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The Need for Self-Criticism

September 29, 2012

I read somewhere that people tend to measure their wealth not in absolute terms, but by comparison with others. A family living in an affluent gated community may feel poor by comparison with yacht-owning, globe trotting neighbors. But plop that family down in an urban ghetto and their perception is likely to shift dramatically.

Politics is a bit like that. Although the temptation for liberals right now is smugness and complacency, our glowing self-image has more to do with our rivals’ lack of intellectual seriousness and credibility than with the intrinsic merits of liberalism. It’s easy to feel cosmopolitan when your point of reference is Sarah Palin, to feel brainy by comparison with George Bush, or to feel like a dedicated champion of the poor relative to Mitt Romney. In short, next to the wretched hag that is the modern conservative establishment liberals look like beauty queens. And yet according to our own narrative, the conservative establishment is in a death spiral. If that’s the case, the test of liberalism’s merits will soon come from other quarters within the conservative movement: from social conservatives like Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher and Mark Shea; from civil libertarians like Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald; and from distributists like John Medaille and Phillip Blond.

I don’t for a moment want to downplay the importance of debunking misinformation. The conservative establishment may not be intellectually serious, but it does have money and influence. For this reason, liberals have a responsibility to expose conservative deceptions, such as those buttressing Paul Ryan’s convention speech and Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story.

At the same time, my concern–underscored by this excellent post by Conor Friedersdorf on why he refuses to vote Obama–is that, in our quest to take down the conservative establishment, liberals are losing sight of the need for self-criticism. This is especially so with respect to civil liberties and foreign policy. We may not agree with Friedersdorf’s verdict on Obama (I for one don’t), but surely our guy is more than a little vulnerable to critiques of the drone war in Pakistan, the extrajudicial killing of American citizen, and the war in Libya.

As for economic issues, liberal policy wonks–notably Paul Krugman–have in general been good about critiquing the president. What they’ve failed to do is imagine alternatives to liberal policy prescriptions. Libertarianism may be a barren wasteland–but what is the liberal response to conservatives who shun big business and big government alike? Such conservatives are obviously in the minority and don’t play enough of a role in elections to receive widespread attention. But marginal status is not the same thing as non-existence and I hope that liberals will learn to recognize and respond to economic policy proposals more nuanced than trickle down.

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