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Brooks On Disagreement

Interesting column from David Brooks debunking the notion that all the left needs to do to win is to ape the message discipline that the right has allegedly maintained. But of course the fact that conservative intellectuals disagree doesn't undermine the point that the GOP is bolstered by a much higher level of discipline among its elected officials and a rabidly partisan media on talk radio, Fox News, and daily newspapers (The Washington Times, The New York Post, and The New York Sun) in the key media markets. And Brooks implication that liberals don't argue is slightly absurd. I've heard a few others try and advance this theory recently, and I have a hard time believing that they mean what they're saying. Everybody who cares to read the sort of thing in question can tell you that The Nation is left of The American Prospect is left of The New Republic. Where I agree with Brooks is that we argue about different stuff -- conservatives are more likely to disagree about broad "philosophical" issues, liberals are more likely to disagree about the nuts-and-bolts of politics and policy.

Brooks sees this as a source of conservatism's strength and thinks liberals would do well to imitate it. Since my formal knowledge is mostly about philosophy, I have a kind of self-interested reason to endorse this theory. If that's what liberal pundits started arguing about all the time, I could probably kick a lot of ass. I was never that good as a philosopher, but I was really good at arguing about philosophy in the sort of short-format space of a classroom discussion or an op-ed. But I think Brooks is wrong. The conservative predilection for arguing about philosophy rather than policy is both cause and effect of the conservative inability to frame or implement any workable policies. Even when you get a basically correct, basically conservative policy idea -- welfare reform, say -- without hefty liberal input into program-design you would just have a fiasco on your hands. So I think this is more a problem for conservatism than a source of strength. The conservative policy vision keeps running into trouble because it basically doesn't make sense and nobody's really bothered to think through what they're trying to do now that they've captured political power.

But Brooks is probably right to say that this sort of disinclination to discuss the big, airy philosophical questions is a problem for liberals at the polls. It goes to "the vision thing" or, rather, the perception that liberals don't have one.

UPDATE: Mark Schmitt has a different take. It also occurs to me to point out that there's a difference between partisan success and ideological success. I also think there are structural assymetries in American politics that make it unwise for liberals to try and mimmick conservatives in a knee-jerk kind of way. What works for one side may not work for the other.

April 5, 2005 | Permalink


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David Brooks says liberals need to get philosophy in his op-ed today. I'm sure folks will be weighing in on the matter, both critiquing and agreeing with his point. In any case, The American Prospect's Michael Tomasky already wrote Brooks' [Read More]

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Tracked on Apr 6, 2005 1:34:03 AM

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this is actually some fantasy life that brooks is living. First off, exactly where are the conservatives? I scan the political horizon high and low and i find very few conservatives left.

Right-wing radicals with no respect for empiricism are not conservatives.

Second, exactly what philosophical disagreements are conservatives supposedly having? Conservatives favor precedent; if you want to rip up precedent, you aren't a conservative.

Conservatives favor small government; if you consistently act to expand the government, you aren't a conservative.

Conservatives favor a realistic view of human capabilities. If you are a bushian utopian, you aren't a conservative.

In short - one could go on - these philosphical differences that brooks references are part of a bogus attempt to disguise the collapse of conservatism, not a manifestation of its strength.

Not that liberals are much better, but then again, they don't pretend to be.

Posted by: howard | Apr 5, 2005 10:51:21 AM

> without hefty liberal input into program-design you would
> just have a fiasco on your hands. So I think this is
> more a problem for conservatism than a source of
> strength.

Given the current situation, I would say it is more a problem for the entire United States!


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 5, 2005 10:53:47 AM

Why do you link to Brooks so much?

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 5, 2005 10:54:12 AM

"Why do you link to Brooks so much?"

- He's got a perch in the NYT.
- He tends to be insane in a more interesting way than most conservatives.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 5, 2005 10:57:11 AM

Conservatives have a dilemma. Their philosophy says that
government can't work. So once in government, any attempt
to produce workable policies would be a betrayal of their
underlying philosophy. They have just two goals: to enhance
the power+wealth of themselves and their supporters, and to
keep liberals out of power at all costs.

I see two possible outcomes: either Republicans start (or maybe
continue) to rig elections by various means; or else they're
headed for oblivion by 2008 - like the Conservatives in Canada.
People have had enough.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Apr 5, 2005 11:06:01 AM

The conservative predilection for arguing about philosophy rather than policy is both cause and effect of the conservative inability to frame or implement any workable policies.

Paging Dr. Chait, paging Dr. Jonathan Chait...

Posted by: JP | Apr 5, 2005 11:06:22 AM

A lot of the Republican hacks are given permission towonder off the reservation now and then. It gives them credibility -- they show up at crunch time, though.

Brooks is a good example. In the most recent election, when the Ohio results were at issue, he chimed in tight on schedule with the RNC talking points. he knew what he was supposed to say.

Posted by: John Emersonj | Apr 5, 2005 11:14:54 AM

I think people hold out some hope that he may eventually shed his current partisan hackery.

I like the heuristic view of politics advanced by Ezra Klein in the Washington Monthly. The majority of voters take signalling cues from politicians that make them identifiy with a politician or party, rather than a rational endorsement of policy.

It is in this sense that Republicans do a better job of trying out a more diverse set of signals or messages rather than philisophical ideas, and then let the winning ones propser.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 5, 2005 11:22:21 AM

I find ideology to be a common substitute for knowledge, particularly at the National Review and, increasingly, the Weakly Standard. This is also that case at the humorless Nation.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 5, 2005 11:37:08 AM

One thing I agree with Brooks on is our need to invoke a pantheon of heroes. We don't need to invoke philosophers because our heroes are pragmatists, like FDR, Truman, Lincoln and JFK. Perhaps our heroes should be less philosophers like John Dewey (who is a great counterpoint to the current educational debacle that is NCLB) than great activists of the past. My heroes, the people who I would love modern liberals to emulate as best as possible are:
Clarence Darrow: a true hero of working people and the fight for separation of church and state. Is there any man more needed today than Clarence Darrow?
Frederick Douglass: remarkable personal courage and a recognition that one's own achievements do not preclude helping others
Thomas Paine: the great skeptic of dogmatism and author of the greatest anti-elite political tract in American history
Wendell Phillips: represented the 19th century liberal elite, though with a difference. Unlike the elite New England abolitionists like Sumner, Garrison and the Beechers who loathed slavery because of its sinfulness but also hated Catholics and labor unions because they threatened their class position back home, Phillips was a tireless advocate for all dispossessed Americans.
Dorothy Day: The true voice of Catholic Progressivism and the antidote to right-wing US bishops.

There are many others of course but the point is that we shouldn't spend all our time trying to find out whether we agree with Rousseau, Camus (my philosophical hero), or Kierkegaard. Rather, we should try to find the great liberal activists of the past and emulate their spirit and courage to the best of our ability. If not for yesterday's liberals and radicals we would not be the great nation that we are. And most of these great liberals of the past were not IN government. Like us, they merely influence the people at large to push the government to change.

Posted by: Elrod | Apr 5, 2005 11:37:11 AM

It does seem that the glue holding the different Republican factions together is a hatred of liberals, or the left. For some it is the guns, for others it is the big government, or that liberals gave my college spot to a minority, or taxes, or beaurocracies, or that they are driving Jesus from the public square, or that they are soft on crime or defense.
If that falls away, so does the coalition, and it would seem this hatred of the left must be fueled by recent events -- as we get further and further away from a time of Democratic's in power, the Republican factions should be harder to hold.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 5, 2005 11:47:08 AM

the GOP is bolstered by a much higher level of discipline among its elected officials and a rabidly partisan media

Right. I must just be imagining the lockstep on (for example) filibustering judges and Social Security reform among all the Democrats in the Senate and the liberal media like the NYTimes. Guess I'll have to try harder to get back to the "reality-based" world...

Posted by: Al | Apr 5, 2005 11:51:20 AM

I also think there are structural assymetries in American politics that make it unwise for liberals to try and mimmick conservatives in a knee-jerk kind of way. What works for one side may not work for the other.

I hope you got the raw materials for that strawman at a discount, because even for a strawman this one is particularly unsound.

No one is saying dems must "mimmick conservatives in a knee-jerk kind of way." They are pointing out the importance of message discipline --- of making sure that the people who are selected to speak for the Democratic party know what the party position is.

Here's a clue, Matt. You weren't chosen to be on the "Gannon" panel because of your particular knowledge and expertise on the subject. Nobody really cares very much what you think. You are there are a "liberal blogger" --- you are the designated "token" that NPC has been forced to add to the "Gannon" panel. Yet, if you stay true to form, you will NOT represent the concerns of those who actually have been doing the research on Guckert, and can cite chapter and verse about his record of lies, misrepresentations, and plagarism. You will instead offer your personal reflections in a "polite" manner.

In other words, rather than get "OUR" side heard, we're gonna hear big media Matt's side. And this dynamic is what is wrong with the Democratic Party's communication strategy. When a Democratic politician gets booked on a talk show, he is being booked not because anyone cares all that much about his/her personal opinion, he/she is there to represent the Democrat Party position. Democrats who want that kind of national exposure are going to have to get it through their thick skulls that the exposure comes with a price --- national party message discipline, and if they don't want to play that game, they should stop letting their egos get in the way of the Party's message.

Posted by: p.lukasiak | Apr 5, 2005 11:57:49 AM

I'm not arguing with Brooks' premise that Dems shouldn't just ape GOP methods, but I vehemently disagree with his notion that Republican dominance is based on ideas (a pretty paper-thin dominance, by the way, given Bush's two popular margins -- the first negative, the second the smallest for any re-elected incumbent in American history). Poll after poll in 2000 showed Gore in the lead on all major issues, particularly economic ones. And, in 2004, Kerry's positions were by and large favored by a more significant slice of Americans than Bush's -- except for that largely amorphous "trust to keep us safe". Also, polls throughout this endless Bush administration have shown lack of public support for most of the GOP's signature issues (social security "reform" the latest, but also the idea of tax cuts vs. budget balancing).

The GOP has been able to gain (and remain in) power without winning the overwhelming hearts and minds of the people, and I think tactics have to be considered part of the reason for their success. Endless repetition of falsehoods -- that Gore was a serial liar, that Kerry probably didn't deserve any of his medals, that Bush unquestionably won Florida in 2000 -- have helped create impressions that, in tight elections, can easily have been decisive. And these repetitions are a direct result of GOP party discipline -- a discipline that, to my mind, comes close to that of the Communist party in mid-century.

Democrats, on the other hand, were unable to unite even when they had their most popular president in 50 years. A sensible Democratic party would have run their 2000 race on "When's the last time you had it so good?"; instead, they took GOP cues and ran a "We're sorry" campaign (culminating in the imbecilic Lieberman selection) -- and when Gore finished ahead regardless, they left him fighting alone as the GOP propaganda machine convinced all their voters a clean Bush victory was being swiped.

The optimist in me says a coalition supported by tactics and propaganda alone cannot thrive indefinitely -- that eventually, reality will overtake it. I'm cognizant that now two elections in a row ('02 and '04) have gone the GOP way, but both times by miniscule margins. But it's like watching a great pitcher lose consecutive 1-0 or 2-1 games -- there's a tendency to think, Maybe the guy just doesn't know how to win, but, truly, simple bad luck can account for such narrow defeats. I continue to believe Democrats are ready to win back much of the country (the way the GOP was in the mid-70s, despite their daunting deficit after the '74 and '76 elections). But Brooks is mistaken: getting a more coherent party message/strategy IS part of that equation.

Posted by: demtom | Apr 5, 2005 12:06:57 PM

> The optimist in me says a coalition supported by
> tactics and propaganda alone cannot thrive indefinitely
> -- that eventually, reality will overtake it. I

I know they are invoked all the time as bogeymen [not least by this persona ;-)], but you have to factor in Scaife and the Mellon Foundation. They set out to accomplish something approx 20 years ago, and they were willing to spend 3-5 billion dollars to do it. Now they are reaping the rewards of that investment.

When you hear about sharp, sarcastic conservative writers straight out of college being offered 10 year, $100,000/year contracts to (i) infiltrate publications of all types (ii) open up new publications to move the center of thought rightward, just as ONE example in a media/communications war (not even counting FOX), you have to wonder if the Democrats/left will ever be able to compete.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 5, 2005 12:17:12 PM

demtom; it's the culture war and terrorism.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 5, 2005 12:25:02 PM

The Terri Schiavo case was the first time in a long time that I've seen conservatives explain to other conservatives that "you aren't really conservative".

I've seen them argue that government should have this attitude or that one on abortion, or stem cells, or pornography, or armor-piercing bullets, or campaign finance, or any number of things... but I generally don't see them saying stuff like "you can't be a conservative and think X. You just can't."

While, in my experience, people like Jarvis, Totten, myself, etc... get told stuff like "you aren't a real liberal, you aren't a real democrat, you claim to be a democrat but you're working for the other side" and so on and so forth fairly often.

It wasn't until Schiavo that I saw conservatives engage in this same "you aren't really one of us" thing.

Posted by: Jaybird | Apr 5, 2005 12:42:29 PM

Al, didn't eat your wheaties this morning? brain not up to snuff yet?

the words "a much higher level of discipline" do not mean there is no dem discipline at all, despite your rather droll attempt to pretend they do. they mean that somehow, overnight, every republican talking head knows when to say privatization, partial privatization, personal accounts, or whatever the latest variant might be. The dems don't come close to that, regardless of their ability to hold together on a handful (and it is a handful - did you see dem solidarity on the bankruptcy bill? the gonzalez vote? the rice vote?) of issues.

theCoach, i agree that the demonization of liberals, a program that has a history of nearly four decades standing by now, has been essential to maintaining voting unity on the right....

Posted by: howard | Apr 5, 2005 12:46:32 PM

What conservative philosophical ideas? Burkean conservatism ran out of content and became nothing more than an "irritable mental gesture," in Trilling's phrase, long ago. (Oakeshott isn't irritating; in fact he's still enjoyable, but he is nearly content-free.) And the libertarians who still think small government is a unifying conservative idea are in denial: conservatives have always been the party of government, as long as it is government in the service of immediate "conservative" ends -- preserving privilege and kicking ass among the lower orders. The anti-overnment "conservative" is an historical accident that arose in response to affirmative liberal government. The commenters who have suggested that the only unifying thread is anti-liberalism have it right. Same with the poster who wants us to celebrate doers (if thoughtful doers) rather than thinkers. This fits what I see as a basic divide between conservative and liberal intellectuals: for a conservative "[fill in the blank with Burke, Hayek, or whoever] says so" is a powerful argument, for a liberal "[fill in the blank with Lippman, Croly, Dewey, Rawls, or whoever]" isn't. The conservative attraction to and use of its threadbare stock of ideas is much like an attraction to tweed jackets, cigars, and port in a walnut-panelled faculty lounge--an aesthetic signal about who they are rather than a serious, substantive grappling with ideas.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Apr 5, 2005 12:47:12 PM

"I was never that good as a philosopher, but I was really good at arguing about philosophy"

Matt, Matt--did no one at Harvard ever tell you? These aren't *different* job descriptions, these are the *same* job description. Philosophy is the only job in which arguing about the job is the job.

But I don't want to corral you back into philosophy--instead I want to encourage you to adopt the Brad DeLong plan, and get yourself off to a graduate program in Econ post haste. Econ is clearly a field you lean towards, and could do a lot of good in. You're a *very* impressive dilletante, but before you're thirty, you really should master a substantive area of content with a solid tool-box of analytical skills, hopefully numerical ones. Otherwise, you might wind up being a philosopher....

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Apr 5, 2005 12:48:24 PM

I really think that Lukasiak's point is good. Matt has many virtues, but he isn't the guy to go up against Guckert. He's inveterately a finesse player. You really need someone who's will to be the confrontational bad guy on national TV. Avarosis (sp?) would be the obvious choice. Bartcop would be great, too.

Posted by: John Emersonj | Apr 5, 2005 1:07:17 PM

I essentially agree with the criticism that the contemporary "left" - vaguely so-called - doesn't discuss philosophy and theory enough. I have addressed this issue before in this comments section, so just in synopsis:

The left has enfeebled itself intellectually over the the past few decades by succumbing to the seductions of lit-crit trash, new age goo and sophomoric pseudo-intellectual relativisms - with their obsession with "voices", personal identification and group solidarity over arguments, reason and philosophy. In the process the left has drastically weakened its ties with the deepest intellectual roots of its own traditions in Western political thought. Thus most self-styled liberals these days know nothing in any depth about the debates that formed their current predicament. A two-centuries long debate about the economic and political institutions of our societies - a debate in which there were literally hundreds of sides - has been reduced to a caraciture of cold war triumphalism: Capitalism 1, Socialism 0. Even some of the better educated are afflicted with an outlook that is as shallow and diffident as it is broad. Compared to the left-wing forbears, cntemporary American liberals with a pretense to possessing an education are relatively ignorant of history, economics, and philosophy; lacking in a systematic global perspective (as opposed to bits and pieces of global trivia); attracted more to national customs and loyalty than universal ideals, and averse to formulating long-term global projects and strategic objectives, and realistic tactics for achieving them.

What we think of as the left today seems to be a fusion of an older liberal tradition - based on openness, non-discrimination and tolerance - and a democratic, egalitarian tradition based on a positive commitment to self-government, levelling, greater equality of outcome as well as opportunity, the elimination of economic domination, the expansion of prosperity downward and the achievement of political power by the disenfranchised.

The liberal component has gained in influence over time at the expense of the democratic. The recent focus has been on group identifications and personal and sexual liberties. Even the gender politics commitments have become increasingly decoupled from the concern with liberation from subjection and economic domination, and focussed more on he accoutrements of personal liberty in an affluent lifestyle. The emphasis on intellectual tolerance has been raised to the status of an absolute value of transcendant impotance, which has paralyzed left intellectual discourse, and often reached the absurd point where searching rational criticism is disparaged, and ideas are regarded as virtually indiscernable with respect to quality of merit. Beliefs and commitments are seen more as personal and group identifiers rather than representations capable of different degrees of accuracy of inaccuracy, truth or falsity, validity or invalidity.

I often receive the strong impression that, for many on the left these days, their "liberalism" is nothing but the self-serving wantonness of spoiled brats, vaguely suffused with the dimly-remembered remnants of past social concerns and political fights over equality, power and social justice, and transformed into a meaningless game offering the sporting pleasures of partisan conflict and unprincipled contentiousness.

Witness the latest go-round about Social Security, in which the Democratic side of the debate is seemingly dominated by the merely pragmatic commitment to the preservation of a certain way of doing things, for preservation's sake, perhaps because change is too difficult and expensive, or perhaps that is what the other guys on "our side" have usually defended. Beyond these pragmatic and inertial considerations, there is a very palpable ambivalence and lack of enthusiasm about the ideological underpinnings of Social Security. One gets the impression that many liberals no longer really believe in the philosophical justification for the programs they are defending, but are simply attracted to the team sport of partison political conflict. This is more like a lazy Burkean conservatism than liberalism.

The erosion of coherent thinking in the "Democratic" camp has left the coast completely clear for the national security Democrats like Beinart, Bayh, Hilary and friends whose pro-military boosterism and kinder, gentler imperialist nationalism is a travesty of anything that deserves to be thought of as "the left".

As a beginning to strengthening the left-wing mind, might I suggest we have more discussions about the works of serious intellectuals, and fewer about the lastest scribblings of popular columnists like Brooks, and the growing army of bloggers. Where is it written that the business of a blog must be a total immersion in the incestuous group-think of the blogosphere, based on its tit-for-tat linking, and self-promotion strategies?

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 5, 2005 1:11:04 PM

Interesting point about philosophical debate/policy debate. I would argue (as I usually do) that there's an interesting comparison in the UK. Here, the Conservatives tend to be the ones who do policy debate and wonkery, while the left (Labour and the Lib Dems) get more hung up on political philosophy. The huge Clause 4 debate that kicked off New Labour and Tony Blair's political career had little to do with the actual clause ("To secure for all the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry of service.") and everything to do with the battle for the soul of the party and the demise of socialism.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Apr 5, 2005 1:11:59 PM

What ideas, what phiolosophy - are you nuts? It's a delight when you hear a sentence that doesn't cause you to immediately throw up - from any of these guys, both so called 'conservatives' and so called 'left'.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 5, 2005 1:30:02 PM

Howard - dunno, maybe it's just that I'm just back from vacation. But my point is exactly what you are saying - the Dems (elected officials and and talking heads and media alike) all woke up in December and happened to say that Social Security was not in a crisis and there shouldn't be any personal accounts. This was quite a neat trick, since so many of them had previously believed that there WAS a crisis and had been open to personal accounts. So I think that the ballyhooed "lack of message discipline among Dems" just doesn't exist any more - if it ever did!

This has nothing to do, BTW, with the issue of whether to debate philosophy or policy. Frankly, I don't have an opinion on that - as to either conservatives OR liberals - because I simply don't care that much about the philosophy, and so don't pay attention to it on either side.

Posted by: Al | Apr 5, 2005 1:34:26 PM

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