Political Animal


April 01, 2013 4:04 PM Do Progressives Need “Contrarians”?

By Ed Kilgore

It is psychologically important to conservatives these days to argue that the Democratic Party and progressives generally have “moved Left” under Barack Obama, partly to explain away their obstructionism and blur their own extremism, and partly because the pre-Obama Democrats under Clinton broke a long Democratic presidential losing streak. This is why Mitt Romney’s campaign kept trying to assert that Obama had abandoned Clinton’s legacy, to the point of flat-out lying about the incumbent’s position on welfare reform.

At Reason Matt Welch has offered a new variation on this theme based on what he calls “The Death of Contrarianism,” based on his claim that the Washington Monthly and the New Republic—and for that matter, the New Democrats of the Clinton era—have become more or less cheerleaders for liberal and Democratic pieties. Lost in this transformation, Welch suggests, has been a tradition of critical self-examination that was good for liberalism and good for the country:

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.

There is an awful lot of telescoping in Welch’s account of brave left-of-center heretics giving way to hacks. His appreciation of WaMo “contrarianism” seems to be confined to the 1970s and 1980s, which ignores the magazine’s continuing efforts to “make government work” amidst some wildly varying political and economic circumstances. He seems to think TNR went bad when Marty Peretz gave way to Chris Hughes (in truth, Peretz was marginalized at TNR and no longer represented the views of its staff and contributors, much less its readers, from at least the mid-2000s on). Worst of all, he seems entirely innocent of the endless discussion in center-left circles, continuing through the 1980s and 1990s until the present, about how to promote worthy liberal self-examination without descending into mere “contrarianism,” or providing regular material for the opposition.

One important reason the tone of liberal “heresy” has changed is that the “contrarians” won a lot of battles, from the “reinventing government” movement to a more robust support for private-sector innovation to reforms of the “welfare state” to more regular engagement with actual progressive voters as opposed to self-appointed interest group representatives. An equally important reason, which is entirely missing in Welch’s analysis, is what happened on the Right with the gradual triumph of a conservative movement that was more interested in destroying the New Deal/Great Society legacy than in reforming it. In Charlie Peters’ famous “Neoliberal Manifesto” of 1983, which Welch quotes from selectively, in the founding documents of the Democratic Leadership Council, and in the better contribution of TNR, there was a constant emphasis on maintaining progressive values and commitments but modernizing their means in order to make them more effective in meeting their stated purposes and in maintaining political support for them. The most urgent progressive political task today is surviving the conservative onslaught, so of course “contrarians” are a lot more careful about making their fundamental allegiances clear.

Since no progressive wants to find his or her “critical analysis” turned into Fox News talking points, even those most willing to question this or that element of existing policy or rhetorical practice (say, the reflexive opposition to means-testing of Social Security and Medicare on grounds that universal programs are easier to defend politically) need to constantly re-articulate their values. If that annoys or aggrieves people like Matt Welch, he can blame his friends on the Right.

The truth is that for all the past, present and future fighting within the progressive coalition, some of it quite essential (e.g., the fight over Democratic support for the Iraq War), the line separating left from right has always been more important, with the exception of professional contrarians who really didn’t care if they became objective servants of the conservative movement and its media. Maybe those are the people Welch misses. But they were never the dominant personalities at WaMo, the DLC, or even TNR (all institutions I’ve been identified with, BTW). From a personal point of view, the most “contrarian” progressive I know is Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall, who’s engaged in more intraparty fights than you can count. But in 2004, he co-drafted a economic policy manifesto with TAP’s Robert Kuttner. These two men were about as far from each other on the conventional intraparty spectrum as you could get—yet they thought it important to express solidarity over principles and make a largely successful effort to bridge the gap in their policy prescriptions.

That kind of intraparty debate is far from dead, and far from absent at WaMo (and I suspect from TNR). But for all its value, it could easily degenerate into the pointless wrangling you often see from Old Left academics if the broader goals of maintaining and reforming historic progressive achievements are abandoned.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Marc on April 01, 2013 4:18 PM:

    Another instance of Republican Pundit Projection perhaps?

  • c u n d gulag on April 01, 2013 4:30 PM:

    More like Republicans "trolling" the Democrats, trying to induce a strong reaction that they can take advantage of.

    The better question to ask, is, "Where are the Republicans contrarians?"

    You know where they are?
    They're either retired and mostly out of politics, except for some occasional punditry (since, if they really were "contrarians," Wingnut Welfare is probably not an option), or switched to the Democratic Party, that's where.

  • KK on April 01, 2013 5:04 PM:

    Did he miss the whole Healthcare debate?

  • Peter C on April 01, 2013 5:36 PM:

    Yup, he's another concern troll.

  • captcrisis on April 01, 2013 5:49 PM:

    TNR was a conservative publication in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- or at least, with the lonely exception of Michael Kinsley, it consistently supported Reagan and George H.W. Bush and spent most of its time and energy atacking liberals. Peretz, who was running the show then, declared it to be to the right of center, and he was correct.

  • smartalek on April 01, 2013 6:02 PM:

    Thank you for these valuable (and timely) observations and analysis, made all them more helpful by your experience in the DLC/"New Dem" wing of the party.
    Thank you especially for the ref, and link, to that 2004 manifesto.
    For my only other comment, I was soundly beaten by Marc's perfect observation, above: the essence of current Publicanism is largely composed of hypocrisy and projection (denial of reality, tribalistic resentments, and personal and institutionalized selfishness make up most of the rest).

  • nothingsmonstrd on April 01, 2013 6:34 PM:

    There's plenty of criticism coming at the Democratic Party from the left, but I doubt Welch is looking for more of that. What he wants to see is the Democrats becoming closer to his own policy preferences. I sympathize; I'd like to hear more from voices on the moderate side of the Republican party. I'd like that because I think I'm right, just like Welch believes his positions are correct.

    Reminds me of this song:

  • Rich on April 02, 2013 8:41 AM:

    Depends what you mean by contrarians. These embarrassed to liberal guys (and they've all been guys) have had perches, but never real substantive bases. Part of it may have been their own sleaziness, e.g., Joe Klein's tell-all novel--I doubt that he had much access to the Clintons or other thrid way figures after he admitted his authorship. No one other than Mickey Kaus seemed to care what Kaus said except to mock him. The TNR characters exists so that people could say "even the liberal New Republic...", except by then it wasn't very liberal.

    Progressives would benefit from contrarians on the Left. The ones they've had like Hitchens and Cockburn have mostly written (badly) while druunk and lobbed a lot of insubstantial provocations. In Hitchens case, he became wingnut darling with his ridiculously argued support for the Iraq War. Decades ago, there were actual lefties with real authority. They sometimes went overboard (Dewewy with his WWI warhawking and his later isolationism) but they moved opinion forward in important ways. We need people who care about labor and economics. We need people who really keep an eye on corporate interests. We also need to either ignore or mock outlets like Reason magazine (a Koch operation) that purport to tell us what to do. Ed's turning this into a serious question based on their framing and giving them column space is part of the problem.

  • matt on April 02, 2013 9:46 AM:

    As someone opposed to liberalism he's just lamenting the decline of his fellow travelers in the Democratic Party. Nothing to see here, folks.

  • Steve on April 02, 2013 12:41 PM:

    The DLC. Or what I like to call "Republicans."

    Contrarians, my fat fanny.

  • Robert Waldmann on April 02, 2013 8:22 PM:

    Let's grind old axes (you re-starting it). I actually agree with Welch about liberal contrarians such as those who populated the DLC. You have changed.

    I do not believe that your relationship with other liberals has changed because you convinced us. I didn't manage to quite finish the post before starting this comment I lost it at "One important reason the tone of liberal “heresy” has changed is that the “contrarians” won a lot of battles, from the “reinventing government” movement"

    OK I know something about that movement cause I visited Brad DeLong at Treasury once. He said that Larry Katz couldn't see me because he was reinventing government -- this shows Katz would have some insight into what the reinventing government movement. Katz later told me it basically consisted of replacing social programs with vouchers. In 2000 He denounced Al Gore as a flip flopper for heading the effort to reinvent government and then denouncing school vouchers. So someone who is definitely expert on the topic identified school vouchers as typical of reinventing government.

    I think the debate within the Democratic party is over because you were totally wrong and the evidence has convinced all reasonable people. In the 90s liberal heretics (including by the way Albert Shanker) supported the use of private profit making contractors to achieve liberal goals. The idea was that the private sector is more efficient. The data show that this approach costs more (a key test case is Medicare Advantage which was imposed by Republicans and which was not the idea of a liberal heretic). The debate is largely over, because most Democrats are reasonable and the data are clear. But the resolution is the opposite of the one you asserted. The party is united, because people generally aligned with you (I don't know about you personally) lost it.

    There was also a big debate about financial regulation. Clinton signed bills deregulating finance. This was highly praised by many liberals (including Brad DeLong see above). The debate was won by the reformers who supported deregulation. That debate too is resolved, because I and people with whom I associate (DeLong and my other PhD supervisor Larry Summers) admit that we were wrong.

    The new Democrats don't argue with the paleo liberals on many old topics because the data have proven that the new Democrats were wrong.

    OK I managed a few more lines and got to "modernizing their means in order to make them more effective in meeting their stated purposes and in maintaining political support for them. " I am not a knee jerk conservative, but I object to the identification of "modernizing" with "making ... more effective". In fact modernized social programs are less efficient.

    But mostly I object to the "and". What happens if swing voters are wrong about what works ? The new Democrat approach is to assume that you and the moderate middle agree and you are right. The problem is that the new approaches are less efficient than the old ones (this is accounting and you accept it for the ACA elimination of the Medicare Advantage excess payments and transition from outsourced to in house servicing of student loans).

    I think it is clear that the DLC and the Washington Monthly broke up when it became clear that hard headed reality based data driven analysis was inconsistent with saying what one had to say to win the votes of a significant majority of white southerners. I'm glad you stayed with the reality based community when you had to chose between respect for data and for the DLC.

    But I get irritated when you rewrite history. I got especially irritated when you rewrite history and accuse Jason DeParle of grinding old axes when he reported current events here