(First of 2 posts about the role of ideas in liberal politics...)
If it weren't for Kevin Drum, I would never know that there was anything interesting -- even if wrong -- on National Review Online. But Kevin took note a few days ago of a provocative claim by Jonah Goldberg:
One thing that really does fascinate me...is the generalized ignorance or silence of mainstream liberals about their own intellectual history. Obviously this is a sweeping -- and therefore unfair -- generalization. But I read a lot of liberal stuff and have attended more than a few college confabs with liberal speakers speaking on the subject of liberalism itself. And it seems to me that liberals are intellectually deracinated. Read conservative publications or attend conservative conferences and there will almost always be at least some mention of our intellectual forefathers and often a spirited debate about them. The same goes for Libertarians, at least that branch which can be called a part or partner of the conservative movement.
To which Kevin responds:
But isn't the answer to this pretty obvious? Conservatives ...are absorbed by the past. What's more, their message doesn't change much over time (tradition is good, stable society is good, the masses should get back to work and stop complaining) so it makes perfect sense to keep reading them.
Liberalism is precisely the opposite. We don't wonder what Charles Beard would think of something? Of course not. The whole point of liberalism is change, so who cares what Beard would have thought? By now he's just an old fuddy duddy.
I assume Kevin had his tongue-in-cheek, although without smileys it's hard to be sure. His answer -- that liberals don't need an intellectual tradition because we look forward, not back -- only makes sense as a joke. It's not a matter of asking, "What would Charles Beard do?," but ideas can't live without a history, and understanding the roots and evolution of modern liberalism -- not just in theory, as in Mill or Rawls, but in practice -- is essential to being able to do anything constructive with those ideas.
The glib answer to Goldberg, of course, is that if he's right, his erudite crowd, compared to the school-of-hard-knocks liberals, makes a pretty bad advertisement for book learning. But it's worth considering what Goldberg might be getting at, without suggesting that he's right.
A little more from Goldberg:
Just look at the conservative blogosphere. There's all sorts of stuff about Burke, Hayek, von Mises, Oakeshott, Kirk, Buckley, Strauss, Meyer, the Southern Agrarians, et al. I can't think of a single editor or contributing editor of National Review who can't speak intelligently about the intellectual titans of conservatism going back generations....[But] When was the last time you saw more than a passing reference to Herbert Croly? ...for mainstream Democratic Party liberals one gets the sense that the history of their movement is all about action and emotion and very little about ideas.
Of course, this is mostly nonsense. I don't know if National Review contributors are better read in their tradition than, for example, the editors of The American Prospect are in ours, but I do know that the last time one "saw more than a passing reference to Herbert Croly" (co-founder of The New Republic and an influence on Theodore Roosevelt) was just a few years ago, when Croly was all the rage and liberals were obsessed with the applicability of his and other Progressive Era models to our time. Michael Lind's The Next American Nation was largely an effort to bring Croly's liberal nationalism, and his "Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends" into the modern context. E.J. Dionne took the Progressive Era model equally seriously in They Only Look Dead, which included extensive discussion of Croly. Both books were among the more prominent political books of the mid-1990s, and most liberals are familiar with them, even if they have not bothered to work their way through Croly's great book, The Promise of American Life themselves.
(The Progressive-Era parallel to our own times has some problems however, as commentor R Wells pointed out here a few days ago, noting just how limited TR's concessions to social and economic justice were. And Croly's nationalism turned out to be as readily adaptable for a certain kind of conservatism as to liberalism, and David Brooks and Bill Kristol claimed his heritage for their own brief embrace of "National Greatness Conservatism." Jeffrey Isaac's book, The Poverty of Progressivism presents a strong, though dense, argument against using that analogy for our times.)
The same might be said for John Dewey, certainly a key intellectual forefather of liberalism and the subject of several books in the 1990s, and more recently a figure in Louis Menand's deservedly best-selling The Metaphysical Club.
But there is a sense in which Goldberg is right: We haven't heard much of this in a few years. The 1990s felt like a time of great intellectual ferment among liberals, a constant, desperate searching for historical roots and deeper ideas. In addition to the interest in Croly, Dewey, and Progressivism, there were the communitarians, critiquing liberalism for an overemphasis on individual rights and seeking to recast it in terms of responsibility. There was the incoherent "politics of meaning" group that converged around Michael Lerner, founder of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun and briefly influenced Hillary Rodham Clinton's language. There were grand political projects that envisioned a third party and a complete realignment of expectations to help poor and working people join forces and claim power. And there was a vast area of thought that went under the nearly meaningless rubric of "civil society," ranging from the statistical reasoning of Robert Putnam, whose 1995 article "Bowling Alone" introduced the idea that we needed to regain the "social capital" of institutions such as bowling leagues and civic associations, to an argument that the non-profits and neighborhood efforts of local civil society were the best way to move forward in a world where government action was discredited and the only alternative was the private values of the market. There were efforts to turn liberalism on its head, to use "bottom-up" initiatives like local empowerment zones in place of the strong national government that had been the defining objective of modern liberalism.
And those efforts of the 1990s to understand the past (Croly, Dewey, etc.) seem to me inseparable from the ability of liberals to develop a vision for the future.
And then it all seemed to come to an end. The 2002 election cycle passed without Democrats offering even an alternative economic vision, much less a broad new perspective on the relationship between government and citizens. There is right now little apparent sense of either history or the future. Perhaps most of this debate in the 1990s was directed at an audience of one, Bill Clinton, much as The Prince was written for Lorenzo diMedici. Or perhaps it is the degree to which the Bush Administration has left liberals and moderates simply sputtering with rage, too defensive to look forward. (There are plenty of liberal books right now, and they probably sell better than E.J.'s and Mike Lind's of the 1990s, but they all have the words "Bush" and "Lies" in the title.) Whatever the reason, it does seem like there is something missing. The closest thing we have now to a grappling with ideas is the "framing" analysis put forward by the Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff, which, whatever might be said of its merits, is totally ahistorical and has more to do with the presentation of ideas than with the content or evolution of liberal ideas themselves.
The second point I took from Goldberg's post is that, whether conservatives read more books or not, they do have a canon of great books and thinkers. They have a very strong, specific sense of just who their "intellectual forefathers" are, which goes with a story that they have largely created for themselves: the wilderness years; the lonely voices of "The Remnant"; the anti-modern Agrarians; the exile economists Hayek and von Mises and their Mont Pelerin Society; God and Man at Yale; Russell Kirk, that Midwestern Causabon toiling over Burke and Adams in the Michigan woods; the Goldwater campaign, etc. It's a story that's been as fascinating to liberals as to conservatives. (Sidney Blumenthal wrote a good book about it, The Rise of the Counterestablishment and John Judis has written a biography of William F. Buckley, a project also undertaken, and now put on hold, by the new editor of the New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus.) And there are a few books that one can assume every clean-cut young winger has read, like Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose. Liberals, on the other hand, have, not surprisingly, a much more diverse and contested sense of intellectual roots. We don't have a shared sense of our story, as conservatives have, though not because there is not a story to tell, but because there are many.
But the one story liberals don't tell, it seems, is that of the immediate post-war era. It's ironic that most of those Goldberg identifies as the "intellectual forefathers" of current conservatism are figures of the late 1940s-1960s, the very era when liberalism was at its high tide and conservatism seemingly vanquished. For better or worse, our world was created in those years, and they are far more relevant thant the Progressive Era. Yet the liberal thinkers of the postwar era, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell and others are almost forgotten. Their liberalism was rejected by both the left and the right in the late 1960s, and we are inclined to hold them responsible for the shortcomings of the Great Society (which, as one commentor noted in reference to an earlier post, are trivial compared to the accomplishments of that period). Perhaps we think of them as utopian, wooly-headed and soft. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. To be an anti-Communist liberal of the the 40s and 50s required mental toughness, political savvy and creativity, as well as a spirit open to debate. The founding convention of Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 would be as exciting a story as the emergence of the Right from the wilderness, if anyone cared to tell it. I'm confident that over the next few years, as we begin to relax about the failures of postwar liberalism, the strengths of that tradition will begin reemerge and in the rediscovery of this vital tradition liberals will find the intellectual roots that will help us look forward with more than rhetoric.
In a day or two, I'll pick this topic up again, with thoughts that follow from another comment from someone else about liberalism and ideas that, unlike Jonah Goldberg's, has the advantage of being true.