Eric Alterman: A Wake-Up Call for US Liberals
A short column in The Nation that is a must read.
The primary difference between liberalism and conservatism, at least in theory, is that the latter is an ideology and the former isn’t. Conservatism, as Milton Friedman argued, posits that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” Liberalism, however, as Lionel Trilling observed, “is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” And while John Kenneth Galbraith helpfully pointed out that only those programs and policies that honor “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of the term, liberalism, at bottom, is pragmatism. Conservatives desire low taxes and small government because this is how they define freedom. They like to pretend that liberals prefer the opposite in both cases, but the truth is that liberals are OK with whatever works.
Our political dysfunction has many sources, but one way to describe our problem is this: we have allowed conservatives to define the terms of debate at a time when conservatives have lost all sense of moral, intellectual and especially practical responsibility.
In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling famously complained that he could find “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” What we had instead were “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Conservatives subsequently invested a great deal of money to address this problem, and the result was the rise of a bevy of right-wing intellectuals—Friedman, James Q. Wilson, Alan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb among them—able to offer arguments that liberals ignored at their peril.
Today, however, we have no such figures and nothing resembling challenging ideas. Will, undoubtedly America’s most prominent conservative intellectual, thinks that rape victims enjoy their “privileges,” that Ebola can be spread through the air, and that global warming is a hoax. Faced with the fact that 97 percent of climatologists have formed a scientific consensus about man-made climate change, he responded, “Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether”—as if his own purposeful ignorance were a counter to empirical data.
Conservative “wise man” Bill Kristol has achieved this status by proving himself, time and again, to be the worst predictor in the history of the punditocracy. Kristol recently summed up his political philosophy in a debate about US policy in the Middle East with Laura Ingraham—herself a symbol of the decline of conservative thought—by asking, “What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” Charles Krauthammer’s analyses evince a similarly reflexive belligerence, while David Brooks, believe it or not, is too liberal to qualify.