Liberal Bubbles and Conservative Intellectuals

Nicholas Kristoff explains once again that liberals need to hear from conservatives. Our thinking is clearer when we confront counter-arguments and alternatives, he says, and cites Cass Sunstein’s research on the decisions of three-judge panels. He’s worried about the dangers of the Trump Administration, but apparently thinks you could vote for Trump and be happy that he won on grounds other than racism or bigotry, though he doesn’t even try to offer an explanation of what those alternatives might be or why they are much different in practice from racism and bigotry. He is particularly worried that universities are bubbles of liberalism.

Kristoff doesn’t seem to grasp the difference Rayne noted in a comment here between a liberal education and liberal politics. Liberal education merely means that we have a free and open discussion of facts and the lessons and conclusions to be drawn from facts. Liberal politics has to do with social and economic fairness.

But, campuses are full of conservative politics. As we saw here with Amanda Delekta and her College Republicans, there are conservative students at the University of Michigan! Talk to the ROTC crowd, which cuts across college majors, and you’ll find plenty of conservative students. And there are plenty of politically conservative academicians. Just check out the engineering and business schools. Or the economics department at most colleges and universities.

Kristoff sort of recognizes this when he points to Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health and a committed Evangelical Christian. What Kristoff doesn’t say is whether Collins believes in evolution or geology. In his list of conservative thinkers, which I put at the end, he doesn’t mention whether any of them believe in evolution or science generally or whether they are Birthers or Sandy Hook Truthers or followers of Alex Jones. Let’s assume that they all passed this simple test.

But each of them is happy to ride to power on the coattails of those willing to feed the Republican base a constant dose of lies and distortion. Each of them apparently believes that a little racism is a small price to pay for tax cuts for the filthy rich. Each of them seems to believe that science denying is a reasonable price to pay to cut coal plant emission regulations, or that foolish arguments about the national debt justify killing Medicare or ending Social Security. Each of them participated willingly in, or at best, kept quiet about, the 25 year long phony assault on Hillary Clinton, from White Water to emails, from killing Vince Foster to Benghazi. Each of them is willing to put their favorite conservative goal ahead of a decent society.

Kristoff says I should listen to them respectfully, even as they ignore or support the lies and deception that bring them to political prominence.

I’ll make a deal with Kristoff. When his conservatives loudly and publicly denounce the Republican tactics of fire-hosing crackpot ideas and conspiracy theories at their base and at the nation generally, and when they start trying to win a battle of ideas in accordance with normal practice in those campus bastions of liberality, then I’ll take them seriously.

Here’s Kristoff’s list of conservative twitter feeds: @DouthatNYT, @MJGerson, @StephensWSJ, @JoeNBC, @peggynoonannyc, @reihan, @Arthurbrooks, @ayaan, @eliotacohen, @Heritage, @danielpipes, @nfergus, @allahpundit, @charlescwcooke, @michaelbd, @SonnyBunch, @asymmetricinfo, @cathyyoung63, @KellyannePolls, and @jasonrileywsj.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elite Pundits

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elites

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

After defining the term elites (see previous post), Arendt says that the elites did not actively oppose the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria, and in some respects were supportive. One problem I have (and I have several) is the lack of a direct explanation for the failure of the elites to confront the rise of fascism. The text raises one possibility. I suspect that immediately after WWI, most of the elites were sympathetic to the ideas of the Marxist left, and that many were actively interested. Then they saw that the Social Democrats directed the right-wing violence that killed and imprisoned the revolutionaries. That was enough to keep the fellow-travelers and the sympathizers away from left activism. They retreated to their writing rooms and their ateliers, and left the space of massive change to the right wing. They wanted “to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” (P. 328) The elites weren’t going to do anything about it, they just pointed and laughed as the mob solidified into the fascist movement.

Among the sins of these elites was their refusal to attack crackpot ideas.

To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. P. 333

That’s uncomfortably close to Karl Rove’s “we create new reality”.

At the same time the elites were disengaging from the political world, they were pursuing their own esoteric ideas, ideas which further distanced them from the mob. This ended badly for the intellectual elites. Some were driven out, some fled, and the rest found a way to accommodate themselves to the fascist states.

As I wrote in my previous post, the US has plenty of elites who are conservative, but if we limit ourselves to writers and philosophers, there has never been a serious conservative intellectual class in this country. There have been a few intellectual conservatives, although none spring to mind who would pass Hofstadter’s test, including specifically William Buckley. If you disagree, perhaps you could read down Richard Posner’s list of 600f or so public intellectuals and identify all the US people listed, living or dead. It is astonishing to think that the likes of Ann Coulter and Erik Erikson are included on Posner’s list. And I confess I’ve never understood why bookstores shelve Ayn Rand among the philosophy books. There is certainly a class of highly conservative economists, but to me they lack any pretense of being intellectuals in Hofstadter’s sense. Further, they do not self-criticize, they do not change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. This means they are ideologues, not intellectuals.

Using my definition from the previous post, Buckley and a number of writers and pundits and economists would certainly qualify as a member of the conservative elite. Let’s focus on the pundits. Does anyone take them seriously? When was the last time any serious thinker took up an political issue raised by David Brooks in his NYT column, or the conventional nonsense he spouts on PBS? Just take a look, if you can, at this absurd column. It begins with a paean to the US system of capitalism and social welfare, and, of course, our crony capitalism: “nurturing disruptive dynamos like Bell Labs, Walmart, Whole Foods, Google and Apple”. Then this:

It’s amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected this consensus. In supporting Bernie Sanders they are not just supporting a guy who is mad at Wall Street. They are supporting a guy who fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus reshape American culture and values. As he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he wants to make us more like northern Europe.

Why those Millenials are just downright unreasonable in questioning a system that promises that their lives will be much worse than their parents. They should all start businesses and get rich, just like Brooks did, and just like their parents did, or something. Brooks says nothing about the lived reality of Millenials. He refuses to face the fact that his favored Republican policies, tax-cutting, deregulating, war-mongering, and refusal to govern, have saddled them with massive personal debts and a stagnating economy that shipped all the decent jobs out to other countries. In his latest, Brooks has clearly lost it. It’s an explainer of this op-ed in the New York Times from two years ago offering three views of marriage. And here I though glorifying marriage was Ross Douthat’s job description.

Douthat is a deeply silly man, mooning on about conservative values and governance in the face of the actual behavior of the Republicans in government. Here he explains how similar Donald Trump and Pope Francis are. Apparently if you want to change something Douthat likes, you are either a vulgar materialist or an intellectual ascetic. I’m waiting for Douthat to explain how Donald Trump has a classy marriage this time, and is therefore fit to be President.

The bizarre Thomas Friedman is shocked that Bernie Sanders said that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, which became obvious after those scumballs wrecked the economy and destroyed our retirement plans. Since the downturn also cost his wife’s family a staggeringly large amount of wealth, he might have wondered how that happened.

Not one conservative pundit has called out the crackpot stupidity of national politicians on climate denial, denial of evolution, tearing down the separation of church and state, denial of pretty much any fact or lesson from science, or their truly insane theory of government, that if you ruin it things will be great. Instead, they embrace every stupid idea, or simply keep quiet. They cannot tell fact from chain emails. Why do these conservative pundits, and by extension the rest of the conservative elites, think this will turn out better for them in the long run than it did for the German elites of the 1920s?