Friday, April 23, 2010

Ideological Generation Gaps

It’s my impression that there’s an important generational dynamic to the discussion about epistemic closure among conservative intellectuals: the younger the thinker, the more likely he is to think that his ideological comrades, particularly his older comrades, are closed-minded. Ross Douthat (b. 1979), for example, is more receptive to the idea than Ramesh Ponnuru (b. 1974), who's more receptive than Jonah Goldberg (b. 1969) who’s marginally more receptive than Mark Levin (b. 1957).

This, of course, is the worst sort of armchair sociology. But I won’t apologize for believing it because it makes some psychological sense. You’d expect younger thinkers anxious to make a name for themselves to experience an oedipal impatience with their ideological elders. If it exists, that impatience probably tends to counter the psychological and social pressures toward epistemological closure in an ideological community that I’ve discussed here, here and here.

The interesting thing is that I can’t detect any comparable generational dynamic among liberals. Can you think of any issue that has provoked a rebellion by a younger generation of liberal thinkers against their ideological elders? Is there any issue on which you’d reflexively expect a Jon Chait, a Matthew Yglesias or an Ezra Klein to take an appreciably different view than an E.J. Dionne or a Paul Krugman? If, like me, you can’t think of one, isn’t it a little strange that young liberals can’t muster up a respectable generation gap?

Here, for example, is the relatively young Peter Beinart (b. 1971), explaining why he’s undisturbed by liberalism’s dire electoral prospects in terms that would sound right coming from a current liberal writer of any age, or a liberal writing in 1948 (my emphasis):

“Yes, the Democrats are going to get throttled this fall. But Obama has had so much success that he can afford spending a little time playing defense. It’s a strange moment in Washington. With the stimulus bill and health-care reform now law, and serious financial regulation gaining momentum, Democrats are witnessing the greatest run of policy success of my lifetime. . . .

“When it comes to politics, however, an arena where Democrats were actually growing comfortable with success after the landslides of 2006 and 2008, things are ugly. President Obama’s approval ratings, which belly-flopped to less than 50 percent over the course of 2009, have been treading water there ever since. Despite some liberal wishful thinking, in fact, Obama and his party’s fortunes now look even worse than before health care passed. On April 12, Gallup recorded Obama’s lowest approval rating ever (47 percent). The next day, it reported that Republicans have opened up a lead in generic congressional balloting (“Which party’s candidate would you vote for if the midterms were held today?”). Intrade now predicts that Democrats will lose seven seats in the Senate and 36 in the House.

All of which makes me feel… pretty darn good.”
You can’t blame Beinart for being a little giddy over the election of Obama and the passage of ObamaCare. But is it really part of “the greatest run of policy success in [his] lifetime”? The jury is surely still out on whether ObamaCare will work according to Obama's standards by enabling the currently uninsured to secure affordable, high-quality healthcare at a sustainable social cost. I’m afraid that the jury has already come back with a mixed verdict at best on the macro-economic effectiveness of the stimulus bill. And financial regulation is still just a gleam in Chris Dodd’s eye.

What has Beinart and his generational cohort feeling so good is the fulfillment of fifty-year-old liberal policy aspirations. He’s confident that it will translate into effective public policy because he subscribes to public policy theories of roughly the same vintage. Maybe he’s right, but he still sounds like he's ruminating from the front porch of a liberal old folks’ home. Is that a sign of liberal open-mindedness?

No comments: