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When Did It Happen?

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A remarkable transformation has occurred in American thought. It’s one of those transformations that’s imperceptible while it’s happening, but seems breathtaking when looked upon in retrospect. I believe historians will almost certainly remark upon the 1990s as the linchpin decade that marked a radical shift in the American mindset.

Consider a 1950 book called Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, by Lionel Trilling. In it, Trilling wrote:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism…but [they] do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

Trilling was concerned that, with such a dearth of intellectual challenge, liberalism would become soft, complacent, flabby. He went on to talk about John Stuart Mill, who encouraged liberals to get to know the thinking of Coleridge:

Mill, at odds with Coleridge all down the intellectual and political line, nevertheless urged all liberals to become acquainted with this powerful conservative mind. He said that the prayer of every true partisan of liberalism should be, “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies…; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”

An important thing to keep in mind is that Trilling wasn’t being sarcastic. This wasn’t some barb he was throwing at his conservative opponents. He meant it. He didn’t have any conservative opponents. He worried that, if liberalism is about open-minded truth-seeking, then a dearth of rigorous and logical dissent would lead to the decay of liberalism itself.

In The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, historian Steven F. Hayward discusses this same intellectual trend, which carried on through the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatism was looked down upon with condescension, when it wasn’t feared or demonized. Conservatives themselves tended to internalize this assumption of intellectual inferiority. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a famous liberal intellectual who worked in the Nixon White House, noted how the conservatives he worked with tended to be defensively thick about intellectual ideas. He characterized them as people who withdrew into a turtle-like shell, saying “Middle America is with us” when confronted with arguments they didn’t like.

As anyone who remembers that era knows, it was simply considered axiomatic: conservatives were nonintellectual, not very well-educated, not very bright. Or they were dangerous. Not much else.

Yet, a bit over 50 years after Lionel Trilling wrote the words I quote above, one Charles Krauthammer, in the summer of 2002, wrote the following:

To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.

The entire column is worth reading. But an important thing to keep in mind is that Krauthammer isn’t being sarcastic. This isn’t some barb he’s throwing at his liberal opponents. He means it.

He’s not the first to say it. In March of this year, David Galernter said, “I hate to put it in such bald terms. But right-wingers are just smarter than left-wingers. A lot of people didn’t feel that they could say it. But since September, it has become slightly easier to admit that you have your doubts about some aspects of the liberal agenda.

Once again, an important thing to keep in mind is that Gelernter isn’t being sarcastic. This isn’t some barb he’s throwing at his liberal opponents. He means it.

You can argue as to whether or not Galernter is right, but you can’t argue with Krauthammer about what conservatives have come to believe. Nor is this a childish, “We’re not stupid! You’re stupid!” argument. Conservatives just plain believe this. Most would, I hazard to guess, consider it axiomatic. As one guy I know put it: Anyone who thinks tax cuts in the 1980s caused deficits, when you can go right to the U.S. Treasury’s web site and see that it ain’t so, is just plain dumber than dirt. How can you treat someone like that seriously?

It’s also hard not to notice, when surveying the American political landscape at the moment, that there are no great Liberal intellectuals anymore. There are a few bright-minded self-described liberals; Robert Reich comes to mind, as does Susan Estrich. Camille Paglia has a truly original and interesting mind. But aside from a few rare exceptions, most “liberal” argumentation seems to come from one of four places:

1) People who disagree with me are racist.
2) People who disagree with me are warmongers who glory in violence.
3) People who disagree with me want the poor to starve and suffer.
4) People who disagree with me are blinded by corporate brainwashing.

I would have added “5) People who disagree with me want to oppress women,” but that one seemed to fade away after Clinton’s impeachment. (By the way, am I the first one to notice that?) In any case, the shorthand terms for all of the above are “right-winger” or “the radical right.”

At times it’s sad to watch. The mighty New York Times is now a laughingstock. Even people who share the New York Times worldview roll their eyes at it. Left-wing journals of opionion like The Nation and The New Republic tend to be humorless and, while they may be angry or resentful, are usually just plain boring.

Even in the blogosphere, it seems almost painfully obvious: there are few left-leaning blogs, and the ones that exist rarely rise above “Bush is a non-elected President!” and “Enron and Harken and Halliburton, Oh My!” The environment’s still going to hell and corporations are still destroying us, according to the Left. But in terms of intellectual thought, serious and robust argumentation? Concrete proposals for change and innovation? The silence is deafening. There seems to be little but ad hominem attacks, seething resentment, and, well, let’s face it: irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

Somewhere, somewhen, there was a sea change in the American mind. The Left is now generally viewed as being dominated by the desire for coercion and control, while the Right has grabbed “individualism and free choice” as its war cries. And, increasingly, people associate “liberal” with being just plain dumb. Fair or not, that is the ascendant view of the moment.

It’s remarkable. Where did it start? I can’t quite say. Where does it all lead? The mind boggles. Without question, there is arrogance in this view. Is it entirely without merit? I don’t know. But I do know this:

If conservatives want to stay on the intellectual high ground, they might want to start praying: “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies. Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, logic and clarity to their reasoning. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom.”


The above article originally appeared on Dean’s World in August of 2002. For more like it, feel free to drop by any time!

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About Dean Esmay

  • Henrik Mintis

    The Republican trend began with Reagan, who adopted ideas from Goldwater, a wise man if not an intellectual. The Democrat trend began with LBJ, Goldwater’s nemesis. Liberalism started creeping toward socialism and government control. Nixon was more liberal than JFK, and the Republicans collapsed, pending Reagan. Carter was more liberal than LBJ, and the Democrats collapsed, pending Clinton.

    During the 1990s, science became increasingly popular, and computers made documentation and statistical computation easy. We can track the effects of opinions and laws more precisely now. We passed “workfare” and saw positive feedback. We passed gun control laws, and saw negative ones. We bonded with North Korea in 1994, and learned its outcome today. Call it “outcomes-based public policy”. Moynihan’s grandiloquent class could justify any idea with educated rhetoric, but today’s arguments sound much stronger when backed by living data.

    The Republicans’ turning point was Buchanan’s leaving. Him gone, the Republicans today are the true liberals (in the sense of our founders and the free market proponents of the 19th and 20th centuries), and the Democrats have become socialist fascists. The Democrats’ turning point was 9/11. The party maintained success issuing narcissistic rhetoric, and pandering to sub-groups, but has finally come to the edge of a cliff. Reagan lifted Republicans from the depths, and Dubya is standing on the shoulders his father would not. Clinton took the Democrats to the tippy-top of the mountain they started climbing in 1963, and 9/11 pushed them off the edge. Their collapse is not pretty, but beautiful.