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WRM on Why He Doesn't Label Himself Politically

While on his Eurotour earlier this fall – during which he visited France, Germany, Italy, and Romania – WRM gave an interview to Romanian TV station, Digi24, in Bucharest. The interview was conducted in English and covered everything from the civilizational differences of European nations to why WRM has given up trying to label himself:

EH: Professor Mead, what are you? Are you a progressive Jeffersonian?

WRM: You know, the older I get the less…

EH: Or…cautious Hamiltonian?

WRM: I let other people call me names. I think now that’s the safest. When I wrote Special Providence I said that I was a Jeffersonian, and I still am in the sense that I think you need to be strategic in your thinking. But I would increasingly say, I’ll talk and I’ll think and I’ll let other people hang the labels on me.

EH: You are a conservative, more or less, but you voted Obama? […]

WRM: Look, I think of, say, Edmund Burke, who people often say, well, he was the founder of conservatism in the English speaking world. But, you know, he was a strong supporter of the American Revolution, and for much of his life he was known as a liberal and a progressive. It seems to me, that one can’t be a good liberal without also being conservative in some ways, and one can’t be a serious conservative without being liberal. And so I, that’s one of the reasons I have given up trying to label myself.

The conversation is split into 5 video segments, all of which can be found here.

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  • jeburke

    I’ll second that.

  • Andrew Allison

    What’s wrong with independent thinker?

    • Corlyss

      Well, we have tugged his beard occasionally for being too much like his academic brethren.

  • Corlyss

    Keep ’em guessing, Prof.
    That way they’ll pore over your writings to discern a hint. Good strategy. 😉

  • Reticulator

    I like that strategy. I don’t regret having called myself an extreme, right-wing, conservative environmentalist, though, ever since the early 80s. It’s a label that nobody else is willing to help me use, so it serves a similar purpose.

    However, I was fooled by Obama for only about 24 hours. That happened in early spring 2008, so not much harm was done.

    • Andrew Allison

      Might I suggest that, contra Barry Goldwater, extremism, in the pursuit (or defense) of anything, is a vice; and that it is the source of much of what’s wrong with the body politic?

      • Reticulator

        I could go along with that, so long as I get to decide what’s extremist and what’s not. For example, I would call Obama/GOP crony capitalism an example of extreme corruption.

        • Andrew Allison

          No argument from me on the moral bankruptcy of our permanent political class; the question is how far should we go to fix it. The guillotine seems a (small LOL) step too far; term limits or rational (strictly population, not political leaning) redistricting work for me. That said, the extremist always thinks that the ends justify the means.

  • Bruce

    It seems to me that the “smartest people in the room” like to avoid labels. Labels are not nuanced enough for them. If WRM did vote for Obama, he may be smart but he is a horrible judge of character and a bit too much of an idealist. WRM writes about the broken blue model and then votes for the bluest president we’ve ever had (if he in fact did)?

  • lukelea

    Just for fun I’m going to try to pin a label of Walter. But before I do let me say I think he is one of the two or three most talented journalists working in America right now, and that the assessment is based solely his posts on this site together a few of his op-ed pieces and recorded appearances at various conferences, which you can find on the web.

    That said, my impression — and it is only an impression — is that Walter is an Anglican imperialist of the old school translated into the 21st century. By that I mean that he does not sympathize very closely with the stupider half or three-quarters of his fellow countrymen (except for those who are genuinely disabled) and that he cares more about America’s power in the world, all around the world, than just about anything else. This is probably unfair and even if true is not a criticism necessarily.

    • Pete

      I got a better, more accurate description for Mr. Mead, at least as it pertains to race.

      He’s a psychological slave bounded by the chains of imagined white guilt to the dictates of racial political correctness.

      That is probably why, for example, he voted for Obama. It was an attempt to sooth his troubled conscience.

      Now, it’s not that Mr. Mead he himself ever did anything really wrong to the blacks. But rather he is ‘suffering’ as penance for his race.

      A fair description, right Mr. Mead?

      • lukelea

        I don’t see that at all.

  • James Brown


  • Anthony

    Professor Mead is a libertarian, but not a doctrinaire one. That is an important distinction. Professor Mead supports the tea party, but only to a point. He is in favor of a somewhat militaristic approach to foreign affairs, especially in the middle east, but not all the time. He fundamentally believes that “change,” is generally good, and he believes that social and political movements that try preserve some kind of status quo – whether it is economic, social or political – are generally bad, but once again, there are exceptions.

    He was once asked what lead to decline of the UK after WW2, and he said that the big problem was that the socialist labor party and the one nation torries agreed on too much. And he went on to say that, as long as we keep on fighting with each other, America will be alright. Consistent with this approach, he feels that disruptive political movements, especially those from the libertarian right – such as the tea party – are not nearly as bad as people like Tom Friedman believe. E.g., he has never directly condemned the GOP for their two attempts to checkmate Obama using the debt ceiling. Indeed, back in 2010, he did not criticize them at all.

    Who does Professor Mead admire? I read this blog a lot, and I think I can answer

    • Anthony

      Here is short list that can clarify his thinking, even if it won’t allow us to derive a label.

      Who/what does Mead admire?

      1. Elite libertarians. He sees libertarian entrepreneurs as the drivers of wealth creation. Therefore, they deserve to be taxed at a low rate. For example, I’ve never seen him write anything negative about people like Peter Thiel or Glenn Reynolds. The values of the German and Scandinavian models are dismissed as either bad per se, or as unworkable in the American context.

      2. Blue collar libertarians. He writes a lot of paeans to “Jacksonians” who are typically, though not exclusively, blue collar white protestants that value guns, religion, captialism and who have a high rate of enlistment in the military. The fact that many of these people are members of the religious right is not a demerit. In my view, Mead has overdosed on Jacksonians. His essay on them that came out in the early 2000s was great for the Bush/Cheney early Iraq era. As a dominant motif in American politics- as opposed to a merely significant motif – they are yesterday’s news He needs to get the memo that Obama did better, in terms of the popular vote in 2012 than Bush did in 2000 or 2004.

      3. Religion. He thinks it’s generally great, except when it gets too hot. It takes a lot for it to get too hot when we are talking about America.

      4. The state of Israel. I’ve never seen him criticize the foreign policy of either Barak (Ehud Barck that is), Sharon, Olmert or Netanyahu. He believes that a not insignificant share of anti israel commentary, especially when it comes out of Europe, is, knowingly or unknowingly, influenced by Anti semitism.

      What does he dislike?

      1. Public employee unions. He thinks they are harming their members and citizens that pay for and use government services. While he doesn’t attack them very much, he also doesn’t have anything positive to say about private sector unions.

      2. Left wing university professors. He thinks they are full of bunk. Academics that were opposed to a hawkish foreign policy and libertarian economics are particularly disfavored. He does not look back fondly at his years opposing military interventions in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

      3. Environmental activists. Al Gore in particular is singled out for criticism. Mead is right that the cap and trade movement won’t work. That said, he sometimes goes beyond this to question the science describing the global warming phenomenon. He is unqualified to do this.

      3. Doctrinaire “realists” in foreign policy. He thinks that they simplify too much. He also feels that they don’t place enough stock in the ability of free markets combined with democratization to reduce conflict.

  • Kevin

    What struck on reading Special Providence was that WRM presented an empathetic understanding of the various schools of thought and how they viewed the world. Being able to see the world from each of their points of view made for a better ability to understand how the work worked and avoid the caricature of others that many writers fall into. Perhaps growing up in the South in a religious atmosphere but then living in NY and working with liberal establishment types at the Council on Foreign Relations and universities has made him able to bridge the worldviews of various groups within our society better than many public intellectuals. (This mixture of backgrounds may also have made Bill Clinton a very effective politician.)

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