Thinking About Liberal Presumptions

Thesis: the presumption of liberalism that they have absolute truth and perfect justice on their side—that theirs is “the side of history”—makes liberals intellectually lazy and unable to think seriously.

Now for the evidence. Start with a sympathetic liberal witness, Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of a well-written if not entirely persuasive book a few years back entitled Rule or Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party. We were once on a panel together in Washington a few years back and had a terrific argument about the so-called radicalization of the Republican Party from its Eisenhower years (which is where Kabaservice’s book is anchored). This popular thesis of many liberals is exploded by one simple fact: Republicans supposedly moved radically to the right starting in the 1970s, and you won’t believe what happened next! They started winning elections! Which should tell you something, shouldn’t it? At the very least it should help explain why liberals don’t much like the majority of their fellow citizens in what they deem “flyover country.” They keep voting for the wrong people. What’s the Matter with Kansas?, as a famous book title put it. No one ever seems to ask, What’s the Matter with the Upper West Side?, where voters overwhelmingly support candidates who are averse to their economic self-interest.

Kabaservice has an excellent article out right now at Politico entitled “Liberals Don’t Know Much About Conservative History.” (Actually liberals don’t know much about liberal history, either, but never mind.) Kabaservice points out that most popular histories of conservatives and conservatives ideas these days are very shoddy.

The end-of-century victories of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, however, forced historians to realize that conservatism could no longer be dismissed as a mere road bump on the inexorable progression toward a liberal future. The result, over the past two decades, has been a veritable tsunami of historical literature on conservatism. Virtually all of these works have been written by liberals. Nonetheless, historians of this new generation consider themselves to be unbiased and even sympathetic observers of conservatism. Many believe their collective efforts have produced a profound historical understanding of conservatism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, and thus contributed in some measure to bringing politically opposed citizens together.

Color me skeptical. I was a graduate student at the beginning of this new wave of conservative studies and I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with the historical profession’s purge of any scholars who could be described as Republicans or conservatives. Some of the new works on conservatism have been excellent, others awful. But nearly all reveal the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.

The result is that two decades’ worth of scholarship hasn’t contributed as much as one might have hoped to our understanding of conservatism, especially in the age of Trump.

Comment: Not all of the histories of conservatism written by liberals are bad. Sam Tanenhaus has written some good material (but also whiffed badly a few times), but my favorite example is Columbia historian Alan Brinkley, who started writing about conservatives back in the 1990s. And while his treatments are respectful and serious, they can’t seem to shake a lingering presumption or attitude that liberalism is simply superior and does not need to be defended or reargued. Most annoying of all is his gee-whiz posture that gives the impression that he has discovered conservative ideas for the very first time. Oh, look! There’s this guy named Hayek! He’s really important! It’s as though no one ever thought to look up George Nash.

Anyway, after surveying few of the better works on conservatism, Kabaservice rightly takes note of some of the really bad ones that coincidentally happen to be the most popular with liberals, like Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, and Heather Cox Richardson’s To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. But there have been few books as sensational on the left as Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, which was a finalist last year for a National Book Award. MacLean singles out Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan as the key figure, as Kabaservice describes it, in providing the intellectual blueprint used by billionaire Charles Koch to advance a “diabolical” and “wicked” plan to suppress democracy by handcuffing government—a crime to which the entire Republican Party is now, apparently, a willing accessory. As numerous critics from across the political spectrum have pointed out, MacLean’s conspiracy theory owes more to her strained interpretations than actual evidence, and her account is replete with errors and distortions.” (This last link is to a savage critique from two liberals, Steve Teles and Henry Farrell.)

MacLean has dismissed her critics as lackeys of the Koch brothers, as for liberals ad hominem serves in place of argument and refutation. She won’t be able to play this card with Stanford University historian Jennifer Burns, who has just published a devastating review of Democracy in Chains in History of Political Economy. I can’t actually tell whether Burns is a liberal herself (though she got her Ph.D in history from Berkeley—hardly a nest of right wingers in their History department). She is the author of a critical book about Ayn Rand that was very popular with liberals a few years back, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. All of which makes Burns’s review the more bracing. The complete article is unfortunately behind a paywall, but you can read the abstract and first page here, and David Bernstein’s fine summary over at Reason. Here are a few key excerpts (with some of my emphasis added in bold) of this very long and thorough review:

Unfortunately, the book is too heated, partisan, and shallow to accomplish these tasks successfully. Even more unfortunately, at a moment when the nation desperately needs new and creative political thinking, of the kind that often emerges out of liminal spaces between ideol- ogies and academic disciplines, the book serves to reinscribe a Manichean right/left binary onto the past. Rife with distortions and inaccuracies, the book is above all a missed opportunity to encourage critical thought about intellectual and political change on the American right. . .

Unfortunately, MacLean gives almost no attention to the areas in which Buchanan did have deep influence and in which he is widely known: the academic fields of political science and political theory. . .  MacLean tends to misinterpret what Buchanan is doing, for example, taking the unanimity rule in The Calculus of Consent as a serious proposition Buchanan aspired to implement, rather than an analytic bridge between market and political decisions. . .

Nor is MacLean interested in economics, the discipline in which Buchanan trained. A more typical approach to intellectual history would take Buchanan’s academic field as foundational, even if—and perhaps especially—his approach was het- erodox. MacLean largely ignores the historical figures that Buchanan cited in his work or placed in portraiture on his office walls. She pays scant attention to Frank Knight, who is often credited with launching the careers of other storied conservatives of Buchanan’s day. In fact, MacLean pays little attention to Buchanan himself. . .

Perhaps the ultimate explanation is that McLean was not trying to bridge academic fields, but to take a political message to a broader public audience. Her hyperbolic and breathless introduction and conclusion, for instance, seem geared toward the casual bookstore browser, and her book has been marketed as companion reading to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Reaching the elusive general reader has long been the ultimate dream of ambitious historians. MacLean offers new wine; the assurance that one’s enemies have always been craven.

In the end, Democracy in Chains is characterized by a fundamental lack of curiosity. The book is disconnected from not just economics or political theory, but from all social sciences. Its citations draw almost exclusively from recently published books about American social or labor history. As such, it bears witness to an alarming parochialism. The narrative of American history it presents is insular and highly politicized, laying out a drama of good versus evil with little attention paid to the larger worlds—global, economic, or intellectual—in which the story nests. Ultimately it is not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides and confirm existing biases. As such it will not stand the test of time, but will stand rather as testimony to its time.

In a well-ordered world MacLean wouldn’t survive a smackdown this thorough from a mainstream scholar. Which is why MacLean will ignore it.

Postscript: I discovered this comment on Kabaservice from Nancy MacLean on Facebook:

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