Monday, March 29, 2004

But isn't the answer to this pretty obvious? Conservatives, almost by definition, are absorbed by the past. What's more, their message doesn't change much over time (tradition is good, stable society is good, the masses should get back to work and stop complaining) so it makes perfect sense to keep reading them. In fact, if you take the conservative reverence for tradition seriously, it almost demands that you have considerable respect for your forebears.

Liberalism is precisely the opposite. We don't wonder what Charles Beard would think of something? Of course not. The whole point of liberalism is change, so who cares what Beard would have thought? By now he's just an old fuddy duddy.

UPDATE (if anyone cares) Jonah Goldberg, the original target of Drum's musings, responds:
In one sense Drum is absolutely correct. That is obvious -- which is why I didn't mention it. But I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill liberals, I'm talking about professional liberals, liberals who take ideas seriously for a living. I think Drum is one of those people, but his cavalier disdain for his own intellectual tradition is disappointing (I'm more accustomed to his disdain for my intellectual tradition). There are liberals who do take their intellectual pedigrees very seriously: John Judis, Michael Sandel, Peter Beinart and, as much as it pains me, Michael Lind and Eric Alterman come immediately to mind (though Alterman's not a liberal, but a Leftist). More important, I know lots of liberals who take history seriously.

However, I'm frankly at a loss as to how a serious liberal can disdain his movement's history while taking general history seriously. I know it happens, of course. The level of ignorance among liberals in their own complicity in what they consider to be dark chapters of our past constantly astounds, from the "Red Scare" during WWI to the American eugenics movement (Margaret Sanger anyone?) to that pesky conflict in Vietnam -- which John Kerry incessantly describes as Richard Nixon's fault, as if to two liberal presidents and many liberal Congresses did not precede it. Besides, if liberals want to concede that they are not only enamored with every new idea that comes down the pike, but that they don't even know or care whether these ideas have been tried before, great! That will make debating them all the easier (and/or frustrating).

Secondly, it's just a lot of garbage that conservatives are dismissive of new ideas. It wasn't too long ago that the late Pat Moynihan noted that Lionel Trilling's much-repeated observations about liberalism's dominance had been reveresed. In the last two or three decades it is very difficult to think of a serious body of new liberal public policy ideas. This is not my observation, I can't tell you how many think tank panels I've watched or TV shows I've produced on this point. I mean that's why the DLC and the Center for American Progress exist, right?

Third, the far left and the racial left is far less enamored of change than the right these days. Not to say the right loves change (cozy up to the Postrellians for that), but the Left despises it. It is anti-science, anti-globalization and anti-modern. It wants to keep Third World culture frozen in amber and, along with most liberals, opposes any meaningful changes in governmental institutions in favor of individual liberty. The GOP (flawed vessal that it is) wants to reform social security, medicare and the tax code, creating a shareholder society. The Democratic Party rejects entitlement reforms if they are defined as anything other than throwing another trinket on the back of an already overburned mule. During the campaign, Al Gore's biggest idea was a "lock box" and his favorite word was "stop" -- but yeah, right, liberals love change. When Florida tried to change its education policies away from affirmative action and in favor of a system which would send more minority kids to college, the activists stormed the governor's office and sang "we shall overcome." Talk about being saddled with nostalgia.

And lastly, hasn't The Washington Monthly and Drum himself spent much of the last couple years moaning about how "radical" conservative foreign policy has become? Josh Marshall had that cover story about the Bush plan to export democratic revolution around the world and all that, remember? I mean, that's not quite yet an too "old" an idea for liberals to care about, is it?
One of the big problems in this tired old "liberals do this, conservatives believe that" is the expectation of consistency in individuals and in ideologies. Most people aren't consistent across 24 hours let alone a few decades. Therefore, branding someone as "liberal" or "conservative" often masks more than it reveals.

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