Writing in the Wash Post, Univ. of Virginia political scientist Gerard Alexander assays the long tradition of liberal intellectual condescension (seen in recent years in such moments as Obama's remark about jes' plain folks clinging to religion and guns, reactions to Sarah Palin, and with virtually every utterance on Countdown with Keith Olbermann):
Liberals have dismissed conservative thinking for decades, a tendency encapsulated by Lionel Trilling's 1950 remark that conservatives do not "express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." During the 1950s and '60s, liberals trivialized the nascent conservative movement. Prominent studies and journalistic accounts of right-wing politics at the time stressed paranoia, intolerance and insecurity, rendering conservative thought more a psychiatric disorder than a rival. In 1962, Richard Hofstadter referred to "the Manichaean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable in the right-wing mind."
Full disclosure: Alexander is a friend of mine. He identifies four basic liberal narratives about conservatives that systematically undermine the need for engagement with, or even serious consideration of, opposing viewpoints. The piece chock full of contemporary examples pulled from sources ranging from President Obama to Al Gore to Markos Moulitsas to Rick Perlstein. I don't think he's cherry-picking here. He concludes:
Liberal narratives not only justify the dismissal of conservative thinking as biased or irrelevant -- they insist on it. By no means do all liberals adhere to them, but they are mainstream in left-of-center thinking.
Indeed, when the president met with House Republicans in Baltimore recently, he assured them that he considers their ideas, but he then rejected their motives in virtually the same breath. "There may be other ideas that you guys have," Obama said. "I am happy to look at them, and I'm happy to embrace them. . . . But the question I think we're going to have to ask ourselves is, as we move forward, are we going to be examining each of these issues based on what's good for the country, what the evidence tells us, or are we going to be trying to position ourselves so that come November, we're able to say, 'The other party, it's their fault'?"
Alexander also includes a "to be sure" graf about how some conservatives pull the same trick, though I think he underplays that point. He winds things up by noting that we need trans-ideological discussion now more than ever.
Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend. Democrats have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care. Supporters of such efforts want to ensure that key decisions will be made in the public interest and be informed, for example, by sound science, the best new medical research or prudent standards of private-sector competition. But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals.
Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras. Of course, thinking twice would be easier if more of them were listening to us at all.
One correction is certainly in order: Let us be clear. That durable warning about government programs failing is really a libertarian insight, as conservatives who were convinced that the U.S. army could resculpt the Middle East and Afghanistan for well under $100 billion back in the early 2000s could surely tell you. That's an important distinction to make because libertarians are all-too-often dismissed as not worthy of engagement by liberals and conservatives alike, ostensibly because we don't have a tribal affiliation with a major political party and/or aren't "serious" about governing. That latter point may be true: We tend to be less interested in governing than living, dammit. And the two things are definitely very different.
Yet when you look at the main eggheads, cracked or otherwise, who undergird what passes for conservative political thought, many if not most are libertarian (Hayek and Friedman to name two).
This op-ed is a warm up for a lecture Alexander is giving on Monday at The American Enterprise Institute. If you're in the DC area and want more details on attending "Do Liberals Know Best? Intellectual Self-Confidence and the Claim to a Monopoly on Knowledge," go here.
Bonus video: The New York Times' Sam Tanenhaus discusses the (intellectual) Death of Conservatism on Reason.tv.