The outrage in Arizona has sparked another cycle of mutual recriminations between liberals and conservatives that points up what seems to be a growing chasm running through our political culture. Each side sees itself as faithful to good old American principles, and sees the other side as tending (at least) towards a dangerous extremism.
It is remarkable how difficult it is to have a calm, polite discussion on anything connected with politics. Evidently there are a lot of already hurt feelings on both (or all) sides – people feeling they are habitually misunderstood and maligned.
This, I have to admit is my case. The difficulty with any form of intellectually-developed conservatism is that the intellectual mainstream, which is fundamentally liberal feels very confident and within its rights in dismissing any view that does not share its fundamental assumptions as discredited, “un-intellectual,” moronic. (By “mainstream” I don’t mean , say, opinions of the majority of Americans. I mean the dominant paradigm(s) of the more articulate classes that dominate in higher education and, yes, the “mainstream media.” Most of the time these paradigms are invisible because, well, they’re paradigms, and generally unquestioned. Thus: there are stupid people associated with the Tea Party, or there are stupid things Glen Beck has said, and therefore it’s clear we don’t need to take seriously people who are alarmed about the growth of government.
How would I define the essence of this mainstream? Well, that’s the kind of long question that is hard to include in a blog comment or post, but let’s start with this: the liberal mainstream takes it to be obvious that government is a “secular matter,” not deeply connected to religious beliefs or “personal” morality, and that “democracy” is, let’s say, autonomous, self-grounding, just a tool for securing personal freedom and some degree of economic security that people work out collectively, pragmatically. In a word: freedom is a good independent of “virtue,” or of any goods higher or deeper, more authoritative than that of individual freedom itself. The conservative intellectual position (or the one that interests me – you can see I’m not at all a libertarian) holds instead that liberal democracy necessarily draws upon moral/ religious reserves that it does not itself create. Freedom is not good — in fact, it’s not, finally, even thinkable, when severed from virtue. That, in shorthand, is what is at stake in every fundamental political question that we face.
Of course people within both paradigms disagree with those holding the others. Liberals tend to dismiss conservative assumptions, and conservatives tend just as much to dismiss liberal assumptions. But actually I believe there is an asymmetry, and it is this asymmetry, I confess most abjectly, that can make me a little grouchy. Unlearned conservatives tend straightforwardly to reject liberal assumptions, when they can see them, as immoral, impious, contrary to divine writ, or whatever. This is not, in turns out, the most effective way to invite careful discussion and deliberation. But liberals tend to dismiss conservative assumptions as … well, just stupid, unsophisticated, intellectually groundless. That is, liberals enjoy a deep sense of being supported by the dominant intellectual mainstream, and they take it to be obvious that conservatives are just stupid.
Of course many conservatives are just stupid, because many people are just stupid. And even more people are just stupid when they are passionate politically. I don’t know if I could get you to agree at the outset that, yes, many conservatives are stupid and many liberals are stupid – and that we don’t make much progress just invoking again and again the stupid positions that can be found on each side. But here is the asymmetry: liberals are very confident that conservatism itself is just stupid, whereas ordinary conservative folk (not me, it goes without saying J) are worried that liberals are smarter than they are, that the liberal mainstream is in possession of some sophistication that goes along with higher degrees (the universities being flagrantly dominated by left-liberalism) and media-cultural prominence. Conservatives often lack the intellectual resources to understand the contestability of liberal assumptions, but liberals think that every educated person knows that conservative assumptions are just a relic of past prejudices.
Of course I think, and I can argue (and have argued in pages that won’t fit here), that a deeper intellectual investigation exposes the frailty of liberal assumptions and opens the possibility of deep articulations of more conservative premises. But you don’t need to agree with me to see the asymmetry I’m trying to explain. I suppose, though, that if you think what I propose re. deeply intellectual conservatism is impossible, then you must think that stupid conservatives are truly representative of conservatism, whereas stupid liberalism is just an aberration.
Do I think liberalism is stupid? Well, I observe that it can be stupid. But there are smart and good liberals, and their smartness and goodness sometimes shines through their impatience with the stupidity of conservatism. But yes, I indeed think liberalism, even at the highest (or deepest) level, is over-confident, complacent, and therefore blind and, yes, even dangerous. By highest levels, I might mean someone like John Rawls, or Richard Rorty (OK, they’re dead now, but they’re still pretty alive), but if you wish I could go back through JS Mill to Locke and to the foundations of liberal individualism in Hobbes. But you don’t wish.
(By the way: if you think liberalism arises not from such theorists but from Protestant freedom of conscience or from pragmatic social learning, I think you end up in the same place, that is, with some delusion of a neutral public space and of unmediated individualism).
So, of course, we can go on endlessly pointing out some conservatives who are smarter than some liberals, or some liberals who are smarter than some conservatives – but really, the question is, what would the very smartest position be, more like the basic liberal assumptions, or more like the conservative. I think the latter, but of course I recognize smart people can disagree. But let’s just try to be clearer what we’re disagreeing about. But to do so we would have to navigate around the asymmetry I’ve described. Liberal condescension will eventually destroy itself, since it cannot know itself; but it threatens to take down the sound practice of liberal democracy with it. So liberalism is more than ever the enemy of liberty.