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February 26, 2014 5:21 PM Joining Lost Tribes

By Ed Kilgore

My friend Damon Linker, who’s been drawing some attention lately for warning liberals to show greater deference to the views of religious conservatives, has now chosen to give us a glimpse into his general orientation as a writer and thinker, in a long post at The Week:

In recent weeks, readers have asked me a cluster of questions about the positions I’ve staked out in my columns. The questions go something like this: How can you think that Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) is the worst president since the 1930s, while considering George W. Bush (a Republican) a close runner-up for that dubious distinction? Do you realize that you’re spending roughly equal amounts of time bashing liberal politicians and ideas as you are conservative politicians and ideas?
And what about the apparent contradiction in writing critically about the rise of a self-dealing oligarchy and the dark sides of meritocratic striving, while also highlighting the way America is being transformed by the ideal of human equality?
In sum, readers want to know where I’m coming from. Am I being contrarian for its own sake? Am I a liberal? A conservative? A Democrat? A Republican? (Well, I’m obviously not a Republican.) Just how do I position myself ideologically?
My shorthand answer is that I’m a neoconservative, circa 1976.

Damon goes on to explain that rather odd self-description in detail, and I won’t try to recapitulate it here. He understands the term “neoconservative” has a life of its own, and that in choosing it he is putting himself in company he clearly dislikes. But I guess the bigger question is whether a lost and somewhat exotic ideological tribe like the original neocons really provides any sort of useful perspective for someone writing about politics and culture today, other than justifying the sort of independence that you derive from standing alone.

Many of us are the products of many ideological influences in the course of our lives. Being a hillbilly and all, I’m drawn to the kind of political pragmatism that being from an aggressively conservative region tends to inculcate, along with an occasional chip-on-the-shoulder hostility to privilege (call it populism if you wish). But I’ve been influenced by the so-called “Neoliberalism” (another term that has been overtaken by events) associated with WaMo, the “New Democrat Movement” in which I worked for quite a few years, and more recently by the U.S. progressive movement writ large, which strikes me now as more valuable and vulnerable than it seemed back when I was impatient to “reform” it. Some influences, like growing up in a textile company town, or gaining brief but intense experience in a factory surrounded by minimum wage workers, (some of whom were handling two full-time jobs), now are more powerful to me than they were at the time. I could easily be a syncretist like Damon (whose pilgrimage took him from the editorship of First Things to becoming the most acerbic of critics of the “theocons” who often clustered there).

But politics—even writing about politics—is in my opinion inherently a communal exercise. And while intellectual independence is essential to journalistic integrity, engagement in the battles that actually define contemporary politics is what makes political writing worth doing. So it wouldn’t much occur to me to identify myself with any lost tribe.

I recall attending a dinner in 1996 when a very prominent journalist announced to a room full of fellow journalists that he no longer thought of himself as a “New Democrat,” and instead felt like he was becoming an “African-American Republican” (he was enamored of J.C. Watts at the time, I believe). He was no kind of African-American at all, and I thought it sad and a bit outrageous that he seemed to be willing to try on and discard ideological traditions like a change of fashion styles. I don’t want that kind of “independence,” thank you very much, whether it’s derived from a lost or an ephemeral identity.

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.

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