Can Progressives Critique Conservatism?

Buckley and VidalWhen seeking truth, one must search for the best arguments available for a particular view. If we are going to examine various truth claims about the existence of God, for example, we would be wise to find the most rigorous arguments for and against this claim. After spending time with the best arguments, you will have acquired a new skill set capable of identifying the less serious, uncharitable interactions with the claim of God’s existence – Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion is the quintessential example of uncharitable interaction. This new skill, of course, will also be applicable when reading or hearing straw man arguments against atheism. If we are serious about seeking truth, this quest will force us to acquire an advanced level of epistemic virtue. Epistemic vice is unbecoming of truth seekers.

A truly virtuous person will challenge their views against the best critics. This is what truth requires. This applies no less to our political commitments, where we often find ourselves in echo chambers surrounded by people eagerly awaiting the next platitude denouncing our cultural foes. Progressives routinely paint their adversaries as racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and the like. Conservatives will label their opponents as anti-American, treasonous, soft on terrorism, and other colorful unpatriotic themes. Libertarians will claim their detractors are statists, economically illiterate, war-mongers etc. I am sure if we look hard enough we will be able to find some people who fit these labels, but it is contentious nonsense to assume all who associate with a specific political label must also be no different than the vilest among our political discourse. Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians alike are seeking to organize society in a way that properly enact a version of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice. The debate may become passionate, but the better angels of our nature should rise above the fray and discuss the issues like men. Avoiding the rhetoric of hyper-partisan hacks may do us some good for a change.

As a conservative, I fear this echo-chamber mentality. A conservative should never be satisfied with what we think we know, and be willing to challenge our views every once in awhile. As Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Investigations resulting from new inquiry could result in the abandoning of a weak position or argument, a falsified scientific commitment, or even a reinvigorated conservatism tried by the intellectual fires of our most talented critics.

In order to practice what I preach, I picked up Paul Krugman’s book, The Conscience of a Liberal. Krugman is a Nobel Laureate, so he clearly isn’t a bottom feeder when it comes to intellectual capabilities. Even as a conservative, I enjoy reading his economic work, which clearly bears the mark of a brilliant man. Moreover, Krugman is a secular progressive liberal, so it would seem to follow that he is a very smart liberal, given his intellectual accomplishments. It struck me then, that his book should be a thoroughly engaging interaction with conservatism, and possibly force me to re-think my political philosophical commitments.

There is much in the book that can be discussed, but my aim in this article is to focus on what Krugman calls “movement conservatism.” This glib label is the rubric by which Krugman views conservative thought, and it is meant to be a pejorative from the very start. The quintessential “movement conservative” is William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. Krugman says, “It’s worth looking at early issues of the National Review, to get a sense of what movement conservatives sounded like before they learned to speak in code.” (Pg. 101, 102) He continues in the same paragraph to use phrases like “dog-whistle politics,” that conservatives such as Ronald Reagan were “able to signal sympathy for racism without ever saying anything overtly racist.” This is an unfortunate indication that Krugman is not interested in rising above the derogatory racial mud slinging routinely used ad nauseam by progressives. It is remarkable how intellectually shallow such a claim is. Think about it. Krugman’s claim is that conservatives such as Ronald Reagan don’t actually say anything racist, but “us liberals” are going to still say they are racist because it is a code that only the special sensitivities of the progressive are able to identify. Is it any wonder progressives are often seething with anger? They are fighting racism even when it is undetectable!

The evidence of this alleged shift from overt racism to covert racism is based on an editorial by the National Reviewand the ensuing shift to “code language” in order to garner political influenceThe article is not examined in any depth by Krugman. Instead of providing historical analysis he is quote mining to support is preconceived notion that all conservatives are inherently racist.

A more important question to ask, however, is whether or not this a legitimate move by Krugman? Is it intellectually honest to smear “movement conservatives” as racists? Is this a standard of critique he is willing to use against his own self-styled progressivism? Is he willing to look at the early political positions of the progressive movement to find the sins of racism? How about looking at the history of the Democratic Party? Can we find racism in the history of his championed political party? Would founding the KKK be a strike against the Democratic Party’s narrative of being Civil Rights champions? How about racist statements made by contemporary democrats such as Robert Byrd?

Progressives don’t want the public to open the Pandora’s box of the Democratic Party’s history of race relations because the truth is too overwhelming for their carefully crafted narrative to survive.

Let’s assume Krugman is correct for a moment, that Buckley and his initial cohorts were flaming racists, and because of this we are correct to denounce their publication. Does it follow from this that conservatism, as a political philosophy, espoused by Edmund Burke or Roger Scruton, for example, is no longer a viable option for approaching social issues when governing a nation? If a resurgent Burkean conservatism became a “movement,” would this somehow morph into a racist advancement of ideas since they oppose the progressive political solutions for our current policy puzzles? The answer to this question is – of course not. Another thing to consider is if a single article is enough to impugn an entire political philosophy, then progressives are in no better shape. The progressive movement of the early 20th century, which contemporary progressives are quite proud of, also harbored racist sentiment while championing a rather grotesque eugenics movement grounded in social Darwinism. To prove this simply pick up Margaret Sanger’s, The Pivot of Civilization. If Krugman wants to be fair, and seeds of racist overtones are enough to denounce ideas that are not inherently connected to racism, he must then denounce his own-championed “new progressive political agenda.” Progressive politics began the same way that “movement conservatism” did according to caricature Krugman would have you believe; yet emphatic denunciation of this group of crazies is conveniently missing.

Krugman’s summary attempt to paint conservatism as racist is found in this paragraph,

“Movement conservatism, then, found a mass popular base by finding ways to appeal to two grassroots sentiments: white backlash and paranoia about communism. The emergence of this popular base went a long way toward turning the politically marginal ‘new conservatives’ of the 1950s into a force to be reckoned with.” (Pg. 110)

The other area of “movement conservatism” that seems to keep Krugman up at night his concern over think tanks. Krugman says,

“The Friedmanites and neoconservatives saw themselves as outsiders, alienated from the liberal establishment. To a remarkable extent the heirs of these movements still manage to feel this way. Yet by the 1970s the intelligentsia of movement conservatism had an establishment of its own, with financial backing on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of its liberal opponents. To put it bluntly, becoming a conservative intellectual became a good career move.” (Pg. 117)

Krugman’s suggestion is ridiculous, that a couple of well-funded think tanks are able to compete with the institutionalization of progressivism in the American university system. This oversight is symptomatic of the elitist contempt for conservative counter-narratives of American culture and economics, as well as the perpetual victim status of the progressives. When they aren’t bullying those in disagreement into submission to their worldview, they some how muster the strength to become the victim while their ideological boot is on your neck.

Combine this screed with a few jabs at the conservative approach to the Cold War (which was largely a bi-partisan commitment to containment), Vietnam, and Iraq, while portraying progressive liberal domestic policies as the paragons of virtue, love, and inclusivity, you will get the gist of Krugman’s conscience, at least when talking about conservatives.

What can we learn from this mythical narrative of the benevolent liberal conscience against the malevolent conservative mindset? The first lesson is that contemporary progressives, even the most intellectually astute, are not interested in interpretative charity when engaging their opponents. The tactics of the left are not a strategic maneuver to gain influence; they are part and parcel to their entire worldview. Progressives moralize their political commitments and identify with them personally, therefore, those that disagree are immoral, indeed they are evil, and do not have a right to be heard in a fair battle of ideas. On what basis does evil have an equal footing in the public square? This question captures the contempt progressives have for their opponents.

The second lesson is that progressives are not interested in the truth; they are interested in protecting their ideology. As I mentioned, Krugman hints at the paranoia of the Cold War as an unjustified means to attain political power. The facts behind this claim, however, tell a much different story. Nowhere will Krugman deal with the fact that Soviet spies had infiltrated our government, or that communism was an expansionist ideology compiling a significantly large body count in the countries that it was established. He also hints at the “tragedy” of Vietnam while ignoring the tragedy of the Democratic Party’s role in instigating American involvement in this foreign policy blunder. He also ignores the fact that Nixon ended the war while the democrats sold out on America’s promise to the assist South Vietnam against their aggressive northern neighbors. American withdrawal eventually resulted in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and the boat people fleeing fear of death. None of this matters, however, because these facts may cause a person to second guess the secular progressive narrative surrounding America’s foreign policy actions throughout this era. If one pillar of progressivism is questioned, a subsequent domino effect may ensue, and before you have it, another conservative has been born anew.

The final lesson we can glean from Krugman’s depiction of conservatives is that we are not going to get a fair hearing, even from the most accomplished and intellectually successful progressive. Conservatives need to stop deluding themselves into thinking this will ever happen. Progressives are not interested in debating ideas, policies, and philosophical foundations. The sooner this delusion is booted from the hopeful psyche of the conservative mind, the sooner we can stop being shocked when conservatives are attacked with the same laundry list of insults – racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe etc.

Our culture is in desperate need of interpretative charity, intellectual rigor, and ideas couched in the pursuit of truth. Currently, no matter the discussion, it seems that invective is the common tactic, rather than sound judgment and reasoning. Some may read this and charge me with the vice I am impugning Krugman. This is incorrect. I am not being dismissive of Krugman’s political policies or economic theory. I am chastising the way he deals with conservatives. If he is going to smear a political philosophy without engaging it appropriately, he deserves to be called out for this. That is the aim of my critique.

Conservatives must rise above the fray and accomplish only what lovers of truth can deliver – honesty and charity. This applies to the way we critique those we think are in error.


– Lucas G. Westman

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