Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Two bloggers have now commented on phenomena subtly related to my recent post about the political victory of taxation-bashers. Mark Kleiman discusses a New York Times article analyzing the repeated failure of liberal efforts to match the success of conservative commentators in media such as talk radio and cable television. Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner asks why liberals often seem (to him, at least) so touchy about brickbats from across the ideological aisle, in comparison to conservatives.

My answer to both inquiries is the same: liberals have simply failed to acknowledge the political defeats they have suffered, let alone to begin to use that realization to help them regroup and counterattack. Believing that they are (still) the voice of common sense consensus, they often disdain opposition criticism as impudent carping from ignorant yahoos, and assume that their ideas are being rejected only because they lack of a sufficiently loud megaphone. Such attitudes betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the recent conservative insurgency in American politics.

Liberals like to portray conservative activists and commentators as ideologically dogmatic robots, a kind of brainwashed army of catechism-spouting aliens ("propaganda organs for the Republican Party", in the words of another blogger, "Hesiod"). Many of them are, of course, committedly partisan--as are many liberals--but careful examination of their tactics shows them to be far more agile and opportunistic than their liberal caricature would suggest. The populist firestorm of conservative support unleashed by talk radio was not generated by earnest students of Hayek or Oakeshott (or Ailes or Rove) repeating their holy writ into the microphone ad nauseam; Limbaugh et al. were in fact extremely astute about spotting and exploiting weaknesses in the underbelly of liberal conventional thinking that would arouse their listeners against a liberal "establishment".

Conservative commentators generally don't pay much attention to popular, moderate liberal proposals (in areas such as health care or education, for instance); in fact more often than not they'll back down and mute their opposition rather than engage on such issues, and move on to "red meat" issues ("affirmative action", crime and punishment, school prayer) where they see more opportunities for rallying support. This kind of pot-shot-taking is the mark of an "outsider" political movement attempting to weaken an established conventional wisdom; it implicitly recognizes that the public are not necessarily on their side by default. Only political alliances that are convinced (correctly or not) they have the public firmly in their corner dare dismiss their opponents and their criticisms as marginal and irrelevant.

Liberals used to understand this dynamic much better; in the wake of the 1994 Republican landslide, former president Clinton and his supporters were extremely adept at compromising where necessary (welfare reform being the obvious example) and carrying the battle to their opponents' turf where feasible. However, the political ground has shifted markedly since then. As I long ago explained, the current "liberal" consensus is for the most part the collection of opinions and values held by the upper-middle professional and upper classes, and that cohort understandably finds it difficult to make pragmatic concessions to its opponents in a heavily class-polarized political environment. (It also has understandable difficulty letting go of its perception of its own views as dominant in the country at large.)

That's unfortunate (from their point of view), because the growing success of conservative ideas and politicians is creating opportunities for creative liberals that are ripe for exploitation. The tax issue is obviously one; if the Wall Street Journal is really pining for the days when it still had lots of taxpayers to win over, then there must be plenty of political weaknesses in this unquestioned anti-tax consensus for liberals to poke at. To succeed, though, they'll have to give up their cherished belief that their opponents' ideas are crazy fringe opinions that can be brushed aside, and start treating them the way '80's conservatives treated liberalism: as a huge, crumbling edifice of popular, established conventions that needs to be undermined, one decayed platform plank at a time, until it collapses.

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