent health care debacle. The Liberal Party leaders endorsed the idea, but I would give odds that actual GOTV efforts were tepid at best.

Walk, talk, and sleep with enough Tories and people will believe you are one.

Austin said...

In America, it's no secret that the modern Democratic Party supports policies of 1990s Republicans and modern Republicans support policies of well, anti-Federalists of the 1790s (at least out of power).

I have also been wondering if there is in fact a liberal base in America anymore. The liberal candidate hasn't defeated a New Democrat in a presidential primary in two decades at least.

And in important state elections, liberals like Feingold - who was well known for being in danger in 2010, it wasn't a sneak attack loss - were handed the pink slip. The only solid liberal I can think of in the Senate is Bernie Sanders and he's an independent from one of the most liberal state in America.

In modern America, liberals loudly criticize their national leaders for moving center/center-right, but can you blame them? Liberals either don't exist in the numbers they think they do, or aren't reliable in electoral politics.