Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America by Dwight Furrow | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

by Dwight Furrow

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In this fresh assessment of the liberal perspective on politics, philosopher Dwight Furrow explains how liberalism lost its moral credentials in the face of challenges from conservatives. He articulates a new way of understanding the moral foundations of liberalism that will restore its political fortunes along with America’s shattered moral authority. A work


In this fresh assessment of the liberal perspective on politics, philosopher Dwight Furrow explains how liberalism lost its moral credentials in the face of challenges from conservatives. He articulates a new way of understanding the moral foundations of liberalism that will restore its political fortunes along with America’s shattered moral authority. A work of popular philosophy, Reviving the Left is written in a serious but lively, engaging, and often polemical style.

Furrow begins by noting that political ideologies have the power to motivate people because they embody conceptions of how to live. Conservatives have understood this more clearly than liberals, who for too long have relied on bureaucratic solutions and interest-group politics, which have lacked moral credibility and passion. Now more than ever, says Furrow, progressive politics, if it is to move people hungry for change, needs a new vision that will give birth to a more substantial liberal moral identity.

Furrow takes conservatism to task for promoting what he labels "a culture of cynical, violent narcissism." But rather than praising the liberalism of the past, he argues that liberals must radically revise their conception of moral value in order to reverse the damage left behind by many years of conservative rule. Reviving the Left argues that liberals must build a culture of caring from the ground up by giving social institutions incentives to encourage a more prominent role in public life for empathy, compassion, and responsibility. Only in such a culture will liberal political initiatives have a chance to succeed in the long run.

Unlike many books on reviving liberalism, which emphasize economics, policy debates, or political strategies, Furrow’s Reviving the Left uniquely focuses on moral values and their philosophical underpinnings. Furrow’s extensive use of references to popular culture, especially well-known films, and also topics of current political discourse makes for an exciting, contemporary rethinking of the liberal perspective with widespread appeal.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry, decorated for his service in Vietnam, was besieged by a campaign discrediting his tour of duty, while Bush, a National Guard "deserter" and the sitting president, successfully cultivated an image of soldierly strength (and went on to win his second term). Political philosopher Farrow attempts to explain the public's choice to exalt Bush and distrust Kerry by highlighting what he sees as the conservative movement's unique ability to articulate a moral philosophy that is capable of trumping proven facts. "Liberalism's longterm prospects depend on convincing voters that moral corruption lies at the heart of conservative doctrine and that liberal ideas are the remedy," he writes. While Furrow's criticisms of the Right are familiar and his tone slightly crabby, his proposals are fresh-he urges liberals to develop "a more substantial moral identity" and win a few battles in the values war by building upon their "inherent culture of caring," repackaging the conservative movement's successful tactics for the Left. (Mar.)

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Prometheus Books
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By Dwight Furrow
Prometheus Books
Copyright © 2009

Dwight Furrow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-703-4


Conservatives won elections because they articulated a personal morality that was attractive to many Americans. What is this moral philosophy, and why was it attractive? To many, conservatism may seem like a hash of conflicting ideas held together by self-interest, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy in equal measure. In opposing abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, conservatives support a "culture of life" but lose little sleep over civilian victims of US military adventures or the innocents executed by a flawed judicial system. Conservatives defend freedom but sacrifice the civil liberties required to maintain it. They are tough on crime but oppose gun control. They extol the value of family but seek to prevent gays and lesbians from forming one.

However, the appearance of logical conflict is misleading. Conservative thought is consistent, but only when viewed against the background of the ultimate aim of conservatism-victory in a spiritual battle of good against evil. That this is indeed the aim of contemporary conservatism is apparent from their words; it is also the best explanation of their policy positions and political rhetoric.

Conservatives claim an allegiance to small government and modest reform, skeptical of government's ability to improve lives or induce social change without botching the job. "Getting government off our backs," they call it. Yet this paean to small government belies an agenda devoted to massive social engineering advanced through government power. In his second inaugural address in 2005, President Bush, one of the most consistently conservative presidents in our history, declared, "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." (The emphasis is mine.) More stunning was the speech that President Bush gave from the pulpit of the National Cathedral shortly after the September 11 attacks in which he proclaimed, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." (Again, the emphasis is mine.) It would seem that big ideas are not the exclusive purview of leftist intellectuals. President Bush and his conservative supporters have taken on the task of the millennia-the eradication of evil and the end of tyranny!

This preoccupation with stamping out evil-conservatism's Big Idea-is not the peculiar obsession of a megalomaniacal president but is a persistent preoccupation of conservative commentators and opinion makers. Conservative news host Sean Hannity's book Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism makes explicit reference to this agenda, as does the offering from David Frum and Richard Perle entitled An End to Evil. Frum, a former presidential speechwriter, coined the term "axis of evil" used by President Bush to describe North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Both books opine that "absolute evil" is the source of social problems and conflict throughout the world, and only unilateral military action against a variety of foreign powers and the suspension of some civil liberties at home will rid the world of malevolence.

With this rhetoric of evil, Bush and his supporters drew blood from an artery that has nourished the hearts of conservatives throughout much of the twentieth century. A central unifying theme of American conservative rhetoric declares that the United States is perpetually engaged in an apocalyptic, spiritual battle with an implacable foe that can be defeated only by military power and moral spine stiffening. The anticommunist rants of Whittaker Chambers and Joseph McCarthy, the reckless nuclear saber rattling of Barry Goldwater in his 1964 campaign for president, and Ronald Reagan's proclamation of a Soviet "evil empire" are precursors to contemporary rants about Islamic fascism and liberal elites. In each case, accusations that the foe is utterly depraved are accompanied by the declaration of a battle for the fate of humanity, a moral jihad to which Americans must devote their energy and resources. Ronald Reagan's speech at the 1964 Republican Convention in support of Goldwater's bellicose war rhetoric is exemplary of conservatism's past, and it could be aptly inserted into a Bush speech with no loss of currency. Reagan declaimed, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness." If these calls for moral crusade were directed only toward external enemies, they might serve as inspirational, though misguided, rallying cries for advancing our strategic interests in the world. But, for conservatives, the moral crusade is not fought exclusively on foreign killing fields but here in sight of the amber waves of grain. McCarthy's anticommunist crusade was not directed at a menacing foreign power with substantial military might, but was instead devoted to ferreting out mythical communist agents who, in McCarthy's fevered imagination, had allegedly infiltrated the institutions of our own government and Hollywood. Goldwater, in his presidential campaign, insisted that the battle against communism would require a moral reformation and the rejection of liberalism because "the moral fiber of the American people is beset by rot and decay." This "rot and decay" can be reversed only through a political movement that reforms the human soul. In The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater writes:

The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man's nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man's nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man's spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy.... Man's most sacred possession is his individual soul.

Most of today's conservatives read from the same liturgy of moral failure, crisis, and a rebirth of the soul to be engineered by politicians. Conservatism came to power by trumpeting a comprehensive indictment of contemporary moral values along with proposals for moral improvement that make clear their intention to assemble the troops to battle Beelzebub. According to this indictment, we live in a culture that irresponsibly encourages divorce, single parenthood, and working mothers; a culture of welfare dependency, drug addiction, and family breakdown that inhibits the aspirations of racial minorities and the poor; a popular culture of perverse and offensive messages that subverts all standards of decency by permitting pornography and sexual promiscuity, while endorsing unnatural gay and lesbian lifestyles; a culture ruled by elites who express contempt for American institutions, which are the very foundation, not only of our freedom, but of human freedom in general. We ignore the lawbreakers streaming across our borders, who lack the civilizing influence of American values and refuse to assimilate by learning to speak English. Our respect for human dignity and for life itself wanes as we promote abominations such as abortion, assisted suicide, and embryonic stemcell research.

Furthermore, conservatives argue, although we have successfully beaten back the menace of communism and have spread our way of life throughout the world, that task was made difficult by an ethos of weakness and complacency that disparages military service and seeks to appease rather than confront external enemies, thus inhibiting our ability to confront new terrorist threats. America, they argue, is an exceptional nation sanctioned by God's plan and destined to bring freedom to the rest of the world. It has a natural, moral superiority when compared to other national traditions. But too many Americans fail to acknowledge this superiority. The soul of America is rotting from within; Satan rides not only with foreign troops but slyly burrows into the hearts and minds of every American undermining the will to resist his entreaties.

Contemporary conservatism has taken on the task of arresting this alleged moral decline. As Pat Buchanan announced at the 1992 Republican Convention, "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself." Religion has always been important in American politics. Contemporary conservatism has ratcheted up that importance by binding the political process to a particular eschatological history. Some conservatives, especially those who focus on economic issues, do not endorse this culture war or buy into the rhetoric about fighting evil. But the conservative movement would not have come to power without it. And, as I will argue shortly, there is an underlying conceptual coherence that binds economic conservatives to the cultural warriors and permits their unholy alliance, despite their disagreements.

According to this conservative narrative, our fall from grace is entangled in the countercultural movements of the 1960s that rejected the solid, working-class virtues of self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for authority in favor of unrestrained hedonism and self-indulgence, thus eviscerating our sense of personal responsibility. Today, a banal, therapeutic discourse that treats the incompetent as victims of racism, sexism, or economic inequality has replaced the more substantial but unpleasant concepts of guilt and sin, which locate wrongdoing in the individual. Thus, we mistakenly view social ills as products of society that only coercive and expensive government intervention can solve, ignoring the personal, religious transformation required for moral improvement. Moral and spiritual poverty are the root cause of economic failure, not a flawed economic system, as liberals would have us believe. The main impediments to economic success are drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown, and the absence of a work ethic, issues that require individual moral renewal for their solution.

At bottom, according to this critique, Americans suffer from a pervasive moral weakness that compromises our resistance to inhuman desires. The old liberal forms of social engineering-poverty programs, income redistribution, civil rights legislation, and so on-cannot inoculate us against such temptation and only exacerbate it. Wrongdoing is a personal matter, and transformation comes not through changing social conditions but through changing the self. Thus, the government's role, in collaboration with religious and civic institutions and the free market, is to engineer the transformation of individual conscience-the management of desires, soul building. Only a politics of spiritual rebirth will enable us to reject evil and enact the moral crusade.

Free economic markets seem an unlikely candidate for moral renewal given their tendency to encourage an unhealthy fascination with material wealth. But conservatives support relatively unfettered capitalism because competition promotes hard work, the postponement of gratification, and the acceptance of responsibility-all essential in building moral character. By contrast, the welfare state discourages the development of these capacities because people can acquire what they want without earning it. But more important, many conservatives argue, religion must play a more extensive role in the lives of all Americans. Through religion we acquire the self-restraint, moral wisdom, and respect for humanity that democracy requires. This is especially true of conservative denominations such as Orthodox Judaism, traditional Catholicism, and Protestant fundamentalism that make a commitment to traditional values and can therefore help stem the tide of relativism and immorality that is sweeping Western civilization.

The conceptual anchor of this jeremiad is the claim that contemporary society has rejected the very idea of moral authority. According to many conservatives, only religious and national traditions have the standing to provide moral guidance and enforce moral norms. But too many contemporary Americans reject the moral authority of all institutions and instead favor ethical relativism, which reduces values and standards to a matter of individual choice. Relativists, that is, liberals according to conservative rhetoric who believe there is no single, absolute moral code appropriate for everyone, advocate tolerance for all points of view. Conservatives point out that such uncritical tolerance is self-defeating. If all values are equally incapable of defense, we cannot confront the evils that threaten from within and from abroad. Through uncritically adopting this ersatz freedom from authority, we sacrifice the moral clarity that can identify evil and protect us from external and internal threats. But this uncritical tolerance has so captured contemporary mores that patriotism is waning and few institutions make strong judgments of moral approval or disapproval. Americans have become too weak willed to take on our task of defending and exporting freedom.

Conservatives tend to focus a good deal of attention on the family, an institution they claim has been ruined by relativism. The family is no longer a source of moral authority that enables members to acquire and sustain a moral personality. Today, the family is a voluntary organization that we can enter, leave, or reshape at will with no fixed structure or secure norms, an optional lifestyle decision dependent on the whimsical preferences of each individual. The consequences of this change are enormous. Because children acquire a moral personality through participation in family life, the decline of the family threatens our ability to pass on moral values from one generation to the next.

Thus, conservatives argue, we must transform the climate of thought that finds single motherhood, sexual promiscuity, gay marriage, and unmarried cohabitation morally acceptable but looks down upon women who choose a domestic life over a career. Some conservatives advocate laws that make divorce and cohabitation more difficult and recommend we use tax laws and welfare regulation to encourage families to form and stay together. Contrary to the widely held assumption that we cannot legislate morality, we should use government power to promote religion, tax codes that reward philanthropy and stay-at-home mothers, welfare rules that support the work ethic, a responsible approach to marriage and child rearing, and antipornography and obscenity laws.

This narrative of decline has been a staple of much conservative discourse for years-without it there would be no conservative movement. 8 Despite their stated opposition to big ideas and social engineering, conservatives seek radical, comprehensive, social transformation. Saving souls has always been the responsibility of religion. For conservatives, it is the responsibility of government as well.


This conservative narrative of moral decline is rightly accused of being overly nostalgic about the past, conveniently ignoring the horrors of Jim Crow, male privilege, and stultifying conformism, while misidentifying the real moral ills of the present. I doubt that this simplistic narrative about evil 1960s hedonists will explain the complex moral crosscurrents that buffet contemporary Americans. But rather than take issue with the accuracy of this story about moral decline, I want to look at the underlying assumptions about moral value that the conservative complaint requires, since voters are responding to these value commitments.

What are the values that support this conservative critique of contemporary society? Some of the complaints about American society are not uniquely conservative. Liberals agree that poverty, dysfunctional families, drug addiction, and abortions are not good things. Many liberals lament changes in sexual mores and the coarsening of culture, and they are wary of the implications of advances in reproductive technology as well. What is distinctive about conservatism is the comprehensiveness of its moral indictment of contemporary society, its account of the source of these social ills, and especially its proposal to transform the human personality as the antidote.

Conservatives are not complaining about pockets of social dysfunction. The foundations of our civilization are threatened, and the battle to save it will involve not piecemeal social reform, but significant personal and social change. In addition to a jeremiad, conservatism provides an analysis of the threat. The source of moral decline is individual moral weakness. A weak and defective will, not inadequate economic, social, or political institutions, explains the erosion of value in American life. For conservatives, poverty persists because the poor are lazy and lack the motivation to work or because they fritter away their limited resources on trifles that do not increase their productivity. Family structure is eroding because women seek to gratify desires for wealth or autonomy rather than staying home and taking care of the kids; the divorce rate explodes because sexual promiscuity is rampant or because individuals would rather take the easy way out of a relationship instead of struggling to make it work; homosexual lifestyles spread because individuals choose to give in to deviant sexual desires. Abortion has become a routine form of birth control because it is now acceptable to give in to sexual desire and then avoid responsibility for the consequences. Too many Americans lack self-control and thus pursue pleasure and immediate gratification while ignoring the time-honored virtues of self-reliance and self-restraint on which civilized life rests. Evil lurks within our desires and moral failure lies in the contemporary individual and her weak-willed unwillingness to resist those bad desires.


Excerpted from REVIVING THE LEFT by Dwight Furrow Copyright © 2009 by Dwight Furrow. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Dwight Furrow (San Diego, CA), professor of philosophy at San Diego Mesa College, is the author of Ethics: Key Concepts in Philosophy and Against Theory: Continental and Analytic Challenges in Moral Philosophy. He is also the editor of Moral Soundings: Readings on the Crisis of Values in Contemporary Life.

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