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(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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 1, 2004 | Permalink


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Yes. Well said. More later.

Posted by: Bean | Apr 2, 2004 10:54:19 AM

Just when I think I might just know or understand something, this type of thing comes up and shows me that not only am I still in the kids pool, I have to wear the inflatable arm bands and life jacket. But her I go, ready to make a couple of points however lame they maybe and possibility insignificant.

I don't think Kevins response was completely tounge in cheek. His point was that the past shouldn't necessary be the constraints of the present or the future. While he does state the point pretty stongly, he shows that if the intent of an action is to preserve the past, the action itself will be ineffectual in addressing a possible solution to a problem. Social problems and growth cannot occur if the medium for that growth isn't allowed to alter the perceptions of the past.

Second, and a very, very insignificant note regarding TR and his limited concessions to social and economic justice. Applying a current level or expectation of social and economic adjustments to a society and culture in the distant past (TR almost 100 years ago) and then declaring them "limited" is misleading. At the time of TR, the political and economic strucuture did not allow very variance in addressing social and economic issues. Darwinism (social and economic) prevailed in the US and concepts from Marx were just being introduced. To retrocactively claim that the gains and changes brought about by TR were limited, downgrades the significant changes that TR supported and championed.

Looking forward to #2.

Posted by: ArkansasJoseph | Apr 2, 2004 12:11:41 PM

A wonderful post and I agree that Goldberg has a point.

Speaking just for myself, I came of age just past the high watermark of the New Left. Then, I could have referred you to a continent -- since fallen into the sea -- of intellectual forbears among the democratic & not-so-democratic socialists.

Posted by: Bill | Apr 2, 2004 12:24:40 PM

"When was the last time you saw more than a passing reference to Herbert Croly?"

I would have thought a better question would be, When was the last time you saw more than a passing reference to John Rawls? To which the answer is, a few hours ago.

Posted by: hilzoy | Apr 2, 2004 5:58:33 PM

For Liberals: John Stuart Mill. The utilitarian stuff might not really help much, but the notions he offers for liberty can be generally accepted by all liberals today.

Posted by: PanJack | Apr 2, 2004 8:58:04 PM

As a recent college graduate in Political Science, I would note that a large proportion of the lefty-leaning students and professors that I interacted with had great respect for Manuel Castell's and Ulrich Beck. Beck has been a particular influence on how I view the contours of power in the globalizing world.


Posted by: Carl | Apr 3, 2004 1:29:17 AM

Part of the problem in defining the liberal tradition is elucidating the ways in which it is and the ways it is not related to Marxism. Few of us accept much in the way of Marxist prescriptions. But I think our central conception of material welath is that there is justice in the conception "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Not that it is possible to *meet* needs when wealth is awarded without regard to accomplishment. But that modern econominc society -- society founded on the notion that land can be claimed by chasing all the resident bears, humans, and wolves away at the point of a spear -- has an obligation to structure economic relationships such that the descendants of those humans chased off the land (or enslaved) have an opportunity for a decent life.

But the revolutionary program of Marx, followed by the state-serfdom of the Bolsheviks and their offspring, have made any calm discussion of Marx very difficult. On the other hand, since the analysis of wealth- and power-distribution is so associated with Marx, one can hardly discuss economics from a moral perspective at all without the distraction of being accused as a Marxist.

Posted by: Dvd Avins | Apr 3, 2004 1:41:03 AM

I strongly agree with the last part of this post, and I suspect this administration will actually provoke a slew of history books more friendly to Cold-war liberalism. Historians' hostility to this period flows in part from doubts about notions of science and expertise that informed the decisions of this era. But watching the hacks in this administration wage war and make "policy" uninformed by actual facts forces us to respect those who believed in the numbers. In other words, we may conclude the problem with Robert McNamara wasn't his use of data, but rather his totally inadequate analysis of the information he received.

Posted by: AWC | Apr 3, 2004 7:31:56 AM


You write ".... 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, ... 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."

I don't think this is quite right.

For starters, even if one concedes that American conservatives have all read Buckley, "Free To Choose" and Russell Kirk, this hardly adds up to an intellectual exercise. I'm on the left, I've read all the stuff you refer to above, and I think of the whole thing as light reading for amusement. For a rightist they could only add up to infantile mind-candy.

There is, however, a more serious problem: the right is not a cohesive political philosophy. It is fundamentally divided between authoritarian retrogressives on the one hand and liberty-loving critics of government on the other. These share almost nothing with each other beyond occasional agreements on particular critiques of liberalism.

The democratic left, by contrast -- capital L Liberalism in the US, Social Democracy in the rest of the world -- is a broad and varied, but undivided, spectrum of thought based on a centuries-old set of values: humanism, the Renaissance, democracy, scientific investigation, literacy, and personal egalitarianism.

For this reason it is the left that has not merely a literate foundation but that has one unmatched, and unmatchable, by the right.

What the American Right has is Bill Buckley's pamphlets, and a few odds and ends like it. Thin gruel.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones | Apr 5, 2004 4:29:34 PM

I think both Mark and Goldberg are correct in part regarding the apparent withering of the intellectual history and "framework" for modern liberalism.

I agree with Mark completely on the importance of Mill and Rawls in the liberal tradition. I also agree with him on the importance of Herbert Croly and many of the progressives. Among later writers of a muscular "national greatness" liberalism, I would add Michael Lind and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. That is why many of these authors and their books can be found in "The Perrspectives Reading List."

Where I agree with Goldberg (as much as it pains me to say it as a liberal) is that 21st century American liberalism lacks a coherent public philosophy behind its policy program.

Conservative public philosophy is clear, concise, easy to articulate (and, I would argue, wrong, but that is another story). In a nutshell, government is bad, taxes are worse, while markets are exalted and deified. The policies that flow from this (tax cuts, abandonment of public services, privatization of critical functions, etc.) are consistent with that premise. (Social issues are another matter, which is why John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" is such as problem for them.)

Liberals, on the other hand, have lacked an over-arching public philosophy since the end of the Great Society. As a result, the Democratic program is complex, changing, and ever subject to internal disputes (free trade vs protectionism; common national identity vs multiculturalism; etc.) Democrats have no message or "brand" today that can compete with the GOP's "government bad, taxes bad, markets good" mantra.

Without that consistent, meta-public philosophy, liberals can't put their intellectual stalwarts to use. As a result, we hear Hayek, Friedman, et al, and not Rawls and Croly.

Addressing the need to both renew liberal public philosophy ("The Reciprocity Society") and offer a compelling program consistent with it ("The New American Bargain") is a topic I've written on at length.

For more, see:

"The Opt Out Society: The GOP Threat to National Unity and the American Social Contract"

Posted by: Jon | Apr 5, 2004 6:41:47 PM

I think Jonah's point is obviously true, and I'm surprised people are arguing about it. I have a better idea who Hayek is than who Croly is, and I'm a lifelong liberal.

I think a big part of the reason is that conservatives prize loyalty over correctness, while liberals are the opposite. For example, Galbraith was wrong about almost everything he wrote about, so we don't read him anymore. Buckley was wrong about almost everything he wrote about, but conservatives put him up on a pedestal.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Apr 5, 2004 7:52:23 PM

Is it really so hard to recall that the cold war liberals were so utterly discredited by their embrace and prosecution of the war in Vietnam that people went elsewhere for their progressivism--uncritically embracing such as 'Fanshen,' 'The Wretched of the Earth', 'Summerhill,' Paul De Man, the Black Panthers; you remember them too, young man, turtles all the way down--and then found themselves bereft of a consistent authoritative canon?

Posted by: Mike | Apr 5, 2004 10:51:56 PM

Nice post, but I think any attempt to offer a "broad new perspective on the relationship between government and citizens," as Mark suggests, is just laughably premature at this point -- a waste of breath, ink or pixels. The vague, confused, largely contradictory hodgepodge of commonsense folk wisdom that makes up the general public's ideas about public policy would be more than sufficient to warrant tossing President Bush out of office if the facts about his actual record were sufficiently known. After all, does anyone defend governing principles that would justify ... [read more]

Posted by: Gabe | Apr 6, 2004 1:42:27 AM

Okay, let me rephrase Jonah's point: Liberals aren't as a pedantic as conservatives. Not a fair statement, but it's the intellectual equivalent of what he has done.

The measure of learning or knowledge isn't the ability to recite names and dates, though that was the approach of E.D. Hirsch and conservatives in the late 80s and early 90s. In a more important sense than the Decembrist acknowledges, Drum's point is correct. I've seen more than my share of conservatives and concervative bloggers who seem obsessed with demonstrating what they've read by name dropping. The point of learning is to move forward. There is a kind of a fundamentalist Christian attitude in the conservatives' reverance for past works. But move beyond those past works? Challenge them? No, I don't see that attitude among many conservatives and their supposed intellectual writing.

The conservatives' attention to their history is important, as they has been trying to redefine the movement and reassert its political importance. Republican thinking took a liberal turn in Teddy Roosevelt, who redefined the presidency, the role of government, and the importance of social issues. Later Republican presidents tried to revert the government and presidency, but not for long. Liberalism has been the driving philosophy of America in the 20th Century, not conservativism.

So, the conservatives retrenched. I'm not surprised that they do more name dropping than liberals. It's what you do when you feel like you need to legitimate yourself, like a first-year grad student at a faculty party.

To confuse name dropping with an interest ideas is the shallowest of thinking.

Posted by: Tx Bubba | Apr 6, 2004 11:13:47 AM

"They has been . . . ." Sheesh.

Posted by: Tx Bubba | Apr 6, 2004 11:15:51 AM

Fine Post, but I'd be leery of putting Cold War liberalism on pedestal anymore. Too often, (as is the case now also) it took the form of an intimidated and corrupted response to right wing demogoguery. This was the period of McCarthyism until he got too far out of hand even for the Repubs and the army. Geopolitical considerations seemed to have more to do with interventionism in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and ultimately Viet Nam, than any genuine, rationally derived logic of concern about lives, liberty, and democracy. (And the death tolls ultimately tied to such interventions may even have exceeded those related to Post Stalin communists.)

I'd suggest that the so called Cold War liberalism was mainly a holding action against reaction (and at this point a seemingly unsuccessful one).

Posted by: mb | Apr 6, 2004 6:49:42 PM


Hats off to Mark for bringing this point up but to DVD Avins and Jon as well for hitting the nail right on the head. It would be political suicide for today's left to cite the their intelectual forefathers because at every turn their ideas have been mangled into one totalitarian regime or another.

The enlightenment of Rousseau lead to the butchery of the French revolutions, the Marx and Engels treatise lead to the collectivization of Lenin and Stalin, the frustrated Socialist movement in Germany gave birth to the Fascism of Hitler, and the philosophy of Mao gave rise to Red China and Ho Chi Minh. The bottom line is, the history of this modern Liberal movement does not have a very good track record which is precisely why it is not discussed.

Every time a government has the stated goal of equality and defined equality in economic terms (an equality of outcome) they have found it necessary to use for to acheive it. This isn't new. Collectivism is what Burke, Bastiat, Hayek, Orwell, etc. were all railing against not liberal thought. In fact the term liberal was widely used until the late 50's to describe the views of these writers. I hate to drop more names here but "The Fatal Conceit" that Hayek wrote about was that time and again intellectuals think that if they could only have there chance at implementing these socialist principals the outcome would be different. Time and time again they have been proven wrong.

I really think Kevin was serious with his post. He does believe "conservatives" are absorbed with the past and in a partial sense he may be right. "Conservatives", at least the ones familiar with Burke, Bastiat and Hayek are absorbed with the lessons of the past, "Liberals" it seems, seem bent on ignoring them.

What I wish Goldberg would have done however, was to shame many of the Republicans of today that are making the same mistake we accuse "Liberals" of making. I wish he would have challenged the big spendors and the FCC sensorers to look at their past and to read the works of their supposed forefathers to see what fools they have become. David Lloyd Jones couldn't be more correct when he says that there is a split in the conservative coalition between those who want to impose then enforce a morality and those who champion a limited government. But the two views couldn't be more diametrically opposed. The coalition exists because they largely share a common social view but the imposition of that view runs counter to the principals of freedom they claim to defend.

Anyway, great article Mark. This is precisely why the Decembrist is a top 5 of ALL blogs in my book. It seems every post gathers a good group of thinkers around it.

Posted by: Barnabas Sackett | Apr 9, 2004 8:08:22 AM

Hardly, Barnabas. One needen't use force to adjust the prerogatives of inherited status. Europe has been doing it for half a century. And while they were never referred to as such by any but the far-right in this country, cold-war era Western European governments routinely referred to themselves as Socialist.

Social Democracy, to use a somewhat more sepcific term, holds that a country's economic structures, like its government, must exist to serve the country's population.

History teaches us (well, common sense would do in place of history, except it isn't nearly common enough) that to avoid tyrrany, the government must serve not only for the benefit of, but at the will of the people. The problem with most of the examples you cite, is that leaders took it upon themselves to speak in perpetuity for the people. That is hardly a liberal phenomenon. (The problem with the German and, I think, French examples, on the other hand, is your convenient misreading of history. That, combined with your false praise and misrepresenting the point of my post, accounts for the annoyed tone of this post.)

In practical terms, the most obvious

Posted by: Dvd Avins | Apr 10, 2004 12:06:53 AM

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painful ailments (which speeds up recovery)

the Xanax ( Alprazolam ) is an anti-anxiety agent benzodiazepine used primarily for short-term
relief of mild to moderate anxiety and nervous tension. Alprazolam is also effective in the
treatment of activity depression or panic attacks. It can also be useful in treating
irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety due to a neurosis,

The Ativan (Lorazepam) is a benzodiazepine with CNS depressant, anxiolytic and sedative
properties. Peak serum concentrations of free lorazepam after oral administration are
reached in 1 to 6 hours.

you can find more information about vicodin at www.crdrx.com, 10/325 at www.10-325.com, vicoprofen at www.1vicoprofen.com and lortab at www.1lortab.com

Have a great day

Posted by: dalia | Dec 12, 2006 2:32:11 PM