A few data points for Jonah Goldberg

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.

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36 thoughts on “A few data points for Jonah Goldberg

  1. 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” from conservative circles amounts to little more than a tactical disagreement over how to handle the health care debate.

    It seems to me that Frum has deliberately chosen to put his project apart from the conservative media ecosystem. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly surprising that the conservative echo chamber, excuse me, ecosystem picked up on it.

    To me debates about ‘epistemic closure’ are pretty useless as a topic. Liberals respond ‘of course!’ Conservatives respond ‘You are too. Nothing to see here.’ Most others respond that both parties suffer from closure on different topics, but on balance, conservatives are in worse shape here (not surprising, since there are simply a lot more resources on the left through the colleges and universities for exploring and researching various ideas).

    All that said, I don’t have much use for Frum. Part of it is ideological. Part of it is his past conduct (demonization of Iraq war opponents). But mainly because he seems more interested in self-promotion and posturing as somehow better than ideas.

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  2. David Frum’s is one of the sharper guys of the modern (sort-of) mainstream Right, maybe even the sharpest. Unfortunately the FrumForum is mostly outside the conservative media ecosystem because neither he nor his contributors have a whole lot to say there. His overall electoral project is to recover the bobos others whose primary beef against the Right is social anxiety over associating with Palin, Hannity, Beck, etc. Unfortunately it’s difficult to address these things directly and Frum et al really don’t try to.

    As far as the Waterloo business goes, that was much more significant than a tactical disagreement. The GOP showed, for anybody who’s watching, that they represent the hope for prosperity and limited government inside the political Establishment. And of course, they almost defeated the bill itself on several occasions.

    AFAIK, there was nothing on offer from the other team worth conceding those things for.

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  3. one of my science teachers once told me not to bother measuring secondary effects if you could measure primary effects directly.

    On one level, therefore, conservative ideas have rarely had less epistemic closure — look at the health care bill (many conservative ideas), climate change (cap-and-trade vs. command-and-control), and financial reform (per Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Bob Corker has been intimately involved in drafting the bill [via Ezra Klein]).

    On a different level of analysis, though, the conservative movement is dead in the water. How do we balance our Medicare-ciad and military commitments with our tax revenues? What major policies should the next Republican president pursue?

    It seems pretty clear to me that conservatives can contribute ideas to liberal leadership, but has no leadership of its own.

    A final point: picking on JG is really shooting fish in a barrel. This man’s contribution to political thought is “Liberal Fascism”. His role in life is to beat up liberals and cheerlead conservatives. Original thinking is left to others.

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  4. The main point that everyone seems to miss is that epistemic closure is prevalent on right and left, period. There are broad, creative thinkers on the left and broad, creative thinkers on the right, but the base of both political parties representing right and left are close-minded and resistant to an innovative third way which is greater than a simple compromise between the two, but, rather, transcends the two closed, statist systems.

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      • @Will,

        Certainly the Iraq War is a much better example than Fox News and the other stuff Julian was talking about. In a lot of ways the Iraq War was the opposite of the health care battle. The liberal intelligentsia was largely opposed but the D’s political establishment had no opinion other than they shouldn’t suffer any adverse political consequences. The epistemic closure wasn’t something the GOP did as much as was done to them.

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  5. I’m not sure how to express this clearly, but I’m wondering if part of the problem here isn’t the need, particularly acute in America right now, people feel to define themselves as liberal or conservative, and thus to nail down all thoughts and beliefs they have as either “liberal” or “conservative”. It just seems like, if you begin addressing a problem with the thought that some ideas are “liberal” and others are “conservative” that you’ll suffer from “epistemic closure” as a matter of course.

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    • @Rufus,

      I have to say, I really don’t think there is anything like the positive valence for most liberals to the term or the group Liberal, as there is for conservatives to Conservative. Not even in the same league in my view.

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        • I mean, what’s your argument, Mike, that it just must logically hold that nothing other than a perfect symmetry could possibly be the empirical truth of this matter? (The matter I sense now being closed info loops rather than the valence of labels, which was not at all the point Rufus was making or that I was addressing. but if it is that point, then the same question holds.)

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          • @Michael Drew, I was thinking of it as valence, but it might be a matter of projecting onto others. It still strikes me as weird how easily seemingly random psychographic variables are grafted onto “liberal” and “conservative” in the US. I remember, at one point in the last election, reading a description of political indicators that was really just describing hobbies: i.e. snowmobiling vs windsailing, as if they were serious political issues. At some point, I absolutely expect to see candidates debating Coke v. Pepsi. But it’s not just politicians- the fact that they can mention something like snowmobiling and expect us to know whether it’s “liberal” or “conservative” is bizarre. So, maybe it’s just the mania for categorizing this way that bothers me, and which I assume would bleed over to potential answers to real problems.

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          • @Michael Drew,

            It’s just silly to criticize conservatives for calling themselves conservative — you could say they are more confident in their positions, and the liberals are trying to hide from their true identity — which certainly isn’t “liberal”, by the way — however, liberal now means being a left statist. I don’t know, it just seems like on this site, and on Sanchez’s site and others with a left tilt, there’s a desperate need to place the left above the right, yet the issues are never debated — it’s always some criticism which carefully avoids actual ideas. The left’s current direction is difficult to defend, I realize, but putting down conservatives doesn’t make them more acceptable. The left is trying to hide from criticism because they can’t defend their statist positions — wearing a pragmatist/centrist/barely-left mask doesn’t help. They should defend statism if that’s what they believe, yet they fake to the center and call the right radicals. It’s the dishonesty I can’t bear.

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      • @Michael Drew, FWIW, this seems like a pretty obviously correct point to me. You just don’t see left-of-center politicians scrambling to include the terms “liberal” or “progressive” in every single primary speech the way that seems to happen on the Right. Do they often try to “out-liberal” each other in the primaries? No doubt. But they don’t seem terribly concerned with proving that they are entitled to the label in anywhere near the manner that Republicans do. Some of this is because Reagan turned the word “liberal” into a dirty word, no doubt, but I’m specifically thinking here of primaries where you need to win over your party’s ideological base to get the nomination.

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  6. There’s one other which AFAIK has gone unremarked in this business about epistemic closure, and why IMO epistemic closure is a phenomenon on the Left.

    A lot of energy on the Left has to do with protecting people’s financial an social status against the torrents and blows of capitalism. And even if Marxism, social democracy or whatever is discredited, capitalism is a revolutionary force, whose powers can only be poorly controlled, if at all.

    At a very important level, it’s ridiculous to accuse the Right of epistemic closure. We’re closer to being guilty of the opposite, that we are taking chances we can’t hope to understand. For the other team, the “protection” they think they can offer in terms of the welfare state or whatever, it’s all fools’ gold as we’re finding out. But, there’s also a matter of self-delusion, ie, “epistemic closure” among the partisans of the Left that they can avoid the profound cultural changes coming along with capitalism if they avoid thinking about them. In particular, that the “good” things about economic development can be taken for granted and doled out to politically favored groups if the is enough political power and will to do it.

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  7. I’ve never heard anyone on the Right refer to David Frum, unless he was mentioned by someone on the Left. It’s not that he’s guilty of some recent apostasy; he has never been a prominent or even marginal force within conservatism.

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  8. If Iraq demonstrates epistemic closure in action… how did I miss Cato getting defenestrated? The Paleocons? John Derbyshire? Where do these guys have their cocktail parties now?

    I am not talking about a few loose cannons. I am talking about reasonably significant portions of “the right.”

    On the left, do you see anything even close to a Cato-sized faction setting itself up against, say, universal health care or the unions?

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  9. 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?

    Isn’t a more important question, ‘why were libertarians split on the war in 2003 in the first place?’

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        • @John Henry, Probably not, but liberals together with strong-defense conservatives have always been the ones who have gotten us into wars of foreign liberation, and they pay a historical price for it. It was perfectly within the liberal tradition for Yglesias to be in favor of that war (to be sure liberals have always been split on those types of actions as well). Perhaps I am simply misunderstanding libertarianism, but I would have thought projects to remake foreign societies were just as anathema as projects to remake ours. Which of course makes no guarantee about what Brink Lindsey’s position will be, but I would think it would suggest the movement shouldn’t “fairly be [able to be] described as split” on such questions. But perhaps I am wrong.

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  10. Goldberg: “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?”

    Goldberg is one of those people who would be annihilated if he encountered one tiny particle of truth; he’s anti-truth.

    First – “(and it wasn’t a defenestration — he jumped) “.
    When your employer says that you can keep your job, at zero pay, you’ve been fired. By that standard, if I yanked a support out from under somebody, their fall counts as a jump.

    Second: “Larry Summer’s fiasco at Harvard?”

    The man paid $25 million to cover a crony’s federal crimes, and then promoted the guy – and wasn’t fired then. He took Wall St money after helping to push deregulation through – and wasn’t fired then. He’s currently in a sweet gig in the Obama administration, and will undoubtedly make more Wall St cash.

    Where can I sign up for such persecution?

    Third – “Or the absurdity of the Skip Gates nonsense, also at Harvard?” Actually, in Cambridge. And this has been covered above.

    Fourth – “Or the riot of hatred aimed at Joe Lieberman?”

    Wow – f*ck over your base, and they’ll *************primary you***********. Is trying to keep Lieberman from the senate by lawful electoral means now count as an atrocity?

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