The Corner

More On Epistemic Closure

Noah Millman has a long post in response to Sanchez as well. He has many interesting insights and hypotheses in it about why the American right is  close-minded today compared to the left. But as near as I can tell, Noah simply asserts that this is so. Where is the data to back this up? Maybe my experience is far, far more of an exception to the rule than I can  imagine, but it still seems to me that liberalism is far more shot through with political correctness and intellectual taboos than the right.  I’m really trying to let David Frum’s  self-serving version of events fade away, but even if his biggest defenders are right, is he really the only data point so many smart people need to support the closed-conservative-mind thesis? I mean because of this anecdote we have to hear about the right’s “epistemic closure”? Does the Frumian defenestration (and it wasn’t a defenestration — he jumped)   really outweigh the Larry Summer’s fiasco at Harvard? Or the absurdity of the Skip Gates nonsense, also at Harvard? Or the riot of hatred aimed at Joe Lieberman?

And I don’t mean this as a “they’re bad too” argument. I meet a lot of conservatives all around the country. Young, old, Southern, Northern, Christian, Jewish and, yes, white and black. I read a lot of conservative writers and journals. I try to follow the think tanks. And I just don’t know what these people are talking about when it comes to the notion that the conservative mind is closed. In a way it smacks of the tendency of losers in foreign policy fights to insist they’re the “realists” unlike the winners who are really ensorcelled by ideology or idealism.  Just because your preferred position didn’t win, doesn’t mean the winners have some major intellectual defect or shortcoming.

I suppose, to be fair,  I should note that the larger “evidence” that seems to be driving the idea that conservatives are brain dead is the fact that the GOP has become the “Party of No.” But what has the GOP been saying “No” to? Exhibit A is of course ObamaCare. And I am at a total loss to understand why the GOP’s decision to take the side of the majority of not just Republicans, but the majority of Americans, in the face of a really bad bill that violates our core principles is somehow an indictment of conservatism’s intellectual flexibility. The same goes for saying No to cap-and-trade and the stimulus. It seems like it should be objectively obvious to every conservative (and every libertarian) that the more brain dead tactic would have been to say “as you wish” to a legislative agenda conservatives disagreed with on the merits.

I mean come on:  Sam Tanenhaus tells us that conservatism was much more open-minded in the good old days — you know, the days when William F. Buckley defined conservatism not merely as standing athwart socialized medicine and yelling, “Stop!” but standing athwart History herself and yelling Stop! Now that was a party of No, baby.

Again, there seems to be a certain self-congratulatory groupthink among the chorus of voices complaining about conservative close-mindedness. Take Noah’s claim that one reason for the right’s blinders is the much-lamented Southern captivity. He writes in part:

I don’t think this explanation can be dismissed out of hand – in particular, dismissing it out of hand as “insulting” to the South would be in instance of precisely the dynamic I’m outlining. The South does have a distinct history and culture; that culture is substantially oppositional; and the American right is dominated by the South in a way that it has not been before. Dominance of a party by an atypical and oppositional region is just a structural problem. And, if this is a problem, it is going to be a hard one for the American right to solve, because the South is now large enough and strong enough, and remains cohesive enough, that its leaders should expect to lead any coalition of which they are a member.

It’s an interesting argument and not your typical hackneyed attack on the South, which is not to say that I like it very much.   I do think there’s merit to Noah’s suggestion that the GOP’s political dependence on the South creates some branding problems for the GOP in other regions of the country, but what exactly does this have to do with the alleged closing of the conservative mind? Haley Barbour was a far more adept and nimble governor than Kathleen Blanco during hurricane Katrina and ever after.  Indeed, the groupthink and calcified politics of welfare state liberalism — which had so much to do with New Orleans’ core problems — have done far, far more damage to America than any comparable malady on the right (something I suspect Noah would agree with). Arguably, the best run state — economically at least — in the country is Texas while deep-blue California is rapidly Hellenizing before our eyes (with New York donning a toga soon enough). Bobby Jindal is not only a superwonk but he’s non-white. Arguably the best governor of the last decade was Jeb Bush in the sorta-kinda southern state of Florida. Virginia’s Bob McDonnell stepped in it with his confederacy month blunder, but he still won the statehouse by focusing on bread and butter public policy issues, earning support of independents by 2-1, if memory serves (indeed, the allegedly rump GOP has been fielding candidates that somehow do really well with Independents in, of all places, New Jersey and Massachusetts). Oh, and again: former Texas governor George W. Bush was not a doctrinaire (i.e. close-minded) National Review conservative. He was very clear about that and his tenure as president proved it. But let’s not get b(l)ogged down about all that.

The end of Noah’s “blame the South” section is,  I think, telling. He writes:

The problem is that, if you are an engaged intellectual, you want to be able to see a way forward. And right-leaning types today – contrary to historical type – are terribly engaged. If, for the foreseeable future, the GOP is going to be dominated by the South, and the Democrats are going to be dominated by the left, then where is a Northern conservative to find a natural political home?

You can see the dynamics playing out in a place like the Manhattan Institute. Properly, the focus of the Manhattan Institute should be topics relevant to urban America – that’s their beat. So why do they publish so much culture war fodder? Why do they publish on foreign policy at all? Is it really plausible that what’s good for Alabama is good for New York? If not, then why isn’t City Journal the forum in which New York’s right-wingers get to make the case for their priorities over the priorities of Alabamians? I think part of the answer relates to the fact that an oppositional section is now dominant within the conservative coalition.

I’ve read this a couple times and I’m still not sure what to make of it. For starters,  I’m at a loss as to how the City Journal’s foreign policy work is more representative of Alabama’s interests than New York’s, at least of New York conservatives. Couldn’t it be that the City Journal is run by more consistently conservative editors than Millman? Or perhaps they just have a more wide-ranging editorial judgement than Noah would like.

Moreover, why is it a sign of the Right’s closed mind that a New York City conservative is so closed minded about Southerners? Is it really such a tough call? One camp is (generally) for low taxes, a strong defense, limited government, supports Israel and other democracies, is pro-gun rights and anti-abortion. But yes, alas, it has a  detectable Southern accent at times. The other party, is for ever higher taxes, racial quotas, a living constitution,  European-style social democracy, a much heavier reliance on diplomacy, what might be called “even-handedness” between Israel and Palestine — and it has a non-Southern accent. I can understand why Millman and  some Northern conservatives would like to see “establishment” conservatism or the  GOP change its stance on some cultural issues, but I fail to see how Millman’s disagreement on such issues is proof the conservative mind has closed. Rather, it seems like  proof that a majority of Republicans and/or conservatives disagree with Millman on a few issues and that Millman chalks up that disagreement to something in the water south of the Mason Dixon line.

Again, you can have an open mind and also have strong conviction, though one can have such an open mind that your brains fall out). 

A lot of this closed-mind talk sounds like tendentious code for why conservatives should change their convictions. By all means, if people believe that this or that conviction should be dropped or altered they should make their case. But if you don’t win, have an open enough mind yourself to account for the possibility that you just weren’t that persuasive.

Anyway, Millman goes on at considerable length on other possible  — and often interesting — explanations for a malady he asserts the right suffers from without ever bothering to prove his diagnosis.  I’m sure he’s got examples to back up his view, but the fact that he doesn’t think it’s necessary to make the case before assigning blame for it is, I think, quite telling.

Update: A friend swaps the Left for the South in Noah’s analysis, and it works pretty well:

The hard Left does have a distinct history and culture; that culture is substantially oppositional; and the Democratic Party is dominated by the hard Left in a way that it has not been before. Dominance of a party by an atypical and oppositional region is just a structural problem. And, if this is a problem, it is going to be a hard one for the Democratic Party to solve, because the hard Left is now large enough and strong enough, and remains cohesive enough, that its leaders should expect to lead any coalition of which they are a member.


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