The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Ron Replogle on Activism


I’ve just stumbled across a very interesting blog by Ron Replogle, a self-described “recovering academic political theorist.” He can be harsh critic of conservatives (his take on Glenn Beck gives you a sense of his views). He’s also a liberal who is good at distancing himself from the political fray. 

Rather self-servingly, I really liked a post he wrotes on the relationship between pundits and political activists.

You might think that a pundit’s just another activist who wields ideas as political weapons instead of money, organizing energy and votes. If so, the pundit’s job is to seize control of the political narrative by hook or by crook. That seems to be Kevin’s view. Otherwise he wouldn’t have concluded that the sad intellectual state of movement conservatism defines “the world that [the liberal commentariat has] to deal with.” That also seems to be the view of Matt Yglesias and Jon Chait.

You’ll reach a different answer if you think that political pundits should be in the business of coming to the right answer to politically contested questions. On that assumption, it makes no sense for a pundit to waste scarce time rebutting the crude fictions of activists when he could be matching his views up against the best views the opposition has to offer. That’s the assumption, I think, underlying Reihan Salam’s view. 

Wouldn’t liberalism be in better intellectual shape if more smart liberal pundits took that view?

A few caveats:

(a) This is indeed the assumption underlying my view. But I can understand why one might be cynical about my stated view. For example, would I spend all of my time criticizing flaws in proposals advanced by President Mitch Daniels? I like to think that I actually would spend a lot of time doing just that. Would I also spend lots of time engaging liberal critics of Daniels initiatives that I liked, including weak arguments? Again, I like to think that I wouldn’t bother with the most obviously weak arguments, or that I’d dispatch with them quickly before moving on to more serious objections that could shape the substance of the proposal. There is no way for my liberal critics to know whether I’d live up to my end of the bargain. Well, I could say the key evidence is that I was harshly critical of the Bush administration across many different domains, but I can see why that might not be good enough.  

(b) I actually don’t think Replogle offers an entirely fair characterization of Matt’s view. I do think he offers a fair characterization of Paul Krugman’s view, and Krugman sets the tone for a number of his friends, admirers, and allies. (I call it “Team Krugman.”)

Part of what I appreciate about Replogle’s post is that it captures my intentions very well, and it doesn’t attempt to divine my deeper motivations — surely I could only do or say X or Y out of careerism, etc. 

On a tangential note, I actually think that the approach that Replogle describes and seems to endorse is actually very hard to fit into the structure of punditry. I appeared on a very lively television program the other night, and the nature of the exchange created an obligation to defend the Republican position on a variety of issues. I think of myself, however, as defending a conservative or libertarian position that often strays from the Republican position. Moreover, it’s hard to describe certain views when they run counter to pervasive assumptions, e.g., I’m a firm believer in building coalitions between people on the right and the left — not Bayh-style bipartisanship, but really getting at the shared goals of people who feel excluded from the dominant political discourse, etc. Because this isn’t Colin Powell’s politics but something unfamiliar (let California to have single-payer and let Utah to embrace the Singapore approach, let’s recognize that some issues unite small firms and young parents on public assistance against large firms and public sector unions, etc.) it doesn’t translate.

Which as far as “problems” go is entirely, laughably trivial. A much bigger problem is that we haven’t come up with a politically feasible plan for delivering low-cost, high-quality medical care in a sustainable way.


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