• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Harvey Mansfield Sees Crisis of American Self-Government

Harvey Manfield is a giant in the field of political science and a rare conservative on Harvard’s social science faculty. Oddly, his critique of the Democratic Party reads like something from the OTB comments section.

WSJ (“The Crisis of American Self-Government: Harvey Mansfield, Harvard’s ‘pet dissenter,’ on the 2012 election, the real cost of entitlements, and why he sees reason for hope.”):

‘We have now an American political party and a European one. Not all Americans who vote for the European party want to become Europeans. But it doesn’t matter because that’s what they’re voting for. They’re voting for dependency, for lack of ambition, and for insolvency.”

Few have thought as hard, or as much, about how democracies can preserve individual liberty and national virtue as the eminent political scientist Harvey Mansfield. When it comes to assessing the state of the American experiment in self-government today, his diagnosis is grim, and he has never been one to mince words.

Mr. Mansfield sat for an interview on Thursday at the Harvard Faculty Club. This year marks his 50th as a teacher at the university. It isn’t easy being the most visible conservative intellectual at an institution that has drifted ever further to the left for a half-century. “I live in a one-party state and very much more so a one-party university,” says the 80-year-old professor with a sigh. “It’s disgusting. I get along very well because everybody thinks the fact that I’m here means the things I say about Harvard can’t be true. I am a kind of pet—a pet dissenter.”

[...]

[T]he electorate that granted Barack Obama a second term was unwise—the president achieved “a sneaky victory,” Mr. Mansfield says. “The Democrats said nothing about their plans for the future. All they did was attack the other side. Obama’s campaign consisted entirely of saying ‘I’m on your side’ to the American people, to those in the middle. No matter what comes next, this silence about the future is ominous.”

At one level Mr. Obama’s silence reveals the exhaustion of the progressive agenda, of which his presidency is the spiritual culmination, Mr. Mansfield says. That movement “depends on the idea that things will get better and better and progress will be made in the actualization of equality.” It is telling, then, that during the 2012 campaign progressives were “confined to defending what they’ve already achieved or making small improvements—student loans, free condoms. The Democrats are the party of free condoms. That’s typical for them.”

[...]

The Obama campaign’s dissection of the public into subsets of race, sex and class resentments is a case in point. “Victims come in different kinds,” says Mr. Mansfield, “so they’re treated differently. You push different buttons to get them to react.”

The one-party state line is especially amusing to regulars here but the rest of this is essentially the “47 percent” or “makers vs. takers” argument dressed up with a bit of sophistication. I do agree with Mansfield that President Obama managed to win re-election without laying out much of a plan for the future; but Mitt Romney tried to do the same thing, so it’s not as if the electorate was given the choice between nothing and a detailed governing strategy.

Interestingly, Mansfield shows his mettle in his critique of his own party:

“The Republicans should want to recover the notion of the common good,” Mr. Mansfield says. “One way to do that is to show that we can’t afford the entitlements as they are—that we’ve always underestimated the cost. ‘Cost’ is just an economic word for the common good. And if Republicans can get entitlements to be understood no longer as irrevocable but as open to negotiation and to political dispute and to reform, then I think they can accomplish something.”

The welfare state’s size isn’t what makes it so stifling, Mr. Mansfield says. “What makes government dangerous to the common good is guaranteed entitlements, so that you can never question what expenses have been or will be incurred.” Less important at this moment are spending and tax rates. “I don’t think you can detect the presence or absence of good government,” he says, “simply by looking at the percentage of GDP that government uses up. That’s not an irrelevant figure but it’s not decisive. The decisive thing is whether it’s possible to reform, whether reform is a political possibility.”

Then there is the matter of conservative political practice. “Conservatives should be the party of judgment, not just of principles,” he says. “Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values, a strong national defense—but those principles must be defended with the use of good judgment. Conservatives need to be intelligent, and they shouldn’t use their principles as substitutes for intelligence. Principles need to be there so judgment can be distinguished from opportunism. But just because you give ground on principle doesn’t mean you’re an opportunist.”

Of course, it’s pretty hard to persuade the public that your concern is with the greater good when you begin with arguments suggesting that most of them are idiots looking for free condoms.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    I’m still thinking about some aspects of this piece, but one argument that never made sense to me was the “lack of an Obama plan.” How hard was it to see his plan as a continuation? Not to mention, the concrete proposals (dream act, jobs bills, etc.) he supported.

    You always have a better idea of an incumbent than a challenger. The incumbent doesn’t have to option of just pretending to be one thing or another. He is what he is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    They’re voting for dependency, for lack of ambition, and for insolvency.”

    This is as far as I got. I didn’t need to read any further. Mansfield is an idiot. He might be an intelligent idiot, but he is still an idiot and as such I will not waste any time reading him.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 4

  3. john personna says:

    “I don’t think you can detect the presence or absence of good government,” he says, “simply by looking at the percentage of GDP that government uses up. That’s not an irrelevant figure but it’s not decisive. The decisive thing is whether it’s possible to reform, whether reform is a political possibility.”

    A good start and a last minute miss.

    The decisive thing is whether a specific program is succeeding in cost-benefit analysis. I think right now the Dems are more program oriented. They may be wrong about high speed trains, but they are trying to make the case for them in terms of economic growth etc. On the other side though, Republicans only want to talk about “the percentage of GDP that government uses up.” They don’t think, politically, that they ever need to get down to brass tacks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Harvey Mansfield is Eric Florack???
    Who’da thunk it???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. Tony W says:

    Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values, a strong national defense

    This is the heart of the conservative meme over the past three decades. The correct principles should be free enough markets, strong moral family values, and a strong enough national defense.

    This country desperately needs the Republicans to form a loyal opposition, to recognize and honor the necessary grey areas in order foster a rational debate in this country on these subjects. It is not sufficient to simply call the D’s weak, for example, when they want to cut a redundant and expensive weapons program. It is not persuasive enough to simply call the D’s immoral because they want to extend equal rights to homosexuals. Republicans have proven they can use name calling effectively with a certain percentage of the population, but to build a majority, at some point they will have to do the hard work of building actual arguments. Those arguments may require some self-reflection and changing of positions as well, for example when they find themselves on the wrong side of history.

    The problem as I see it here is these subjects tend to lend themselves to jingoism and platitudes more easily than rational debate. It takes a very strong leader to move beyond that, and the cartoon characters the Republicans have put forward over the last few years are simply not up to the task.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  6. Steve Hynd says:

    We have now an American political party and a European one.

    Having lived in Europe my first three and a half decades, I laughed. What exactly is a “European Party” supposed to be? Golden Dawn? The British Tory Party? The SPD? Syriza?

    There’s no argument there about what exactly constitutes a “European” Party as distinct from an “American” one nor any argument that one US political party has become this nebullious “European”.

    In other words, it’s dumb name-calling (“Socialists! Commies!”) dressed up in faux-intellectual clothing, same as the word “radical” used by the folks at Powerline today to describe Obama. Dog whistles for the Mccarthyist Right, who see black helicopters and FEMA re-education camps everywhere.

    People, I wish Obama was a democratic socialist. He’s not.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 2

  7. Dave A says:

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/line-of-the-day-sneering-at-europe-edition/

    “In the parlance of the modern-day right, Europe means several things: weakness, socialism, un-Americanism. Europe is not so much a swear-word as it is a sneer-word”—Erik Kain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Steve Hynd: @Dave A: I think Mansfield is just saying that we’re following Europe’s path of a large welfare state that’s demographically unsustainable. It worked fabulously in Europe for decades but can’t sustain itself when people are living longer and having few children. In the US, we don’t have either problem but have managed to generate most of the effects with the combination of socialized medicine for the elderly and a stupid health care system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  9. wr says:

    “People who vote my way do it after long, careful, deliberate thought, contemplating the meaning of their choices and the ramifications not only for themselves but for the country. People who voted for the other guy did it either because they selfishly wanted goodies more than they cared about the future, or they were just brainwashed or stupid.”

    I’ve read variations on this from intellectuals like the one cited here and idiots like some of the putzes who post here. And what none of them seems to understand is that until you can summon up the grace to assume that people who vote differently from you do it with exactly the same degree of thought and belief as your guy (and of course, those run all the way across the spectrum on both sides), you will never, never, never, never get a single one to vote for your team.

    You want my vote? Great. Make an effort to understand why I vote the way I do, and then explain to me how your vision, even though it seems opposite from mine, is actually a better path to the future I’m hoping for. Tell me I’m simply not smart enough to understand that you’re right — or that I’m so corrupt that even though I know you’re right I’ll vote against you anyway — and I’ll devote my life to making sure you never win another election.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  10. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Ah well, as long as you exclude those wonderful Nordic countries.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. john personna says:

    (As an aside, Germany is also in Europe.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    He’s ignorant to boot. Government spending doesn’t “use up” GDP, it’s a component contributing to GDP.

    GDP = C + I + G + (X – M). Got that, Mansfield? That little G is government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    @john personna:

    Germany has nothing to do with the Republican Party or with the Tea Party. Their Industrial Policy is Solyndra on steroids. They also spend heavily with preschools. Germans are also avid savers, not people that believes that Credit Cards are gods.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. john personna says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    We are crossing the threads.

    My point (now both places) is that when people use the scary word “Europe” they pretend that it does not contain successful models or elements.

    Germany has a pretty good balance sheet and future, doesn’t it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. john personna says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    LOL, someone downgraded the definition of GDP!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Scott O says:

    @john personna: Didn’t you get the memo? Europe now means Greece and Spain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  17. Dave A says:

    @James Joyner:
    Perhaps, but I’m certain that an incredibly accomplished political scientist knows what the response will be from the political right when he drops the word “European” in describing the Dems. I think your point would ring truer if he didn’t say this:

    “Not all Americans who vote for the European party want to become Europeans…”

    This isn’t just ” We are being fiscally irresponsible, here is an example of the repercussions of fiscal irresponsibility: Europe”, but includes a jab at the “un-American” Dems who want to fundamentally change the US into some perceived homogenous Europe that is often referred to. There is at least an element of “Take our country back” and usage of “snear words” in his commentary, dressed up for people who are above FNC.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  18. Dave A says:

    *sneer word

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Rafer Janders says:

    I do agree with Mansfield that President Obama managed to win re-election without laying out much of a plan for the future; but Mitt Romney tried to do the same thing, so it’s not as if the electorate was given the choice between nothing and a detailed governing strategy.

    And, um, Obama actually has been president already for almost four years. So we have a pretty good idea of what kind of president he’d be, since all we have to do is look at what kind of president he already is….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  20. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W:

    Republicans have proven they can use name calling effectively with a certain percentage of the population

    Ironically, that certain percentage appears to be 47%, if Mitt Romney’s popular vote is a good measure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Whitfield says:

    Obama did not lay out much of a plan for the future and had a clear reason: think …… 12-21-12!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. swbarnes2 says:

    Then there is the matter of conservative political practice. “Conservatives should be the party of judgment, not just of principles,” he says. “Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values

    But empirically, what is meant by “free markets” is that big corporations have to be free to f*ck over ordinary Americans. And what is meant by “strong families” is to sh*t on families that don’t look like the Cleavers. And all of the people who have been hurt by those policies know that. And that’s a lot of Americans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  23. al-Ameda says:

    [T]he electorate that granted Barack Obama a second term was unwise—the president achieved “a sneaky victory,” Mr. Mansfield says. “The Democrats said nothing about their plans for the future.

    Professor Mansfield gets an “A” for disingenuousness. People may not have known specifically what Obama’s plan is for the next 4 years, certainly not any more than they knew the specifics of Romney’s plan. But … they sure as hell inferred from the comments and statements of all involved where they thought each party stood on the issues.

    Mansfield is a not-so-bight – or a completely disingenuous – elitist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. al-Ameda says:

    @al-Ameda:
    damn mobile typing .. “bright” sorry …..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna: 4

    The Nordic countries are not immune to demographics. In the long run, as the percentage of the population in the retirement ages grows, it will be impossible for the economy to pay the taxes required to sustain current levels of entitlements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. john personna says:

    @superdestroyer:

    With small houses, apartments, bicycles, and public transportation they are somewhat ahead on costs. A nation of retirees without cars and with cheap healthcare is much, much, easier to manage.

    The urban planing decisions you make, or don’t make, can have impact much later.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Rick DeMent says:

    Health Care is easy to fix. The first thing we have to do is get comfortable with letting people die. And I’m not being funny, the amount of aggressive care spent on people in their 80′s, or with overwhelmingly aggressive late stage diseases is just bizarre. I remember Doctors wanting to do all kinds of operations and chemo on my mother (55) who had a softball size brain tumor; it was nothing short of torture. Thankfully we all agreed, including Mom, that the best thing to do was to let her live out the short time she had left being made comfortable in a hospice facility.

    We need to be a lot less aggressive with aggressive medical interventions when it’s clear that recovery is not possible and not demagog that living crap out of it (death panels anyone). Second we have to stop this non-sense of pretending that any reduction in the defense budget will put us at the mercy of terrorists over night. Our around the globe deployments will have to be reduced and other countries need to step up and start contributing to their own defense (Germany, Japan) (we could easily cut 250 billion a year and not even bat an eye.

    Finally Doctors need to understand that as along as the rest of the country is taking a pay cut they have to as well. If they don’t like it then open the floodgates to foreign Doctors with Green-Card-a-paloza.

    Finally taxes on the rich need to go up a bit, favored status of capitol gains needs to end,

    There that was easy, next intractable problem …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. sam says:

    Harvey and his fellow Straussians are always seeing a crisis in democracy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. stonetools says:

    “The Democrats said nothing about their plans for the future. All they did was attack the other side. Obama’s campaign consisted entirely of saying ‘I’m on your side’ to the American people, to those in the middle. No matter what comes next, this silence about the future is ominous.”

    What was Ronald Reagan’s big second term agenda again( I don’t remember anything but “Morning in America”)? What was Eisenhower’s?

    I think Mansfield is just saying that we’re following Europe’s path of a large welfare state that’s demographically unsustainable. It worked fabulously in Europe for decades but can’t sustain itself when people are living longer and having few children.

    If that’s what Mansfield is saying, he doesn’t know much about Europe. Maybe he should take a trip to , say, Switzerland and run that past intellectuals there. That’ll give them a good laugh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0