Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Liberal Copycat

David Brooks in the The NYT editorializes 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....

This feuding has meant that the meaning of conservatism is always shifting. Once, Republicans were isolationists. Now most Republicans, according to a New York Times poll, believe the U.S. should try to change dictatorships into democracies when it can. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Democrats believe the U.S. should not try to democratize authoritarian regimes.

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.

Mark Schmitt blogged he describes the early disputes within National Review and among today's factions, arguing that they have made conservatism more introspective and adaptable. I know this to be true. I'm familiar with the right and it's think tanks and magazines, and I know what goes on in them. What goes on is that people argue. They argue endlessly, not just about their philosophies (because, frankly, very few people think in those terms even if they've read all their Oakeshott and Burke and Hayek), but about practical politics and policies. Sometimes they stop speaking to each other, and sometimes, having aired their disagreements, they find a way to work together. They learn, they adapt, they develop their voice. They argue for their viewpoints knowing that no one viewpoint will dominate. Bill Bradley captured some of that the other day, even though it may be his op-ed that Brooks is reacting to, when he wrote that wrote that the various actors on the conservative side, such as Ann Coulter and Grover Norquist, understand their roles.

Matthew Yglesias blogged Brooks sees this as a source of conservatism's strength and thinks liberals would do well to imitate it. Since my formal knowledge is mostly about philosophy, I have a kind of self-interested reason to endorse this theory. If that's what liberal pundits started arguing about all the time, I could probably kick a lot of ass. I was never that good as a philosopher, but I was really good at arguing about philosophy in the sort of short-format space of a classroom discussion or an op-ed.... Mark Schmitt has a different take. It also occurs to me to point out that there's a difference between partisan success and ideological success. I also think there are structural assymetries in American politics that make it unwise for liberals to try and mimmick conservatives in a knee-jerk kind of way. What works for one side may not work for the other.

Nick Gillespie blogged In his NY Times col today, David Brooks tags Reason as one of "the major conservative magazines" in the country. Significant ideological confusion aside, Brooks' larger point is that rancorous debate among and within a broadly construed right has a generally positive effect.... The column is worth reading, even if it does smack of the inverse of the old liberal canard that liberals are too smart for this world. Hit & Run yapping about libertarian-conservative divorce here. Example (and critiques) of smug liberal self-love here. Memorable Philadelphia Magazine takedown of David Brooks here.

Liberals will not succeed attempting to duplicate the tools and procedures that allowed conservatives to end up on top. The liberals held control for as long as they did because the MSM was liberal. Conservatives developed their tools and procedures because they could not get their opinions heard otherwise. And once people heard those opinions they realized the conservatives were right. Liberals still control the MSM. If they had ideas worth being considered, they have the mechanism to get those ideas aired. They just don't have any new ideas.

Jack Grant blogged An interesting take on the value of public debate within a party.

Betsy Newmark blogged David Brooks has a thesis that conservatives have developed stronger ideas because they often disagree with each other. He also believes that liberals are less likely to ground their beliefs in a coherent philosophy. I suspect that this is a column that liberal blogs will have a lot to comment on. I'm sure that there are liberal philosophers that they can rest their ideology on. And I'm not just talking about Marx.

James Joyner blogged Indeed, this "unity" argument is at odds with the idea, often propounded by both the Left and the libertarian elements within the GOP, that the party's dominance by its religious faction is going to be its ruin.

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