Green Room

How to Think About Liberalism
(If You Must)

posted at 1:24 pm on June 15, 2009 by

The simplest way to define conservatism is this: The belief that liberalism is wrong.

To the extent that liberalism is a coherent political philosophy, the conservative defines himself negatively, as Not A Liberal.

Therefore the job of the conservative intellectual is not to question whether the most recent “new idea” is wrong; rather, the conservative intellectual ought to begin with the assumption that this latest liberal “new idea” is not actually new, but instead is merely a reiteration of some already-discredited liberal error.

How, then, should conservative intellectuals behave during such an era as this, when the blunders of the Bush administration and the idiocies of the McCain campaign have convinced many Americans that conservatism is wrong? The natural corollary of this widespread belief — that the failures of Republicans represent failures of conservatism — is the obverse belief that liberalism must be right.

Therefore, in 2009, a storm of denunciation pours down on the head of any conservative who insists that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama are liberals and that, as liberals always do, they are leading us down the road to disaster. And it is not merely Democrats and MSM types who denounce stubborn conservatives for saying this. Many Republicans will gladly join in on the Consensus Chorus, i.e., Bill Kristol:

Presuming ahead of time that Obama will fail to exercise leadership, and cataloguing this episode pre-emptively as another in a list of Obama failures, would be a mistake. . . . [W]e should hope Obama does the right thing, and urge and pressure him to do so–because then the United States will be doing the right thing, and the United States, and the world, will benefit.

Errr, actually, no. Kristol may mean to say that it is a dangerous thing — and certainly, as a matter of rhetoric, it is dangerous — for conservatives to proclaim that liberals like Obama are acting in bad faith. We cannot know another’s motives beyond what they themselves say on that subject, and if Obama says that Policy X is good for America, then we must assume for the sake of argument that Obama actually believes in Policy X. Ergo, the “Obama-Is-a-Secret-Muslim” and “Democrats-Hate-America” arguments are non-starters as matters of persuasive political rhetoric, especially when the MSM will heap scorn on anyone making such arguments.

Kristol is wrong, however, to caution conservatives not to assume as inevitable, and publicly predict, the failure of Obama’s policies. If Obama is a liberal (and he is), then he will pursue liberal policies, and those policies will fail. You can set your watch by it.

It is one thing to assume (at least, for the sake of argument) that a liberal like Obama desires what is good for America. It is another thing to assume that a liberal actually knows what is good for America, or that, knowing what is good, he will actually pursue the good competently and persistently. The history of liberalism disproves any such assumption.

We may give liberals credit for their good intentions — how else shall they pave the road to hell? — but we can never credit liberals with good sense.

If they had any sense, they wouldn’t be liberals, would they?

Nothing is to be feared in predicting that (a) liberals will act like liberals, and (b) the result will be disastrous. Kristol, however, is an intellectual, and it is the nature of the intellectual beast that he must concern himself above all with maintaining his influence. If you’re going to be an un-influential intellectual, you might as well drive a truck.

The whole point of seeking a career as a “conservative intellectual” is to exercise influence in Washington, and Kristol risks losing influence for the duration of the Obama administration if he makes a point of saying that everything Obama does is wrong. As in economics, you see, those who transact business in the “marketplace of ideas” respond to incentives. So Bill Kristol flatters Obama with the hope that he will “do the right thing” (whatever Kristol believes “the right thing” to be) and further supposes that there is some utility in conservatives urging that the liberal president do “the right thing.”

Errr, actually, no. If the liberal president listens to Bill Kristol, it is only because whatever policy Kristol urges is in agreement with liberalism. And being a conservative means that, insofar as Obama does what Kristol considers to be “the right thing,” then it is actually the wrong thing to do!

Except for the occasion when Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 — after vetoing it twice, and faced with the possibility of defeat in his upcoming re-election campaign if he vetoed it again — I cannot think of any act by any Democratic president since Grover Cleveland that any conservative need automatically endorse as “the right thing.” If some quibbler should point to a liberal policy of the 20th century and say, “Well, that did not fail,” I will reply, “Not yet.”

As with Social Security, for example, it sometimes takes a few decades before a liberal policy “success” threatens to bankrupt the nation or otherwise leads to the ultimate catastrophe that conservatives predicted from the start. When I began writing this post, Obama was on TV, promising to “fix” the health-care problem that LBJ created when he “fixed” health-care more than 40 years ago. And if I live another 40 years — hey, the liberals tell me that smoking is bad for my health — I expect that in 2049, I’ll be able to watch the president tell me how he plans to “fix” the problem with Iran that Obama’s Middle East policy will predictably cause. (This assumes we won’t all be incinerated by Iranian ICBMs in the meantime; nuclear weapons being another liberal president’s policy innovation that “worked.”)

Like so many other conservative intellectuals, Kristol’s pursuit of influence resembles the high-school cheerleader’s scheme to become homecoming queen by sleeping with all the popular boys in school. Even if such a scheme works (and it won’t), the “popularity” thus obtained is not worth the loss of integrity by which it is acquired. It may not always be popular to say no to liberalism, but it is always right.

Besides which, Obama is definitely not Grover Cleveland.

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Its like Rush said:

“The GOP elite want to get along as losers. They think the Democrats respect them, they don’t.”

broker1 on June 15, 2009 at 2:50 PM

It’s not that liberals are ignorant, it’s that so much of what they know isn’t so.


John the Libertarian on June 15, 2009 at 4:17 PM

Sometimes the hardest thing to convince a liberal of is the fact that they are liberal. I often will throw out to somebody who mentions they vote Democrat that I didn’t know they were liberal. Often I get a couple of quick blinks followed by a denial.
If you vote Democrat you are a liberal- simple.

Just A Grunt on June 15, 2009 at 5:14 PM

We’re in charge and you’ve been reduced to doing mopey interviews on Fox.

Why don’t you just think of us in those terms? A little more accurate.

Lizza on June 15, 2009 at 10:43 PM

How, then, should conservative intellectuals behave during such an era as this, when the blunders of the Bush administration and the idiocies of the McCain campaign have convinced many Americans that conservatism is wrong?

The sensible thing to do would be to recognise that Bush and McCain are liberals and that this has been a massive factor of both men’s failure. This is the real challenge for conservatives, some of whom would rather die than relinquish their gloopy sentimentalism for their Daddy Bush – that Truman-JFK old-liberal hero.

aengus on June 16, 2009 at 10:53 AM