It’s become almost a staple of John Stewart to show clips of talking points working their way around the conservative political circles and into the conservative media, and finally into the broader culture. Talk about repetition: the entire rightwing establishment regularly rings out in unison in a 24 hour chorus leaving indelible echoes reverberating in our collective national ears.It's also a staple of Rush Limbaugh, with a different set of media establishment and Democratic spinmeisters repeating each other. Two examples are not proof. And the self-styled progressives already have George Lakoff offering advice on the choice of words. It's not the words, it's the ideas, or the lack thereof.
If the conservatives have been effective in using language to move people, the progressives have been failures.Contrary to what Mr. Atcheson asserts, it's not language intelligence that's missing, it may be any new ideas, whether properly framed or not.
Even leaving aside the popularity of fevered figures such as Noam Chomsky, one can point to a number of serious thinkers on the Left such as Michael Walzer, or John Rawls and his acolytes, or Rawls’ thoughtful critics on the Left such as Michael Sandel. However, the high degree of abstraction of these thinkers—their palpable distance from the real political and cultural debates of our time—is a reflection of the attenuation of contemporary liberalism. Whereas the left-liberal spectrum once had a vision of the good society based on large ideas accessible to the general public, today liberalism comes to sight more often as pure snobbery, a set of formal values adopted in place of serious political thought, perhaps best expressed in Thomas Franks’ unintentionally hilarious title What’s the Matter with Kansas? Franks wonders why lower and middle class voters align with Republicans when this is purportedly against their economic interests, without ever perceiving the irony of Upper East Side voters overwhelmingly choosing against the party that wants to reduce their income tax burden substantially purely as a cultural statement. Duh.Beverly Gage, who would like to have a set of ideas to frame, offers a plausible list of policy intellectuals.
In my Yale seminar on liberalism and conservatism, I try to assign some plausible candidates: Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr, Betty Friedan, Michael Harrington, Martin Luther King, John Kenneth Galbraith. Undoubtedly many people reading this essay can come up with alternatives, and register strong objections to any of the above. But liberals rarely ever have the conversation. Putting together the conservative side of the syllabus is always vastly easier than putting together the liberal one, in part because conservatives themselves have put so much time and energy into the selection process.If one sticks to economics, the Welfare Economics Paradigm is much more codified for teaching, whether in the latter chapters of Paul Samuelson's Principles, or in the successors to Musgrave and Musgrave's work on public finance. The foundations of libertarian and conservative political economy are nowhere near as well-packaged. The obsession with diversity and inclusiveness might militate against putting together such a reading list.
Nobody wants to return to an era in which politics and political ideas were dominated by a handful of white men, however thoughtful. Yet we rarely pause to consider what liberals have lost by neglecting a common intellectual heritage and by attempting to win political success without a political canon. At its best, a canon helps people put the pieces together, offering long-term goals and visions that sustain movements through periods of trial and defeat. Without those visions, liberals have no coherent way of explaining where we’re headed, or of measuring how far we’ve come.It doesn't have to be that difficult, there are a lot of newer scholars with the requisite genetics who are derivative disciples of Croly or of Marx.