Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hyde Park Liberalism Critiques Itself

posted by chicago pop

An interesting interview in today's Salon with former Hyde Parker and editor of The Baffler, Tom Frank. His subject is a familiar one: how the American right has been more successful in mobilizing grassroots anger and energy than the American left.

But what's interesting about this piece from an HPP perspective is that you can easily read Frank's interview as one Hyde Park liberal intellectual - Thomas Frank - critiquing another - Barack Obama - about the menu of political possibilities available to the nation - possibilities that have also developed and been brought into sharp contrast within Hyde Park itself. Grassroots anger and mobilization versus the cool-headed and technocratically-inclined Becker-Posner school of law and economics embodied in Barack Obama.

That's my spin. How Frank puts it, with reference to the populist anger channeled by various Occupation Movements and the Tea Party, is this: 
The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy...

The main thing that has to change is that Democrats and liberals have to be able to speak to the outrage, and that requires a complete change in the way they look at the world. The problem is that they’ve been going the other direction for 30 years. Ever since the right-wing backlash began, liberals have been making their own move to professionalism...

Their message was: The technocratic way is going to solve our problems. Just leave it up to the experts who are going to figure a way out.

The grassroots anger and mobilization that Frank sees as missing have long traditions in Hyde Park, certainly, but seem to have run aground for want of new ideas and successful outcomes. Their renovation has occurred outside of the traditional frameworks of Hyde Park activism. Meanwhile, the cool expertise of neo-liberal  managerialism is dominant in the University of Chicago's professional schools, and while palatable to many middle class intellectuals, are remote from the grassroots for just these reasons.

It's a dualism that you feel in the neighborhood everyday. In a sense it represents the gulf between institutions of governance and masses of citizens, in this country and globally, but with a whiff of Hyde Park terroir.


Elizabeth Fama said...

The Booth School and the Econ Department, at least, no longer embody a uniform "Chicago" school of thought when you look at the research of their faculty. There are a number of liberals and behavioralists. Quite a healthy melange of philosophies, actually. It's interesting to me that the moniker still exists, despite the change.

Tony Walters said...

Franklin Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey were liberals. Dennis Kucinich and Barney Frank are liberals. If Barack Obama is a liberal, then the word no longer means what it used to. Now it means "conservative."

chicago pop said...

Interesting, Beth. You know the roster better than I. Although in speaking of 'schools', one needn't require uniformity of approach or outlook within an institution or grouping, simply a trend over time strongly identified with a handful of prominent individuals. At the level of scholarly activity, as long as the ideas of Hayek, Friedman, Coase, Stigler, Becker, Posner et al are viewed and built upon as interrelated, mutually reinforcing,and forming a paradigm for which market efficiency is the guiding principle, then there will be a 'Chicago School,' though it may not always be geographically centered on Chicago. At the level of politics, the label will last as long as its association with the political movements that took its premises as their slogans.

But, as with Obama's liberalism, this is really all about labels, or categories and how well they fit what we are trying to describe. Obviously, things change and categories often have to catch up. What is interesting to me about this interview with Frank is how it seemed to transpose the poles of tension within liberalism as it was lived and thought in Hyde Park -- neighborhood left-liberal and professorial right-liberal -- to the national level. A rough sketch of things, but I think the gist is there.

Jonathan said...

Does anyone else find troubling the concept that, to be a successful political movement, one has to tap into "outrage?" The outrage promoted on the right by Fox news and their imitators on the left seems to be primarily anger about (ill-defined) others somehow being unfairly advantaged by an (ill-defined) system that is designed to frustrate the ambitions of the outraged. Half of the rhetorical battle becomes defining the supposedly advantaged group in ways that make them as alien and unfamiliar as possible.

No question that the tactic works, but if we can't land on some other kind of political discourse, it does not bode well for our democracy.

(Also agree with Beth about the Chicago school.)