I’ve been rereading Lionel Trilling lately. I’ve long been a fan of his unique ability to write a meandering essay that nonetheless feels as though it has a singular focus.
In any event, a recent editorial by Matt Franck in the Washington Post made me think of Trilling.
Franck surveys the many ways in which proponents of gay marriage and other progressive social causes ignore the arguments made by conservatives, falling back on the assertion that resistance is based on “hate.”
And not just in matters of sexual liberation. Liberals and progressives tend to approach questions of economic policy with the assumption that those who oppose them are motivated by greed or are simply reflecting “special interests.” It’s as if they can’t imagine (or refuse to imagine) any reasons for conservative economic policy based on a cogent political philosophy or a vision of the common good.
Which brings me back to Trilling. At the outset of his most famous book, The Liberal Imagination (1950), Trilling makes a bald statement about the liberal monopoly on critical thinking. “In the United State at this time,” he wrote, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is a plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
There was, of course, a conservative sentiment in post-War American that remained quite strong, even predominant, as the election of Eisenhower would demonstrate. This Trilling knew. “But,” he continued. “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse 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.”
I’ve always liked that sentence, which is justly famous, and turns out to be very relevant today—except that it’s the liberals who, when faced with counter-arguments, resort to irritable mental gestures of the sort that Matt Franck identifies.
At this point the legacy of liberal dominance gives progressives control over many important institutions—media, foundations, universities—and they are quite willing to use this control to ruthlessly exclude conservatives. (Who, after all, would want to hire someone motivated by nothing more than “hate” and “greed”?) But in my experience liberals find it difficult to reckon with reasoned opposition. So, sixty years after Trilling published The Liberal Imagination, the tables seemed to have turned. Liberalism is certainly capable of generating lots of ideas, as a look at publishers’ catalogues indicated, but is in nonetheless the old, complacent, and established mentality, one that has gone stale.
By my reckoning, we are living in the mirror image of the 1950s. Then a conservative social outlook seemed predominant, but in retrospect we can see that it was brittle and ready to break. Today, most people conform to what seems like a permanent liberal consensus, but irritable mental gestures suggest a similar fragility.
Perhaps the next decade will be a mirror image of the 1960s. I hope so.