why liberals should read smart conservatives

Liberals should read smart conservatives not because they need to be convinced by conservative arguments — though let’s face it, sometimes they do — but rather because conservatives frame issues differently than liberals do. They describe the conditions of history, and the circumstances of our debates, in a language that’s strange to liberals. And dealing with these alternative framings can be very clarifying indeed. 

An example: in The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties Christopher Caldwell argues that the grief over the assassination of President Kennedy led to more sweeping legislation than JFK himself would have dared to pursue: “A welfare state expanded by Medicare and Medicaid, the vast mobilization of young men to fight the Vietnam War, but, above all, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts — these were all memorials to a slain ruler, resolved in haste over a few months in 1964 and 1965 by a people undergoing a delirium of national grief.” And he then claims that this set in motion a dramatic transformation of the American legal and political order — a transformation that we have inherited: 

The changes of the 1960s, with civil rights at their core, were not just a major new element in the Constitution. They were a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible — and the incompatibility would worsen as the civil rights regime was built out. Much of what we have called “polarization” or “incivility” in recent years is something more grave — it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation. The increasing necessity that citizens choose between these two orders, and the poisonous conflict into which it ultimately drove the country, is what this book describes.

Now, it is probably true that only someone who questions the wisdom of “the de facto constitution of 1964” would frame our recent history in this way; but it is certainly true that this framing is powerfully illuminating: it yields insight into both the nature and the intensity of our current political differences. You may not interpret or judge those differences as Caldwell does, but even so, he has presented their causes in ways that ought to earn your assent. 

Another example: Mary Harrington is not just a conservative, she is a self-described reactionary. But some of her recent work is, like that of Caldwell, extremely useful, especially her argument — in, for instance, this essay, which has many links to her earlier work — that what I have called Left Purity Culture (see the LPC tag at the bottom of this post) operates as a kind of de-personalized and even de-humanized swarm. And in certain recent controversies, especially the ones involving Twitter, that swarm is confronted by a version of what she calls Caesarism: 

The Biden administration is fond of talking about “democracy” versus “autocracy”, but it might be more accurate to talk about swarmism and Caesarism. Swarmism is a kind of post-democratic democracy: a mutant form of liberal proceduralism, characterised by collective decision-making in which no one is ever individually accountable. Instead, consequential decisions are as far as possible pushed out to supposedly neutral procedures or even machines. When NGO officials whom you can’t vote out of your political ecosystem talk about “our democracy”, they’re talking about swarmism.

Caesarism, on the other hand, looks substantially the same at lower levels. The main difference is that you get named humans in key decision-making roles — complete with human partiality, eccentricity, and occasional fallibility. Twitter was, until recently, a key vector of elite swarmism. And to swarmists, such rule by a named individual, rather than a collective and some committee-generated “guidelines”, is by definition morally wrong. This core assumption oozes, for example, from this report on the takeover, with its empathetic depiction of the anonymous, collegiate collective of sacked Trust and Safety workers sharply contrasted with the autocratic, erratic individual Elon Musk. 

This, like Caldwell’s framing of American history since the 1960s, is not just interesting but useful. It helps me to think about the structure, as it were, of the debates over Twitter. Now, I might prefer a swarm to a Caesar — and Harrington herself doesn’t see anyone to support here: “I’m not cheerleading for Musk as Caesar. Just because I dislike faceless proceduralism doesn’t mean I have much appetite to see political authority gathered into the mercurial hands of a transhumanist billionaire who wants to implant microchips in human brains.” But whether you take the swarm’s side or Caesar’s side or no side at all, this is a very helpful way of describing the conflict, and is a description that neither a a swarmist nor a Caesarist would have been likely to discern.