Friday, February 19, 2010

Controlling the Narrative vs. Being Right

Responding to Reihan Salam’s suggestion that liberal pundits spend too much time setting up and knocking down straw men, Kevin Drum reflects on the different relation between intellectuals and activists in the conservative and liberal communities (my emphasis):

"[I]n the real world . . . nuanced and moderate [conservative] thinkers have virtually no influence. Among actual politicians and high-profile yakkers, it's nearly unanimously held that, for example, the stimulus had no positive effect on the economy; that tax cuts always increase revenues; that Europeans all have poorer healthcare than Americans; and that man-made global warming is a delusion. . . . [Conservative intellectuals] may hold more careful views, but the vast bulk of the conservative movement simply doesn't. And that's the reality of the world that liberals have to deal with. . . .

"I wonder if there's something similar on the liberal side of the aisle. Are there hot button issues on which the Kevin Drums and Jon Chaits of the world hold moderate, techno-googoo views, but on which elected politicians and bigfoot TV pundits unanimously insist on extreme, lockstep views? . . . No important issue comes to mind in which the liberal think tank community holds a lively and diverse set of opinions but actual liberal politicians unanimously maintain a death grip on some extreme, base-pleasing position."
Assume, for present purposes, that Kevin’s impressions are accurate. He clearly thinks that the gap between the nuanced views of the conservative commentariat and the simplistic fictions embraced by movement conservatives reflects badly on the intellectual state of movement conservatism. Movement liberalism is intellectually superior to its conservative counterpart, he suggests, because the liberal commentariat exerts more influence on liberal activists than its conservative counterpart exerts on conservative activists.

That’s one way of looking at things. But you might look that the same facts assuming that intellectual influence flows in the opposite direction. On that assumption, the fact that the liberal commentariat doesn’t “hold more careful views” than run of the mill liberal activists reflects badly on the intellectual state of the liberal commentariat. Isn’t it an intellectual scandal that pundits, having nothing better to do than to think through complicated issues of public policy, don’t hold much more nuanced views than their activist comrades?

Which inference you draw from Kevin's facts will depend on how you understand the job of a political pundit. You might think that a pundit’s just another activist who wields ideas as political weapons instead of money, organizing energy and votes. If so, the pundit's job is to seize control of the political narrative by hook or by crook.  That seems to be Kevin’s view. Otherwise he wouldn’t have concluded that the sad intellectual state of movement conservatism defines “the world that [the liberal commentariat has] to deal with.” That also seems to be the view of Matt Yglesias and Jon Chait.

You’ll reach a different answer if you think that political pundits should be in the business of coming to the right answer to politically contested questions. On that assumption, it makes no sense for a pundit to waste scarce time rebutting the crude fictions of activists when he could be matching his views up against the best views the opposition has to offer. That's the assumption, I think, underlying Reihan Salam’s view.

Wouldn't liberalism be in better intellectual shape if more smart liberal pundits took that view?

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