Tilting at Statists

by Conor Friedersdorf

On his Twitter feed, talk radio host Mark Levin has asked for feedback on “A Conservative Manifesto,” the epilogue to his bestselling book Liberty and Tyranny. Some time ago I borrowed the book from my grandfather, so I thought I’d skip ahead, read its final pages and offer my thoughts.

This isn’t mere pique. Despite my criticism of Mr. Levin’s radio show, where the host does premeditated violence to public discourse and appeals to the most juvenile impulses of the conservative base, I find his book length work much more worthy of engagement. Its tone is more measured, it regularly proceeds via logical argument, and certain points are stated with enough clarity that productive rebuttals are possible (especially since they proceed without anyone’s finger on the mute button).

As I reflect on Liberty and Tyranny’s final pages, however, I find myself unable to respond without addressing a larger feature of the book that I regard as its most consequential flaw: Its every section, including the Epilogue, references few if any concepts as often as “Statism.”

The term, as used by Mr. Levin, is introduced in the book’s initial chapter, “On Liberty and Tyranny,” where he asserts, “For the conservative, the civil society has as its highest purpose its preservation and improvement.”

He goes on:

The Modern Liberal believes in the supremacy of the state, thereby rejecting the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the order of the civil society, in whole or in part. For the Modern Liberal, the individual’s imperfection and personal pursuits impede the objective of a utopian state. In this, Modern Liberalism promotes what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described as a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny (some form of totalitarianism). As the word “liberal” is, in its classical meaning, the opposite of authoritarian, it is more accurate, therefore, to characterize the Modern Liberal as a statist.

It is difficult to overemphasize how important that paragraph is to the balance of Mr. Levin’s book, and his entire intellectual oeuvre. The United States that he comments on isn’t one that pits Republicans against Democrats, or conservatives against liberals, or the center right against the center left, or where citizens of complicated political persuasions -- mixing ideology, pragmatism and ignorance -- do some combination of participating in politics and ignoring it. Instead Mark Levin’s America is one where the conservatives are pitted against the Statists, or to put things as he would, where liberty is pitted against tyranny.

Certainly there are times when abstractions as dramatic help to elucidate important points. Indeed this happens in Liberty and Tyranny: Mr. Levin does a capable job setting forth numerous aspects of historically informed, principled conservatism in language that is notably accessible. Though abstraction helps Mr. Levin to define conservatism, however, it leads him so far astray as he attempts to talk about non-conservatives as to render his analysis utterly useless in understanding more than half of the American political landscape.

Before I back up that assertion, allow me to cite a small example of how Mr. Levin’s oversimplified view of America leads him astray. After quoting the Federalist Papers, he writes:

For much of American history, the balance between government authority and individual liberty was understood and accepted. Federal power was confined to that which was specifically enumerated in the Constitution and no more. And that power was further limited, for it was dispersed among three federal branchesthe legislative, executive, and judicial. Beyond that, the power remained with the states and ultimately the people.

He proceeds to point out that the Framers made amending the Constitution very difficult to safeguard its status as a lasting social contract. “But in the 1930s, during the Great Depression,” he writes, “the Statists successfully launched a counterrevolution that radically and fundamentally altered the nature of American society.”

Does anything seem notable about this narrative? It seems that when one frames all American history as a contest between conservatives and Statists, it is easy to gloss over events like the Whiskey Rebellion, the rise of judicial review, the Alien and Sedition Acts, slavery, and the Civil War, among many other events, by breezily writing, “For much of American history, the balance between government authority and individual liberty was understood and accepted.”

Was it really?

But let us be charitable. Perhaps Mr. Levin, writing with an eye toward current events, began the conflict between liberty and tyranny in FDR’s America because he regards it as when the particular threat to liberty that the United States today faces began.

It is viewed through this lens that Liberty and Tyranny fails due to Mr. Levin’s decision to label non-conservatives from FDR forward as Statists, a term that is defined with more and more precision as the book progresses. The Statist “has an insatiable appetite for control… is constantly agitating for government action… speaks in the tongue of the demagogue… veils his pursuits in moral indignation…. and is never circumspect about his own shortcomings” (page 8). Qualities antithetical to the statist include “initiative, self-reliance, and independence” (page 9).  “The Statist often justifies change as conferring new, abstract rights, which is nothing more than a Statist deception intended to empower the state and deny man his real rights” (page 14). “The Statist is dissatisfied with the condition of his own existence… he is angry, resentful, petulant, and jealous.” (page 15) “For the Statist, liberty is not a blessing but the enemy” (page 16). “The Statist urges Americans to view themselves through the lens of those who resent and even hate them… The Statist wants Americans to see themselves as backward” (page 18). “

That gets us most of the way through Chapter 2, and the book goes on like that, with “The Statist” as its villain – he is vexed by the Declaration of Independence in the chapter "On Faith and the Founding," falsely promising utopianism in the chapter "On the Constitution," and in the chapter "On Federalism" he takes advantage of the 14th amendment as “a pathway to his precious Utopia where, in the end, all are enslaved in one form or another” – unlike the right-thinking reasons Mr. Levin offers for supporting the 14th amendment, which he accurately casts as affording tools to address “intransigent state racism against African Americans.”

Terrible as he sounds, The Statist that Mr. Levin describeshis ill deeds keep growing as the book winds down--would at least play a clarifying role in American politics if he actually existed. Imagine how useful a blueprint Mr. Levin’s book would prove if the primary opponents of conservatives were actually cunning Statists with malign motives and hatred of liberty in their hearts. But re-read all the attributes that describe the Statist. Does anyone in American politics fit that description, let alone a plurality sizable enough to enact their agenda?

In fact, the main antagonists that the American conservative vies with in politics are the independent, the liberal, the center left Democrat, the progressive, even some among the apolitical.  The average people who support “Statist” President Obama’s domestic agenda are apolitical African American women who work in cubicles, law firm associates who earn six figure salaries, and working parents who fret about being uninsurednot utopian radicals bent on advancing a counterrevolution that destroys the freedom won by the Founding generation.

By arguing against The Statist, Mr. Levin can attract a huge radio audience, and sell lots of hardback books, but the consequence is an inability to accurately understand what it is that motivates the people who support President Obama’s liberal agenda – and ultimately a failure to effectively oppose that agenda. One hears a lot about how President Obama is a secret radical, but even granting the truth of that assertion -- which I do not -- would hardly explain why so many Americans voted for him, or why so many Congressional members share his legislative priorities.

Even if Mr. Levin succeeds in vilifying Mr. Obama himself, his popular legislative priorities will merely arise in a future Democratic administration unless someone convinces Americans that their actual reasons for favoring some liberal policies are wrong.

The enduring power of writing by Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and their success advancing their ideas over decades rather than news cycles, is owed in part to their sophisticated understanding of why liberalism is seductive, the valuable insights it offers, and how to persuade its adherents that some positions they hold are counterproductive or wrongheaded. Liberty and Tyranny will be forgotten, along with the Da Vinci Code and other tomes by right-wing talk radio hosts, because it doesn’t understand or grapple with the best version of its opponents’ arguments, or even the mainstream version. It instead erects terrible straw man and very capably knocks down.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t any Mark Levin-style Statists in America, though among the many liberal Democrats I’ve interacted with in the course of my life I’ve yet to meet one. I’m sure there are a few out there, no doubt eating arugula, and insofar as Mr. Levin’s book keeps us on guard against them, good on him. But spending so much of one’s time fighting straw menand convincing one’s sizable audience that those straw men are your political opponents, and that your every sword swipe is dispatching them is how one wins a battle while losing a war.

Liberty and Tyranny at its best is a Cliffs Notes refresher on conservatism for the reader too busy to read the Federalist Papers and Edmund Burke. At its worst, it is a counterproductive tome that misleads conservatives about the nature of their fellow Americans, distracts from the actual disagreements and differing priorities that separate us, and in so doing exacerbates the hard right’s present tendency to cede all reality based arguments about governance by never engaging them at all.