by William P. Kreml. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2006. 230pp. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN: 1594602514.
Reviewed by Bruce Peabody, Department of Social Sciences and History, Fairleigh Dickinson University. Email: bgpeabody [at] msn.com.
At the outset of this creative and provocative project, William Kreml proposes to apply an “original political theory” to the “continuing problems caused by the way political campaigns are financed in this country” (p.xiii). But, by the end of THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LEFT, it is possible to untangle a more complex and ambitious agenda. Among other goals, Kreml hopes to reshape how we conceive of and discuss American politics, and give new life to the political left.
In Chapter 1, Kreml places his “new theoretical map” in the context of the “two grand schools of political philosophy” that have dominated “the last four centuries” (p. 4). Kreml describes his own thinking as both arising and divergent from “classical liberalism” and “Whole Group Equity” theories which explain our social and political condition as emerging “from mere membership” in a group, a position he associates with Marxism, feminism, and various civil rights movements (p.5). Both of these broad theoretical approaches neglect the impact of “psychological biases,” in a manner that threatens their normative promise.
In Chapter 2, Kreml attempts to enunciate his new, “cognitive” theory that will move our political philosophizing, and ultimately, our public affairs, to take greater heed of the “differentiated personality characteristics” in our citizenry. In contrast with the previously ascendant theories, Kreml’s psychological approach is based “on who we are, not what we are” (p.xv).
Kreml believes not only that this new orientation to politics has been underappreciated as an intellectual matter, but that it is playing an increasingly important role in our actual public life – an observation our leaders will ignore at their own peril. “We are at the point,” he contends, “when the subjective, that is the psychological, differentiation among significant political players has begun to supersede the objective differentiation in America’s ideological identifications” (p.90). In other words, “subjective” personality or psychology is becoming a more important driver of our salient political behavior and political thinking than “objective” factors like class, race, gender “and the like” (p.9). As evidence for this proposition, he cites, among other things, the 2000 election, “the first year in which the variable of whether or not an individual was a regular attendee of religious services, of whatever denomination, approached the social and economic standing variable as the best predictor of an American’s ideological identification, at least in the white community” (p.8). [*197]
More broadly, Kreml contends, we can only comprehend, evaluate, and reform our existing political system by appreciating the existence of varied “human psychologies and the cognitions they prefer” (p.30). In particular, Kreml thinks that undergirding much of our political life, indeed much of “Western intellectual history” (p.78), is a tension and resulting struggle between those who prefer either “analytic” or “synthetic” understanding. The analytic cognition seeks forms of knowledge in which the constituent “variables” are closely similar or of the same class (“apples and apples kinds of knowledge”), and views even “minute dissimilarities” among these variables as making them qualitatively different (p.28). Synthetic thinkers allow for more differentiation between the variables they compare.
These formulations are more than a little abstract, and Kreml’s examples do not always help us to comprehend the divergent forms of thinking he claims people gravitate towards. This deficiency considerably complicates our efforts to understand, apply, and evaluate his overall political theory.
In Chapter 3, Kreml does introduce several cases from English and American legal history in an effort to ground his arguments and illustrate “how a mutual, that is simultaneous, use of the analytic and synthetic cognitions increases what we can know” (p.35). For example, he contends that ROE v. WADE rejects a “universal, that is, singular rule on the citizenry” and instead “speaks for complexity, or for the differentiation that resides only in the synthetic cognition” (p.53). BUCKLEY v. VALEO and DRED SCOTT v. SANDFORD, in contrast, betray analytic preferences in their equation of “free speech with money” in the first instance and “a human being with money” in the second (p.159). These and other analytically based Court decisions “homogenize” two or more variables, treating them as fungible (p.45).
In Chapter 4, Kreml briefly surveys the role of analytic and synthetic frames of mind in “Western thought,” and suggests that the traditional division between “rationalist versus skeptical” thinkers has been replaced by his cognitive dichotomy (p.78).
In Chapter 5, the author further contends that contemporary American society has generally seen a triumph of the analytic frame of mind, at least among elites in and out of government. The ascendance of the analytic cognition has helped to bring about “undemocratic decentralization” (p.97) of government, with the result that we are governed by “powerful interest groups” and our governing institutions dramatically over-represent the wealthy. “The dramatic shift to the analytic cognition . . . is part of what has led to the increased and cognitively biased fragmentation of our government” (p. 96).
Kreml recoils from the “oligarchic” form of politics we now experience, defined by “over-long” campaigns driven by a narrow range of issues and a ceaseless pursuit of funding and funders (p.102). Instead, he calls for “richly embryonic political aggregations of regular citizens [*198] to have their day outside of the electoral context . . . finding contradictions here and there and embracing a synthetic cognition that will bring the orange to the apple, the synthetic form to the analytic” (p.101).
Ultimately, Kreml’s project is aimed at generating legitimacy and support for what he calls the “Natural Left” (as opposed to the “objective left”), a political movement based on a psychological orientation to politics, and with a natural sympathy towards synthetic thinking. The Natural Left will promote a new standard of equity that will reward “proportionate distributions for proportionate contributions” and a balance “among different kinds of minds and the different kinds of personalities that house such minds,” including those who strive for lives “that includes both economic and noneconomic pursuits” (p.178).
In Chapter 6, Kreml examines a number of Supreme Court cases, and the high bench’s role generally in advancing both the analytic cognition and the nation’s emergence as a purported oligarchic order (p.127). Here, BUCKLEY is the particular target of Kreml’s wrath. In Chapter 7, the author develops similar themes about the ascendance of the analytic psychology, the increasing control of the United States by a relatively small group of leaders and interests, and the centrality of BUCKLEY to these various problems. At this point, Kreml introduces the interesting claim that the body of the Constitution (that is, its first seven articles) is inherently conservative and analytic, while the Bill of Rights is fundamentally liberal and synthetic (p.150). The Bill of Rights was “clearly designed” to induce a “kind of synthetically formed aggregation of protest and participation” (p.157). When the Supreme Court comes to realize and affirm this synthetic vision, it will “provide the legal antidote to the disastrous ruling in Buckley v. Valeo” (p.157).
In Chapter 8, Kreml concludes by criticizing the presidency of Bill Clinton, largely on the grounds that Clinton favored the analytic cognition and with it, oligarchic interests (p.173). The author also underscores his belief that a Natural Left movement, committed to affirming a psychological (and synthetic) rather than objective orientation to politics will overcome a “cognitive bigotry” in American politics and promote meaningful equity amongst the citizenry (p.181).
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LEFT is ambitious and far-ranging in its commentary and critique. The author attempts to cover a tremendous amount of intellectual ground in less than 200 pages. Kreml’s title alone suggests three different themes, each of which might have prompted its own book-length treatment. And Kreml covers additional, diverse topics: in the course of his work, he reflects on his own run for president in 2000, discusses Plato’s forms, analyzes the “eighth worst nautical disaster in all of history” (p.102), and comments upon the haircut of an ancestor of John Calhoun.
While the author’s energy and creativity is admirable and, at times, rewarding, [*199] the extensive sweep of Kreml’s discussion sometimes compromises its depth and analytic rigor, leaving the reader unfocused and skeptical. Kreml has clearly thought about the many issues he presents with intelligence, innovation, and considerable attention, but his readers, still new to this argument, could stand for more shepherding and convincing.
Even if one were to accept, for example, that the “psychological” dimension of American politics is underappreciated amongst our existing intellectual paradigms, it is not entirely clear why Kreml’s analytic-synthetic divide is the most compelling way of conceiving of his so-called subjective approach. To take a more specific point of contention, is it entirely obvious that religion is subjective and psychological in the way that Kreml (somewhat cursorily) defines these terms? And why should ROE be best viewed as a decision rejecting a “universal rule” and instead giving play to “complexity” and “differentiation?” Both detractors and supporters of the ruling concede that it imposed specific national standards regulating abortion access, and invalidated prior, diverse regulations (and prohibitions) across the 50 states. While Kreml asserts that BUCKLEY has had a “horrific impact” on American politics, the precise contours of this argument are rather vague beyond his general suggestion that the decision has “privatized the American electoral system” and entrenched wealthy and powerful interests. Was the US, prior to BUCKLEY, somehow immune from these influences? Can one really conclude that legalizing restrictions on campaign expenditures would somehow erase the abiding influence of wealth on public affairs, and transform our political life (Larson 2002)?
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LEFT is a bold and, in many regards, impressive work. In striving to create a new theoretical map, Kreml sets out some novel ways in which we might rethink both our description and assessment of a wide range of political phenomena, including political behavior, jurisprudence, and the standards by which we evaluate our democratic vitality. Scholars and other political commentators have surely given insufficient attention to the role psychological factors play in both our conception of political issues and in how we might try to invigorate innovative political movements. Kreml’s emphasis on the division between analytic and synthetic cognitions is intriguing, even if it is not the only or even most important way to characterize what is absent from our discourse on US politics. In these and other ways, Kreml’s work may be of some interest to law and courts scholars, especially those with a philosophical bent.
But, on the whole, Kreml’s work appears be a case where less would be genuinely more. Isaiah Berlin once famously distinguished between “hedgehogs,” who embody a “single central vision,” and “foxes,” who eschew this grand theorizing and instead offer multiple, unconnected, and even contradictory insights. THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LEFT could probably stand for a little more hedgehog, and a little [*200] less fox; a little more sustained bite, and fewer bared teeth.
Berlin, Isaiah. 1966. THE HEDGEHOG AND THE FOX: AN ESSAY ON TOLSTOY’S VIEW OF HISTORY. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Larson, Bruce. 2002. "The Futile Quest for the Ideal Congressional Campaign Finance System." In Peter Woolley and Albert Papa (eds). AMERICAN POLITICS: CORE ARGUMENT/CURRENT CONTROVERSY. Upper Saddle River. NJ: Prentice Hall.
BUCKLEY v. VALEO, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
DRED SCOTT v. SANDFORD, 60 U.S. 393 (1856).
ROE v. WADE, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Bruce Peabody.