Recently I’ve seen several blog posts about alleged “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement. The claim is that the American right is substantially more closed-minded than the American left.
In the posts I’ve read, however, this state of affairs is assumed and the focus is on explaining it. Absent is any effort meaningfully to assess the comparative open-mindedness of the two factions.
The closest thing I’ve seen to a real argument is the claim that the left must be more ideologically diverse because its base is more diverse. The premise here is true in some senses. For example, the left-wing base is more racially diverse than the right-wing base. But this does not seem to translate into ideological diversity. For example, as far as I know the left monolithically supports racial preferences.
In the absence of arguments to refute from the proponents of the “epistemic closure on the right” thesis, let me offer a few stray observations.
First, one would expect less debate than normal among conservatives right now for two reasons: (a) conservatives are entirely out of power and thus don’t have to make specific policy choices and (b) we are not in a presidential election cycle and thus don’t have to choose among specific policy packages.
Second, there is nonetheless plenty of disagreement among conservatives these days. With respect to foreign policy, many conservatives support the surge in Afghanistan and some wish we were more engaged in Iraq. Yet many others oppose the surge and think we can’t get out of Iraq soon enough. This disagreement ties in with a larger disagreement about the extent to which the U.S. should promote democracy in the Arab world. The clash between those who accept aspects of the neo-conservative line and those who reject it wholesale continues.
Third, there is disagreement on even the one issue that probably most unites conservatives these days, health care. I assume that conservatives overwhelmingly favor repeal, just as liberals would overwhelmingly oppose it. But the agreement ends there. Some conservatives, such as James Capretta in the current issue of National Review, insist that repeal should be accompanied by measures that not only bring down costs (such as tort reform and interstate competition) but additional steps to significantly reduce the number of uninsured. Others express little or no interest in having the government find ways to expand insurance coverage.
This disagreement corresponds roughly with the debate over compassionate conservatism. Few will publicly advocate such conservatism by name, given the unpopularity of the Bush administration, and everyone purports to be a strong fiscal conservative these days, with the Republicans out of power and no hard choices to make. But if the discussion turns, as it occasionally does, to the conservative answer on specific issues like health care, it becomes clear that these debates have not been brought to closure.
Fourth, there is disagreement among conservatives about leading figures in the conservative movement. Sarah Palin, considered by many to be the movement’s darling, receives plenty of criticism from conservatives who consider her shallow. Glenn Beck also brings mixed reactions.
Fifth, some of the “closure” talk stems from the alleged persecution of conservatives who deviate from “the party line.” David Frum, for example, has suggested that he lost his position at AEI because of his very public efforts to rethink conservatism. However, the reasons for Frum’s dismissal are not clear; some say David, who writes prodigiously on his own blog, wasn’t producing much for AEI.
In any event, exile from a think tank isn’t exile from a movement. David continues to opine from a center-right perspective and some of us, including some of his former NRO colleagues, continue to read hm with great interest.
To be sure, David has been severely denounced on talk radio and accused (unfairly and, I think, absurdly) of taking the positions he does in order to be invited to liberal cocktail parites . At the same time, David has taken some very personal shots at Rush Limbaugh. But, to oversimplify a bit, epistemic closure is the absence of disagreement, not the absence of agreeable disagreement.
Sixth, in my little corner of the world, I generated a small bit of controversy by denouncing the ad by Liz Cheney’s group which suggested that certain Justice Department officials share al Qaeda’s values. Many conservatives were not amused, especially when (from what I’ve been told) I hit the trifecta by winning “honorable mention” from the Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan, and Keith Olbermann.
Yet, the emails I received, including some from prominent conservatives who disagreed with me, were almost universally respectful. My mini-debate with Andy McCarthy provides a flavor of this.
In the end, epistemic closure on the right is fun to write about if one (a) likes to navel gaze or (b) likes to attack conservatives. From what I’ve seen, that’s mostly all there appears to be to the idea.
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