Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Where E. J. Dionne went wrong

E.J. Dionne just doesn't get it. He has a column today trying to explain why being a liberal today is now considered an insult - so insulting that liberals don't want to be called liberals, but progressives. You can sense the puzzlement in his cri de coeur: how can liberals be so much better than conservatives and the masses (those idiots!) not recognize their inherent moral superiority? He searches for the moment when liberals went from being the noble crusaders fighting for commendable goals to having to hide their ideology behind euphemisms. He first congratulates himself and other liberals on just being better.
At its best, liberalism is about the defense of the underdog, of minority rights, of social justice, of active but restrained government, of civil liberties, of openness and tolerance.

In their own defense, those who still admit to being liberals would argue that the very fact that they have stood up for minority rights -- including, heroically, for civil rights in the 1960s -- made them unpopular, sometimes with a majority of the country.

They also argue, correctly, that the demonization of their creed goes all the way back to those who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt's program of reform at home and internationalism abroad. The reaction to FDR bred McCarthyism and the libelous charge that liberals were, at best, "squishy soft" on communism.

But liberalism has also become associated with elitism, arrogance and disdain for the values of average Americans. Think of the consumer preferences tossed at liberals from the right as epithets: brie, chablis (now updated to merlot), Volvos, lattes, vacations on Martha's Vineyard. Never mind that it's conservatives who want to eliminate inheritance taxes on those Vineyard mansions.
Gee, E.J., maybe it is all that self-satisfied superiority that did y'all in? See, the liberals are good and it's just those despicable conservatives who made them feel guilty. But they really, really are the better people. Why can't everyone realize that?

Dionne thinks he's figured out where it all went wrong. He traces it back to historians of the 1950s and 1960s like Richard Hofstadter who began examining groups like the Populists in psychological terms.
Many progressives and reformers, he argued, represented an old Anglo-Saxon middle class who suffered from "status anxiety" in reaction to the rise of a vulgar new business elite. Hofstadter analyzed the right wing of the 1950s and early 1960s in similar terms. Psychological disorientation and social displacement became more important than ideas or interests.

Now, Hofstadter was exciting precisely because he brilliantly revised accepted and sometimes pious views of what the populists and progressives were about. But there was something dismissive about Hofstadter's analysis that blinded liberals to the legitimate grievances of the populists, the progressives and, yes, the right wing.

The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter's students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting "political criticism in psychiatric categories," Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves "from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation."

Lasch added archly: "Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds."

This was, I believe, a wrong turn for liberalism. It was a mistake to tear liberalism from its populist roots and to emphasize the irrational element of popular movements almost to the exclusion of their own self-understanding. FDR, whom Hofstadter admired, always understood the need to marry the urban (and urbane) forms of liberalism to the traditions of reform and popular protest.
So, according to Dionne's thesis, liberals lost the ability to argue because they were too dismissive of those with whom they disagreed as people with psychiatric problems. I suppose he's thinking of Hofstadter's famous essay about The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Here's the opening paragraph.
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Hofstadter traces a strain in American history of groups from the anti-Masons, anti-Catholics, Populists, the anti-Communists of the 1950s, to the Goldwater supporters of his day of people who demonized their enemy. If you've never read Hofstadter's famous essay, it is eye-opening today, because his description is so apt of some people today, but not the conservatives whom Hofstadter was aiming at. Whom does this description of what Hofstadter says the paranoids believe of those whom they fear remind you of today?
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).
Who are the groups out there today who think that their enemy is all powerful manipulating all events to further his malign aims? Have you ever read the rantings on Daily Kos? They're the ones with the paranoid style today as they attribute everything from Saddam's capture to the British terrorism plot as some Rovian conspiracy designed to take attention away from Republican attempts to destroy all liberty and amass more power and money for Haliburton.

So, Mr. Dionne, I find two problems with your thesis. First, it's not that liberals lost the power to argue about their superior qualities. It's that so much of the liberal proposed solutions had been tried and had been shown to have failed. Suddenly, liberals had to face arguments that weren't based on theory, but actual analysis of what had happened when liberal solutions had been put into practice. Actual data was available and it didn't favor liberal solutions to helping the poor, fighting crime, or improving education. So, all liberals were left with were their superior motives: they were just the better people and recognition of their desire to do well should be enough.

The second problem is that so many liberals have become the paranoids themselves. They've convinced themselves that they are the only ones who actually want to improve the world and thus, anyone who opposes them is not just wrong, but evil. So, for example, a conservative who opposes the liberals' command and control solutions to improving the environment doesn't simply have a different approach for the same goal, but actually opposes cleaner air and water. It's as if they think that conservatives don't breathe and so don't care about clean air. Or, if conservatives have a different approach for improving education, it must be because they oppose public education and somehow want poor kids to remain uneducated. As Thomas Sowell argued in The Vision of the Anointed, it never becomes a question of which policy is better, but whose motivation is more pure. And such arguments, while perhaps personally satisfying, are not all that persuasive especially when confronted with the evidence of the actual consequences of their own proposals.

Perhaps, Dionne is too blinded by his sense of moral superiority that he can't see such weaknesses.