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Primer for the Primaries Redux
by James Palombo
With only several changes, this is a reprint of an article done six years ago, at the outset of Obama’s second run. The reason for the repeat is that the ideological information relayed when the piece was originally written remains on point with the current presidential contest, so a re-run seemed appropriate. It’s important to underscore that this is a “primer”, and in this sense it’s a translation if you will of rather complex material and accordingly is not intended as an exhaustive analysis. However, in its simplicity the piece does provide a point of reference for often neglected concerns, thereby providing the reader the opportunity to think more about the important ideological elements that feed into making our country what it is.
As to our ideological identity, it should be fair at reading’s end to ask what perspective among the three best fits with what one sees as one examines the realities of the American experiment. This “reality check” should help in deciding how pertinent each set of ideological elements is to understanding the actual character of our country. In line with this “reality check” theme it should also be noted that there seems to be with many candidates a call back to halcyon days when politics and politicians were filled with the honesty and integrity that matched the ideals we espouse. As one who has experience with our political and economic arenas, as well as over five decades amid the realities of our “American experiment,” I would caution that this reverie also be held in check. In other words, politicians live in the shades of what is, what isn’t and what could be. It’s a tricky, not-so-transparent world that by its very nature of “getting the vote and winning” often speaks to well-honed, sleight-of-hand maneuvers and skillfully crafted, double entendres, both applied amid selective criticisms of exactly that type behavior. This should not be forgotten no matter the times or the players at the podium.
With this said we turn to the basic ingredients that help in clarifying the ideological logics of those who are now running for the highest office in our land. Again, they are general in nature, which means that elements like the history of theoretical development; an examination of human potential; the spiritual-religious-moral considerations that are part of the fabric of our society; and issues tied to foreign policy, are not explored. In short these are left for more elaborate extensions on the ideological discussions – hopefully accomplished in the context of developing more comprehensive, civic education models that can foster a better informed citizenry. In any event, suffice it to say that given the seriousness of our times, as well as the need to have a more enlightened sense of who we are, the review is worth the read.
It’s not a secret that the Republicans are struggling, and it appears Mitt Romney will not be able to bring home the bacon for the GOP. Said another way, and given the variables on the table, it seems a safe bet that Obama will continue to lead the country for another four years. But no matter the outcome, “toward what end?” and “in what context?” are obvious questions in regard to our country’s future. With that in mind, this article is meant to take a look at political-economic-social elements (ideological principles if you will) that are pertinent to answering these questions – elements that are no doubt important, yet ones that seem clouded in the public eye. In short, and encouraged by people who have requested that I do so, what follows is a ‘primer’ as to what should be taken into ideological consideration as the primaries heat-up, and what should also be of focus once the dust has settled.
To obtain the best grasp of the following ideological concerns, they are couched amid the highly charged struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. This was a time when the country was coming to grips with the freedom and prosperity vibrating in post-World War II America and the call for equality in light of those same variables – an enormous confrontation of the country’s principles and practices. In this context the Movement served to pit the natures of Conservative and Liberal agendas against each other, and also opened the door for alternative party considerations that lay outside both those frames. So, putting the ideological struggles in that timeframe should be helpful as you continue to read. And in doing so, you might also recognize that some of the sensations you feel related to those times are similar to what you might be feeling as you engage with our American experiment today. With Liberals, Conservatives and their mixes all promising answers, and Occupy and Tea Party efforts in full force, the complexities of competing economic and political strategies are, as they were fifty years ago during the civil rights movement, once again at our doorstep.
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How the Conservative and Liberal views unfold:
Consensus Theory – This theoretical construct implies that people have common goals, interests and beliefs and have come together in a society while applying political and economic frames that mirror their best interests.
Democracy – A government by the people, via free elections, with the supreme power vested in the citizens.
Capitalism – An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and developed proportionate to supply and demand and the accumulation and re-distribution of profits in a free market.
Both Conservatives/Republicans and Liberals/Democrats attach to the democracy and capitalism definitions in the context of Consensus theory. However, the two parties split over their interpretation of how the political and economic frames play themselves out in society, particularly in relationship to societal/public interest concerns.
Consistent with the definitions provided above, we live in a democracy and the economic system is based on free market principles. This means that in terms of the political, democratic process, our leaders are elected by an open vote format, and they will represent the interests of the people. Amid a system of checks and balances between branches of the government principles like equality, justice, fairness, etc., should be well heeded and the concerns related to administering matters of state – matters concerning the military, taxes, infrastructure, etc., managed accordingly. In terms of the economic, capitalist process, this market mechanism should be pretty much left to its own devices, with limited interference from government involvement in terms of corporate taxes and regulation. In this way, the market can be free to develop jobs, balance wages and benefits related to profit and in total create more prosperity for the general public. In this sense, any competition that flows from the system is healthy, enabling the society to move forward, while giving individuals the opportunity to succeed accordingly. For Conservatives, this translates into offering more incentives for business/job development, again with limitations on business taxation and development. And in the Conservative logic there is little problem with the match of democracy (a great political system) and free-market capitalism (a great economic system) — both can be seen as complementing each other in terms of government and economic interaction and in the measure of profit and public good.
In the context of this “great match”, social problems, which Conservatives agree do occur, are primarily due to individuals who cannot assimilate to the way things work. In other words, some individuals are simply skewed in terms of their reasoning abilities, especially in understanding that hard work in terms of employment, education, and family function are all at the heart of prosperity.
As I happen to be a criminologist, it is fair to consider criminality in terms of providing an example in reflecting on the nature of political/economic views and social concerns. In this context Conservatives tend to view criminals as individuals who do not or cannot internalize the merits of living in a free and opportunity-available society. In short, while exercising their free will they simply make poor choices. This is due to poor judgment skills (why wouldn’t they choose to go to work for example), and/or to the need for some moral/spiritual/religious awakening (perhaps their faith is weak), and/or to some psychological and/or biological malfunction (it could be that they are just wired poorly.) In the case of the first, the protection of society should be of major concern and the workings within the criminal justice system accordingly should reflect “law and order”.
Criminal behavior should therefore be altered by requisite forms of ‘swift, certain and severe,’ risk-reward punishment – which will bring their choice processes more in line with the law-abiding public. This usually takes the form of imprisonment in varying measures of application and the courts. In terms of the second case, more faith-moral related counseling may be necessary, as having a grounded spiritual sense of self can only result in better behavior. And for the third, forms of psychotherapy and or drug application and or medical procedures that may reduce anti-social behavior could be the remedy. These, with some types of mix and/or match modifications as needed, are generally the approaches to address criminality. Importantly, it should also be noted that this is the same logic applied to those who are poor or without work or without education. (All elements related to criminal behavior by the way.) In short, in exercising their free-will they choose to put themselves in these conditions via poor judgment, etc., it’s a matter of individual behavior.
Therefore, and as noted, the overall public policy formulas in terms of addressing social concerns like crime are generally pointed at providing self-help initiatives to motivate individuals toward working themselves out of their circumstance. (In the case of criminals, keep in mind that the most adequate response to criminality lies in styles of punishment that will be harsh enough to punish individuals for their anti-social behavior while deterring future criminality via encourage going to work in the alternative. This “being tough” has resulted in a strict criminal justice system, with more prisons and more prisoners being held for longer periods of time. An important aside to this point is that as more criminals are deemed to have individual problems, more emphasis – and funding – will be placed on psychological and biological influences, versus sociological/environmental ones. This of course will have an impact on the efforts of those who participate/work in the criminal justice arena – which has a corresponding relationship as to what happens with the theoretical and research focus of various disciplines at the post-secondary levels of study. All said another way, each political perspective has far reaching effects on a number of levels.)
While working under the same umbrella of consensus theory and the essence of the democracy and capitalist/free enterprise frame, Liberals adhere to a different translation as to how our overall system operates. For them, the economic system and the nature of competition can create some disparities, especially as access to opportunities in the system can sometimes be unequal depending on one’s social standing. They are also concerned that in terms of the profit and public good measure the former often overshadows the latter. In short, the match of democracy and the economic system is not as perfect as Conservatives might suggest. Therefore, social problems like poverty, unemployment, under-education and crime should be viewed to a large extent as systematic or structural, rather than simply a manifestation of a person’s individual irresponsibility. Social problems should therefore be a societal concern, which in turn means that the government, particularly one operating under the fairness of democratic principles, should help in reconciling “social” problems. This line of reasoning speaks to creating programs/projects to help those in less fortunate social circumstances, in essence providing the disadvantaged individuals with better opportunities in terms of housing, education, employment, etc., ultimately to help them to better compete. This approach, deemed appropriate in a fortunate society like the U.S., generally translates into more government sponsored programs, bigger government and higher taxes that support both.
Here again, criminality provides a great example of how social problems may be addressed. Liberals have traditionally been proponents of rehabilitation, with the idea that those who commit crimes do so more out of their disadvantaged social situation than any individual shortcoming. This has led to a dramatically different approach from the Conservatives in terms of the philosophy, processes and structure of the criminal justice system as well as the attitudes of the players involved in that system. Liberals rely on spending tax dollars in trying to “help” criminals with prisons designed with programming/rehabilitative features in mind, with more use of parole and early release, with the application of community corrections (versus prison) that feature educational and vocational programs, training and counseling. With these being applied, Liberals argue, criminals can be given the chance to better themselves while improving upon their future societal behavior. (This “sociological” approach to both the motivations for and response to criminal behavior also has a corresponding effect on the focus of education and research efforts at play in the post-secondary arena, especially when juxtaposed to the Conservative, individual, biological and/ or psychological agenda previously noted.)
So, with these differences in mind, imagine these views unfolding within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Conservatives generally perceived those in the minority and poor class as groups of people who simply could not or would not assimilate to the essence of the free-market, democratic system. Providing them with more rights and opportunities beyond the rest of society, especially via taxes and/or government support, was simply off the mark in getting them to understand the discipline, morality and hard work connected to being a responsible citizen. There was no need to move beyond the status quo in this regard; this would only create a system of dependency and in doing so speak to a society that was addressing equality in the wrong manner. The fact was that people in the U.S. had the freedom to be equal – they just had to be willing to work for it. (It’s not difficult to grasp how those considered “racists” could attach to this logic. In brief, the failure of minorities as a reflection of individual shortcomings was a good fit for the belief that people of different colors/races were simply too different to mix with the general society.)
On the other hand, Liberals, with their focus on structural concerns, supported the argument that the denial of equal opportunities and the obvious discrimination on both institutional and individual levels could no longer be tolerated. In this light they saw the staunch provisions of rights and opportunities as necessary in addressing social concerns like poverty, equal opportunity in work and education. In addition, Liberals believed that the free-market, as it had already proven, would not on its own address the continued inequality in terms of employment, education and housing. This meant that legislative strategies like affirmative action and quota systems had to be put into place to ensure legitimate responses to the unequal conditions, and that national projects, like the War on Poverty, had to be initiated to lift people out of the poor social conditions that existed. (This also meant that Supreme Court rulings, particularly their translation of the intent of the Civil Rights Movement, was important. There is no better example than what happened in the context of the “liberal interpretation” of Constitutional mandates related to policing and court “search and seizure” concerns as well the rights extended to those who were incarcerated.)
So, amid the Civil Rights Movement, the battle between the opposing views was joined. However, as the Conservative “right” and Liberal “left” struggle unfolded, another, ideologically different, view was placed on the public’s table – one that suggested both Conservative and Liberals were not getting at the root of the problems facing the country. This was known as the “radical view”, and it involved alternative considerations that were, despite having significant import in terms of early 20th century, political, economic and social concerns, rather foreign to U.S. ideological understanding. Let’s turn to that approach, keeping in mind its analytic importance with both the Civil Rights and contemporary movement times.
How the radical/ alternative view unfolds:
This view, developed primarily via Karl Marx’s “critical analysis of capitalism”, suggests that there is a major flaw in both Conservative and Liberal analyses – an inability to detail the difficulties/problems inherent in the nature of capitalism. In other words, it is proposed that neither Conservative nor Liberals adequately address problems in the country because they don’t/won’t address them in the context of the true realities of capitalism. For radicals, this “purposeful oversight” becomes more damaging as our problems, on both national and international levels, are more tied to our capitalist identity than to democracy — without adequate public awareness to this fact. With this in mind, the analysis develops along the following lines.
Contrary to the Consensus Theory generally supported by Conservatives and Liberals, Conflict Theory proposes something different. The theory references society as an arena in which struggles over natural resources and production of those resources takes place. These struggles will result in power being vested in those who can achieve and maintain control over the resources, a situation which may not be in the best interests of the people at large. In this context societies are made up of different “power” forms, with varying leaders, classes and interest groups developing accordingly and with the most powerful, the “haves” represented in government and positions of authority. These powerful people will act in their own self interest, trying at all times to improve or at least preserve their positions.
The “have-nots,” those primarily without power, will end up trying to defend themselves against the exploitation of the powerful “haves”. This happens in the face of the fact the “haves” use the political arena/government in promoting and protecting their interests. Given these unbalanced circumstances, the “haves” will only deal with the social inequalities that develop out of necessity – to placate or keep under the control the “have-nots” who are essential in maintaining order within the existing system. In the context of any uprising, limited compromise and/or brute force are the common options. It’s important to note that traditional conflict theorists see all societies developing in this way, some more unbalanced than others, but nonetheless the conflict scenario will always exist.
The Radical/Alternative View
Growing out of the conflict logic, radicals argue that the U.S. represents a conflict-oriented capitalist system, not a democracy as is often offered. In other words, the practicalities of capitalism are conflict-oriented in nature and not consistent with the ideals of democracy. Radicals see capitalism as a system that survives off the proliferation of profit, and profit development becomes primary to all else, including public good and overall human development. In this way the profit motive, controlled by the means and methods of the “haves,” consumes all in its path. This situation even creates a society whose cultural instincts become centered on materialism, consumerism and self-interest, a circumstance that results in people actually acting against their own collective/public interests. Radicals continue that in conjunction with the development of a class-based system those with the most profit/capital (the “haves” or ruling class) control and influence the government and use their power to protect and increase their interests.
Social problems are inherent in this competitive, unequal, conflict environment and the problems won’t/can’t be resolved simply because they are endemic to the capitalist system itself. Avenues of success will continually be limited and/or restricted to portions of the population, particularly those in the lower class, leaving them out of any real “means to success” equation. And as success goals themselves are highly extolled in the public eye, a certain social stress will be put on the less fortunate members of society, a stress which in itself can be socially problematic and result in, among others things, a high incidence of violence and deviant behavior. Radicals also argue that capitalists can and will capitalize on social problems. An example of this lies in the use of people in socially problematic, mostly poor circumstances as surplus labor — a marginal work force that can be used to keep other workers in place while profits are maintained. This may even translate into exporting jobs to foreign markets, especially if this type action reflects well on profit margin considerations.
For Radicals, it has been in the U.S., the most advanced capitalist system in the world, where these conditions are most perilous, especially given the guise of democracy used to misdirect public concern and/or to keep the general population in order. In fact, this “ruse” has its own set of dangers, resulting in confusion and contradiction which feeds into a state of ‘normlessness’ as people try to comprehend and work at social problems referencing democratic ideals when in reality it’s the practicalities of capitalism that fuel many of the problems. The socially numbing situation is worsened as little if any focus happens that can shed light on, or alter, the circumstance.
There are other considerations Radicals raise via this critique of capitalism. There are concerns that reference the development of a dual labor force, one for the more advantaged, another for the less advantaged, both of which continue to foster unequal living conditions. Following this logic, radicals also point to the dual tracks in education, the more privileged and sophisticated post-secondary universities to service the future efforts of the advantaged class, the other one (including community colleges by the way) intended to support the work of the other classes. Additionally, radicals posit that there are dual forms of justice, one for the powerful (which creates advantages in civil proceedings while often eliminating involvement in the criminal justice system), and another for the not-so-powerful. This “duality in justice” helps, in fact, in creating a criminal justice system that does not have justice at its core, but more the management of the poor, marginally employed, uneducated class of people. Moreover, this happens while creating a “criminal justice industrial complex” that promotes jobs and profit in the mix of criminality – another example of “capitalizing” on social concerns. (This component of their argument attaches to war efforts as well. In other words, wars, generally fought with economic interests in mind, can fuel the development of the “military industrial complex,” an enterprise which capitalizes on both the war itself and the ensuing, foreign “clean-up” and military build-up — all evidenced via the U.S. experience with World War II.)
For Radicals then, in order to deal with the concerns of a society like the U.S., the conflict-producing system of capitalism has to be eliminated and/or altered. In the traditional Marxist view this means that the destruction of capitalism via revolution must happen. This is the only way to rid society of the ills of capitalism. For others, change should occur with a more evolutionary approach in mind, with alterations in the capitalist processes happening as people become more enlightened to its inherent nature. The differences in how to confront capitalism obviously present a significant and contentious point for Radical efforts. Yet with either option it’s clear that confronting capitalism is the only way towards a society where the will and welfare of the people could be truly realized. With those ends in mind, Radicals support the implementation of the ideological frames of socialism and communism.
Socialism: this frame represents a system where the political and economic efforts are organized toward vesting the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of resources/wealth/profit by and for the public. In this sense, all government entities act with public/collective interests in mind.
Communism: a system, which should follow from socialist efforts, that exhibits a highly advanced, classless, stateless environment with common, public ownership and administration of the means of production for the benefit of the entire population.
Radicals believe that within these frames, social concerns like education, health care, work, housing, etc. would become the focus of the economic engine in place, ensuring that the equitable distribution of wealth and the principle of equality remain at the center of economic growth. In this way social problems would be minimized and the energy for collective approaches to social problems would not be organized around profit but around the welfare of the people. In terms of criminality, it would be expected that in this fair, just and equitable society one would see lower rates of crime, particularly with general property offenses, along with a corresponding drop in the level of incarceration. Contrary to capitalist states there would be no crimes designed to control or suppress people. Moreover, the overall responses to any crimes would be more directed toward the education and health arenas, with more diversion and/or community- oriented programs in place to lessen the use of imprisonment. (In terms of academic concerns and examining the nature of social problems, rather than a focus on individual, biological or psychological elements favored by Conservatives or the sociological approach of the Liberals, one can imagine more integrated, cross-discipline efforts taking place.)
As was the case with the Conservative and Liberal views, getting a sense of the Radical view within the context of the Civil Rights Movement proves insightful. In this light it is not difficult to recognize the appeal of the argument when it was couched in the destructive struggles over fairness, justice and equality taking place at that time. So, despite any possible shortcomings of the approach, including it appearing at times as highly utopian and the stagnating, bureaucratic and even dictatorial results evidenced in the Soviet Union – a perspective that put capitalism squarely on the table of discussion, demanded attention.
The Radical analysis of capitalism had its value in the ‘60s and it remains relevant today, particularly as our problems seem closely related to the disparity in wealth and power existing in our system and particularly given the attachment to the principles of socialism, communism and capitalism being employed in other countries, especially in China. Importantly it’s not rocket science to grasp that in order to best think about, understand, and discuss all the issues facing the U.S. (and the world) we cannot escape the fact that we must be willing to entertain all the information available to us. And as noted, this “primer” was presented with that in mind — to help in navigating the often unclear and choppy waters of the political, economic and social exchanges of the day, hopefully providing some logic/insight to better measure what we see happening around us.
As always, your comments, thoughts and suggestions will be welcomed on any one of the considerations raised, and please don’t hesitate to ask your leaders, and those who aspire to be, questions accordingly. Certainly nothing bad can come from open and honest dialogue – particularly at this point in time, we owe ourselves at least that.
I wanted to add just a few additional comments to this review. The ideological struggles noted speak to the tensions between economic and social (wo)man that have existed throughout human history. In other words, it’s always been a contest over how to best manage the two elements tied to human nature. Whatever systems might develop, this is something to keep in mind, particularly given that some form of capitalism may best serve the contemporary interests of both social and economic man.
Also, in terms of this article’s current, presidential-run relevance, it should be evident that Trump represents the basic Conservative line linked to embracing the value of capitalism and the power of the market. As he was trained to do in business, he’s attached to the “it’s money that matters” theme, believing he can appeal to the economic-man, capitalist interests both at home and across the world. In this light and amid his questionable personal/character traits and the alternating and often unclear policy positions, he seems unfocused on the social-man, democracy related concerns that exist. Some argue that Trump purposely muddies already existing ideological “murky waters” as it’s there where he gathers his strength. In any event we shall see where his strategy leads.
Those on the democratic ticket, like Joe Biden, are in line with the traditional liberal approach spelled out, addressing the problems of income and power disparities in our democracy without questioning the nature of capitalism. Especially in light of their support from the wealthy class, this “gap” may be the reason why Liberals seem to have difficulty in finding a concrete party platform. And there are the progressive players like Bernie Sanders. They support a focus on reaching our democracy-related goals while bringing aspects of the radical, critical analysis of capitalism to the table, including ideas that can be tied to socialism. Unfortunately, without offering any real detailed explanation of how socialism might be referenced in capitalist America, they are prone to creating as much ideological confusion as clarity.
With these thoughts in mind, it’s clear we have a number of significant concerns on our table. In this context you are encouraged to think about the considerations put forth in this article, recognizing that for our future’s sake we have some learning to do. It is said that in war – and we are indeed in an ideological war – truth is often the first casualty. In this sense, let’s try our best to keep that from continuing to happen in our times.
About the author:
Jim Palombo, Politics Editor. James Palombo’s work focuses on issues related to social, political and economic concerns in the U.S. and abroad. He is the author of several books, the most prominent being his autobiographical discourse, “Criminal to Critic-Reflections Amid The American Experiment,” Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. The book chronicles his experiences from drug dealer and convict to social worker, professor, world traveler and public policy advocate. While continuing to travel, he divides his time mainly between Endicott, New York, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.