An emailer wrote me last night, in regards to the Bloggingheads clip, to say that I “owe it Mickey Kaus to apologize”.
I thought I did! In case it isn’t clear, though, let me lay it out: to the specific question of whether or not Kaus deserves to be called a “real liberal” or not, I was definitely wrong to suggest that he doesn’t. Saying so was unfair and counterproductive, and violated some of my own guidelines for how to argue. I apologize; it was a stupid thing to say, one of many stupid things I’ve said. (Won’t be the last, I assure you.) For a more accurate and fair assessment of where I think Mickey Kaus stands in the movement, I’d recommend this post from my old digs.
Look, I think the important question remains whether or not Kaus’s work is to the benefit of the liberal cause or not. To me, the answer is “usually not.” But that’s an argument about policy and strategy, not nomenclature. I think these remain key points: first, that though there are all different kinds of reformist conservative movements, they almost universally share the assumption that conservatism is something to be proud of. Paleocons (like Daniel Larison), crunchy cons (like Rod Dreher), pomocons (like James Poulos), groovy technocratic neo-Hamiltonians (like Reihan Salam)– all of them, to one degree or the other, are looking for major change in mainstream conservatism, and all of them have complaints about conservatism as its popularly understood. But they see themselves not as critics of conservatism as an entity or ideal but as critics of where conservatism has gone, what it has become.
That’s a fundamental difference. Reformist conservatives tend to say “we are the real keepers of the tradition.” Neoliberals, meanwhile, tend to define themselves by how distant they are from traditional American liberalism. The standard neoliberal attitude is that someone or some idea is serious precisely to the degree to which it represents a split from liberal orthodoxy. I think that’s just true. The goal should be to say “this idea is what’s best for liberalism.” Not to begin from the assumption “this idea, by virtue of being too left-wing or liberal, isn’t what’s best for liberalism.” And it is further the case that self-criticism, while a valuable and necessary tool for any intellectual tradition, should have at the heart of it the goal of strengthening the tradition in question. When the critics begin to take on faith the notion that any departure from the orthodoxy must be serious or principled, there’s a real failing there, and it arms the opposition. So, for example, in the runup to the Iraq war (which Mickey Kaus, to his credit, did not support), the neoliberal capitulation to the notion of the liberal media created the conditions where supposedly liberal institutions like the New York Times and the Atlantic could produce journalism that was comically credulous of the Bush administrations claims. That, in turn, helped pave the way for the war in Iraq. And so despite the skepticism from the fathers of neoliberalism towards the Iraq war, neoliberalism, in its default stance of surrender, ultimately bears some responsibility for Iraq nonetheless.
The point is not to declare any particular policy position or ideological evolution illegitimate, though I will argue forcefully about what direction I think is right for liberalism. The point is that we should foster a movement that, while constantly self-criticizing and wary of certainty and cocooning, is fundamentally proud and unapologetic about our moral and political philosophy. This is preferable as a matter of principle, and as a matter of pragmatics. We’ve seen the consequences of an ideological movement that is afraid of its own instincts and that is reflexively apologetic for embracing its own tradition. And those consequences are a movement, and a party, utterly disarmed in the most important political battles, political battles that (as we saw in the era of Bush) can have a devastating impact on our country and our world.