"Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals…except the weasel."
As a longtime observer of movement conservatism, Jonah Goldberg is well positioned to comment intelligently about its current travails. Thus my eagerness to read this post, where he responds to recent analysis offered by Julian Sanchez. “Now, I think there’s some merit to what Sanchez says here,” Mr. Goldberg writes. “I have some appreciation for both the reality and the mirage of what Sanchez calls conservatism’s movement toward epistemic closure.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Goldberg doesn’t tell us why he believes that conservatism is moving toward epistemic closure, or what he regards as the cause of this problem, or how it might be acknowledged, addressed, or even remedied — these would seem to be relevant insights in a discussion that would redound to the benefit of the conservative movement, but rather than take them up, Mr. Goldberg predictably transitions to talking about how “this quest for epistemic closure is natural to all groups” and how “what I find amusing is that this is supposedly a particularly acute problem for conservatives, but not for liberals.” I say “predictably” because in his most formulaic work, Mr. Goldberg takes the topic at hand, sidesteps any critique aimed at the right, and transitions to talking about how the problem is actually liberal in origin, or that liberals do it more often, or that the left is actually more guilty of it, or whatever. This is persuasive at times, less so at others, and too often beside the point.
In this instance, for example, I very much doubt that anyone engaged in the conversation — Mr. Sanchez, Noah Millman, Matt Yglesias, Megan McArdle, as far as I know — dispute the fact that epistemic closure is a human tendency, or that all ideological movements suffer from it at one time or another. All of us, Mr. Goldberg included, seem to believe that “epistemic closure” is currently a problem on the right, so why does it matter that it is also a problem elsewhere? It would be great to get Mr. Goldberg’s thoughts since this is a subject we’re obviously keen on discussing — perhaps he has something right that one or all of us have wrong, and surely it is worth addressing a flaw in the conservative movement irrespective of whether or not the flaw is more or less pronounced in a competing ideological movement.
Turning to the post that Mr. Goldberg does offer, there are several items to address. He writes:
For more than a generation, liberalism craved and ruthlessly enforced epistemic closure. I hate to trot out Lionnel Trilling here (it’s such a cliché), but it’s worth recalling his famous 1950 line about how “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”
This is presented as though liberals don’t acknowledge the excesses of The New Deal and The Great Society. Of course, it is widely if controversially held on the left that neo-liberalism saved their movement precisely by attacking its most tired orthodoxies of thought. Here is Nick Lemann, New Yorker staffer and Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, writing in an anniversary issue of The Washington Monthly:
When I first came to the magazine’s office for my job interview in the winter of 1976, I was amazed to see an issue just back from the printer’s with the cover line “CRIMINALS BELONG IN JAIL.” Charlie thought we would purify liberalism, the naturally dominant strain in American politics since his New Deal childhood in West Virginia, by relentlessly ridding it of tired, automatic bromides and by insisting that liberals see government’s performance as it actually was, not as liberals wished it to be. He wanted to understand and call attention to government’s failures so that in the future it would work properly, not so that people would stop believing government could solve problems. Nonetheless, issue by issue, this entailed criticizing liberals more often than conservatives.
I am sure Mr. Goldberg is aware of this history. Ask him about a liberal like Mickey Kaus, and he’ll acknowledge — more readily than some on the left — how important folks like him were to a revived Democratic Party that came to embrace balanced budgets, welfare reform, actual efforts to reduce crime, and a growing appreciation that markets can be useful in public policy.
Would the electoral success of Bill Clinton have been possible absent the neo-liberals and DLC types who laid the intellectual groundwork for his style of leadership? Whatever one thinks about President Clinton, wasn’t his brand of liberalism an improvement over the kind championed by Lyndon Johnson-era Democrats? These seem like awfully important aspects of liberal history to gloss over amid a narrative claim that the liberal mind has been steadily closing since 1950.
Mr. Goldberg goes on:
For decades, liberal elites abused their monopoly on the media and their near complete control of the commanding heights of the culture to attack not just conservative ideas, but conservative motives in order to render any serious alternative to liberalism a kind of crankery or fascism. That effort is still under way in the arts, in academia and in the few remaining bastions of the “legacy media.”
Nonetheless, over the last, say, decade and a half, the media climate has changed to the extent where at least one bulwark of liberal hegemony is unraveling. Fox News is the one conservative-oriented network. Talk radio is dominated by conservatives (largely because it came of age as an alternative to the liberal monopoly). In response, liberals have grown more shrill and desperate in their efforts to delegitimize conservative ideas, new and old.
These triumphant narratives about the rise of conservative journalism never seem to grapple with the fact that the right last experienced a significant triumph during Ronald Reagan’s administration, that the minor triumph of 1994 precedes the 15 year period Mr. Goldberg associates with the unraveling of liberal hegemony, and that since 1995, movement conservatism and its new ally, Fox News, haven’t actually accomplished anything very impressive beyond improving the egos of some right-leaning pundits and making a lot of money.
What if instead we measure success by asking what’s become of the country and its public policy. Is there anyone who believes that the Fox News era has been a good one for the right? The federal government now is far bigger than it was then, its growth and the exploding national debt and budget deficit grew steadily worse during eight years of Republican rule, the federal role in education has grown enormously, the right endured the scandals of Jack Abramoff and the K Street project, President Bush and President Obama both successfully passed costly new health care entitlements, and a democratic president as liberal as any since Jimmy Carter won the White House with a majority of the vote. If this is how the right fares during the celebrated rise of conservative media, forgive me for preferring the bad old days before its rise, when William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were winning minds and elections without blond hair dye, faux-raving-lunatic populism everyday at 5 pm, or six figure book deals.
Mr. Goldberg writes:
So rapacious is the liberal desire for epistemic closure, liberals now want to claim not only Buckley but even Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as champions of liberalism.
Seriously? “Liberals” want to do that? How many liberals? If you polled the entire American left, asking “Was Ronald Reagan a champion of liberalism?” what percentage of respondents would say yes? Am I supposed to regard this as a serious claim? It’s as if this is all a game to score rhetorical points so cheap that no intelligent interlocutor could possibly be swayed by them. It may be news to some person out there on the Internet that hyperlinks can be found to prove that some small number of liberals out there believe something wacky. But it insults the intelligence of those of us unsurprised by that fact when Mr. Goldberg offers these hyperlinks as though they prove wild, implausible assertions about liberalism generally.
Mr. Goldberg writes:
…my aim isn’t to defend the freshness of conservative (or libertarian) ideas from the charge of staleness. I think freshness is somewhat overrated. Two-plus-two-is-four is a very old observation. That doesn’t mean it has outlived its accuracy. It seems to me that when liberals control all of the policy-making apparatus, being the party of no is a perfectly rational stance that has less to do with a poverty of good ideas than an empirical appreciation for political reality. Lord knows the Democrats did not ride back to power on the backs of nimble and novel public policy prescriptions.
Ah yes, 2+2=4. Timeless. An elegant analogy, if only you could explain how it maps onto certain new problems that the country faces — take the Jim Manzi observation that in a globalizing world, the United States is going to have a more difficult time staying competitive than it did during the anomalous situation of easy American post-WWII hegemony, and that it’s going to be quite difficult to enjoy sufficient economic growth without destabilizing society, because that growth is likely to entail ever larger income inequality, something that threatens the stability of a country if it gets too large.
What is 2? What is 4?
The need for freshness isn’t necessitated by the abandonment of old truths, but by the emergence of new problems, and an uncertainty about what using old truths to solve them even means.
It is also worth remembering that back in the early 1990s conservatives successfully defeated Bill Clinton’s push for health care reform by being the party of no. As a short term strategy, it worked. In the intervening years, some intelligent conservatives worked on health care policy in think tanks, but movement conservatism as a whole utterly failed to grapple with the issue, whereas an entire think tank apparatus on the left did the opposite, including young Ezra Klein types who mastered the issue well enough to influence public opinion through their writing.
Thus President Bush, while in power, undertook to pass a costly new entitlement as his health care legacy, lacking any better ideas, a move that addressed none of the systemic problems in the field. And when his term ended, the Democrats conducted a primary where every serious candidate offered detailed visions for how to reform the health care system, whereas the Republican field offered as its most plausible counter… Romney-care.
It is no surprise, given all this, that Democrats eventually passed their health care agenda, the right never having taken up the issue with anything like the same seriousness. In the end, a plan always beats a lack of motivation to even bring up an issue. Had a bus hit Jim Manzi in 2005, the right would have as little to offer in the climate change debate, and I suspect his forthcoming book on globalization and economic inequality will be one of the only serious attempts to grapple with that issue, so that once again he’ll embark on a single-handed effort to engage in intellectually serious debates with leftist critics who have their own plans to address this issue. I am perhaps exaggerating the importance of Mr. Manzi, but basically it looks to me like he’ll advocate policy A, the left will advocate policy B, and Sarah Palin will point out that 2 + 2 = 4.
The reason so many of us — Megan, Julian, Noah, Will Wilkinson — have difficulty pining for the days when the Democrats no longer hold all the reins of government (and I do hope they lose the House come November) is that given the epistemic closure on the right, what are the Republicans going to give us? Another prescription drug benefit? Another No Child Left Behind?
In 2012 will Mitt Romney do for climate change what he did for health care in Massachusetts? Will Michael Steele shape a policy vision for the future? Is Sarah Palin going to issue a plan for American resurgence shaped by the newly hired editorial staff of the Weekly Standard? Perhaps there is something better than these nightmare scenarios to anticipate, but I confess that I don’t know what it could be other than the divided government I already want.
Thus I am engaged in this frustrating effort to improve discourse on the right, to force the conservative movement to grapple with its orthodoxies of thought, to contribute something more constructive than no, so that next time the right takes over there is something more than a void for Fox News personalities and Tom Delays and Karl Roves to fill.
As Megan wrote, in the post that Mr. Goldberg recommended:
Conservatives used to spend a lot of time complaining about the liberal media—and indeed, I have occasionally joined them. But it now strikes me that this was basically very healthy for the right. Everyone in the movement was frequently and forcefully confronted with the best the opposition had to offer; they could not be content with preaching to the choir. They were muscular—and liberals flabby—precisely because liberals didn’t really understand what they were up against. Now it looks to me as if conservatives are often voluntarily putting themselves in the same cocoon.
Cocoons, where people say things like “we need only apply our timeless equations of truth,” or “it’s enough to just say no,” or “there may be a problem in our thinking, but the important thing to focus on is that the other guys are worse.” Join us out here, Mr. Goldberg! We could use your insights, your intellect, and your writing, but this apologia and irrelevant deflection and nonsense about how liberals are claiming Ronald Reagan as their own?
It’s useless to us.
UPDATE: Mr. Goldberg has another post up, this time responding to Noah Millman. I am a bit confused, because whereas in his first post he said that there is “something to” Mr. Sanchez’s argument, and that he sees “the reality” of it as well as “the mirage,” his latest post proceeds as if the whole closing of the conservative mind argument is completely wrong. Also, since I’ve already gotten one e-mail, the title of the post is a Simpson’s quote, and no, I am not saying that Mr. Goldberg or anyone else is a weasel, just that in this instance he weaseled out of addressing the main thread in this argument, and I figured that he’d appreciate a good Simpson’s reference.
I should also note that for all the bite in my critique, I am after all calling for more Jonah Goldberg. I really do think this conversation could benefit from his insights about the problems with the conservative movement, rather than merely defending it as better than the left.