Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 18, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES....Mark Kleiman was musing yesterday about what he thinks is the common thread that holds the conservative movement together, but today he prints an email he got from his friend Steve Teles, a political science professor at Brandeis, who says he's barking up the wrong tree:

What holds all those folks on the conservative side together, fundamentally (along with a few substantive issue) is hatred of liberals. Disgust, on a very deep, gut level, and a sense that conservatives are marginalized in the institutions liberals control and a sense that they manipulate language and procedure to control those institutions and to keep conservatives out.

Whether they are libertarians or Christian conservatives, they usually have some combination of anecdotes that reinforce this perception, and they're not always wrong. The sense that liberals control "everything" is obviously stupid but it's a sense of local injustice and mariginalization that usually motivates people, and in the mainstream media and universities, there's probably something to it.

So I think looking for the glue on the positive side of overlapping ideology is probably the wrong way to look at it the negative side of shared resentment is the better way to go about it.

I think there's a lot to be said for this, especially when you consider that modern day movement conservatism got its start in the mid-60s. Two things leap out at me when I think about that timing:

  • First, by the mid-60s liberals (and liberal thought in general) really had been ascendent for over 30 years, ever since since the beginning of the New Deal. Even the eight years of Eisenhower's presidency hadn't done much to change that, since Ike was a moderate Republican who deliberately chose not to pick fights by trying to roll back New Deal programs.

    Then there were the 60s themselves. In 1964 Barry Goldwater was not just defeated, he was vilified and then crushed in a landslide of historic proportions. The rest of the decade, as we all know, was a triumph of social liberalism so great that by 1971 even Richard Nixon was in favor of universal healthcare and minimum income guarantees. Since there really was virtually no one in power who spoke for their views by that point, a feeling of marginalization by social conservatives is pretty understandable.

  • Second, it was in the 1950s and 60s when television started beaming all this liberalism directly into everyone's living rooms. Before then it had been fairly easy to ignore, especially in smaller communities, but by the mid-60s that was no longer true. It's one thing to know something abstractly, but it's quite another to see it day in and day out, and the fact that social liberalism was forced down people's throats nightly in living color surely contributed to a sense of helplessness and anger among conservatives.

Obviously there's more to it than just this, but I too have been struck by how often social conservatives continue to act as though they belong to a beleaguered little band desperately fighting off the tyranny of omnipresent liberalism despite the fact that liberals haven't consistently controlled any branch of government for a quarter century. There's little question that it's a common thread, and one that they find tremendously motivating. Just go to your local bookstore to see what I mean.

But there's a bigger problem at work here than just a conservative sense of paranoia that has long since lost its moorings with reality. The problem is that recently liberals have begun to share it.

It's a common complaint (on both right and left) that liberals no longer have any real grand motivating vision, and I think there's a lot of truth to it. But despite lots of highminded talk, neither do conservatives. Their only real vision appears to be to fight liberalism. Again, go to your local bookstore to see what I mean.

So what we're left with is little more than conservatives who are appalled with liberalism and liberals who are appalled by conservatism. There's really not much of a vision on either side, unless you consider tearing down the last 60 years of social progress a vision. Our current political deadlock will probably remain until one side or the other comes up with one.

Kevin Drum 6:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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