The discussion described in this post and this post, about whether there’s a need in environmentalism, and progressivism more broadly, for a uniting narrative or Grand Vision is continuing. I don’t know if anybody but me is interested or following this, but if there are fellow wonks out there, let me catch you up (start by reading the two posts linked above).
Jonathan Chait (yet another source of vital wonkitude) has a great column in The New Republic claiming that liberalism is, by nature, non-ideological. Rather, it is pragmatic, results-based, empirical, and technocratic: "liberalism has no justification other than the belief that liberal policies produce beneficial outcomes." Yglesias responds that it is not possible to be completely non-ideological. Even if empiricism is the means, one still must decide on the proper ends. Which "beneficial outcomes" will we aim for? Ygelsias’ answer is some form of utilitarianism — the desired outcome is human welfare — but he acknowledges that that view has its own problems. He then prints a response from Chait, and responds in turn to that. In the end, they agree that liberalism is basically pragmatic, and that the American people are basically pragmatic. (Which makes one wonder why they just reelected a bred-in-the-bone ideologue.)
Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly then jumps in and asks: What’s wrong with technocracy? In fact, says Drum
… liberal technocratism was enormously popular in America for many decades starting with the New Deal. Sure, FDR offered up his own unique brand of liberal American ideology, but he mainly had a vision of government that worked — something that it manifestly didn’t do during the first few years of the Depression. By the time Republicans finally took over after 20 years of Democratic rule, technocratism reigned so supreme that Eisenhower accepted it almost without blinking. His “Modern Republicanism” of 1958 and beyond was explicitly dedicated to solving problems instead of waging ideological wars, and practically everyone fell into lockstep behind this vision. There was a widespread belief — barely remembered today by anyone who wasn’t alive at the time — that the old ideological battles were over, relegated forever to the ash heap of history.
In other words, technocratic liberalism can have enormous public appeal.
The problem with technocracy, he says, is that, premised at it is on effectiveness, it has to work. In the 60s and 70s, the liberal welfare state became rather dysfunctional and created a space where a highly ideological alternative, modern conservatism, could move in and take public support.
So, where does that leave us? If it’s true that progressivism is just an empirically driven effort to create better human conditions — and, by extension, that environmentalism is just an empirically driven effort to improve environmental conditions — then there’s probably no Grand Vision to be had. But then, the Reapers are right that we seem to be getting our asses kicked, and that the lack of a grand vision is part of the reason why. What’s the solution?
Since this post is long enough, and it’s late, I’ll just say: read Chait’s essay. It’s excellent food for thought. I’ll write more on all this later.