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A week before his 2009 inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama chose as his first high-profile social engagement a dinner party at George Will’s house, where he was joined by William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. Obama no doubt intended to demonstrate his desire to reach across the ideological divide and engage his neoconservative critics in a healthy debate. Conservatives saw a president they could roll.
Part of the problem was Obama’s misplaced confidence that he could heal the divisions forged in the Bush era. A second complication arose from his unique position as the first African-American president. But the fundamental problem was a much deeper one that, in retrospect, has come to define US politics in the Obama era and remains the greatest obstacle to liberal progress.
The primary difference between liberalism and conservatism, at least in theory, is that the latter is an ideology and the former isn’t. Conservatism, as Milton Friedman argued, posits that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” Liberalism, however, as Lionel Trilling observed, “is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” And while John Kenneth Galbraith helpfully pointed out that only those programs and policies that honor “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of the term, liberalism, at bottom, is pragmatism. Conservatives desire low taxes and small government because this is how they define freedom. They like to pretend that liberals prefer the opposite in both cases, but the truth is that liberals are OK with whatever works.
Our political dysfunction has many sources, but one way to describe our problem is this: we have allowed conservatives to define the terms of debate at a time when conservatives have lost all sense of moral, intellectual and especially practical responsibility.
In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling famously complained that he could find “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” What we had instead were “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Conservatives subsequently invested a great deal of money to address this problem, and the result was the rise of a bevy of right-wing intellectuals—Friedman, James Q. Wilson, Alan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb among them—able to offer arguments that liberals ignored at their peril.