This is going to smack of cultural essentialism but I can’t find any better way to frame my ongoing and for the most part friendly sparring with dear friend and colleague GH about liberalism and Marxism. But I can’t help but think the conceptual blind-spotting, this inability to see eye to eye about liberalism and politics, has something to do with the tension between concepts in combination with culture and religion; not entirely, but in part.
My sense is that for G., liberalism is always defined conceptually in terms of individualism, individual rights and personal freedoms over and against the larger social good of a just society. But is this conception of liberalism itself essentialist (i.e. essential to liberalism), or is it culturally specific to this or that mutation of liberalism? If the former, then Marxism or conservatism have to make sense as an alternative to liberalism in that Marxism and conservativism commit one to tracing out the kinds of social-structural and historical dynamics and change, or the thick cultural traditions that conservatives claim they seek to preserve. These, it is usually assumed, tend to get lost in the Anglo-American liberal tradition starting with Locke, and including the classical laissez faire liberals of the 19th century. In particular, I’m wondering if that’s the way liberalism is always going to constitute itself in white American Protestant culture, as an individual rights-liberalism that stands, perhaps, in a dialectal relationship with a form of Christianties, particularly southern U.S. Christianities, that are both culturally conservative and individually moralizing.
These would not be the cultural contexts from which I look at liberalism. This means that if I reject both Marxism and conservativism because I reject the foil and caricature of bourgeois and liberal society against which they are both set up, and against which they are reactive. As I understand liberalism, it s has almost always been positioned as social form, marked by group solidarity and social conscience, and a commitment to active statist intervention into and alongside the private market economy, at least in the 20th c, trying to secure the greatest common good, especially basic forms of rights, equality, and justice, while promoting particular social goods such as health and education, as well as regulating and redistributing economic and other goods. That’s what defines the legacy of FDR and LBJ and all the other large scale liberal social programs in the United States during the heyday of liberalism for the thirty years or so between the 1930s and 1960s.
In relation to modern Jewish thought and history, I would trace the embrace of this understanding of the social-liberal tradition, philosophically, from Moses Mendelssohn through the emergence of Reform Judaism to Herman Cohen in Germany; and culturally, in the United States, from the immigration of bourgeois German Jews to the United States in the middle of the 19th century, and the transition from the socialism of the first generation Eastern European Jewish immigration to liberal Jewish culture and Judaism of the second and third generations by the 1920s and into the 1950s and 1960s. What this means is that, for American Jews, the transition from socialism to New Deal liberalism was seamless.
Another way to put this is that around national elections, one can always be certain that the Jewish vote is going to trend heavily democratic. There is little indication that the Jewish vote, except for the ultra and modern orthodox, is ever going to go Republican. The reasons for this are structural. There’s a Democratic lock on the Jewish vote, because liberalism secures for American Jews, as a minority population, the intervention of a strong state vis-à-vis civil rights protections, especially those regarding the separation of church and state and women’s rights, while promoting, even if in an uneven way, the politics of inclusion, to which most liberal Jews are committed, albeit in an uneven way. In the liberal Jewish imaginaire, the social justice of socialism-blending-into-liberalism is rooted in the Exodus from Egypt, the prophetic tradition, the scourge of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the East European Jewish immigrant experience, the social justice tradition of the labor movement, and the memory of the Holocaust, and the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast, the kind of liberalism that roots itself in this kind of a picture of group memory seems less engrained among the white Christian electorate, less a part of the cultural DNA of that larger segment of American political culture.
None of this caricature makes sense of course, but only on the one hand. Locke tends to get kicked around as an asocial individualist in these kinds of discussions. But Craig Martin, in Masking Hegemony, reminds us that Locke was very committed to a form of public culture qua civic culture. In other words, for Locke, Protestantism was, once upon a time, not simply private, but civic and, therein and only therein, hegemonic. Indeed, the history of Protestant cultural hegemony in this country would speak to a thick tradition of liberal Christian politics that extends at least back to the Social Gospel movement, including the Christian Century crowd, the Niebuhr’s, etc. As for white non-mainline Protestants, perhaps they could bail on liberalism or the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s because, individually, they had options, as members of the majority; and because of structural dynamics relating to race, ethnicity, and prejudice. In contrast, Jews, as a minority group, suspicious of the majority, had always to rely on a strong central state to secure their position in this country on a fair and equitable basis.
I don’t know. I always wonder about the white Protestant electorate in this country. Really, I don’t know what’s wrong with “those people.” Probably a combination of individual options of majoritarian cultural actors and structural dynamics of majoritarian cultures. Growing up in Baltimore, I knew a lot of conservative white, mainline Protestants. For a time, I went to school with “them,” until I couldn’t stand the anti-Semitism anymore, and then I switched schools, with my father’s support. Perhaps that too was structural as well as a personal choice. This was a long time ago, in the 1970s. In contrast, I did not know many conservative or Republican Jews, maybe one in high school, in addition to my father. As in all things, he was an exception to the rule. Both open to other people, but not unprejudiced racially, Sheldon was more of a cynic and a moral anarchist, than a cultural or intellectual conservative, per se. In this, perhaps, even he was kind of liberal.