It depends on what the meaning of liberal is

Part of the problem with labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” consists in the fact that they have all manner of (often negative) political and social connotations. For this reason, calling Kerry a “liberal” or Bush a “conservative” has such rhetorical effectiveness. And juxtaposing one of these terms with a geographical or institutional region strengthens the verbal blow–the Massachusetts liberal, the liberal media, the Bible Belt conservative, for instance. In the end, however, they are little more than a shortcut for a lazy, uninquisitive mind, which likes to dwell at a level of generality where facts are made to fit neatly into predetermined categories, such that easy categorical disjunctions can be enacted–liberal *or* conservative. And this is more or less what George Will
is up to in his column in the *Washington Post*.

In short, Will sets out to explain “Conservatism’s 40-year climb to dominance” in light of two sources: its congruence with American values and “anomalous” religiosity and the “elaborate infrastructure” of think tanks and similar institutions. But Will fails to note–among other things that simply tell against the truth of the phenomenon he is trying to explain–that 40 years is a long time–in fact, in the Bible that’s just what it means–and a lot can happen to labels in 40 years. To claim that “conservatism” has won dominance over a 40 year struggle is to say, at the very least, that there exists a coherently self-identical movement expressed by a growing but organized body of adherents. If “conservatism” has won a victory over “liberalism,” then first of all we must at least be talking about the same teams.

But by Will’s own characterization of liberalism, we are hardly talking about the same teams. Herbert Hoover–hardly the paragon of Willian liberalism today–called himself “a true liberal” and Eisenhower, hardly a member of a liberal party by Will’s characterization, reckoned himself in that number. This cuts the other way as well. While Barry Goldwater may share party affiliation with some current conservatives, it would be wrong to say that Bush and Goldwater (and Reagan and Nixon) are conservatives in the same sense. So to claim the ascendancy of conservatism over liberalism isn’t to say that one coherent and unified ideology has defeated another (and judging by the popular vote in the last Presidential election as well as other well established data, that isn’t even clearly the case), but rather one meaningless label employed by conservative pundits (oops!) has triumphed over another.

Second, just as one might challenge the diachronic unity of the labels he traffics in. More to the point, one might also challenge the synchronic unity of such terms. Just who is a liberal (and who is a conservative) nowadays in the sense that Will intends? Both parties have, to the disillusionment perhaps of a the greater portion of the electorate, adopted the rhetoric and ideology of the other. Bush’s heavy political (but perhaps not monetary) investment in public education and other expansions of entitlement programs suggest much less than conservative ideology in the Goldwaterian sense. Besides, the Republican party encompasses quite a broad coalition of extreme social conservatives, moderates, and libertarian elements. Claiming that its recent victories (again the 2000 election–when it lost the popular vote–combined with Clinton’s two victories hardly constitute evidence of “dominance”) are a sign of core conservative values grossly oversimplifies the kinds of coalition-building necessary to win Presidential elections. But worse than that, it does violence to language.

What do the terrorists want in a president?

At the center of the Bush re-election campaign is a constellation of arguments that attempt to show that electing Kerry is tantamount to losing the “war on terror.” Some of these arguments focus on Kerry’s character specifically his lack of resolve; Some focus on his supposed unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to protect the United States when it runs in the face of world opinion. The most interesting and probably the most pernicious arguments, however, are those that suggest or outright assert the identity of Kerry’s electoral success and the terrorist’s success. This raises hackles. There seems to be something suspicious, manipulative, and morally suspect about this argument and with good reason, some have recognized a certain similarity to the political tactics of Joseph McCarthy.

Charles Krauthammer (Source: WaPo 10/08/04), however, is incredulous that anyone could even doubt that the terrorists aren’t cheering for Kerry.

>Do the bad guys–the terrorists in their Afghan caves and Iraqi redoubts–want George Bush defeated in the election?

>Of course, the terrorists want Bush defeated. How can anyone pretend otherwise?

Even though we don’t know who the American people want with our incessant polling and analysis, Krauthammer believes that the evidence is so overwhelming that we can know with virtual certainty the electoral preferences of the terrorists.

Michael Kinsley “with his usual drollery” ridiculed this argument in a recent WaPo editorial [(Source: WaPo 9/25/04)](, suggesting first that we have no reason to conclude that Osama bin Laden would prefer one candidate over the other, and second that there is little reason to think that he would prefer Kerry rather than Bush.

But we should examine Krauthammer’s evidence for this conclusion:

>We know the terrorists’ intent and strategy. We saw it on display in Spain, where a spectacular terrorist attack three days before the national election set off the chain of events that brought down a government that had allied itself with the United States. The attack worked perfectly. Within weeks Spain had withdrawn its troops from Iraq.

>Last month, terrorists set off a car bomb outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the middle of a neck-and-neck Australian election campaign and just three days before the only televised debate between the two candidates. The prime minister, John Howard, is a staunch U.S. ally in both Afghanistan and Iraq. His opponent, Mark Latham, has pledged to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas.

It seems at first reasonable, perhaps, to conclude that these two acts directed as they were against members of our “coalition” have as their goal affecting the electoral outcomes in these countries. In one case, at least, we know that it did. Whether it was the intention of the perpetrators is perhaps a different question. This could almost become a version of the *post hoc propter hoc* fallacy, if there was not any other evidence (as in fact there is) to support it: The Madrid bombing affected the outcome of the Spanish election. The bombing occured right before the Spanish election. Therefore the intention of the bombing was to affect the Spanish election.

Nevertheless, I am not equipped to to examine the truth or falsity of these premises, only their logical connection to Krauthammer’s conclusion. Let’s grant Krauthammer that the perpetrators of these acts intend or intended to influence these elections. Does that provide any reason to suppose that the terrorists want Bush to lose the election?

I think the interesting step in the argument occurs in a series of rhetorical questions:

>Why are we collectively nervous about terrorism as the election approaches? Because, as everyone knows, there are terrorists out there who would dearly love to hit us before the election. Why? To affect it. What does that mean? Do they want to affect it randomly? Of course not.

Here Krauthammer suggests that the terrorists want to perpetrate an act similar to the Madrid bombing. By analogy this suggests that they want Bush out of office, just as they wanted Jose Marie Aznar out of office. Undoubtedly we are collectively afraid of a similar act on the eve of the presidential election. But do we have reason to be afraid? And more importantly does our fear have any significance in the argument for Krauthammer’s conclusion?

I suspect that this fear plays a significant part in any willingness to grant Krauthammer’s inference. It is extremely hard to separate the truth of the statement once we are afraid of it: the fact that we are afraid of it, suggests immediately to us that it is true (or else we would no longer be afraid). A child who is afraid of the monster under the bed is afraid because he or she thinks that there is or might be a monster under the bed. Our fear of a terrorist attack to upset the election, however, does not mean that the terrorists want to upset the election with an attack. (Of course, it is still possible that there is a monster under the bed).

In a nutshell Krauthammer argues:

1. Terrorists influenced the Spanish election against the incumbent.
2. Terrorists have committed a terrorist act directed at Australia on the eve of the election.
3. Spain, Australia and the U.S. are enemies of the terrorists.
4. We are afraid of a terrorist attack right before the election.
5. Therefore, the terrorists want Bush defeated.

Yet after seemingly drawing this analogical inference, (buttressed by the appeal to our fears) Krauthammer has to point out that the essential point of analogy in fact doesn’t hold in the case of the U.S.

>As Sept. 11 showed, attacking the U.S. homeland would prompt a rallying around the president, whoever he is. America is not Spain. Such an attack would probably result in a Bush landslide.

If this is so, then perhaps there is no reason to infer that because the terrorists aimed to remove Aznar (again assuming that is true) they are aiming to remove Bush. (And we can note in passing that the document found on the internet from December 2003 outlining the strategy of undermining the coalition explicitly distinguishes between Britain, Poland and the U.S. and the remaining nations. The strategy of affecting policy through terrorism is formulated only for the latter (Source: New Yorker, August 2, 2004)).

But once he has drawn the analogy, he believes that he has shown its truth and thus uses the fact that the terrorists want to oust Bush to explain the escalation of violence in Iraq:

> The enemy is nonetheless far more likely to understand that the way to bring down Bush is not by attack at home but by debilitating guerrilla war abroad, namely in Iraq. Hence the escalation of bloodshed by Zarqawi and Co. It is not just aimed at intimidating Iraqis and preventing the Iraqi election. It is aimed at demoralizing Americans and affecting the American election.

There are many things wrong with this last step, but I will limit myself to two comments:

First, even if it is plausible that part of the intention among some of the insurgents in Iraq is to affect the election, it is seemingly implausible that this is the motivation of the increase in attacks. The causes are far more complex than Krauthammer suggests. Does he really believe that if Bush won, or if there was not an election this year, the insurgency would stop or even just decrease or not have increased in the first place? There is a fundamental confusion about correlation and causation here I think.

Second, there is good reason to question Krauthammer’s use of this elastic and amorphous term “terrorist” to include both al Qaeda and its associates, and the various factions fighting the insurgency in Iraq. It is entirely possible that Osama bin Laden and the insurgency in Iraq have very different desires and interests in this case. Osama bin Laden has it seems been immeasurably benefitted by the invasion of Iraq (as Kinsley plausibly argues) and might prefer it to continue indefinitely. The insurgents are presumably less pleased with Bush’s occupation.

So what reason do we have to believe that Krauthammer is right? None whatsoever is supplied by Krauthammer. His argument is ultimately an appeal to the obviousness of the claim contained in the quote with which I started. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. This does not, of course, mean that he is wrong. Only that he has not given us reason to believe that he is right.

Will to compare

Among the hundreds of thousands of student victims of the whims of the all powerful teachers’ union, all students of Logic 101 have been subjected to the following counterintuitive stipulation: “some” is a quantifier; it tells you how many. But how many does “some” mean? Well, and here’s the counterintuitive part, it means *at least one*–not necessarily more than just one. Those same students, those victims of the powerful agents of a government-sponsored Democratic political lobby, also know that “some” is infinitely distant from “all.” So when some use some it may mean only some, that is, one.

That said, in today’s *Washington Post* George Will
attempts to “understand some of the Democratic rage about the specter of a second term for George W. Bush.” In turns out that the “some” here refers not to an unspecified number of Democrats, but rather to an undetermined quantum of their motivation for fearing a second term of George Bush. In case you thought that this undetermined quantum of rage was directed at profound or even superficial concerns over the domestic policies of the current administration, you’d be sorely disappointed. For Will’s analysis concerns the political survival of the Democratic party as an entity, not, as it might seem, the agenda of the Democratic party; if Bush gets reelected, Will muses, then his policies might produce fewer Democrats.

Now of course on the other hand we are only talking about *some* of the rage. So that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle. But the unspecified quantum of rage doesn’t constitute the worst feature of Will’s argument today. It’s the fact that he pits *some* of the motivation for the “rage” of *some* Democrats against the policies of the current administration (not a “some,” but an “all”); this specious comparison juxtaposes the selfish and shortsighted Democratic motivations with principled Republican stands on policy. *Some* of the Democrats’ rage results from the gutting of their base that would happen under the policies of a new Bush administration. Take the worst of the selfish and shortsighted Democratic base (and the one which for completely selfish reasons is closest to our heart) for example, the teachers’ union:

The public education lobby — one in 10 delegates to the Democratic convention was a member of a teachers union — wants government to keep impediments in the way of competition. That means not empowering parents with school choice, including the choice of private schools, which have significantly lower per-pupil costs.

Here–and throughout the rest of the piece–Will compares the ruinous and obtusely self-serving motives of the Democratic base with the reasoned stands of the Republican party. The Democrats, of course, want only to continue to exist and further their own self-interest. The Republican platform, on the other hand, is characterized here by the apparent soundness of its policy and the purity of its motivations. One more example:

Welfare reform, the largest legislative achievement of the 1990s, diminished the Democratic Party’s dependency-bureaucracy complex. That complex consists of wards of government and their government supervisors. And Bush’s “ownership society” is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it.

That felicitous formulation, from Jonathan Rauch’s masterful analysis of Bush’s domestic ambitions (National Journal, July 26, 2003), follows from two axioms of which conservatives are fond: Give a person a fish and you give the person a meal; teach the person to fish and you give a livelihood. And: No one washes a rental car. Meaning people behave most responsibly about what they own. Hence Bush’s menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.

Here again the policies of the Bush administration clash with the entirely political motivations of Democratic operatives. But, as we have argued here before, for comparisons to work, the items compared must be of the same category. So Will should either compare the selfish motives of the Republican party with the selfish motives of the Democratic party, or the policies of the one with the policies of the other. Now of course in the end just because there might in fact be *some* Democrats who fit Will’s description doesn’t make his comparison any less specious.

Therefore, everyone is a neo-conservative

Last Thursday’s debate seemed to frustrate conservative pundits. There was little to criticize in Kerry’s answers and less to praise in Bush’s. In his editorial yesterday (Source: NYT 10/04/04), William Safire chose a third alternative, praising Kerry. According to Safire, Kerry’s foreign policy has undergone a “sea change.”

> On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neoconservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush. . . Last week in debate, John Kerry – until recently, the antiwar candidate too eager to galvanize dovish Democrats – suddenly reversed field, and came down on the side of the military hard-liners.

So Kerry apparently has joined the ranks of the “neo-conservatives” among whom surely Safire intends the intellectuals and apparatchiks who were the masterminds behind the Iraq war. In order to judge this claim, we would first need a clear idea of what constitutes neo-conservatism. We can’t investigate this thoroughly, but perhaps a few general characteristics will help. In its recent appearance in politics, the neo-conservatives have been identified with the activist and interventionist foreign policy that led to the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives believe that “national interests” are not geographically defined and that fostering them requires the perception of and intervention on the side of our “friends” against our “enemies.” (This latter shibbolethic opposition is derived from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and ultimately Plato’s Republic) (see Irving “grandfather of neoconservatism” Kristol’s description here.

William Safire knows that “neo-conservativism” cannot be reduced to particular strategic decisions. It is a political ideology defined by a certain understanding of the national interest and the broadest requirements for fostering that interest. But, this doesn’t stop him from caricaturing both Kerry’s position and neo-conservative ideology in order to salvage the debates as a supposed victory for Bush’s policies as voiced by Kerry.

His case rests on four claims:

> “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground,” Kerry volunteered. “And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists. … You’ve got to show you’re serious.” Right on, John!

This, of course, confuses strategy and motivation. With 135,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground and the insurgency flowering, we might conclude that an offense is the best defense for our troops. This, of course, has little to do with ideology and much to do with strategy.

> Next, to grand strategy: Kerry was asked by Jim Lehrer, “What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?” In the past, Kerry has given a safe never-say-never response, but last week he gave a Strangelovian answer: “The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike.” He pledged never to cede “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary” to protect the U.S.

“Just war” theory has always allowed pre-emptive attacks based on “imminent threats.” The difference bettween Kerry and the neo-conservatives is over the question of whether a “gathering” threat or some other vaguely defined description of a supposed threat is grounds for preemption (such as “weapons program related activities”).

> On stopping North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Kerry abandoned his global-testing multilateralism; our newest neocon derided Bush’s six-nation talks and demands America go it gloriously alone.

This claim is a sort of false dichotomy: It is not the case that in order for Kerry to believe that multilateralism is generally preferable that he must eschew either bilateralism or even perhaps unilateralism. Safire assumes that if you reject unilateralism in the case of Iraq you must reject it always. This is an unreasonable assumption.

> And in embracing Wilsonian idealism to intervene in Darfur’s potential genocide, Kerry’s promise of troops outdid Pentagon liberators: “If it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it. …”

Once again, nothing strange in this. Being willing to assist in a multi-lateral humanitarian intervention does not make one a “neo-conservative” unless Safire is expanding the definition to include virtually every leader and politician in the world except Pat Buchanan.

Certainly there are analogies between the neo-conservative foreign policy seemingly ascendant in the Bush administration and some of Kerry’s positions. But that no more makes Kerry a “neo-conservative” than Bush’s reluctance to attack Iran would make him a convert to Gandhi’s pacifism. As Safire formulates the argument, it is laughably fallacious.

At best–and this is an act of interpretive charity that goes beyond his own expressed intentions–he might be understood to argue that Kerry has approached some neo-conservative positions. But, since Kerry was seemingly never opposed to those positions in themselves (only their inappropriateness under specific circumstances or the inept bungling of their implementation), there is nothing really interesting about these similarities.

Finally, we can note that a complete reading of the debate transcript shows that Kerry also accepts several strategic goals that are at direct odds to the policy formulated by the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration. Most importantly, he calls for the U.S. to commit itself to no long term presence in Iraq. Since part of the neo-conservative strategy has been to occupy Iraq at least in the 14 bases currently under construction, it is easy to see that for all of the similarity in Iraq policy, there is also significant dissimiliarity that Safire has conveniently ignored in order to make his case, a fallacy of “suppressed evidence.”

Contrast then compare

It may come as no surprise to some readers that Saturday’s *New York Times* presents another of David Brooks’ dichotomous observation pieces. This time, however, Brooks attempts to inject his usual trope with a healthy dose of balance; he expresses a hope (“in weak moments”) that the opposition neutralize itself in the proper combination of two complementary sorts of minds: Kerry’s (“rationalistic”) and Bush’s (“creedal or ethical”).

If we are really talking about balance, then the two sorts of mind must be compatible, not mutually exclusive. If we are talking about exclusive opposition, then the opposite is the case, that is, the one type of mind cannot have the characteristics of the other. A false dichotomy results when one treats the compatible as an instance of the incompatible. Strictly speaking, that’s not what we have here, since Brooks professes the false hope that the two might on some twin earth exist together on the same ticket. And if they can exist together on the same ticket somewhere, then they can exist on it here.

Instead of the false dichotomy, we have an interesting variation on that theme. To force the contrast between the two, Brooks compares their positions regarding different issues and their answers to different questions in the debate. Take the following for instance:

When John Kerry was asked how he would prevent another attack like 9/11, he reeled off a list of nine concrete policy areas, ranging from intelligence reform to training Iraqi troops, but his answer had no thematic summation. If you glance down a transcript of the debate and you see one set of answers that talks about “logistical capacity” or “a plan that I’ve laid out in four points,” or “a long list” of proposals or “a strict series of things” that need to be done, you know that’s Kerry speaking. [emphasis added]

The question, as it is reported by Brooks, concerns the *how*, or the *means* of preventing another attack. That is a process question. And Kerry has answered it by referring to concrete and specific matters of process. One might even assert that these concrete proposals constitute the *thematic summation* of Kerry’s answer. Now this gets compared in the following way with Bush:

If, on the other hand, you see an answer that says, “When we give our word, we will keep our word,” you know that is Bush. When you see someone talking about crying with a war widow, you know that’s Bush.

This makes Bush look like an idiot. For if the issue for Kerry is how he responds to questions of process, then we should expect–since a comparison is being made–Brooks to present us with Bush’s answer to the *same* question, or at least the same type of question. It’s rather like comparing the dinner and dessert choices of two diners–Kerry likes steak for dinner, but Bush likes apple pie for dessert. The reader is left to wonder what Bush likes for dinner and what Kerry likes for dessert.