Rick Perlstein has a piece on the making of Ronald Reagan into a conservative. Ezra Klein has an interesting reaction to it. He’s a bit green with envy that liberals don’t work harder at creating, well, liberals. He writes:
Liberals in this day and age, despite facing a moment not altogether dissimilar from mid-century conservatives, have not embarked on on similar educational strategy. Indeed, the books most likely to be publicized by progressives are partisan tracts laying out the case against the Bush administration or the Republican Party, not explications of the liberal worldview and persuasive literature arguing for its adoption. I can’t even think of many books written for popular consumption that attempt to provide such a rigorous education. So what we’ve got, particularly right now, is a lot of people who understand why they hate Bush without knowing precisely why the progressive outlook is a stronger, more durable, more effective ideology than its competitors. So what you get — best case — are partisan victories, not movement triumphs.
Me: One of the reasons this interests me is that I’m pretty invested in this whole idea that liberals have become deracinated (scroll down to the 11:54 A.M. post). Indeed, I’ve written about this at a number of levels and in a number of different ways (See here for the big think and here for the sociology bit, for starters.
I think Klein is largely right. I think the problem — and I am repeating myself — is that liberals have wonderful arguments about tactics and strategies among themselves, but very few on first principles. They’ve agreed, in a dogmatic fashion, about the role of the government. Where it should be limited, at least in the broad economic realm, is an issue for “pragmatic” and “empirical” discussion, but not philosophical concern (though in fairness it should be said they still have serious internal debates about the police powers of the state). This is where the liberals have shot themselves in the foot by rejecting the “liberaltarian” overture so reflexively. The beauty of having libertarians in the room is that they force you to question every policy issue from the ground up. Thanks to the influence and presence of libertarians, the most brilliant and dedicated rightwing virturecrat better have a good explanation for why doing X is better than doing nothing at all. Liberals haven’t had a constituency in their coalition to play that role for generations — and it shows. Their abiding interest in power, and the arguments over how to attain it, are the logical consequence of a movement which is no longer interested in first principles.
If liberals want to launch this kind of educational effort (and I think Klein underestimates dramatically how much universities play this role already), they need to start having arguments with each other about more than narrow policy details or Democratic strategy. That’s difficult to do when everyone has already made up their mind about the goodness of government do-goodery.