We all complain at times about the tiresome discussions of the shifting meanings of left and right , liberal and conservative . Every publishing season, or so it seems, somebody comes along with a book that proclaims “and now for something completely different.” Such books appear under the generic title Beyond Left and Right . The authors are aptly described as “beyondists,” and it turns out, with wearying predictability, that they are peddling yet another version of left or right, liberal or conservative.

But every once in a while, somebody comes up with a genuinely interesting twist on the subject. Jon A. Shields, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, does just that in an essay, “In Praise of the Values Voter,” published in the Wilson Quarterly . He sets the stage by taking us back to the post“World War II period when there was much talk about “the end of ideology.” Theodore Lowi, a very influential political scientist of the time, lamented The End of Liberalism in 1969. Lacking a serious debate about ideas, politics had descended, wrote Lowi, into a “nightmare of administrative boredom.” He and others wanted an “issues-based” Democratic party. Around the same time, James Q. Wilson wrote in The Amateur Democrat about “a desire to moralize public life.”

Reformers wanted to wrest control from the party bosses, especially the mainly Catholic urban bosses, who were happy with politics being business as usual. A committee of the American Political Science Association concluded in 1950 that the “ailment” of American parties was a lack of ideological commitments that was stifling “the heartbeat of American democracy.” Be careful what you hope for. In the 1960s, the New Left appeared, calling for politics “vivified by controversy” over basic moral questions. Civic apathy must be countered by moral warfare, said Tom Hayden and other then-young Turks.

The McGovern Commission of 1968 restructured the Democratic party to give greater voice to minorities and others previously marginalized, especially feminists. By the early 1970s, Ralph Nader and a host of public-interest organizations were leading insurrections from the left. The odd thing, writes Shields, is that today it is the very same leftists who are leading the charge against the moralizing of politics for which they had called. Liberals, he says, are now “mounting a counterattack against their own revolution.”

“In a strange political turn, they have embraced what President Richard Nixon called ‘the silent majority’ as the source of their salvation from 1960s liberalism.” Shields cites E.J. Dionne, Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman, Jacob Hacker¯all lamenting the “culture wars” and the “polarization” of American politics. In What’s the Matter With Kansas? Thomas Franks complains that “unassuageable cultural grievances are elevated inexplicably over solid material ones, and basic economic self-interest is eclipsed by juicy myths of national authenticity and righteousness wronged.” Why can’t voters go back to politics-as-management and attend to the bread and butter issues the way they used to? Where did all this ideology and moral rhetoric come from? These lamenting liberals, says Shields, “have become the new conservatives.”

In fact, says Shields, Americans are not more “polarized” than they have been in the past. But the parties are more ideologically cohesive. Contra liberal complaints, Americans are very much politically engaged. For instance, the contentious presidential elections of 1992 and 2004 saw an unusually high voter turnout of more than 60 percent of eligible voters. “Overall,” writes Shields, “American voters are more involved and more attuned to how well leaders reflect their political beliefs than they were just a few decades ago.”

So why are so many political analysts as unhappy as Lowi and his contemporaries were? “The chief answer is that they lost their enthusiasm for ‘values voters’ because those voters turned out to have the wrong values.” In his enormously influential Bowling Alone , Harvard’s Robert Putnam acknowledges, with no apparent happiness: “It is, in short, among Evangelical Christians, rather than among the ideological heirs of the sixties, that we find the strongest evidence for an upwelling of civic engagement.” The expectations of the 1960s have been discredited. “Conservatism was thought to exist more as a kind of pathological disorder of the nation’s passive mainstream masses, an affliction of Nixon’s silent majority. Now, however, many liberal thinkers see silent, ordinary Americans as a bulwark against an ideological politics that tilts to the political right.”

The Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 has everything to do with this astonishing change. Shields cites liberals who call for people to care about “the least advantaged” while being quite oblivious to the fact that “it is precisely ‘the least advantaged’ that the right-to-life movement is defending.” “If liberal thinkers are alarmed by activist radicalism and truly believe in the centrist majority, the obvious course would be to support a reversal of Roe , allowing ordinary political conflict to sort the issue out through the democratic process in state legislatures.” Shields adds, with just a suggestion of a smile, “But that proposition has not found many takers.”

Shields notes that, from the nineteenth-century abolitionists, to the Catholic campaign against eugenic sterilization, to the movement for Prohibition, to the civil rights movement, great political causes move toward moderation in order to succeed. He concludes: “In this way, social movements help solve one of the central problems of democracy, which is the tendency of citizens to tirelessly pursue their own happiness without regard to the public weal. Such movements are a bulwark against the emergence of a consumer republic in which citizens, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s ominous words, simply indulge ‘their petty and banal pleasures.’ America’s culture wars, in other words, are one of the best antidotes to the individualistic consumer culture liberals tend to loathe.” As one has many occasions to observe, history has many ironies in the fire. Including the irony of liberals counting on Richard Nixon’s silent majority to save them from the politics of ideas they once so fervently desired.

What is left and what is right? What conservative and liberal? How odd that more than two hundred years later we still use the terminology of the battling factions of the French Revolution. In the last few years, the terminology has been challenged by the distinction between red states and blue states, but this is almost certainly an ephemeral fashion. As is the substitution of “progressive” for “liberal.”

Apart from politics junkies for whom partisanship is a blood sport, Americans of leanings both right and left like to think of themselves as being beyond or above factions. Yet everyone who is politically attentive, although not addicted, discovers in time that the issues they care about most bring in their train a constellation of overlapping issues, and that inevitably results in explicit or tacit coalitions, which, just as inevitably, end up more or less securely situated on the spectrum of left and right, liberal and conservative.

There is really no point in complaining about this. The alternative is a disciplined disengagement from public affairs, which is hard to achieve but not dishonorable. It is usually the case that people who have a life have better things to do than politics. Democratic “participation” is highly overrated. Especially when what passes for participation is a spectator sport consisting of chatter around the water cooler. To be sure, for a relatively few politics is their vocation and, while it is spiritually perilous, that, too, is not necessarily dishonorable.

Another alternative to the risk of entanglement with factions is fastidiously to assume a posture of moral superiority and take one’s stand with those who are above or beyond partisanship. It is a false alternative. As aforesaid, one is then faced with the choice of aligning oneself with the beyondists of the left or the right. With respect to politics, there is the total abstainer who goes off to cultivate his garden, and there is the unbridled partisan who dons the armor of the happy¯or, more commonly, angry¯warrior.

Most of us, I expect, elect another way: the cultivation of political attentiveness, a willingness to do our duty as citizens within the limits of more important obligations. And, with that willingness, an acceptance of the inevitability of our being consigned a place within the partisanships¯left and right, liberal conservative¯defined by the more politically passionate. But always with a keen awareness that, in the constellations and coalitions of issues in dispute, history has many ironies in the fire. To paraphrase the poet: Be there a man with soul so dead / who never to a friend has said / I used to be a liberal. (Or, as circumstances may suggest, a conservative.)


Jon Shields in Wilson Quarterly , Autumn 2007

Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam

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