Left Looks at Right


The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, by Sidney Blumenthal, New York: Times Books, 369 pages, $19.95

Sidney Blumenthal is an interesting young intellectual. A liberal (or so he postures) with a leftist's obsession for ideology, he is a more important journalist than his better-known colleagues at the Washington Post. Mary McGrory, Haynes Johnson, and David Broder are veteran defenders of the company town from which they write, but they are from an era of unquestioned liberal hegemony. Their arguments are reflexive and stale, their ability to counter the growing promarket tide blunted by a mindset seemingly clueless to the currents of modern political debate.

Not so Sidney Blumenthal. He is fascinated by political philosophy, especially so because of his valid perception that things are rapidly moving against him and the Post. His analysis is often sharp and incisive. "The new ideological politics constantly eludes those using traditional frames of analysis," he writes. One can visualize Blumenthal shaking his lethargic fellow columnists and shouting, "Don't you see what's happening? We're starting to lose control and you don't even know why!" In The Rise of the Counter-Establishment he attempts to show why.

This is a sophisticated book, full of insights that will benefit anyone interested in politics and intellectual trends. But there are some glaring (and unnecessary) flaws, the most important of which is the implicit and sometimes explicit assumption throughout that the "counter-establishment" is a trumped-up response to a nonexistent (or at least benign) "establishment."

Conservatives, Blumenthal writes, "imitated something they had imagined, but what they created was not imaginary.…Their factories of ideology—think tanks, institutes, and journals—would win legitimacy for notions that would be translated into policy." It's true of course that the right has somewhat self-consciously set about over the past decade to establish an intellectual and policy infrastructure in America. But to pretend that it was in response to nothing—to an "imaginary" liberal establishment—is laughable.

It's not enough even to point to the obvious examples of that establishment: the Ford Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment, the National Education Association, network television, and, yes, the Washington Post. The list, if not endless, is formidable.

But what is most powerful about the liberal establishment is its stranglehold on academia. Despite the breakthroughs in departments of economics, American universities are dominated by liberals and leftists (not to mention Marxists). In philosophy, English, history, political science, sociology and every other social science there lurks a liberal establishment nurtured on taxpayer dollars and committed to rationalizing a greater role for the state. To all this, Sidney Blumenthal casts a blind eye.

In fact, Blumenthal sees America as a nonideological mosaic of liberal institutions. His thesis is that the huge and growing bureaucratic infrastructure in America is the result of a natural evolution of our maturing society. Ideology played no role in the emergence of the superstate and properly should play no role in contemporary America. Enter the counter-establishment with its not-so-hidden ideological agenda of reducing the size and scope of government, and suddenly everything's gone haywire.

Everywhere, there are challenges to the political status quo. Suddenly, inexplicably, the state is the enemy of the people. And the counter-establishment has done it with mirrors or—worse, in Blumenthal's eyes—ideas.

Particularly dangerous, says Blumenthal, is conservatives' emphasis of ideology over party. They "are replacing the old party politics with an ideological politics in which ideas order up images," he writes. Of course, the "old party politics" for which he longs (the kind that innocently led to ever greater government involvement in our lives) has hardly been replaced. But more importantly, it, like the rest of the liberal establishment, is most definitely driven by ideas, even if their proponents prefer to disguise them under wrappings of "pragmatism."

If Blumenthal's motivation for writing this book is suspect, his dissection of the conservative movement is nevertheless entertaining. He is at his best describing the neoconservatives, whose machinations he refers to as "shadow leftism." The neocons, despite their small numbers, are influential: "their strength is the strength of ten because of their fervent faith in ideas." They are "the Trotskyists of Reaganism," he writes, "the only element in American politics whose identity is principally derived from its view of Communism."

Indeed, Blumenthal makes clear that the neocons' identification with the Republican Party (particularly its free-market element) is strained and not of their choosing. Coming from the left, their natural inclination was to work with Democrats, but their closest ally there, Hubert Humphrey, failed to gain national power. When for purely parochial reasons Jimmy Carter turned his back on them, they turned to Ronald Reagan who, after all, "had been a Democrat, a left-winger, from a working-class family."

An entire chapter is devoted to economist Milton Friedman, for whom Blumenthal holds a particular animus. As with many liberal writers, Blumenthal is fixated on Friedman's economic advice to the Pinochet regime in Chile (and as with those other writers, the fact that Friedman gave the same advice to Chinese officials is ignored). He suggests darkly that Pinochet "understood the implications of Friedman better than Friedman has understood them." And what are those implications? Why, what every right-wing dictator and economist lusts for: "deflation, unemployment, bankruptcies, increased monopolization, constriction of the market"—all those good things.

In fact, Blumenthal's amateur interest in economics is a dangerous liability in his attempts to analyze public policy. He actually seems convinced that Friedman's goal in wanting to slow money growth is to create unemployment. He lacks any grasp of the concept of malinvestment, the idea that inflation, by distorting relative prices, carries with it the seeds of a future recession. Or consider this gem: "Over the past decade, leading commercial banks had made more than $845 billion in loans to debtor nations, with the expectation that the money would be repaid in currency cheapened by continuing inflation." Very clever, those banks.

A considerable chunk of The Rise of the Counter-Establishment is devoted to analyzing how Ronald Reagan fits into the scheme of things conservative. It's an interesting, if schizophrenic, analysis. Reagan is pictured primarily as a product of what Blumenthal calls the "remnant" conservatives, the old-line free-market types as exemplified by The Road to Serfdom author F.A. Hayek (who is rather annoyingly referred to as "von Hayek").

Reagan is supposedly manipulated by Sunbelt businessmen, used by supply-siders and neoconservatives to support contradictory causes, and at the same time we're told that without his leadership there would be no conservative movement. Like many who have tried before, Blumenthal ultimately fails to capture the significance of the Reagan phenomenon.

One of the best parts of the book is devoted to the Reagan administration's disingenuous campaign (with independent neocon support) for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Also on the mark are Blumenthal's barbs directed toward Richard Posner and the economic efficiency school of judicial thought practiced by some conservatives.

Ultimately, though, Blumenthal's insistence that there is no liberal establishment undermines the credibility of his analysis. To take just one example, the John M. Olin Foundation (headed by William E. Simon) is cited no less than 11 times in the book, each in reference to funding some insidious counterestablishment activity out of the income from its (1983) assets of $26 million. What does Sidney Blumenthal think the Ford Foundation does with the income from its assets of $3.9 billion?

Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.