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Burkean? Maybe, In a Sense. But Left Conservative? Not at All

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Ryan Lizza posted a short note today, about the new limitations on the industrial production of carbon emissions which the Environmental Protection Agency, under the direction of President Obama, has just proposed. It’s a good piece, explaining how these new guidelines had their start in a 2006 court case, Massachusetts v.  Environmental Protection Agency, which–by a 5-4 decision–agreed that the EPA had an obligation to consider the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants which need to be restricted. And while I think Lizza is being ridiculously optimistic when he writes that “a statement…from the President might just make it more likely that the public…will begin to think of carbon pollution in the same way that it thinks of other kinds of toxic substances spewed into the air,” I can’t really disagree with anything he says; while he manages to avoid ever mentioning the Keystone pipeline, which probably is the largest environmental albatross around the president’s neck, he’s certain correct that Obama has moved very cautiously and deliberately in building up his environmental agenda, and it’s not wrong to see that as reflecting his approach to government in general. But then comes his concluding paragraph:

It’s hardly unheard of for a President to be cautious about pushing social change, and it would be more surprising if a President didn’t move in the direction of shifting public opinion. Obama and his aides like to see him as someone who plays a long game. They sometimes suggest that his movement on these issues is all part of a grand plan. More likely, Obama is what might be called a “left conservative,” a phrase that Norman Mailer briefly popularized when he ran for mayor of New York, in 1969. Obama obviously shares the outlook of the left on these cultural issues, but he’s temperamentally cautious and rarely believes that it’s worth his effort to act until his own liberal base has moved the country along with it. And, even then, he sees his job as moderating the passions of the activists.

I have to register a strong dissent to this, however pedantic my protest may be. Mailer’s actual line, as he put it in his book The Armies of the Night, was that he called himself a “left conservative” because he wanted to “think in the style of Karl Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” Or, in other words, to make sense of this claim in the context of the 1967 March on Washington (the anti-Vietnam War protest which Mailer both participated in and made the centerpiece of his novel), he talking about how he thinking and acting radically against the abuses of the American state, its Manichean self-image, and its global economy, in the name of being able to enjoy the sort of life and priorities associated with Edmund Burke’s defense of home, neighborhood, and tradition. Lizza, by contrast, is using the term to communicate almost the exact reverse of this: that Obama is on the progressive left when it comes to issues of environmental protection or same-sex marriage or any number of other cultural, social, and economic issues (policy positions that may have any number of ramifications, but would also never be described primarily in terms of defending “tradition), but nonetheless is procedurally “conservative” about how he supports those issues. He thinks like Burke supposedly would have–and the notion that President Obama is a careful thinker who moves slowly and respects the historical and organic dimensions of the obstacles which face him is an old, muchdisputed claim–and thus doesn’t try to act like a radical, instead waiting for others to come around, before he weighs in with his presidential authority.

Not many people are going to care one way or another about Lizza’s appropriation of this terminology, but I confess I’m one of them, because the “left conservative” framing of how one thinks about capitalism, equality, social change, and much more has been very helpful and clarifying for me over the years. Particularly when it comes to the way he has handled environmental issues, President Obama has been an almost perfect example of progressive neoliberal mangerialism, seeing catastrophes like the BP oil spill and festering disputes like the aforementioned Keystone pipeline not in terms of radically rethinking those critical structures in play in how we produce energy or engage in trade or grow our food or live our lives, but rather in simply identifying the financial and bureaucratic fractures in those structures, and patching them as best as federal money and state incentives can. The radical rethinking of the sort Mailer gestured toward may, in this case, be socialist (for example, moving away from leaving energy production in hands of private corporations, and instead subjecting it to diverse and democratic controls), or it may be conservative (for example, rejecting the excess and waste of the automobile-based economy, and re-engaging in systems of local production and trade), or maybe it’s actually both. Hence, “left conservative.”

Obviously, at each and every point along either such hypothetical path there would need to be constant policy reforms and tweaks, and that means there will be a need for good, cautious management; no one disputes that. And while the usual coal-gas-and-oil-apologists are, of course, screaming bloody murder over these new carbon emission regulations, anyone who isn’t a climate-change denier very likely sees them for limited positive steps which they are. For all his (many) faults, Obama is actually a fairly decent administrator of our oversized and unwieldly liberal state. But label that what it is: neoliberal (maybe even sometimes outright liberal!) pragmatism, or managerialism, or something. Don’t poach from a label few know, fewer respect, but which, I think at least, is desperately needed.

About Russell Arben Fox

Russell is a resident of Wichita, KS, an associate professor of political science at Friends University, a liberal communitarian and a Christian socialist, and a person who has long had, and who continue to have, a loving, occasionally oppositional, and all-around complicated relationship with one of the founders of this fine website.