Growing Market Demand For the Left’s IDEAS
I spend more time complaining about left-wing rhetorical ineptitude than anything else. It’s as close a raison d’être as I’ve got, other than my wife and son (who are infinitely more valuable companions). My hobby horse rocks something like this: American Leftists lean technocratic, and thus can’t articulate moral justifications for why they believe what they do…despite possessing a rich intellectual history that would help them to do so (Links—obviously—added for hyperbolic emphasis. They’re not requisite for making sense of what follows).
We tend to think of the conservative influence in purely political terms: electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, picking away at Social Security, reducing taxes for the wealthy. But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage….Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools. This may seem like a strange statement at a moment when American universities are widely understood to be bastions of liberalism, and when liberals themselves are often derided as eggheaded elites. But there is a difference between policy smarts honed in college classrooms and the kind of intellectual conversation that keeps a movement together. What conservatives have developed is what the left used to describe as a “movement culture”: a shared set of ideas and texts that bind activists together in common cause. Liberals, take note.
To make matters even better, Gage goes on to echo a concern I voiced in a recent piece—is it possible that liberal pluralism eventually thins out the common traditions that keep American democracy working?
The default mode for liberals and progressives in such situations has often been to celebrate “diversity”—intellectual, racial, sexual, and of most other sorts. In many ways this is for the best. Nobody wants to return to an era in which politics and political ideas were dominated by a handful of white men, however thoughtful. Yet we rarely pause to consider what liberals have lost by neglecting a common intellectual heritage and by attempting to win political success without a political canon.
Because I write about this all the time (v.s.), I’d like to skip straight to the last question. If smart guys like Kazin and smart women like Gage notice that the Left can’t mount a moral defense for itself, why is it that there’s so little institutional backing? Leftists who write about this (including yours truly) get noticed for it. Politicians who work at their moral arguments—Elizabeth Warren, Anthony Weiner, occasionally Chuck Schumer—attract outsize attention. There’s demand for compelling leftist arguments. Shouldn’t there be an ideas-based analogue to Wonkbook?
Yes. Yes, there should be—but there isn’t. Why not? Why are conservative think tanks and media shops so much more interested in their movement’s ideas? Why don’t leftist institutions commit to this? I don’t know, but here are some possible reasons, helpfully categorized for reference purposes (ATTN: Fareed Zakaria: Some of these are borrowed from my previous writings on the topic.):
A Bunch of Facts, Each of Which Probably Contributes to the Problem:
• The Left consists of a crazy array of liberals, neo-liberals, progressives, Marxists, and any number of other hyper-particular platoons. They disagree with each other as often as they disagree with the Right, which makes moral and rhetorical incoherence a permanent way of life. It’s like a bad Father’s Day tie—too many colors, various patterns at war with one another, etc.
• The early-twentieth century Progressives were enthusiastically wonky, and they’ve passed down their legacy to later leftists.
• Despite coordinated, impressive, and (maybe) even laudable efforts by conservative groups, the Left still owns the ivory tower. There’s no need to build a separate think tank network. Let the academic eggheads do it!
• …Except the academy’s left-wing contributes (mostly) two streams of content for politics: 1) an enormous quantity of useful empirical data by social scientists, and 2) a much-smaller amount of esoteric, deconstructed prose. Leftists are wonky because that’s where they’re strongest.
• A Related Chicken-and-Egg problem: technical degrees (i.e. Masters in Public or Social Policy) are professional gold for partisans trying to make their professional way in the institutional left. That means that there’s usually a big supply of wonky-minded folks and a relative lack of folks who care about the content of left-wing ideas.
• Leftists (still) haven’t found a way to break through the populist formula developed by George Wallace in the 1960s (now soundly captured by the Republican Party), and thus struggle to craft moral rhetoric with broad appeal.
Astonishingly Wrong Reasons That Often Appear in Comments Sections:
• Leftists hate America, and especially the American Founding, so they are probably nihilists without the moral principles necessary for making strong arguments.
• Leftists hate markets and almost always have a command-and-control bureaucratic cast of mind. OF COURSE they can’t understand that there’s growing demand for their ideas in the marketplace of ideas.
Surely there are more and better reasons. I’d love to hear them.
 This, by the way, is why I insist on writing about “leftists” as opposed to “liberals” or “progressives” or “the forces of light” or “Team Care Bear.” Many people, including Gage, consider “leftists” to be radicals of a certain (usually semi- or fully Marxist) stripe. I disagree. “Leftists” are people who inhabit the political Left. We can argue about the Left’s specific contours, sure, but it’s infinitely more productive to start those arguments capaciously. In other words, we should start by identifying commonalities between the aforementioned leftist groups and then decide how much disagreement we can tolerate without kicking any one of them out. If we instead choose to define leftists as “that crowd of ideological purists who share nothing with liberals, progressives, etc,” there’s no discussion to be had. There’s no political movement to build. There’s just a noisy, quiescent fringe that can expect to command the total absence of attention that its petulance deserves.
When it comes to Lefty rhetoric, Conor P. Williams is a broken record. Otherwise, he writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. More: Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.