The email just won’t stop from people who seem to think they’re refuting my column by offering examples that bolster it. The gist seems to be that I’ve got the causation backward. Democrats don’t have arguments because they are unified. Meanwhile I think I have the causation exactly right: Democrats are unified because they have nothing to argue about. Now, obviously (or at least I think it should be obvious) I’m not saying Democrats literally never argue. They don’t mill about like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wordlessly cooperating like a bee colony in pursuit of global domination, even though it may seem like that when they find a conservative in their midst and simultaneously point-and-shriek their alarm. What I mean is that they don’t argue about the Big Things. The argument over the role of government is largely settled on the left. Debates about it usually boil down to tactical and procedural squabbles.
Here’s how I put it in that article I linked to earlier:
Liberals tend to deride conservatism for its faith in dogma. But the reality is that liberal dogma is settled while conservative dogma remains a work in progress. Indeed, the great debate of modern conservatism–crudely described as libertarianism versus conservatism, or freedom versus virtue–remains as unsettled today as it was when Frank Meyer coined the term “fusionism.” Meyer argued that virtue not freely chosen was not virtuous, and therefore that a limited, i.e. libertarian, state was the only means to the conservative end of a virtuous society. In 1964, Meyer edited What Is Conservatism?, an ideological donnybrook between such heavyweights as Russell Kirk, WFB, and Friedrich Hayek over the proper ends of government. Four decades later, the debate is eerily relevant to conservatives trying to accommodate a “compassionate conservative” president who has declared that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
I think this philosophical homogeneity is bad for liberalism and, by extension, bad for America. This long excerpt from a column in 2005 responds to a lot of the reader objections not covered above:
If liberals really want to emulate conservative successes, I have some advice for them: Get into some big, honking arguments — not with conservatives, but with each other. The history of the conservative movement’s successes has been the history of intellectual donnybrooks, between libertarians and traditionalists, hawks and isolationists, so-called neocons and so-called paleocons, less-filling versus tastes great. Liberals would be smart to copy that and stop worrying how to mimic our direct mail strategies.
Liberals have a tendency to mistake political tactics for political principles, and vice versa. Exhibit A is the Left’s fascination with “unity.” Unity is often useful in politics, but it’s often a handicap if you haven’t figured out what to be unified about. Just as the Socratic method leads to wisdom, big fights not only illuminate big ideas, but they force people to become invested in them. Unfortunately, liberals define diversity by skin color and sex, not by ideas, which makes it difficult to have really good arguments.
Of course there are arguments on the Left and there are individual liberals with deep-seated convictions and principles. But most of the arguments are about how to “build a movement” or how to win elections, not about what liberalism is. Even the “Get out of Iraq now!” demands from the base of the Democratic party aren’t grounded in anything like a coherent foreign policy. Ten years ago liberals championed nation-building. Now they call it imperialism because George W. Bush is doing it.
A good illustration of the fundamental difference between Left and Right can be found in two books edited by Peter Berkowitz for the Hoover Institution, Varieties of Conservatism in America and Varieties of Progressivism in America. Each contains thoughtful essays by leading conservatives and liberals. But while the conservatives defend different ideological philosophical schools — neoconservatism, traditionalism, etc. — the liberals argue almost exclusively about which tactics Democrats should embrace to win the White House.
Bill Clinton was the only Democratic president elected to two terms since Franklin Roosevelt. One of the reasons for his success was that he was willing to pick fights with his own party. One can argue about the sincerity of some of those fights. But we remember the Sista Souljah moment for a reason.
Right now Washington is marveling at how the Democratic party has simultaneously made the Iraq war the central and defining political issue of the decade while at the same time having no clue what it is they want to do about it. Worse, it’s looking increasingly like the Democrats’ position on the war is based largely on the polls, not principles.
One of the most important events in the rise of conservatism was the 1978 Firing Line debate over U.S. control of the Panama Canal. William F. Buckley favored giving it up. The governor of California, Ronald Reagan, favored keeping it. Reagan’s side lost the argument, in Congress at least, but conservatives once again demonstrated our willingness to duke it out on such issues. And Reagan’s career hardly suffered. If liberals were smart, they’d do something similar. Have Joe Lieberman debate Nancy Pelosi, or John Murtha. Make liberals get past their passion and explore what they think. My guess is it would be good for liberalism in the long run — and even better for America.
Forgive me for quoting myself in perfectly bloggy fashion, but this has been a hobby-horse of mine for so long, I don’t see the need to retype what I’ve said so many times before.