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Conor, you got my wheels turning this morning with two competing posts at the Dish. In the first, you continue your longstanding criticism of Mark Levin as a prisoner of Manichean thinking. By viewing American politics as a permanent throwdown between the forces of liberty and their opponents, you say, Levin makes the mistake of assuming that “today’s liberals are fundamentally driven by Statism, whereas actually what motivates most of them is a substantially different project.” Later in the same post, you seem to use liberal and progressive interchangeably — about which more in a moment.
In the second post, you hint that if liberty vs. tyranny is the wrong way to frame our ruling political conflict, rule by citizens vs. rule by elites might be the right one. And you end with the right provocation:
Here’s one succinct way to put the question to Tea Party leaders: if we’re choosing our ruling class the wrong way now, what alternative do you recommend?
My answer would begin with Tim Carney’s latest for the Examiner: “The Republican Divide: K Street vs. the Tea Partiers.” Tim lays bare the nature of the divide, which is more profound than mere politics:
Lott’s proposed co-opting is not primarily ideological — Norton and Grayson, and their inside-the-Beltway patrons are all fairly conservative. The main distinction between Team Lott and Team DeMint might have less to do with policy platforms and more to do with a politician’s attitude toward the Washington nexus of power and money.
I think it’s consistent with the intuitions and judgments powering the tea parties to answer your pregnant question like this: it’s not that we’re choosing our ruling class the wrong way; it’s that our ruling class is the wrong kind of people. They have the wrong character, the wrong disposition, the wrong objectives, the wrong — values. The problem isn’t that ‘politics is broken’. That’s a symptom of the real problem, which is that the ruling culture of our ruling elites is broken.
If that’s right, how did we get here?
The answer takes us back to the difference between liberalism and progressivism. Those who would remind us of this difference range from Claire “I’m a liberal” Berlinski to avowed lefty liberal public intellectual Alan Wolfe. As I wrote in my American Spectator review of Wolfe’s revealing book The Future of Liberalism,
Wolfe recognizes that liberalism is most threatened today not by boring conservatism but by fashionable progressivism, in its twin emotional and scientific strains. This is true in spite of his parallel claim that, with “communism now dead and socialism on the defensive, ideology is more likely to make an appearance from the right, whether in the form of free market utopianism or unrealistic hopes in what military power can achieve.”
[…] Wolfe distinguishes between the ideology of big-L Liberalism, which conservatives uniformly oppose, and the political philosophy of small-l liberalism, which conservatives criticize as friends. As Harvey Mansfield has persuasively argued, conservatism is the political philosophy that best cures liberalism from its own defects. It is a refinement of liberalism, not an alternative to it.
[…] This refined element is of great significance to conservatives. It teaches them how to be better critics of the left by showing that progressivism seeks to capture liberalism entirely and cleanse it of any and all conservative wisdom. Progressivism tempts liberalism with a paradoxical vision of perfection—perfect progress, so perfect that it is perfectly immune to criticism. For Wolfe, “progressivism’s firm insistence that it knows what is right conflicts with temperamental liberalism’s lack of certainty, and its preference for ends undermines procedural liberalism’s respect for means.”
This is true, but Wolfe then blames the progressive ethos on the necessary evil of government. “The curse the state visits upon liberalism,” he claims, “is Progressivism.” But political progressivism, as he by then has already established, isn’t the great threat to liberalism today. It’s antipolitical progressivism—in the forms of emotivism, for which politics is incidental to the insistence that all demands and desires be recognized as rights, and scientism, which frees us “from a supernatural power” only to make us “enslaved to a natural one.”
In a philosophical project all conservatives should support, Wolfe’s liberalism rejects the progressivist proposition that we have no choice but to accept the raw, unbounded power of our beastly desires and our ever-more-godlike power to appease them.
You’re right to want to probe deeper than the truism that statism appeals to liberals for political reasons. But doing so reveals that progressivism appeals to liberals — both liberal elites and everyday liberals — for cultural reasons. And progressivism tells liberal elites that the practice of politics is an obstacle to perfecting liberal culture. As Bill Voegeli’s remarks suggest, if elites with a more conservative philosophy are vulnerable to a different set of temptations, they’re much less susceptible to this one. The issue is simple: what is the foundation of that more conservative philosophy? What are the principles that fuel the right culture among conservative elites?
The central philosophical proposition of the tea parties is that the Republican Party establishment has too many elites who have become untethered from those principles and have been born and raised in the wrong culture of elitehood. Whether by coincidence or for some other reason, this organizing conviction resonates extremely powerfully with the contention that the central conflict in American politics is between those who see political liberty as our most precious possession and those who see political liberty as an outdated obstacle to true justice and flourishing.
From the standpoint of the lover of liberty, there is a punchy and potent shorthand for that conflict ready to hand: liberty vs. tyranny. That’s a slogan that must be unpacked, to be sure. But is it — to use your phrase — “almost completely useless?” I report, you decide.