Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Our Protean Liberal Democracy

Some have suggested that Liberal-Democracy is an “ism.” I suppose it can be said to embody a loose system of principles and approaches and so may be comparable to “isms,” but not in any useful sense. For one obvious reason, Liberal democracy lacks an “isms” passion. If you are into an “ism” then you are passionate about it. Liberal-Democracy on the other hand grew like Topsy. It seemed inevitable to Hegel, Kojeve and Francis Fukuyama. “Isms” require fanatics to advance them. Liberal-Democracy just happened.

The people who developed the term “Liberal Democracy” didn’t see it as an ism. To expand things a bit, Walter Capps, in his Hope Against Hope, Moltmann to Merton in One theological Debate, considers Lifton’s psychological theory of the Protean man. In Greek mythology Proteus knows the past, present, and the future, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. He wants to be left alone. He likes to hang out in caves with the seals. To aid him in his reclusive desires, he can change shapes. He can be anything, e.g., a seal, a lion, a goat, a wisp of smoke or fire; so if anyone wants to find out something from Proteus, they need to grab hold of him and not let go regardless of what he changes into. Eventually he will get tired and give you your answer after which he will disappear into the sea. Many see in Proteus an image of modern man. He can watch TV and in the course of the evening change into several identities as he changes shapes to fit the story or news report he is watching. Are some of us die-hard Conservatives not changing even now, changing a bit into Obama Democrats as we hope he does well, as we hope he doesn’t ruin the country and have faith that he won’t?

In an earlier time the Christian was faced with external fixity, whether in laws, church instruction, creeds, etc and had only to worry about his internal ambivalence – his internal “shape shifting,” his Protean nature. But the modern (Liberal-Democratic) world provides no solidity. It is a potpourri of anything anyone would like; so one seeks an internal solidity in a protean world. People used to go on pilgrimages, in a manner of speaking, to find themselves – not realizing that there was no self to find. They had become as Protean as the external world.

And our Liberal Democracies are the most protean of all modern societies, the most ambivalent, the least fixed. I referred to Liberal Democracy in one note as the anti-ideology because the major examples of ideologies, i.e., Fascism, Communism, and Islamism do provide ideologies that are fixed. There is nothing protean about what they teach and advocate. But there is no fixity in Liberal Democracy, and there is no fixity in most of us.

In an earlier period, Lifton tells us, you would have one conversion when you became a Christian, but modern man has several. How many conversions? From my own personal experience, I was raised a Christian, became an atheist in college, then studied some more and became an agnostic, then began studying various philosophies and religions looking “for the one true one,” and for awhile was happy with Yoga Philosophy, but then was reconverted to Christianity. And it didn’t stop there as I studied my way through several theological points of view. And this doesn’t count any of the non-religious changes. Wherever we are in modern Liberal Democratic society, we are challenged to change.

To move now into politics and foreign affairs, consider Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and how it changed the World. Perhaps Mead’s major thesis is that the U.S. has developed its own unique version of Liberal Democracy exemplified by four major political ideas or political trends which he develops at length. Now here we get into isms, and because they are more fixed than Liberal Democracy, they approach closer to ideologies, but they don’t quite get there – or if they do, we don’t quite fit in any one of them. They are terms of convenience than true “isms.” I would generalize them as follows:

  1. Jeffersonianism (with an emphasis on Rights)
  2. Hamiltonianism (with an emphasis on a Free economy)
  3. Jacksonianism (with a willingness to fight for a just cause)
  4. Wilsonianism (with an interest in expanding “Americanism” to the rest of the world)

Mead’s book is fascinating because it seems that few people or even groups are just one of these isms. We are combinations. The Jacksonians, for example are typically red-necks who are ready for a good scrap, but they want to be left alone. The Tennessean hillbilly is the prototype. Come after me and you’ll wish you hadn’t. The term “war monger” doesn’t fit these guys because they don’t care a whole lot about what goes on in the rest of the world. They don’t want to go after anyone else.

The Hamiltonians (unfortunately for the Jacksonians) have gotten the U.S. enmeshed in economic ventures and commitments around the world. They needed to convince the Jacksonians (without whom the U.S. could never fight or win a war) that its vital interests were at stake in Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

The modern Neocons were (I say “were” because I’m not sure there are any left) Wilsonian. They wanted to export Liberal-Democracy, but there is no way that the Jacksonians were going to war to export it. Someone is always going to have to come up with a better reason for that -- if you want the Jacksonians to fight.

Perhaps there were Neocons in the Bush administration who were both Wilsonian and Jacksonian, but they couldn’t convert their red-necked brethren to that way of thinking, at least not in any philosophical sense. American politics is definitely protean, and being such will change into something slightly different during the Obama administration, but perhaps nothing will change other than the appearance. Grab hold of it if you can. Clinton believed in “nation building.” He took the nation, without UN approval to rescue the Kosovars. The Republicans criticized “Clinton’s war” just as much as the Democrats criticized “Bush’s war.” They were fought differently and for different reasons, and the chances are good that we will fight an Obama war as well; which, undoubtedly, the Republicans will criticize. We are protean. We change images but are essentially the same. We don’t know how to define ourselves, whether we are an ism or a detail of an ism or an ism within the broader Liberal Democracy which isn’t an ism. We are against war for the wrong reason but we don’t agree on what the right reasons are. Other nations accuse us of being a nation of warmongers, and as long as we have plenty of Jacksonian red-necks ready to fight at the drop of a hat, and dumb enough to be talked into almost anything, we shall probably continue to seem so. And what we really are isn’t any of those things. It isn’t any one thing. But it is Protean.

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