Fried Siegel has a fair and enlightening review of Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power in the latest issue of Democracy. I haven’t read the book, so Starr might disagree, but Siegel seems to honestly wrestle with the arguments in Starr’s book. Siegel’s primary concern is that, by ignoring liberalism’s past dalliances with radicalism, it makes it less likely that modern liberals will learn from those mistakes:
But Starr’s zeal for a purified, ahistorical liberalism makes it impossible for him to come to grips with its past failures and future opportunities, a reckoning necessary for a liberal rebirth.
I’m all for recognition of political and policy failures, but I also think a bit of ahistoricism is a good thing. Like Peter Beinert’s The Good Fight, these sorts of books are less about real historical accounting than creating new narratives for the contemporary political order. Inaccuracies are a problem, but omission is a greater sin for historians. If Starr doesn’t include Republicans in his narrative of Clintonian welfare reform (as Siegel chides him for), well, there might be some honest disagreements.
But part of contructing new narratives is choosing what to highlight and what to downplay. All political parties do this; witness Cameron’s Conservative Party in England, which styles itself more after the New Labor of Tony Blair than the Thatcherism of the 1980s. Today’s liberals already highlight FDR’s social welfare programs and war record, while downplaying his less impressive record on civil rights (with the reverse for LBJ, minus the war). Political traditions being a long and varied thing, you grab which strands you can use for the political moment.
Siegel goes awry, however, when he falls for some of the EU conventional wisdom:
Starr is effusive in his praise of how, as he sees it, Europe has balanced liberalism and democracy, fairness and growth, far better than his own country. Is this the same administered EU that even most Europeans acknowledge suffers from a democratic deficit? Does he want us to emulate the policies that have produced unemployment rates two to three times than that of the United States (depending on the country), that have produced virtually no job growth over the past 30 years?
European job growth isn’t something I’m eager to emulate, nor their problems with sclerotic social welfare programs. But the “democratic deficit” is less real than a problem of reconciling an idealized vision of democracy with real world outcomes. Princeton’s Andrew Moravcsik has a great paper (PDF) measuring the “democratic deficit” in international institutions against real-world democratic governance. His primary focus is on the EU:
My central contention here is that if we adopt reasonable criteria for judging democratic governance, the widespread criticism of the EU as democratically illegitimate is unsupported by the existing empirical evidence – much of it provided by critics of the ‘democratic deficit’. At the very least, their critique must be heavily qualified. Constitutional checks and balances, indirect democratic control via national governments and the increasing powers of the European Parliament are sufficient to assure that the EU policy-making is, in nearly all cases, clean, transparent, effective, and politically responsive to the demands of European citizens.
This is something liberals would do well to consider, especially while deciding how we want to engage (and encourage) international institutions in the years to come.