Peter Beinart: Giving the Devil his Due

Burn out the day
Burn out the night
I can’t see no reason to put up a fight
I’m living for giving the devil his due

Exactly one year ago, Peter Beinart advocated for the Democratic Party to abandon liberalism and liberty for Economic Statism. This was at the height of FDR 2.0. At Freedom Democrats, I roundly criticized that stupidity with the post, The Faustian Bargain.

I compare Beinart to Kristol because Beinart’s advice will end up accomplishing for the Dems what Kristol’s advice ended up accomplishing for the Repubs, namely defeat and discreditation. It was only 4 or 5 years ago that the talk was of a permanent republican majority, and Dem pundits like Beinart were making the rounds arguing for the Dem need to appeal to “values voters” and a neo-liberal hawkish interventionism. Of course, subsequently the Iraq War went sour, and the GOP overreached on Terry Schiavo, and the so-called permanent GOP majority collapsed. Why are the Dems intent on making the same mistakes? This business about reviving a “devil’s pact” of the 1930s is nonsense. Those days are gone. And I imagine they didn’t refer to it as a “devil’s pact” back then, which is always a useful tidbit in trying to resurrect something that today would be labeled as such. The moral lesson of the Faustian bargain is that it leads to damnation for those foolhardy enough to enter into one.

The Stimulus and Health Care reform have more or less resurrected the GOP from the political graveyard. All this trite pundit analysis I read about the Dems having moved on to the serious business of being a permanent governing party while the GOP is relegated to purifying an increasingly non-extant minority is premature. The reality is that “core economic security” issues that Beinhart champions have collapsed in public opinion polling. Government Responsibility to ensure health insurance for all, which polled at 70-30 by Gallup back in 2007 is now polling 50-47 against. I suppose the polling reflects a dissatisfaction with the current system, but little enthusiasm for the public choice “clunker” the Dems are offering up in it’s stead. American politics, contrary to Beinhart, is not settling into a permanent Political party majority, rather it’s being characterized by dramatic swings in independent voting.

Now fast forward to today. Writes Beinart in How Jon Stewart Blew It:

Finally, the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically. The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.

Did Beinart simply develop amnesia over his paper trail. A year ago he mocked the idea that there was any relevancy of an ideological argument against the impending onslaught of FDR 2.0. Now he is crucifying Stewart for failing to do his own heavy lifting. Will Wilkinson, in his Economist piece, Sanity and liberty deconstructs the “new” Beinart thusly:

It sometimes does seem as though the American left has more or less ceded the language of liberty to the right. My own slow evolution from a hardcore libertarian to a libertarian-leaning liberal is due in part to the kind of liberty-focused arguments Mr Beinart wishes were more often heard from the mouths of Democrats. The arguments are out there, but they are much likely to be encountered in the seminar room than on TV. Why is that?

I think “the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically” to the right’s libertarian-sounding arguments flows in part from the left’s own confusion about what it stands for. If the contemporary right is an uneasy fusion of conservative and libertarian articles of faith, the contemporary left is an uneasy fusion of technocratic progressive and liberal-democratic conviction. One sees progressive managerial elitism most clearly in the left’s public-health and environmental paternalism. The rarely uttered idea is that the people who know best need to force the rest of us to do what’s good for us. Whatever you think of this sort of state paternalism, it isn’t liberal or liberty-enhancing in any non-tortured sense. The progressive technocrat’s attitude toward liberty is: “Trust us. You’re better off without so much of it.” The more the left is inclined to stick up for this sort of “activist government” as a progressive, humanitarian force, the less it is inclined to couch its arguments in terms of liberty. And that’s just honest. More honest, I would add, than social conservatives who in one breath praise liberty and in the next demand the state imposition of their favourite flavour of morality.

The problem with Wilkinson’s analysis is that the “old” Peter Beinart didn’t give a rat’s ass about the “language of liberty.” When Nancy Pelosi stood up and defended “ObamaCare” as a matter of economic security, indeed as a matter of national security(which was Beinart’s original argument), she managed to infuriate libertarians, liberals, progressives, conservatives, and the “mushy middle.” Her popularity now stands in the single digits. Today Beinart’s “permanent majority” dies. It lasted one year.


2 thoughts on “Peter Beinart: Giving the Devil his Due

    1. I don’t think Wilkinson was ever a hard-core libertarian, with that term meaning anarchist. I think he means he was a hard-core “Randian” who has drifted to a mixture of Hayek and Rawls. I wouldn’t necessarily call that a devolution.

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