Welcome to my inaugural Strangeland essay. Iâ€™d like to take a moment to thank Stranger for the opportunity to write, and thank you for reading. I hope this is the first of many essays I get a chance to write, and I hope I can help foster some productive and interesting conversations.
For the title of this essay, Iâ€™ve paraphrased the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, who in 1790 wrote a profound work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. This book stands as one of the earliest and most important articulations of some basic ideas that underlie modern conservatism. Opposed to most of the ideals and values of the Enlightenment, Burke offered a critique of the French Revolution that was based on a rejection of abstract ideas about human nature and rights. A true conservative, Burke extolled the virtues of private property, tradition, and hierarchy, as well as the notion that manâ€™s nature was inherently base or sinful, and therefore needed to be controlled by authority figures.
Burkeâ€™s work should be required reading for any serious student of politics or philosophy, but my point in appropriating his title today has nothing to do with his critique of the Enlightenment or democracy; the 216 years since the writing have produced far better criticism than I could offer. Instead, I wanted to highlight the one area where Burke was profoundly wrong â€“ his conclusions. While Burke was indeed spot on in that the revolutionary government in 1790 France would collapse in faction and tyranny, his conclusion that this collapse would be due to the nature of democracy and the Enlightenment project is rebutted by the persistence, stability, and enduring appeal of democratic and progressive values.
In similar vein, the conventional wisdom and prognostication surrounding the surprising primary victory of Ned Lamont over incumbent Senator Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary last Tuesday are equally flawed. The CW about why Lieberman lost is disastrously simplistic and incomplete, and the conclusions about â€œwhat this means for the Democratic partyâ€ fail as well.
Let me just highlight the three main conclusions drawn from Ned Lamontâ€™s victory. These have been spewn all over the mainstream media and conservative blogosphere already (Hank Waters of the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune manages to cram them all into a short editorial at www.showmenews.com/2006/Aug/20060815Comm002.asp), but as briefly as I can manage, they are as follows: 1) Lamontâ€™s win indicates a takeover of the Democratic party by the fringe, â€œanti-war leftâ€ (conversely, the Lamont win indicates that the Democrats have always been the â€œanti-war fringe), 2) Lamont won as a single-issue candidate, and 3) Lamont is a rich dilettante, too inexperienced to make a credible Senator. The CW conclusion is that the Democrats have proven that they are â€œweak on defenseâ€ and in thrall to the pacifistic far left. Neither the â€œanalysisâ€ nor the conclusions have any serious basis in reality.
First, take the observation that those opposed to the war in Iraq are part of some â€œfringe left.â€ In fact, opposition to the war is entirely in the mainstream, and has been for some time. According to CBS News polling, the last time Presidentâ€™s Bushâ€™s handling of the war on Iraq reached 50% approval was December 22, 2003. To be fair, approval of his handling of the war hit 49% on March 14, 2004. In similar vein, respondents saying that going to war in Iraq was the â€œright thing to doâ€ has not been at or above 50% since Halloween 2004. These results are entirely congruent with Newsweekâ€™s, ABC/Washington Postâ€™s, USA/Gallupâ€™s, and even FOXâ€™s polling (all numbers are from www.pollingreport.com). Opposition to the war in Iraq is not a fringe phenomenon, unless we are speaking of an amazingly long fringe.
Next, take the idea that, apart for his unqualified support for the Iraq war, Lieberman was entirely in the mainstream of Connecticut and Democratic voters on most of the other important issues. Even if Sen. Lieberman did, as the CW has it, â€œsupport the Democratic leadership 90% of the time,â€ it looks like the 10% of issues where he differs from his nominal party are issues that hit very close to home to core Democratic voters. For example, Lieberman both supported and appeared on television to justify the Congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. He has supported oil exploration in ANWR, and voted against the filibuster of now-Justice Samuel Alito. Lieberman supported the right of Catholic hospitals to refuse emergency contraception to rape victims, a stance which caused him to lose the endorsement of the National Organization for Women. Speaking personally, the most serious knock against Lieberman is his continued stance against â€œindecencyâ€ in film, television, video games, and music, stances which made me appalled that Vice President Gore selected him as his running mate in 2000. Senator Lieberman differs from the rank and file of his political party on many of the issues that those partisans hold most dear; indeed, much of his electoral support comes from unaligned and Republican voters.
Lastly, the idea that Ned Lamont is â€œunqualifiedâ€ to be a Senator is unfounded. First and foremost, the US Constitution places only an age requirement to serve in the Senate, though this argument may well make thin soup. On the merits, Lamont is as qualified as the median senator. He is Ivy League educated, along with 16 other currently-serving senators, the President, and the entire Supreme Court. Lamont founded his own company, Lamont Digital Systems, in 1984. He has served in city government, both as selectman and school board member. Indeed, if one believes in a system where private citizens serve in government for a time and then return to private life, Lamontâ€™s background in business and service should make him a desirable candidate.
Iâ€™d like to conclude by offering my own analysis of what the Lamont primary victory means. I offer two observations, possibly interrelated. First, there appears to be a noteworthy anti-incumbent sentiment among the electorate. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 53% of the public characterizes their mood as â€œanti-incumbent,â€ compared with 54% in 1994, the last time majority control of the Congress changed. Ten years of Republican control of Congress and five years of unified control of the government have not produced real feelings of well-being and security in the median American, a sign that bodes poorly for Senators and non-gerrymandered Representatives.
Lastly, I think the Lamont win and the not-talked-about primary defeat of Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-MI) by a challenger from the right point to an increasing polarization of the two political parties and their partisans. This polarization has been increasingly demonstrated empirically in the political science literature over the past 10 years, as well as being obvious to any serious observer of our politics, and I believe it is to our real peril as a nation.