Brian Morton, a fine novelist and engaging public intellectual, recently tweeted: “Leftists should stop sneering at @ezraklein. If we’d had liberal policy wonks as solid as Klein in the 1970s neoconservatism would never have attained the stature that it did. It would have been intellectually checkmated.” These tweets elicited some responses from me and a few other interested parties but my thoughts on this are a bit more complex than can easily be fitted into 140 characters, so I’m posting a longer argument here.
I understand the impulse behind Brian’s tweets. One of the most heartening developments in recent American politics is the emergence of a generation of passionate young left and liberal writers who have been very effective in challenging the lazy hegemony of conservatism that has dominated elite opinion since the 1970s. Ezra Klein is a convenient synecdoche for this generation. To see him go after blowhards like David Brooks or Bob Woodward is a rare example of a witnessing a salutary public service that is also bracing and delightful.
But aside from Klein there are many other young and youngish writers who have a similar profile. Off the top of my head there’s Matthew Yglesias, Lindsay Beyerstein, Chris Hayes, Alyssa Rosenberg, Adam Serwer, and Jamelle Bouie. But again, as with Klein, these are symptomatic names, not exhaustive but a wedge indicating a much larger generation or cohort.
All of these writers are 1) young 2) liberal or further to the left 3) adept at dismantling conservative ideas 4) comfortable at arguing policy and politics at the level of fairly detailed wonkery (this is even true of Rosenberg who mainly writes on culture, but does so with a knowingness about technological context typically described as geeky, the aesthetic counterpart to policy wonkishness) and finally 5) very successful at expressing themselves on new platforms such as blogs, twitter, etc. (I should add that there’s also another cohort of superb writers even further to the left, found in publications like Jacobin, The New Inquiry, and N+1).
This cohort of writers is doing wonderful things and certainly present a stronger journalistic challenge to neo-conservatism than anything we’ve seen in the past few decades. But I don’t think the problem with generations of liberal and leftist writers was that they lacked the wonkish chops of the kids today.
A bit of history is in order: the neo-conservative ascendancy in American policy making began in the late 1960s and had two main wings. The more intellectually respectable wing consisted of the critique of the social welfare state made in the pages of The Public Interest by writers like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer. Less brainy but still influential was the foreign policy wing of neo-conservatism, located in Commentary magazine’s attempt to revive hawkish Cold War policies in the teeth of the Viet Nam debacle and the policy of Détente.
The ideas of both domestic and foreign policy neo-conservatives did not go uncontested, and were in fact consistently challenged by very well briefed liberal and left intellectuals. Michael Harrington, although now remembered as a general interest socialist intellectual, was no slouch when it came to going into the wonky details of social welfare policy. He could more than hold his own against such neo-con heavyweights Kristol and Nathan Glazer in any discussion of the welfare state. (Worth looking up in this regard is Harrington’s devastating review of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: “Crunched Numbers: Charles Murray’s Stunted Statistics,” New Republic, 28 January 1985).
In the foreign policy realm, there were any number of cogent critiques of neo-conservative militarism, ranging from conservative realists like George Kennan to left intellectuals such as Walter LaFeber. In the 1970s, publications like the Village Voice presented a lively and aggressive left critique of American politics (best exemplified by Alexander Cockburn’s slashing media criticism). Further, while the New Republic of that era is sometimes remembered as being a fellow-traveler of neo-conservatism, the magazine did in fact publish many forceful and convincing critiques of right-wing ideas. Hendrik Hertzberg alone deserves to be counted as one of America’s great liberal polemicists, a worthy forerunner to Ezra Klein.
I’m perhaps speaking for my own political prejudices but intellectually speaking there was always a strong case against neo-conservatism. And it was undeniably made by sharp-witted writers who could wend their way through the wonkish thickets.
If neo-conservative ideas triumphed in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t because of the lack of convincing alternatives from either liberals or leftist. Rather, I think structural and institutional factors were paramount. The Democrats were in disarray in the 1970s and 1980s because the old New Deal coalition was falling apart but the newer coalition (of minorities, social liberals and the well-educated) hadn’t fully coalesced. This created an opening for the GOP (working with conservative Dems) to dominate American politics. Naturally the Republicans turned to the neo-cons as a storehouse of ideas. The political victories of the GOP were amplified in intellectual life by the success of think tank entrepreneurs such as Irving Kristol and William Simon, who used ample funds provided by the business elite to spread the neo-conservative message far and wide.
The success of the neo-conservatives in building an infrastructure was met with a counter-thrust by liberals like Paul Starr and Robert Kuttner, who created The American Prospect in 1990 as progressive alternative to The Public Interest. I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the Ezra Klein generation of writers emerged out of either The American Prospect or its online allies.
My argument is perhaps a too familiar Marxist one: structures and institutions set the parameter under which individuals operate. Since neo-conservatism emerged in the late 1960s, it always faced a strong opposition from liberals and leftists. But that opposition could only carry weight when it had institutional strength and also worked under a more congenial political atmosphere. It’s simply much easier to be a liberal policy wonk when Obama is in power than during the Reagan years. (There is perhaps a technological factor at work here too: blogging has given the Klein cohort a far larger audience than they would have found in the era of small magazines). Or to paraphrase the hoary old Marxist truth: people make history, but not under the conditions of their choosing.