John Quiggin follows up his earlier posts, in which he argued that conservatism, particularly in the United States, relies on spreading ignorance, asking whether there are examples of the left doing something like the same thing. As one example, he links to a bloggingheads between David Frum and Jonah Goldberg (both of them rightwing pundits), which he characterizes as the former reducing the latter “to a stammering wreck.” The implication is that Jonah Goldberg characterizes the ignorant part of the right (almost certainly true), but that David Frum is rational, someone the left could work with.
So, here is a tendency I see on the left that bothers me (I admit that in many regards, it is something I see to my left, but I hope the fact that I am criticizing from the right will not cause my comments to be automatically dismissed): The idea that policy can be determined by neutral parties, and that it doesn't matter which party exercises power and puts policy into practice. (Actually, I believe there are conservatives, as well as left-liberals and centrists, who hold to this theory.) This is what seems to lie behind some Crooked Timber members’ attempts to engage with the right (but to be honest, at these times I often have no idea what they’re trying to do)—if a policy is correct, get it implemented and accepted by whatever means you can, and what does it matter who ends up taking care of it? If the United States is a center-right country—which I don’t believe is true, especially given current definitions of “left” and “right”—but which is fairly well accepted by many—maybe even liberal academics and policy makers mostly ought to pander to the rightwing.
However, look at this post from Paul Krugman. He cites cases where people on the right appear to be acting in ways that support this idea—that they believe the same things liberals do—when in reality they absolutely refuse to acknowledge any part of it. They assume, definitionally, that all reason is on the right, with the GOP. They pretend that the relation between the GOP and the left can be usefully compared to the relation between adults and children. They assume that individuals who vote Republican and identify with rightwing, conservative policies are more competent than people who vote Democrat and identify with leftwing or progressive policies. That is an assumption that is very hard to prove. Most people (Democrats included) automatically assume people they dislike have beliefs they dislike, so, for example, if they have an employee who seems like a slacker, they might assume he is a leftwing Democrat who’s never stepped foot in a church or a synagogue. But I am pretty sure there are plenty of incompetent people who are politically on the right, and personally impeccable from a moral or ethical point of view—everyone knows someone who ignores any and all criticism, because they are very certain they are very good.
(Moreover, that “slacker” may well be a Republican who views his boss as a kind of nanny-state liberal. And making allowances for generations, the slacker’s view may be correct.)
Theorists on the right argue constantly that culture matters. On the left, the response is usually to concede that culture matters, taking the argument to be a natural support for multiculturalism. The left’s response ignores what the right is actually arguing: that the left takes insufficient note of the fact that culture matters. By conceding, and shifting the debate to specific points at which culture matters, the left largely loses its ability to defend itself. Instead, they end up making the right’s points for them, inch by inch. The line between the partisan and the neutral is set much, much too far over to one side (so that it includes, for example, arguments that conservative kinds of culture matter and that Enlightenment modes of thought are incapable of doing justice to these kinds of culture). Even George Lakoff, in my opinion, for all his talk about the need for progressives to frame situations for themselves, falls into this trap.
On the CT comment thread, NomadUK complains that the facts are “forc[ing him or her] to cheer for David Frum.” But here's one possible scenario for American politics: The Jonahs get control of the GOP, and the result is that they discredit it along with its policies. Good for the left (in the long run).
Here's another scenario: The support of the Davids keeps the GOP intact as is with the Jonahs in it, suppressing some of their policies but putting the rest into law. Well, could be worse. But in order to accomplish this, most plausibly, the Davids give the Jonahs free reign in the media. As a result, the Jonahs feel like they've won even with regard to the policies that were supposedly suppressed.
Finally, here's yet another scenario: The GOP makes an alliance with the rightmost wing of the Democrats—an across-the-aisle alliance, not a new party—maybe even with those a little farther to the left but committed to centrist politics—in order to squeeze out the Jonahs and what Quiggin has been calling the irrationalist right. Since David Frum's "New Majority" site actually appeared, this has looked increasingly plausible. But then, I think, they would have to abandon their knee-jerk support for whatever calls itself "conservative" regardless of what the concept means to those they're supporting, and this seems less and less plausible as time goes on. I worry they will hold on to whatever comes along as long as it promises “old school” thinking and all that, and if Jonah Goldberg is an example of that “whatever,” it is not promising.
None of these possibilities make me want to "cheer for David Frum." None of them is inevitable and none of them simply describes the status quo. They are scenarios in which the irrationalist right gains a lot more power and public influence than it has now. And they seem fairly likely so long as the neoliberal Democrats of the center-left think that across-the-aisle alliance with the GOP is no more than what reason demands.