November 2004
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Month November 2004

Progressives, morality, and community

Common wisdom these days seems to suggest that progressives have a political Achilles heel: morality. Regardless of the real impact that religious belief had on the 2004 election (1), it’s overwhelmingly true that Republicans have tapped into an issue which is neglected by Democrats. If we want to stop the Democrats’ continued rightward drift, it’s important to understand morality, society, and politics at a deeper level than the discussion is being conducted today.

My current thinking on progressive morality started with a discussion I had back in February of this year with a friend who said (roughly): "the left loses support in some quarters because it fails to provide the linkage to morality that many, if not most, people want." Since that comment, I’ve been trying to understand how progressives can create a credible civil and secular morality for our public sphere.

I now believe that to be the wrong approach.

Superb wines in October and November

It’s been awhile since I posted about wine; recent events seemed more important to discuss. But I have had some great bottles of wine lately, particularly given an influx of out-of-town visitors and my own travels.

Trimbach 1989 Clos Ste Hune Hors Choix
Amazingly thick and lush, the Hors Choix had a tea and lemon mineral quality, with incredible concentration and length. Truly a phenomenal wine.
Trimbach 1990 Cuvee Frederic Emile
A decent bottle, but paled in comparison to the Hors Choix, which followed. Starting to enter maturity, and a bit awkward compared to 1989 or especially the wonderful 1983, but the austere minerality and lemony fruit in this wine is terrific.
Chapoutier 1990 Barbe Rac Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Delicious upon decanting, and even better an hour later, this is a massive Chateauneuf. Formerly giving a lot of beef aromas, this time it’s hugely leathery and is a dead ringer for a massive Beaucastel. Great floral high tones behind the leather, with some green olives in the palate and a long finish. Incredibly stinky but rich and complex. An incredible wine, even for people who don’t normally like the Chapoutier style.
Jamet 1990 Cote Rotie
Beautifully delicate Cote Rotie, with the dark berry core and a floral high-tone note which gives it great subtlety. The “roasty” element hangs in the background. Great bottle of wine.
Leoville-Las-Cases 1966 St. Julien
A birth-year wine for me, the L-L-C is a great example of mature, sweet, old Bordeaux. The wine is soft and spicy, with terrific aromas and no hard edges.
Vieux Telegraphe 1978 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
My last bottle of the 1978, this was a perfect wine in every way. Drunk at Chez Panisse for my birthday with my friend Bryan Loufbourrow, the wine was not even close to fragile — holding up for a couple of hours in the glass. It did, like its sibling, need time to blossom in the decanter, and was initially closed. Once it opened, the wine showed intensely meaty and spicy aromas with a sweet palate. Sadly, this was my last bottle of a legendary wine, but one can always hope to find it again…
Jamet 1988 Cote Rotie Cote Brune
Also drunk at Chez Panisse, this bottle was sweet and spicy, definitely fuller than the regular bottling, but displaying the same delicacy of floral nose. The roasty background was augmented by a hint of bacon.
Raveneau 1996 Vaillons Chablis
The starting wine to a cassoulet and lamb dinner this week at Cafe Campagne, this Raveneau was tight as a drum, but incredibly good after some time in the glass. Started out steely and with huge acidity, it gained body and depth as it warmed and opened. This wine will benefit from a lot more time in the cellar.
Domaine Tempier 1984 Tourtine Bandol
My last bottle of 1984 Tempier, and it needed to be drunk. Didn’t last all night in the glass, but for a glorious hour the lush, sweet fruit showed “old wine” spiciness, along with the “dusty tree bark” and leather this wine often displays. A coppery hint on the palate after awhile demonstrated that the 1984’s seem poised on a peak, ready to decline.

Article on John Kekes’s “Illusions of Egalitarianism” interview on Philosophy News

I recently wrote an editorial on Philosophy News, responding to an interview with John Kekes entitled “The Illusion of Egalitarianism” (paralleling his book by the same title). The editorial was posted today, and although it’s not my best piece of writing ever, I felt that Kekes’s attack on modern liberalism (via perceived flaws in philosophical egalitarianism) deserved a response.

I may post additional thoughts on the topic here, but not in the very short term — I’m in the middle of a larger writing project which is taking up my scant time away from work. Hopefully by Thanksgiving I’ll have a draft of that article completed and then I can get back to some political philosophy, particularly in the wake of the election.

Holding elections does not equal constitutional democracy

The fact that elections were held in Afghanistan last month is an important achievement. But elections alone don’t accomplish what most people think of as “bringing democracy” to a country. It’s worth considering why, because the same factors will be at play in Iraq, and are at work in many so-called “democracies” outside Europe and the United States today.

We tend to think of “democracy” as a synonym for the type of government that we have in the United States, or in the United Kingdom, and thus when we wish to expand democracy around the world, we tend to focus on holding fair and free elections. But democracy, or the popular selection of leaders and/or policies, is only one aspect of governance in our society. Arguably, it’s not the aspect of our governance that provides stability. Accordingly, over-emphasis on the role of democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t likely to lead to liberal democracy. Here’s why.

The distinctive character of American or British governance is constructed of at least two parts: liberal constitutionalism and democratic selection of leadership. Liberal constitutionalism seeks to structure and therefore limit the power of government, and is a practical way to achieve the “rule of law.” Constitutionalism formally defines the nature of government in the form of a covenant which supersedes ordinary law and executive action. Constitutionalism is “classically liberal” when protection of individual liberties are built into the legal covenant alongside the rules specifying the structure and powers of government. Democratic selection of leadership is designed to give the governed population an ongoing voice into how constitutional powers are used, a way to provide input to elected leadership on the needs and desires of the populace, and a method of redress when power is used in unpopular ways or the constitutional covenant is breached.

Having one does not imply the presence of the other; the world today is littered with “democracies” that elect leadership, but whose leadership either has no constitutional limits or is capable of ignoring them without consequence. Fareed Zakaria has used the term “illiberal democracy” to describe such countries, and it’s a good one. In addition, there are countries with constitutional limits on power but limited (or no) ability to vote for their leadership. We can term these countries “liberal autocracies.” Examples of the latter would include Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, or (partially) Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf.

Now that the Bush team has won a second term, and seem likely to continue their present course in Iraq, Afghanistan, and possibly start focusing on Iran, it’s worth dismantling the term “democracy” into its component parts and examining how each might be realized in the Middle East. After all, holding elections isn’t going to yield the results we want if the population isn’t first committed to limited government and the rule of law. Elections without popular commitment to constitutionally limited government will simply yield popularly elected autocracies, and in the Middle East today these are most likely Islamist and anti-American. Exactly what we hoped to avoid.

Stunned

Boy, were we wrong. Yesterday’s triumphal confidence in the final polls have turned into the grim realization that Gallup was probably living in the real world and the rest of us were following polls which weren’t. The youth vote didn’t matter, and possibly didn’t materialize. Despite long lines at polling places, it looks like turnout wasn’t as high as many (including myself) expected. And John Zogby has prudently deleted last night’s final projection of a Kerry blowout from his website.

There’s no particular reason to be hopeful about Ohio, but those who filed provisional ballots have the right to a determination of their voting status. This means that the final election result won’t be certifiable for some time, but it won’t be in much doubt in anyone’s mind. (UPDATE: Senator Kerry conceded the race shortly after this paragraph was written.)

And thus the post-mortem begins.

The nation has never booted a "war-time" President, and the Bush campaign has successfully leveraged that trend. Fear was their best weapon, made doubly potent by the conscious and cynical exaggeration of the threats posed to this country by our current enemies. The Democrats ran a thoughtful, experienced war veteran who understands the limits of conflict and the value of peace; the Republicans countered with an inexperienced xenophobe. In our manufactured fear, arrogance and the illusion of strength seemed like the rational choice.

As progressives, we have to change the dialogue that made this choice seem rational. Now that the election is over, I hope to start seeing some rational analysis of the "war on terror." Folks like Jeffrey Record, whose expert analysis of the "war on terror" was virtually ignored during the election cycle, should be our point of departure. The public understanding of Islamic fundamentalism must be bolstered by familiarity with Richard Fletcher, Nabil Matar, and Fareed Zakaria, as antidotes to the dangerously fanciful "clash of civilizations" being peddled by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. More on this in future posts.

The social conservative victory last night deepened. All 11 referenda on banning same-sex marriage won, presenting progressives with a decade of work to repeal state constitutional amendments, if it can be done at all. The Democrats ran a tolerant, moderate progressive; the Republican candidate is not only allied with social conservatives (like Bush Senior and Ronald Reagan) but seems genuinely one of them. This view won’t be shared by everyone reading, but last night faith and fear won out over reason and tolerance.

Domestically, we need to fight a rear-guard action to ameliorate (to the extent possible) the effects of a second Bush term and expanded GOP control of Congress on the Supreme Court, Social Security, fiscal profligacy, and civil rights. Last night, GOP leadership was already talking about an aggressive legislative agenda, and we must make common cause wherever possible with Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, Olympia Snowe, and the remaining Republican moderates to stop the more egregious instances of the conservative agenda.

Sitting bleary-eyed over coffee this morning, I keep wanting to ask Christopher Hitchens if this is really the outcome he wanted, deep down. Bush’s re-election will represent a mandate to continue the foreign policy that Hitchens endorses, while further entrenching the very same forces of intolerance and fundamentalism here at home. The nature and depth of this tradeoff is incalculable at present, but the gloves are off and the next four years will show us how far an unfettered conservative Republican establishment is able to go, and how much a weakened Democratic minority is able to fight.

Having just finished Azar Nafisi’s incredible book Reading Lolita in Teheran, I keep thinking this morning that we’re in for our own fundamentalist revolution, and I am filled with sadness for my country and my society. And filled with apprehension about what it will take to repair the damage that lies ahead.

Election prediction: John Kerry

I wanted to post an election prediction with about a week to go, but internet connectivity on Saltspring Island turned out to be problematic. Ah well, I guess that’s why they call it a "vacation."

By now it must be obvious to everyone that the popular vote polls really are deadlocked, and whether an individual poll shows Bush or Kerry slightly ahead, it’s within the margin of error. Statistics buffs will know that this really does mean that you can’t falsify the null hypothesis that the two data series have identical means, so small variations in the percentages don’t mean a thing.

I’m a partisan in this election, so take this with a grain of salt, but I do believe that since the final debate, the evidence has shown that Kerry has been in a strong position to win this election.

Popular vote polls notwithstanding, my prediction is that Kerry is going to win the electoral college, and likely the popular vote by a small percentage. The electoral college will be 295 +/- 5 for Kerry, as GOTV efforts and the incumbent effect solidify his position in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. New Hampshire and New Mexico really could go either way, and turnout there will likely decide things. Today’s final Gallup poll and Zogby tracking polls confirm this for me; following Chris Bower’s reasoning, if the popular polls are in a dead heat, the challenger will likely win.

The above would suggest that the race should not going to drag on past Nov. 2nd — there may be some challenges in individual states, but depending upon which state is involved in a vote challenge, the electoral college count may already have decided the race. Only a significant challenge in Florida, Ohio, or Pennsylvania would likely stall our knowledge of the final outcome.

At any rate, I wanted to get a prediction posted. On Wednesday we’ll see whether it held up.