But the political discussion proceeds as if the failed liberal experiments of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s never happened. “Progressives have achieved the impossible: They balanced California’s books,” proclaims David Dayen, brazenly ignoring the Golden State’s $28 billion wall of debt and estimated $300 billion in unfunded pension liabilities (not to mention the fact that the balanced-budget claim was based on the kind of overly optimistic projections that have long caused eye rolling among Sacramento journalists). Walter Kirn spends thousands of words elegantly describing the nuanced cultural aspects of being a lifelong gun owner, pointing out that much of the anti-gun policy debate is hysterical, but then punts on the policy conclusion: Owners should accept feel-good gun restrictions, Kirn says, in order to look “civilized” and “reasonable” to the rest of the country.
The great irony is that The New Republic is repudiating contrarian neoliberalism precisely when we need it most. Obama proposes in his State of the Union address to jack up the minimum wage to $9 an hour, and instead of surveying the vast skeptical academic literature, or asking (pace Charles Peters) whether such liberal gestures are “more about preserving their own gains than about helping those in need,” TNR columnist Timothy Noah declares, “Raise the Minimum Wage! And make it higher than what Obama just proposed.” The president announces in the same speech a plan to create universal, federally funded preschool, and instead of reflecting on the well-documented failures of the K–12 system, Jonathan Cohn congratulates the president, because “first somebody has to start the conversation.” A more accurate take: First somebody has to ignore the conversation of the previous four decades.
In the spring of 2010, liberal commentators began advancing a meme that the conservative movement’s intellectual wing was heading toward “epistemic closure,” shutting out any viewpoints that didn’t match their skewed version of reality. Paul Krugman and Eric Alterman deploy the term readily to mock the closed-minded groupthink of their opponents. Like a lot of partisan insults, the closure crack contained some truth: Witness the conservative-journalism freakout in February over a group, called “Friends of Hamas,” that eventually turned not to exist. But it was also a reminder of the Pendulum Rule of politics: You quickly become that which you criticize.