Media criticism is often the last refuge of lazy bloggers, so I’ve tried manfully to avoid chiming in on the debate over “epistemic closure” and the conservative movement. But I can resist no longer; Jonah Goldberg has dragged me in. Goldberg asks:
Noah Millman has a long post in response to Sanchez as well. He has many interesting insights and hypotheses in it about why the American right is close-minded today compared to the left. But as near as I can tell, Noah simply asserts that this is so. Where is the data to back this up? Maybe my experience is far, far more of an exception to the rule than I can imagine, but it still seems to me that liberalism is far more shot through with political correctness and intellectual taboos than the right. I’m really trying to let David Frum’s self-serving version of events fade away, but even if his biggest defenders are right, is he really the only data point so many smart people need to support the closed-conservative-mind thesis? I mean because of this anecdote we have to hear about the right’s “epistemic closure”? Does the Frumian defenestration (and it wasn’t a defenestration — he jumped) really outweigh the Larry Summer’s fiasco at Harvard? Or the absurdity of the Skip Gates nonsense, also at Harvard? Or the riot of hatred aimed at Joe Lieberman?
Leaving aside the question of what getting arrested by the Cambridge PD has to do with ideological close-mindedness, I think it’s worth noting that an academic dispute and Lieberman’s political ostracism say very little about the intellectual state of American liberalism. Harvard’s faculty is not a microcosm of the American Left. Lieberman faced a primary challenge because Democratic voters wanted a more liberal senator, but this hardly means that the liberal intelligentsia is now inhospitable to hawkish intellectuals. If nothing else, the intramural debates over whether to stay in Afghanistan demonstrate that interventionists retain a great deal of influence in Democratic Party circles. Goldberg willfully conflates liberal politics – which provides endless examples of mindless partisanship – with the state of the liberal intellectual and policy-making apparatus.
As for data points in favor of the “conservatives are close-minded” thesis, here are two that turned this fellow-traveler off movement conservatism for good.
Goldberg mentions David Frum’s departure from the American Enterprise Institute, which I won’t get into because I have no idea what actually happened. A more telling point is the relative isolation of Frum’s new project, which remains almost completely detached from the larger conservative media ecosystem. Frum’s defenders have noted that his so-called “apostasy” amounts to little more than a tactical disagreement over how to handle the health care debate. Frum’s site promotes authors who only differ from movement conservatives on framing and a few small-bore political reforms. Despite these trivial differences, you’d be hard-pressed to find Frum or his website mentioned in anything but the most derisive terms on the larger conservative blogs and websites. The conservative movement, in other words, can’t accommodate a purely tactical disagreement within its own ranks without resorting to accusations of selling out to the “Georgetown cocktail circuit” or whatever.
The more important example of movement close-mindedness, however, is the war. Compared to the conservative movement’s knee-jerk support for invading and occupying Iraq, Lieberman’s primary challenge and a Harvard faculty dispute are simply trivial matters. In a telling interview, Brink Lindsey compared his growing disillusionment with the invasion to the simultaneous hardening of conservative opinion around Bush’s foreign policy. Why did libertarians like Lindsey – who can fairly be described as split over the war in 2003 – turn against Iraq while their conservative counterparts held fast? Libertarian thinkers certainly weren’t privy to secret information about the occupation. They were, however, outside the movement bubble and therefore willing to reconsider their views without resorting to a crazy counter-narrative of liberal media bias and selective reporting that so many conservatives clung to while Iraq went down in flames. This response has always been the most damning indictment of the intellectual state of movement conservatism, and I really think it’s the only data point Goldberg needs to consider.