It’s something of a cliché to complain that a poor book review says more about the reviewer than it does about the book. Sometimes this is clearly just a defense mechanism offered by authors who’ve written bad books. Other times it happens to be true. Matt Yglesias’ “serious” review of my book is one of those times.
First, as Matt admits, he’s angry with me for “calling him an anti-Semite.” I never said any such thing. Nor do I believe that he’s anti-Semitic. I think he writes dumb things about Jews and has a thin skin when called on it.
Second, Matt has admitted that he tailors his views based upon the party line. As Jonathan Chait writes: “Even Matthew Yglesias, who writes one of the most independent-minded liberal blogs, confessed in March that he had soft-pedaled his opposition to gun control. ‘I don’t write about this issue much because, hey, I don’t want to be a wanker,’ he wrote.”
It’s actually worse than that. A couple years ago, Yglesias advised Democratic candidates who support gay marriage but can’t say so because their constituencies don’t support it should “lie convincingly” because what’s important for progressives is that they get power.
That’s why I take it with a few grains of salt when he calls me a loyal foot soldier in the Republican “noise machine.” Not only have I written dozens of columns criticizing president Bush and argued that conservatives should not be seduced by partisan power, but such talking points are actually the sort of thing one hears from real partisans who see noble lies as an essential part of their craft.
In short, his review is a piece of theater used to disguise his own cognitive dissonance. Nothing to see here folks, no need to read this book, no need to do any heavy thinking whatsoever. Indeed, thinking is the last thing Matt or his friends on the left want to do when it comes to my book. That is why the default response in those quarters has been to call me stupid or partisan (or both — or worse). No reason to rethink your basic premises if a book can be dismissed as mere partisan hackery.
This strikes me as precisely the sort of religious reflex I discuss in my book. In order to preserve key aspects of leftist orthodoxy, I must be branded a heretic – “shunned” in the words of one critic. But since Matt’s criticisms are liable to be hurled at me again, let me address the few substantive points he does raise.
According to Matt my most egregious error is to place Wilson ahistorically on the left (meanwhile he basically concedes, or at least declines to contest, my fascism-is-of-the-left argument).
He writes: “You can’t really ‘place’ [Wilson] on the modern ideological spectrum.”
Really? Then why did The New Republic place Wilson on the cover of their 90th anniversary issue alongside JFK, MLK, FDR and Mrs. FDR? Why did the founding fathers of progressive-liberalism – Dewey, Croly, Beard, Lippmann et al – see their ideas and ideals reflected in Wilson’s? How are we to explain that the New Deal – presumably still a liberal enterprise for some people – was not merely staffed to the rafters with Wilson retreads (including FDR himself), but that the New Deal was explicitly and emphatically conceived as a continuation of Wilson’s war socialism (as William Leuchtenberg and others have documented)? Is it a mere coincidence that Wilson was the foremost presidential innovator of the concept of a “living constitution”? Is it happenstance that this same concept lies at the heart of how liberals see the constitution?
Yglesias recognizes that there were problems with the man who has been called the father of modern liberalism but has to engage in some heavy sifting to distinguish the “bad” Wilson from the “good”: “Woodrow Wilson, in particular, was a very complicated figure,” he writes. “In his presidency, we see the roots of a lot of modern progressive ideas. We also see a lot of authoritarianism, out-of-control executive power, and dogmatic adherence to white supremacy.”
This is exactly what I mean when I talk about cognitive dissonance. Take the “authoritarianism and out-of-control executive power” of the Wilson administration. Yglesias is trying to say – assert, really — that these things have nothing to do with progressivism. But one of the central arguments of my book (which he claims to have read) is that these unattractive features of Wilson’s fascistic regime have everything to do with progressivism. The progressives believed in authoritarianism and out-of-control executive power precisely because they were progressives. And the story of American liberalism in the 20th century from Wilson to FDR and from FDR to LBJ and Richard Nixon (whom I consider basically an anti-Communist liberal) is the story of ever-expanding executive power. And, today’s compassionate conservatives flirt with similar temptations.
As for the white supremacy thing, Yglesias misses the point. The modern progressive welfare state was deeply suffused with a desire to establish white supremacy. But Yglesias sees no need to ponder the implications of this. This is a funny position for liberals to take, given how they’ve recently been insisting that since Reagan launched his presidential campaign in Mississippi and touted states rights, therefore the entire modern conservative project is tainted with racism.
But as I say in my book, I am not trying to establish guilt by association. I do not claim that today’s progressives are racists like the progressives of yore, let alone the Nazis.
What I do argue is that today’s liberals retain some of the baggage of progressivism, but because they are uninterested in exploring this fact, they do not account for it properly. For example, they remain racial essentialists who see the world through the prism of identity politics. Such thinking is on display in Yglesias’ response to the book when he calls me “a steadfast supporter of the political party representing the dominant ethnocultural group in the United States.” And it is the very thing that is tearing the Democrats apart today, with Hillary Clinton pitted against Barack Obama.
The early progressives saw the world as a contest between ethnocultural groups and Yglesias does too. But we don’t really have to prove any arcane point of ideological resemblance in order to rebut his charge of ahistorical reductionism. My book argues that national socialism in this country, which used to be called progressivism, changed its name to liberalism after World War II. Hillary Clinton herself – the virtual embodiment (according to her supporters) of modern liberalism — rejects the liberal label and proudly proclaims her spiritual kinship with the Progressives. Does she understand what it means to link herself to a nationalistic, socialistic, eugenicist project? Do any of today’s self-proclaimed progressives? Apparently not. And they don’t think anyone should look behind the curtain to find out the truth, either. That’s why Matt’s standing there, loyal foot soldier that he is, doing his bit by saying “Nothing to see here folks.”