That’s the question Beverly Gage poses on Slate.com yesterday, with the even more instructive subtitle: “American conservatives have a canon. Why don’t American liberals?” She comes to this question because of the fact that Paul Ryan cites Rand, along with Hayek and other conservative heroes, as inspirations for his thought. Obama–he cites mostly . . . himself. Most other modern liberals cite . . . no one.
Perhaps Gage should consider the obvious hypothesis: liberalism is brain dead. But here’s the case Gage lays out:
[O]ne of the [conservative] movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too—Edmund Burke, for instance—but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.
Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools. This may seem like a strange statement at a moment when American universities are widely understood to be bastions of liberalism, and when liberals themselves are often derided as eggheaded elites. But there is a difference between policy smarts honed in college classrooms and the kind of intellectual conversation that keeps a movement together. What conservatives have developed is what the left used to describe as a “movement culture”: a shared set of ideas and texts that bind activists together in common cause. Liberals, take note.
This is not a new question from liberals who look up long enough from their primal quest for power to ask whether their intellectual shelf is bare. A few years ago Martin Peretz wrote in The New Republic that “It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. . . Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind [on par with Niebuhr] in our culture? Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire? Whose books and articles are read and passed around? There’s no one, really.” Michael Tomasky echoed this point in The American Prospect: “I’ve long had the sense, and it’s only grown since I’ve moved to Washington, that conservatives talk more about philosophy, while liberals talk more about strategy; also, that liberals generally, and young liberals in particular, are somewhat less conversant in their creed’s history and urtexts than their conservative counterparts are.”
While there is something to this lament, it seems slightly overstated. Even leaving aside the popularity of fevered figures such as Noam Chomsky, one can point to a number of serious thinkers on the Left such as Michael Walzer, or John Rawls and his acolytes, or Rawls’ thoughtful critics on the Left such as Michael Sandel. However, the high degree of abstraction of these thinkers—their palpable distance from the real political and cultural debates of our time—is a reflection of the attenuation of contemporary liberalism. Whereas the left-liberal spectrum once had a vision of the good society based on large ideas accessible to the general public, today liberalism comes to sight more often as pure snobbery, a set of formal values adopted in place of serious political thought, perhaps best expressed in Thomas Franks’ unintentionally hilarious title What’s the Matter with Kansas? Franks wonders why lower and middle class voters align with Republicans when this is purportedly against their economic interests, without ever perceiving the irony of Upper East Side voters overwhelmingly choosing against the party that wants to reduce their income tax burden substantially purely as a cultural statement. Duh.
To continue with Gage:
Liberals have channeled their energies even more narrowly over the past half-century, tending to prefer policy tweaks and electoral mapping to big-picture thinking. When was the last time you saw a prominent liberal politician ascribe his or her passion and interest in politics to, of all things, a book? The most dogged insistence on the influence of Obama’s early reading has come from his TeaParty critics, who fume constantly that he is about to carry out a secret plan laid out a half century ago by far-left writers ranging from Alinsky, the granddaddy of “community organizing,” to social reformer Frances Fox Piven. . .
The problem is that most liberals couldn’t put together the sort of intellectual short list that conservatives now take for granted even if they wanted to. In my Yale seminar on liberalism and conservatism, I try to assign some plausible candidates: Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr, Betty Friedan, Michael Harrington, Martin Luther King, John Kenneth Galbraith. Undoubtedly many people reading this essay can come up with alternatives, and register strong objections to any of the above. But liberals rarely ever have the conversation. Putting together the conservative side of the syllabus is always vastly easier than putting together the liberal one, in part because conservatives themselves have put so much time and energy into the selection process.