Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last night. She was a symbol of the left in America for her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and her historic role on the United States Supreme Court. But she was not always an icon of the left. She was considered a moderate voice on the Court in her early career. But like many historical figures, she saw herself recast as the views of those around her shifted and changed. It is unimaginable for many to remember she received little opposition in her confirmation. America is more polarized today, but nominations to the court have always had potential for conflict. Six years before Ginsburg’s nomination, the controversial Bork nomination had shown how political the Supreme Court could become.
American politics is often described in terms of parties and ideologies. Democrats are the party of the left and Republicans are the party of the right. But this characterization does not explain much. Republicans like to say Democrats are the party of big government while they are the party of limited government. This adds a little substance to the discussion, but it leaves an important question unanswered… How limited should government be? The rise of Regan and Thatcher in the US and UK is often used to pinpoint the genesis of the neoliberal era. They both began a process of deregulation, privatization and tax cuts which have been replicated around the world.
In many ways, neoliberalism was a necessary course correction. Republicans described Democrats as the party of big government. It brought to light an important question for the left that remains today… How much government is enough? But these questions disguise an implicit bias. There is an expectation of diminishing returns as though the state is a monolithic organization without distinction between regulations, policies, or departments. It assumes the state is good, but only in the right proportion. Rather than examine the role of the state or policy it becomes a question of its proportion to the economy. This is an oversimplification, but electoral politics works to reduce complex and nuanced ideas into simplistic soundbites.
The recent protests over racism and police violence have shown how this political dichotomy has flaws. The political right has become a defender of the state, while the left sounds almost libertarian in their demand to defund the police. Again, this is an oversimplification, but it brings to light how the political divide has never been about the size or scope of government. It is bizarre how Republicans believe a functional EPA or OSHA is somehow reminiscent of a police state while any increase in budgets or expansion of scope for the actual police has no similar connotations.
The problem is that too many writers have fallen into the trap of describing the ideologies of the left and the right in terms of their advocacy for the size of government. Max Weber offers some clarity in his definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Weber is regarded as the father of modern sociology. His thoughts on bureaucratic organization shaped how political thinkers continue to understand political organization to this day. But his work is not empty of political opinions and his ideas about politics were largely conservative even for his time.
Academia is often imagined as the playground of the left. The reality is many of the most influential thinkers emerged from the politics of the right. Samuel Huntington and Friedrich Nietzsche have had enormous influence in political thought. Weber can be hard to classify politically because so many of his contemporaries (Durkheim, Sombert, Michels) were leftist thinkers. Indeed, Marx is sometimes considered the originator of sociology. Schumpeter, for example, divided Marx into his thought as an economist and his thought as a sociologist. The editors of this volume, Hans Heinrich Gerth and C. Wright Mills, found a continuity from Marx to Weber. This is remarkable to think of conservative political thought as influenced by Marx. But the line between the left and right is seldom as clear as the public wants to believe.
Weber is key to an understanding of modern conservatism because he brings to light the notion of the state as “a compulsory association which organizes domination.” My contention is this interpretation of the state is the key to understand the modern political right. Conservative political thought has embraced a view of the state as an organization of violence. This has two seemingly contradictory consequences for their philosophy. The size and scope of government become suspect because the state is viewed as a tool of force. Ayn Rand popularized the concept of taxation as theft. The incorporation of this idea into the politics of the right abandoned the traditional conservative focus on obligations and responsibilities for a new emphasis on rights and freedoms. The Weberian interpretation of the state establishes a Hobbesian connection between the state and the law where the law can only exist in the presence of the coercion of the state. This contrasts with the Lockean belief of the law, not just as a distinct idea from the state, but its ability to transcend its manifestation in the state. This transcendence is typically referred to as the rule of law.
Conversely, this interpretation of the state has been used to justify those aspects of it which incorporate violence such as the military and the police. It is ironic how modern conservatism is fearful of those aspects which are not outwardly violent while it embraces the most violent. Liberals do not share this interpretation of the state. They implicitly view the state as a political institution with economic and social characteristics. The differences in interpretation of the state account for the philosophical debates between liberals and conservatives over the size, scope, and role of government. This insight clarifies conservatives do not really want small government. Rather, they want to limit its scope to its most violent aspects.
In a remarkable work, The Virtues of Violence: Democracy Against Disintegration in Modern France, Kevin Duong explains, “How we think about violence tells us something about how we imagine the ties that bind us. As our ideas about violence evolve, so, too, do our accounts of social interdependence and the patterns of agency and vulnerability that we perceive.” My interview with Erica Chenoweth on my podcast explored the role of civil resistance as an effective means to undermine authoritarian governments. But it is the ways which civil resistance makes democratization possible that has captured my imagination. Scholars Markus Bayer, Felix S Bethke, and Daniel Lambach have shown civil resistance campaigns make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy far more likely than armed resistance. It makes intuitive sense for those who view democracy as a political process based on inclusion. Armed resistance is synonymous with the authoritarian mindset to force opinions and ideas upon opponents. It relies upon a politics of exclusion of political rivals. Negotiated revolutions can be fragile, but only because democracy itself is fragile.
The politics of violence has implications in a democracy. Those who gravitate toward violence as a means to mediate conflict find themselves attracted to populist messages which open the door to autocratic governance over time. But this does not mean there is no role for a conservative message in the politics of a democracy. It is the overzealousness of liberalism which has perverted the conservative philosophy from its emphasis on obligations and responsibilities into one of rights and privileges. Seymour Martin Lipset makes this clear in his comparative analysis of the United States and Canada. The United States was based on the revolutionary politics of liberalism, while Canada has long revered authority and emphasized responsibilities, hallmarks of conservatism. Yet it is Canada who has socialized medicine and established a larger role for the state. The difference is their model of conservatism emphasized responsibilities. Conservative values are important for democratic governance, but American Conservatism has abandoned these values for a perverted language of rights and privileges.
Weber feared the independence of bureaucracies to become self-perpetuating. He saw the role of political leadership as transformative so it could reshape the aims of the state to meet the needs of the time. His idea of charismatic leadership was not so much a likeability as an ability to have a direct connection beyond the restrictions of formal institutions. This direct relationship gives the leader credibility to make transformative changes beyond the norms or traditions of their office. Weber saw charismatic leadership as beneficial because he feared the ossification of norms in modern bureaucracy. In contrast, scholars of liberal democracy fear charismatic leadership because it challenges the norms and traditions established over generations that have made democratic governance workable. It has become frightening how the appeals of charismatic leadership are most prevalent among those who view violence as the central role of the state.
This is about where I end this morning. I realize my analysis of Max Weber did not discuss much about Weber. During my podcast with Yael Tamir, we discussed her mentor, Isaiah Berlin. I mentioned how Berlin’s essays often were more about him than his subject. Yael responded that he talked about himself all the time in his writings. Sometimes I do the same. In light of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my thoughts are distracted. I cannot stop thinking of what it means to identify as conservative or liberal. I cannot stop thinking about how these ideas have grown so far apart from one another. I cannot stop thinking about how the success of liberalism depends on the values of conservatism. I cannot stop thinking about how democracy depends on responsibilities. And somehow, I cannot get passed how such a basic idea from Max Weber, his interpretation of the state, compounds the difficulties for democracy.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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