Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Did Liberals Become the Guardians of Public Morals?

It’s not so much what Andrew Sullivan says in this post that fascinates me, as what he evidently doesn’t think needs saying:
“‘At what point do we decide that a political system has become decadent?’ EJ Dionne takes the Weiner ‘scandal’ as the moment he realized we were late imperial Rome. PM Carpenter takes the Bush vs Gore Supreme Court ruling. Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress's assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008.”
Notice that Sullivan presumes that the proposition that “we have a decadent political system” is too obvious to require elaboration, much less a defense. As far as he’s concerned, the interesting question isn’t whether we’re politically decadent, but when the evidence of our decadence became dispositive. That our political culture is corrupt enough to undermine our political institutions is an article of simple common sense.

But "common sense" isn’t a simple cultural phenomenon. To whom is the perception of our political decadence common? Not to the many people who think that Weinergate is worthy of their attention, that Bush was the legitimate occupant of the White House, that waterboarding needn’t be torture or that Palin is worth listening to. I believe Sullivan when he calls himself a conservative in the tradition of Burke and Oakeshott. But the references to E.J. Dionne and P.M. Carpenter don’t leave much doubt that Sullivan’s sense of our political decadence is something he holds in common with the community of liberals.

I don’t have much of anything to say on the merits of the thesis that we're politically decadent, but I can’t help being impressed by the fact that liberals are the ones saying it most insistently. For someone of my generation, that’s a dizzying ideological role-reversal. The idea that we’re going to hell in a hand basket owing to the decline of civic virtue used to be a motif, not of liberal progressivism, but of conservative reaction.

When I was coming of age politically, no self-respecting left-of-center ideologue cared much about the state of public morals or invoked it as an independent variable in the explanation of political things. If democratic majorities did things we disapproved of, we chalked it up to structural bias in the operation of our political institutions. The decaying system of civic morality was just the cultural part of a political system that stood in need of repair. We progressives enjoyed hearing conservatives lament the decline of civic virtue because we regarded it as a symptom of political progress.

What does it say about the present state of liberalism that liberals are now the moral scolds in our politics?  I suppose you could interpret it as a welcome sign that liberals have woken up to the conservative insight that culture in general, and republican virtue in particular, is politically important just when the people we now call "conservatives" are forgetting it.  That's probably how Sullivan interprets it.  But to this aging (and perpetually perplexed) liberal it looks more like a manifestation of the dawning recognition in liberal circles that we're not the progressives playing offense in our politics we still thought we were in 2008.

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