Modernizing Liberalism, After Action Report

Several years ago Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution edited two slim volumes entitled Varieties of Conservatism in America and Varieties of Progressivism in America, featuring essays from leading thinkers and observers of both camps. The two books presented, unintentionally I think, a vivid contrast in the totally different modes thought prevalent on the right and left. The book on conservatism was mostly about ideas–what should we stand for based on a view of the good–while the progressive book was mostly about tactics–how do we win elections so we can rule.
The publisher’s dust jacket summaries capture the essence of this odd split very well. Of the conservatism book, the publisher says “the book’s overarching argument [is] that conservatism in America represents a family of opinions and ideas rather than a rigid doctrine or settled creed [and] demonstrate that the debate among conservatives [is] about which principles and practices are most urgently in need of protection.” Note that a unanimity of opinion is not suggested here, and indeed the book rehearses a number of the familiar long running arguments on the right that run along the axis of freedom versus virtue.
About the progressivism book the publisher says “Debate among progressives about the most suitable means for the promotion of progressive ends persists. The book shows that the choice depends upon shifting coalitions; political leadership; developments in culture, economics, demography, and technology; actions and events beyond our border. . .” ‘Nuf said.
I could go on in this vein, recalling comments from The New Republic‘s Martin Peretz in 2004 that “liberalism is bookless and dying,” or similar comments from Michael Tomasky of the Guardian about how liberals are less interested in the pedigree of its ideas than conservatives (which he thought a problem for the left). All of this comes to mind in the context of the Breakthrough Institute’s “Modernizing Liberalism” conference I brought up here Friday morning. Michael Shellenberger, who I think of as the Sundance Kid to Ted Nordhaus’s Butch Cassidy, told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that the role model for their effort was in fact the conservative intellectual movement, which is one reason they graciously invited me to participate as a sort of agent provocateur. (You can scroll the list of speakers here.)
It is way too hard to summarize a wide-ranging conference like this since most conferences of this nature are a bit chaotic and disjointed anyway, but overall it strongly resembled the kind of idea-driven discourse of conservative groups like the Philadelphia Society, the Mont Pelerin Society, the Liberty Fund, or the Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank. As such I think this was a rare event for a center-left gathering–a true “breakthrough” moment befitting its sponsoring organization. Liberal participants put out a number of bad analyses and ideas. They really really don’t like Grover Norquist and his “no new taxes” pledge, and Rob Atkinson and I are going to have to have a major throwdown on supply-side economics some day. But overall there was an astonishing openness to rethinking liberal shibboleths and denouncing their partisan allies. No one had a good word to say for Paul Krugman; to the contrary, he was a whipping boy. One of Steward Brand’s (of Whole Earth Catalogue fame) best quips was “I don’t understand why the Huffington Post publishes horses*** like this,” displaying an article he thought especially egregious in its falsehood. While there was the usual concern about inequality of wealth distribution, the class-warfare dimension of the issue was decidedly muted, with emphasis less on redistribution than on figuring out how to revive innovation to get the economy growing again. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, was brutal in his smackdown of the intellectual errors of contemporary environmentalism. Aside from Michael and Ted, I have never heard such withering self-criticism from someone inside the environmental establishment. He made me seem mild mannered and moderate by comparison, and that’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, at one point, in the full tail-twisting mode that I was brought there for, I said, “Man, for a bunch of liberals, you guys really suck at it.”
One of the more interesting arguments concerned Friedrich Hayek. I naturally mentioned Hayek as the key to understanding the limits of modern liberalism in the same vein as I explained it here on Power Line the other day. A couple of the speakers, especially Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics, emphatically agreed that Hayek got it right. Fred Block of UC Davis, who describes himself as still a proud socialist, disagreed strongly, and the fight was on. But what a rare kind of fight for liberals to be having.
Maybe the most extraordinary aspect of the conference was not simply that it never descended into a tactical discussion of “how do we beat the right,” but the one big thing that was never brought up: labor unions. It was tacitly assumed, I think, that organized labor is an impediment to progress, and maybe even a millstone holding back liberalism. One of the more important figures at the conference told me during a conversation between sessions that “the SEIU drives me bats*** crazy.” Michael Lind, who I needled relentlessly for his long ago apostasy from the right, summed up the distinction I made above, namely that while conservatives are mostly about ideas, liberalism is mostly about checking off the wish lists of its interest groups. “What is the liberal position on immigration?,” he asked. “It’s what La Raza wants.”
Well, you can see right there the headwaters this effort will run into. Later this week, the first issue of the Breakthrough Journal will be published, containing several of the essays commissioned for this conference. It’s under embargo right now, but I’ll dilate a couple of highlights when the embargo is lifted.