Wednesday, April 06, 2005

For some inexplicable reason, lots of bloggers seem to have been moved to comment on David Brooks' recent, unimpressive New York Times column on the difference in divisiveness levels between the left and right. I'll grant that Brooks' column is correct in one respect: today's right is somewhat more fractious than the left--although decreasingly so, as the former gets more comfortable with its electoral dominance and corresponding political power. Brooks' characterization of that fractiousness, however, is completely wrong. Brooks believes that conservatives are politically more successful because "they enjoy big debates about public philosophy", whereas liberals don't.

This is ridiculous. Intellectuals enjoy big debates about public philosophy. There are intellectuals on both the left and the right, and neither group has helped its side's cause very much in the political arena. Winning politics isn't a matter of crafting a brilliantly coherent philosophy, but rather of crafting a marginally coherent coalition that's larger than the opponent's.

And that's where conservative fractiousness has helped. Conservatives, having been the minority side for something like half a century, eventually got hungry enough to incorporate many small factions who didn't necessarily agree with each other on much at all, except that they didn't like the ruling liberal coalition. One by one, as they attempted to peel groups of voters away from the left/Democrats/liberals, they engaged in spirited haggling over how much weight to grant the new group's agenda. This process continues, with the hot debates in conservative circles--immigration, federalism, fiscal discipline--centering on how much to offer relatively recently, tentatively recruited groups--Hispanics, libertarians, middle-class moderates--at the expense of the base--nativists, social conservatives, businesses.

Meanwhile, the left, as a recently-dominant faction now reduced to a minority, is too busy trying to contain the damage to think about such outreach moves. There's little disagreement among liberals because they're simply trying to protect the gains made by their core constituents during their years in power--gains that have long been a matter of internal consensus for them, and were until recently matters of national consensus as well. In their current state, they have no time, energy or inclination for jettisoning any of these consensus positions in return for some outside group's support. In effect, they've become a true "conservative" party--dedicated to preventing, as much as possible, a rollback of their cherished achievements.

This posture, although natural and understandable, is also a mistake. The sooner the left can think in terms of building a coalition out of disaffected anti-conservatives, rather than defending one consisting of embittered liberals, the sooner they will contend seriously for power against the right. That requires preparedness to give up some battles--even over traditional bedrock principles--as lost, if they're no longer politically viable. That's what conservatives did some time ago with their blanket opposition to government entitlements and racial equality, for example--and look at where they are now.

Of course, liberals will wake up, later if not sooner--the same process that (re-)created the modern conservative movement will ultimately recreate liberalism as well. But any liberal who's serious about challenging today's conservative political dominance had better hope--and act--for the awakening to begin soon.

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