The hopelessness of liberals

This article about liberal “enabling” of crazy conservatives from the New York Times Magazine has a lot of truth to it, at least in the first half. Speaking about his guilty habit of listening to Rush Limbaugh, he says:

But the real problem isn’t Limbaugh. He’s just a businessman who is paid to reduce complex cultural issues to ad hominem assaults. The real problem is that liberals, both on an institutional and a personal level, have chosen to treat for-profit propaganda as news. In so doing, we have helped redefine liberalism as an essentially reactionary movement. Rather than initiating discussion, or advocating for more humane policy, we react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right.

Media outlets like MSNBC and The Huffington Post often justify their coverage of these voices by claiming to serve as watchdogs. It would be more accurate to think of them as de facto loudspeakers for conservative agitprop. The demagogues of the world, after all, derive power solely from their ability to provoke reaction. Those liberals (like me) who take the bait, are to blame for their outsize influence.

He goes on to describe a tendency among liberals to be satisfied that they’re not like conservatives — that they’re “reasonable” and “nuanced” in some content-free way (viz. the John Kerry campaign). I’ve seen this many times, particularly among educated professionals. They declare themselves to be liberal Democrats and love to make fun of the crazy conservatives and catch them in contradictions — yet it turns out that they’re anti-union, that they’re not totally comfortable with abortion, etc., etc.

Yet the direction the article takes in the end is all too typical. Instead of saying, for example, that he’s going to focus more on defending his liberal principles than on making fun of crazy conservatives, he says that he’s going to ignore the crazy conservatives and focus on finding reasonable conservatives who are really worth debating with. Yet again, his liberalism has no real content aside from reasonableness, willingness to debate, etc., etc. — and yet again, conservatives are setting the agenda (as apparently it’s more important to find conservatives to bounce ideas off of than to build up coalitions to support one’s own ideas).

In short, he’s calling for liberals to shift from Rush Limbaugh to David Brooks — to stop letting themselves be trolled and to focus instead on being concern trolled. Either way, it seems to me, we’re still doomed.

8 thoughts on “The hopelessness of liberals

  1. Ah, what a joy it is to be neither liberal nor conservative, and to let one’s cynicism run wild. You’re right, Adam, that this describes most liberals that I know. The problem is that neither side has principles–just ideologies and cultural differences.

  2. I’m not sure I see this all the same as you. I don’t think liberals are “content-free”; I think liberals are trying to set the stage for a reasonable nuanced discussion (This attempt is what you are saying is without content, I think? But I think that this is itself a value of liberals, it is part of the liberal content.) where they can discuss their content. I don’t know how to fix this. People pay more attention to the exaggerated scare tactics of the GOP because it is simple, but if reason is a liberal value, liberals cannot play that game with the GOP.

  3. Jessa, It seems to me that you’re just repeating the problem — the procedural element (reasoned, nuanced conversation) always trumps fighting for the substance of what they believe (if anything!) under actual existing circumstances. Having a debate is more important than winning the debate. It’s a bizarre short-circuit.

  4. Jessa, let me be more concrete. When I have advised students and colleagues during political, moral, and union rallies, I usually worry because they try to undercut their own effectiveness. They are so worried about “getting the message out” that they care little about the content of the message, whether it is politically efficacious (without sacrificing the message), etc. Rather than mobilize for change, they mobilize to mobilize and often do not follow-through on the procedural and institutional confrontations that would execute a change. They’re not interested in such things.

    To be more specific, I’ve been involved with free speech, GLBTQ, abortion, anti-Phelps rallies, and union organizing; let’s keep it real. What do they not do? Confront administrators, mayors, directly lobby organization, etc. There are low-key ways to be effective as well, as when a pro-choice counter-demonstration offered “freedom escorts” around a zone picketed by religious anti-abortion proponents depicting graphic images meant to emotionally traumatize young women considering abortion. That is a small, clever, but easily done example of effective politics as it actually aids the target group rather than just talks about it.

  5. But isn’t that precisely the problem above all with liberalism? That is, liberalism is in it’s essence an antagonistic politics: this is Machiavelli’s Roman Republic, or Montesquieu’s England. The interest groups fight within a liberal order – the liberal order itself has little to say about the internal content of the competing interest groups. What the individual interest groups (or factions) actually want is not usually not heavily determined by liberalism itself – which usually had little to say about what the good is. Or Mill’s utilitarianism, in which the demos’ utility often ends up being much more about how much they hate some minority group rather than how the demos can self-actualize or some other high-flying rhetoric.

    I mean, this isn’t really new: at some level, it’s a sort of paraphrase of the Platonic Socrates’ critique of the Athenian republic in Sisyphus, Hipparchus, Eryxias, The Republic, etc.

    Further, what I think it indicates is that, with a focus on very specific processes rather than the good simply, liberalism loses the flexibility to pursue the good with many different means.

  6. BB,

    If you are going to go that far, we need a definition of “liberalism.” So far I have been thinking of it in terms of contemporary leftist culture, which includes most of those identifying themselves as democrats. They are “classical liberals,” as are most everyone in America, but insomuch as they are “progressives,” they try to extend a community of care and concern as widely as possible while allowing for true difference as long as it does not destroy the public or common public sphere. This includes the neoliberal branch to a lesser extent, which marries liberalism to a particular socio-economic vision. I admit that this is somewhat vague, because contemporary liberalism is such a historical pot pourri, and I would just end up enumerating elements otherwise. One of the common acts of being a liberal now-a-days is “consciousness raising,” righteous indignation at the moral inferiority of others, and adopting a cultural aesthetic, e.g., locavores, environmental concern, recycling drives, etc. that functions as a aesthetic and not a principled commitment. “It’s what we do!” Rorty didn’t see a problem with this, but I do.

  7. Jason,

    But aren’t you yourself in this very paragraph running precisely into the very core of the problem? Is “care and concern” a plausible concrete political goal? Now, I’m the blog monarchist, so I would tend to find that dubious. Without a good, care and concern might well be empty concepts (the proper care and concern for capitalists under Stalinism would be a prison camp, while under another regime, the proper care and concern for capitalists might be that they should receive every possible honor and power – which of these is the correct concern and care?) What I would argue that ancient philosophy gives us what modern philosophy tends to avoid – a sense of how concrete political actors actually act: this is part of the function of the Socratic dialogue, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Plutarch’s biographies, Theophrastus’ Characters and so on.

  8. BB,

    That was my intent, and you seem to have grasped it.

    I’ve been reading Brooks for years, and I do think it was brilliant of Kotsko to call it “concern trolled.” How else can Brooks be such a right-wing Teddy Bear?

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