Monday, June 7, 2010

Ideological Learning Curves

This would be a real Jimmy Carter problem, if Obama actually has it. According to Victor Davis Hanson, we’re condemned to relive 1979, because the liberal community, especially its most prominent member in the White House, has never learned anything from Jimmy Carter’s mistakes (or from Woodrow Wilson's for that matter):

“About every 30-40 years, democratic citizenries begin to become complacent. They assume their defenses are unnecessary if not destabilizing, and take away from more needed social services and income redistribution. Deterrence and preparedness are assumed in turn the stone-age tools of unsophisticated mind. The peace that follows from past victories and postwar deterrence is considered artificial, and can instead grow far more organically from professed good intentions and signs of magnanimity, if not apology. Philosopher kings assure the world of a new age to come, one in which a new human nature replaces the old Neanderthal pessimism. Slogans that “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” “yes, we can,” “this is the moment,” and so on usher in the new golden age, free of nukes and war itself.

“Carter’s Christian self-righteousness was simply a religious variant on Wilson’s academic haughtiness; Obama’s elite condescension—human nature can be uplifted and changed if it follows the exalted behavior of our president—is a mixture of Chicago activism and the hothouse of academia.

“Again, remember 1979. I imagine that, like Carter, Obama will begin scrambling to restore deterrence, since the alternative would mean the end of his plans for amnesty, cap and trade and more expansion of the social welfare state. So expect a sudden tough line with Korea, more warnings to Iran, and in general some Carter-like posturing to make up for lost time.”

“We are in a very dangerous age indeed.”
I don’t expect liberals to be impressed by this standard conservative boilerplate. But the fact that it rolls so easily off conservative tongues points to an interesting difference between ideological etiquette in the conservative and liberal communities.

Conservatives aren’t shy about pointing to their ideological comrades’ mistakes. George W. Bush defended his neo-conservative policies in the Middle East, for example, by criticizing the foreign policy realism of earlier Republican administrations, including his father’s. Moreover, conservative opinion-makers of the stature of William F. Buckley and George Will turned against the Iraq war before a lot of liberals without impugning their ideological credentials among other conservatives. You might think that this just shows that conservatives have been getting stupider over the years. Maybe so, but it would never occur to anyone to say that George Bush reenacted his father’s foreign policy mistakes, or that his father reenacted Ronald Reagan’s or that Reagan reenacted Richard Nixon’s.

That charge is more plausible with respect to Obama because he makes a practice of not distinguishing himself vividly from earlier Democratic presidents. Off the top of my head I can’t recall a single instance of anyone in the Obama administration or Democratic congressional leadership saying anything of the form: we liberals used to think that X was a good foreign policy approach, but found when we tried it during the Carter or the Clinton years that it didn’t work so now we favor Y. I don’t doubt that liberals sometimes think such things—how could they not? But it's my sense that saying so out loud is regarded in liberal circles as bad form and a sign of ideological unreliability. That makes it look like there’s no liberal learning curve on foreign policy.

Maybe this is just a misimpression on my part—if there are impressive counter-examples, I'd love to hear about them. But, if my impression is accurate, what explains this difference between conservatives and liberals?

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