Understanding The Movement

David Brooks has a quite astute piece in The New York Times on why the left doesn’t understand the conservative movement:

We’re living in the age of the liberal copycat. Al Franken tries to create a liberal version of Rush. Al Gore announced his TV network yesterday. Many Democrats have tried to create a liberal Heritage Foundation.

The theory is that liberals must create their own version of the conservative pyramid. Conservatives have formed their foundations, think tanks and media outlets into a ruthlessly efficient message machine. Liberals, on the other hand, have been losing because they are too fractious, too nuanced and, well, too freethinking.

Much as I admire my friends on the left for ingeniously explaining their recent defeats without really considering the possibility that maybe the substance of their ideas is the problem, I have to say that this explanation for conservative success and liberal failure is at odds with reality.

Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they’ve found one faction to agree with.

Conservatism isn’t some monolithic bloc of like-minded individuals, it’s a diverse marketplace of ideas based upon a few shared precepts build upon a foundation of ideas that stretches back for centuries. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” don’t even remotely match their dictionary definition anymore — they haven’t at least since 1968 and quite likely since the New Deal. The political realignment of 1968 brought a massive change to the American ideological spectrum. The 1960s produced the radical left as the former hawks of the Democratic Party became today’s neoconservatives. The right coalesced around the national security issue – first based on their stance on the Cold War, and now on the fight against Islamofascism. As the liberalism of the Johnson and Carter Administrations produced economic malaise and a loss of national pride, the conservative movement, led by Ronald Reagan, was there to provide the kind of leadership that America had been lacking. It is quite telling that the only truly successful Democratic politician on the national level, Bill Clinton, won not as an outright liberal but as a “new Democrat” who used the politics of triangulation and his own ineffable personal charisma to outflank the Republicans on the right. Since 1980, no outright and unabashed liberal has been able to win an American election. Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry all failed while running on a platform of liberal populism.

It may seems odd that a movement that has so many divisions would be so successful, but Brooks also identifies the glue that holds the conservative movement together:

Moreover, it’s not only feuding that has been the key to conservative success – it’s also what the feuding’s about. When modern conservatism became aware of itself, conservatives were so far out of power it wasn’t even worth thinking about policy prescriptions. They argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order. Different factions looked back to different philosophers – Burke, Aquinas, Hayek, Hamilton, Jefferson – to define what a just society should look like.

Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement’s views about human nature and society are true.

Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I’d asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he’d call me back. He never did.

Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition, liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys.

As a result, liberals are good at talking about rights, but not as good at talking about a universal order.

Brooks’ observations are some of the most astute I’ve seen in quite some time. He’s exactly right — modern conservatism didn’t start as a political movement. It started in the 1950s with National Review, it picked up steam with the Goldwater movement. It wasn’t until 1980 — nearly three decades after it became a movement, before the conservative movement was able to become a dominant movement in American politics. Conservatism is always at its core an intellectual movement with a political veneer. Liberalism has always been a political movement guided by certain squishy intellectual concepts.

For instance, name as many modern liberal political philosophers as you can. If you’re decently versed in political philosophy, John Rawls might come to mind. The farther fringes of the left have their Chomsky, Gramsci, and Marx. But outside of that, liberalism isn’t grounded in a concrete philosophy. Meanwhile, conservatism has had a rich intellectual tradition. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind brought the philosophies of Edmund Burke to American shores. Hayek and Friedman helped shape the concepts of conservative/libertarian economic theory. Irving Kristol gave neoconservatism a name and an identity. Scholars such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a Democrat who is often considered an heir to the neoconservative school on social issues), William F. Buckley, William Kristol, etc, all helped shape and define conservatism as both an intellectual and later a political movement.

The reason why conservatism is ascandant in American politics has virtually nothing to do with sinister cabals, or rigid message control. The fault lines in conservatism are all over the place. Conservatives have little problem arguing against President Bush’s stance on immigration or arguing for or against the nomination of someone like Arlen Specter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As an intellectual movement, such disagreements have always been held out in the open, and getting a group of conservatives to agree on anything, even when it deals with some of the basic precepts of the movement, isn’t always easy to do.

At the same time, the reason why conservatism remains coherent is due to the fact that we all have a common philosophical background. The “dead white guys” that continue to inform the development of the conservative movement provide a common intellectual framework that inspires the whole movement. Conservatives are conservatism not because they’ve been snookered into some cultlike movement, but because the conservative movement is based on a philosophy that simply works. The values of the conservative movement most closely match the realities of human nature, and conservative solutions to problems take this into account. It’s why conservatism tends to eschew utopianism — because utopian political philosophies tend not to be rooted in a realistic view of human nature.

It’s boils down to a quotation I like to borrow from Dinesh D’Souza – liberal means can never achieve liberal ends. Liberalism (or what passes for liberalism these days – I have to be careful not to lump all of classic liberalism into that term) is really nothing more than an especially squishy form of socialism. Call it Socialism Lite as you will — it boils down to the essential precept that for whatever problem there is, some kind of government is the answer. Liberalism holds onto this essential tenet with all the ideological fervor of the most hardened Jesuit. The debate about Social Security on the left isn’t about the economic merits of the program as much as it is about the fact that Social Security is a government program, and government programs are almost always viewed as the only de facto way for a liberal to achieve their ends.

Liberals, by and large, have a certain view of equality (generally equality of results), have a strong sense of social justice, and a rather well-organized view of rights. None of these are wrong — in fact, the sentiments behind liberalism are extremely noble. However, they also are based on a fundamentally flawed view of human rights. If men were angels, Communism probably would have worked. But men are not angels, and systems that assume a perfectability to human nature are destined to fail — see the French Revolution’s failure to create a New Society for a New Man. Anytime society attempts those grandoise goals the results are almost always painful — see the Reign of Terror. While most American liberals don’t go to those extreme ends, the values they stand for fundamentally don’t work. They don’t produce a better society, and they don’t expand individual opportunities.

Conservatives are conservative because conservatism works at a fundamental level. Until liberals can start competing with conservatism in the marketplace of ideas, they can’t rebuild their political movement. All the MoveOns, all the piles of money from George Soros, all the TV commericals, and all the transparent attempts to appeal to Middle America won’t work unless the liberal movement finds a coherent and workable view of what America should be. Given the general skepticism and outright hostility towards America that the left has embraced since the radicals of 1968 took the reigns of the Democratic Party, it’s not particularly surprising that liberals haven’t been able to capture the national stage in the past quarter-century.

11 thoughts on “Understanding The Movement

  1. Good post, Jay. Though I must respectfully disagree.

    Liberalism’s problem is that it is letting itself be defined into a caricature by it’s opponents, precisely because there IS so much squabbling among liberals to define what a liberal is today. I could ask every liberal I know what it means to be a liberal, and I’d get a different answer from everyone. My father would probably say something about respecting individual liberties and maintaining a well-regulated, strong economy- a very Clintonian answer. My sister would discuss diversity and caring for the poorer elements of society- a typical liberal Christian populist. My grandfather, were he still coherent, would probably talk about the rights of the working man and getting fair wages and treatment- a good old-line union socialist. The liberal spectrum includes a massive diversity of opinion- ranging from rabidly pro-tech democratic Transhumanists and west-coast techies to back-to-nature Gaian environmentalists, from religious Christians, Jews, and Buddhists to staunch atheists, from academic relativists to screaming absolutists (which oddly enough can often be found in the same person 😉 ), from classical liberal-libertarians and Christian populists to fanatical socialists and Communists, capitalists, Keynesians, modernists, romantics, and a partridge in a pear tree…

    I’d also say that there is a tremendous intellectual heritage and range among both centrist liberals and leftists these days as well. Many democrats and center-liberals are greatly influenced by classical libertarianism and utilitarianism. Economics runs the gamut from Marx to Keynes to Hayek (honestly, America is the only country in the world where he’s considered a conservative economist). On the far left, postmodernism and critical theory, while I’m not a big fan of either, are deeply influential, while the integral post-constructivism supported by Jurgen Habermas, Ken Wilber, and Don Beck is starting to catch on among many American liberals, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who have become supporters of integral theory. There is constant, rousing debate in truly liberal publications like The New Republic (and The Nation is sometimes worth reading as well).

    At the heart of what I’d call true liberalism, however, is the idea of pragmatism. Attempts at building a better society come not though doctrinal purity. By default, D’Souza is mistaken- Liberal ends cannot come from failed socialist means, but they will never come from outmoded conservative means either. Liberal ends always come from liberal means- if we’re talking about actual liberals.

    I don’t think most liberals believe in some sort of human perfection that can spring into being overnight. I think that we believe in human improvability through social and technological progress, with the exception of reactionary romantics on the far left (David Brin has been writing a great series of essays on this subject lately, check them out at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com). Setbacks happen, experiments fail- but they do not mean we return to the failures of yesterday, they mean that we return to the drawing board.

    The problem with the “false liberalism” we’re seeing today is that these “faux-liberals” haven’t gone back to the drawing board- they’re continuing to pound away at the same ideas and systems that haven’t worked. Real liberals don’t do this- but they don’t turn in their badges and follow Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom into neoconservative la-la land either.

    Bill Clinton- real liberal. Though he calls himself a “conservative”, I’d say Andrew Sullivan is more of a real liberal (same goes for Fareed Zakaria, and most of the staff of The New Republic). Thomas Friedman is a real liberal. David Brin is a real liberal. Robert Reich is a real liberal. I’d say Al Gore is too, for the most part, as is John Kerry, though you could debate me on that (if I were in the mood). I don’t know if Hillary Clinton makes the cut, or if she’s just cynically triangulating, but I’d be willing to bet on that. The integral post-constructivists I mentioned- yeah, they’re real liberals too.

    And, to be perfectly honest, I see a lot of diversity in the GOP as well, but I’m worried that it’s coming at the expense of a major part of the party that is being silenced, and it seems the party could be marching straight into the same sort of boondoggles that broke the back of the Democratic party in the 70’s. I hope for your sake that it isn’t true, and I hope for mine that it is.

  2. Jay, great post. If modern liberals want to compete, they do need to understand conservatism as based in something more than payoffs to Big Oil. They can start by reading David Brooks, which serves as an introduction to you excellent piece.

    Then, I go to tell you how good your post was, and find Nicholas MacDonald giving me the other side – showing me how liberals see themselves. And conservatives should endeavor to understand liberals.

    If Congress read these pieces, they might actually find ways to agree on some things, and not spend their hours demagoguing each other.

  3. Ultimately, I believe conservatism’s recent success is the product of its relatively sparse factions. In order for Democrats to win an election, they have to magically bring to together all of their often conflicting constituencies, including loggers and environmentalists, shotgun-toting Pennsylvania steelworkers and gun-control advocating soccer moms, homophobic West Virginia hillbillies and free love hippies from Haight-Asbury, African-Americans, Arab-Americans and Jews….and that’s just the beginning.

    By contrast, there are only two main groups of Republicans….the social conservatives and the economic conservatives. Clearly, the “Left Behind” series crowd has a fiercely different (and often conflicting) agenda with Wall Street yuppies and business barons, but thus far have been willing to hear only the message they want to from the theocrats/plutocrats they repeatedly elect. The danger the Republican Party faces is never being able to deliver for the social conservatives. It’s unclear how long they’ll be able to get mileage over this gay marriage bait-and-switch, but if they don’t get Roe vs. Wade undone in the next four years, what will be the incentive for the large percent of one-issue abortion voters to pull the lever for Bill Frist in 2008?

    The current alignment of social and economic conservatives is presently an overwhelming force and the GOP deserves props for its ability to manipulate its way to a majority with shrill rhetoric about “family values” coming from the mouths of professional adulterers and pathological divorcers. I don’t expect the Republicans are going to be the American equivalent to the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan this century, however. Ideologues from all sides of the political spectrum considered the 2004 election to be the most important of their lifetime. That’s some pretty high expectations to live up to, and I’m not convinced the Bush administration and conservatism’s current elected leaders have the capacity to satisfy the expectations of 51% of them indefinitely. Still, if the GOP is able to control its message and its constituency to two main groups (essentially the exact opposite of what David Brooks and Jay Reding say is going on), they stand a good chance of having a run of a couple decades or so.

  4. Edit: “Attempts at building a better society come not though doctrinal purity.” should read “Attempts at building a better society should come not through adhering to doctrinal purity but through experimentation.”

    Small gaffe. Not as bad as some I’ve made on Brin’s forum… 😛

  5. I like to keep things simplistic: people buy cars and houses from people they like. Same way when voting. Give me a reason(s) to not like you and I’ll vote for the other candidate.

  6. CadillaqJaq, sadly enough, your assessment is spot-on. In the age of made-for-TV candidates running for all levels of government, an increasing number of Americans are approaching their decisions in the voting booth with the same level of maturity as high school seniors approach their decision in electing homecoming royalty. From the multiple conversations I had before the election with politically illiterate acquaintances, I have little doubt that millions of Americans voted for either John Kerry or George Bush based on whose family they thought was cuter than their positions on any issues.

    From my unscientific case study, southern voters seem to be the most guilty of this kind of voting, and they obviously came to the decision that Laura Bush would make a better prom queen than would Teresa Heinz Kerry. On the other hand, I’m sure there are plenty of politically illiterate Northeasterns who voted against Bush primarily because of his irrelevant verbal gaffes and/or the fact that he occasionally wears a cowboy hat. Whatever the case, I see the current political alignment as being less about any sort of serious conservative triumph than of a horrific corruption of early 21st century democracy that is fast making the system illegitimate. Even in the era where everyone believes “this was the most important election of their lifetime,” I fear that the number of people who have a basic understanding of real-world issues is on the decline.

  7. I think Brooks is right on target.

    It is telling that conservatives freely quote long speeches by their opposition, to make sure everyone hears what the Democratic party is saying.

  8. Damn Mark, I really enjoyed your remarks here. Usually, I just kind of write ’em off as liberal ranting, but here you’ve kept with the tone of Jay’s posts and treated in a reasoned manner unencumbered with partisan hackery. If only all politicos could learn from this.

    And I agree with the cynacism of fearing that voters only vote for whom they like most – like homecoming royalty. But a question that might be worthy of consideration, is there something based in the philosophical underpinnings of each party that tends to attract more likeable candidates than the other (exceptions would, of course, exist. Think likeable GWB v. unlikeable Tom Delay). I don’t know the answer, but following Brooks’ and Reding’s commentary, it may be more likely that conservatives can better communicate likeability because they aren’t nuancing themselves to death over the intricate details of bureaucratic functions.

  9. Mark, you do some interesting theorizing on other people’s decision making, but you don’t know a blessed thing about ’em.

    CadillaqJaq describes an approach that might be very wise indeed, depending on what makes you “like” or “dislike” a candidate. Elitists value raw intellect and give no consideration to experience and personal character. (Witness John Kerry’s stupefaction at “losing to this dummy.” Witness the Left’s obsession with Bush’s supposedly lower intellect. Witness the Left’s obsession with its own supposed intellectual superiority.)

    More ordinary people pay quite a lot of attention to personal character, not always based on accurate information, of course, but that’s life. They notice inconsistencies, unacknowledged course changes, and other patterns. Humans are built to do this: to assess each other. It is not a purely rational, cerebral-cortex, left-brain activity, though, so the Left tends to discount it–at their peril.

    There are probably millions of Americans who believe John Kerry to be a lifelong traitor (fairly or not–your opinion!). There are millions of Americans who assessed the two candidates and concluded that Bush is a much more honest man and that he means what he says, and says what he means. There are millions of Americans who learned about the Oil for Food scandal despite the media near-blackout, and who reckoned that as a death knell for John Kerry’s foreign policy. And I’ll bet that most of those people might not be able to put into words exactly what guided their decisions, but that doesn’t make their decisions invalid.

  10. winston, you’re probably correct that the lack of nuance in modern-day Republican-speak works to their advantage. Only a few Democratic politicians (like Bill Clinton) can pull off the all-things-to-all-people rhetoric that is ultimately required for the Democratic Party if they plan to reign in their diverging constituencies in Long Island, San Francisco and Toledo. Al Gore and John Kerry were clearly not as successful with this language and opened themselves up to charges of indecision and flip-flopping. Swing voters who lack the patience or intelligence to comprehend wonkish policy matters will probably tend to go for the plain-spoken than the nuanced. Unless these voters reach the conclusion that complex government decision-making requires nuance, the Republicans are likely to continue to succeed on this front. The wild card is if the Republicans dare to run a pro-choice candidate like a Guiliani or a (please!) Condoleeza Rice in 2008. I suspect this would leave the GOP susceptible to an election season worth of flip-flopping charges, among other things.

    Bostonian, where did you pull this quote by John Kerry about “losing to this dummy”? Are you paraphrasing or did he actually make such a statement? Furthermore, I kind of doubt there were too many swing voters who voted against John Kerry based on the U.N. Oil for Food program. Even if the election were held today, I can’t imagine that swinging a single Kerry voter to Bush.

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