Society and Culture

The Conservative Bubble and Liberalism’s Cargo Cult

Julian Sanchez has launched an interesting conversation about conservatism and Fox News and <sigh> David Frum.

Sanchez argues that conservatives live in a bubble. He writes:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely-maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.

Now, I think there’s some merit to what Sanchez says here. As the recipient of lots of email from people who insist I’m an apostate to conservative orthodoxy and from lots of people who insist I’m a leading enforcer of conservative orthodoxy, I have some appreciation for both the reality and the mirage of what Sanchez calls conservatism’s movement toward epistemic closure.

But what I find rather astounding and perplexing in these sorts of autopsies or vivisections of conservatism are how so many people claim there are problems for conservatism that are in fact simply facts of life for all human associations and movements. It’s like a physician describing the anatomy of Belgians as if they were somehow different from Ukrainians.

As Megan McArdle rightly suggests in her response to Sanchez (more on that in a moment), this quest for epistemic closure is natural to all groups. What I find amusing is that this is supposedly a particularly acute problem for conservatives, but not for liberals. I would suggest that one of the main reasons so many liberals are in a flop-sweating, bowel-stewing panic over Fox News and the Tea Parties is that they understand such developments are a real threat to epistemic hegemony of liberalism that has been unraveling for the last decade and half. The Obama surge in 2008 looks more like a last gasp for progressivism than a rebirth. If the Obama Era was actually similar to the New Deal, his healthcare plan would be popular—and so would he. Neither is the case.

For more than a generation, liberalism craved and ruthlessly enforced epistemic closure. I hate to trot out Lionnel Trilling here (it’s such a cliché), but it’s worth recalling his famous 1950 line about how “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Indeed, he reduced conservatism to “irritable mental gestures”—an effort joined by Richard Hofstadter, the Frankfurt School, and more, recently, George Lakoff, and quite a few scientists getting government grants today. Since 1950, “vital center” liberals, and of course leftists, have looked for every conceivable excuse to delegitimize conservative dissent and criticism. For decades, liberal elites abused their monopoly on the media and their near complete control of the commanding heights of the culture to attack not just conservative ideas, but conservative motives in order to render any serious alternative to liberalism a kind of crankery or fascism. That effort is still under way in the arts, in academia and in the few remaining bastions of the “legacy media.”

Nonetheless, over the last, say, decade and a half, the media climate has changed to the extent where at least one bulwark of liberal hegemony is unraveling. Fox News is the one conservative-oriented network. Talk radio is dominated by conservatives (largely because it came of age as an alternative to the liberal monopoly). In response, liberals have grown more shrill and desperate in their efforts to delegitimize conservative ideas, new and old.

We even now have Sam Tanenhaus trying to rewrite history so that William F. Buckley’s greatest—and intended!—contribution to public life was his effort to improve liberalism. So rapacious is the liberal desire for epistemic closure, liberals now want to claim not only Buckley but even Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as champions of liberalism.

Evidence of liberals doubling-down on their arrogance and closed-mindedness is everywhere. Paul Krugman is so convinced that conservatives live in a different—and inferior—moral and intellectual universe, he’d rather defenestrate his own economics textbook than concede that Republicans might have a point.

The response from Sanchez—and many, many, others—is to bemoan the intellectual rigidity of the insurgent intellectual movement rather than the one that has been not only more egregiously closed-minded, but far more powerful for far longer than the supposed flat-earthers of Fox News.

Again, I agree that there is some merit to Sanchez’s complaint, but there is an odd blame-the-victim patina to it, combined with what might be a kind of power worship. Conservatives are out of power and they won’t shut up, so it must be because they haven’t gotten the message that they’ve had their chance and now need to reconcile themselves to their proper role as the broom-pushers behind the elephant of liberalism.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend Megan McArdle’s response to Sanchez. It’s a bit too much of a thinking-out-loud first draft (an occupational hazard of blogging), but she makes many fine points. But since I’m running too long myself, I’ll keep my comments brief and restricted to my major disagreement.

I am underwhelmed by the chorus of complaints about the lack of conservative ideas. It’s not that there isn’t some merit to the concern. My National Review colleague, Ramesh Ponnuru, has been ringing this bell for quite some time and, in the process, he has offered quite a few new ideas in precisely one of the magazines McArdle is presumably criticizing. Yuval Levin has been doing similar work in NR but also in his new magazine for new ideas, National Affairs. AEI has offered lots of ideas, on everything from health care to carbon taxes.

Also, just to throw it out there: As a libertarian, McArdle should know that when it comes to economics, libertarianism is largely the default philosophy of mainstream conservatism. The Republican Party may be a poor champion of free market economics, but since she is addressing herself to conservative intellectuals, she might as well be addressing her criticisms to libertarian intellectuals as well.

But my aim isn’t to defend the freshness of conservative (or libertarian) ideas from the charge of staleness. I think freshness is somewhat overrated. Two-plus-two-is-four is a very old observation. That doesn’t mean it has outlived its accuracy. It seems to me that when liberals control all of the policy-making apparatus, being the party of no is a perfectly rational stance that has less to do with a poverty of good ideas than an empirical appreciation for political reality. Lord knows the Democrats did not ride back to power on the backs of nimble and novel public policy prescriptions. Besides, McArdle herself is willing to concede that she may be being unfair to the institutions on this score (and I think she is).

Rather, my aim is to point out that if one is keeping score of new (good) ideas, it is again difficult for me to see how this is especially a problem of conservatism. Liberalism is still largely a cargo cult to the New Deal and the Great Society. Barack Obama came into office amid loud cheers and pleas from liberal intellectuals to reincarnate FDR and revive the New Deal. The New Deal itself wasn’t even that new an idea in 1932, and that was 78 years ago! Paul Krugman, arguably liberalism’s chief economic spokesman, has completely dedicated himself to defending and proselytizing New Deal Keynesianism. Whether he is right or wrong, his “Depression Economics” is hardly a font of intellectual originality and novelty. And let us note that liberalism’s response to the mere suggestion that the New Deal wasn’t all that great remains a great example of liberalism’s own very grave problem with the “threat of doubt.” (Though I suppose there are other contenders, including vast areas of public policy dealing with abortion, homosexuality, racial quotas etc).

As McArdle has aptly noted in the past, a vast swath of liberal policy “innovation”—the stimulus, nationalization of industries, expanded entitlements—amounts to dusting off ideas that are ancient compared to, say, health savings accounts.

The one obvious area where liberals claim to have a passel of “new ideas” is in the realm of public policy best described as the push for a “green economy.” Personally, I do not believe these ideas are new so much as they are new wrappings on old fashioned statism. But reasonable people can argue about that. Still, it’s worth noting that the reason these new ideas are being pushed so hard (again, aside from the Trojan Horse for socialism dynamic) is that liberalism is almost completely bound up in a very narrow, very alarmist, interpretation of global warming. And, if I were hunting for epistemic closure, it’s hard for me to imagine a better place to look for it than that staggering bubble of groupthink.

UPDATE: Ramesh Ponnuru responds in the Corner, and I respond to him.


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