Which Is More Intellectually Diverse: The Left or the Right?

A debate over David Frum's firing goes big-picture

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After writing a much-read critique of Republican health-care strategy called "Waterloo," former Bush speechwriter David Frum was effectively fired from his position at the American Enterprise Institute. This high-profile split then caused a debate about whether American conservatives shut themselves out from open debate. It started with a post by libertarian writer Julian Sanchez immediately following the Frum incident.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.
The implication that the right is close-minded set off a debate among conservatives as well as liberals. This eventually led to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's identification of three "spheres" of American conservatism in a 1200-word response titled "The Conservative Mind, Circa 2010." Here's how the debate's played out:
  • 'The Left is Simply Less Monolithic,' offers progressive blogger Matt Yglesias as a countertheory. Environmentalists, feminists, labor union members, and immigrants' rights activists all have their own sorts of "groupthink," he explains, "but these points of view come into contact with one another and only partially overlap. At times they conflict."

  • Says Who? asks Jonah Goldberg at the National Review. (He previously admitted that he thought Sanchez's argument had "some merit"). He wants to see data: "it still seems to me that liberalism is far more shot through with political correctness and intellectual taboos than the right." For example, he asks, pointing to left-wing examples of fury, turned on renegades: "Does the Frumian defenestration (and it wasn't a defenestration--he jumped) really outweigh the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard? Or the absurdity of the Skip Gates nonsense, also at Harvard? Or the riot of hatred aimed at Joe Lieberman?"
  • It's Not About Close-Mindedness, It's About Closed Information Circuits, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, responding to Goldberg:
The accusation isn't that conservatives all reach the same conclusions about everything, nor is it that conservatives are excessively politically correct, nor is it that conservatives demand strict adherence to a set of ideas if one is to remain a conservative in good standing ... Sanchez's point is that if one only gets information from a narrow set of sources that feed back into each other but do not engage beyond themselves, that one will have a closed mind ... regardless of what one does with that information ... What Sanchez is talking about is a group of people who all agree on which sources are to be trusted--and who have narrowed it down to a fraction of all the information out there, a fraction which is both closed and small and suspicious of any outside sources.
  • It's about 'Alternative Reality,' amends The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan. "The untethered bromides of the utopian right are far easier to market than the awful choices and hard compromises that the US now has to grapple with." Conservatives, "not interested in hard choices," opt for instead for denial in the form of "alternative reality" offered by the closed information loop.
  • Permit Me: Fox News Hurts the Right, adds Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene. "The federal government now is far bigger than it was" before the coming of Fox, he notes, and Obama's health care plan have been passed. "If this is how the right fares during the celebrated rise of conservative media, forgive me for preferring the bad old days before its rise, when William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were winning minds and elections without blond hair dye, faux-raving-lunatic populism everyday at 5 pm, or six figure book deals."
  • Looking at 3 Spheres of Conservatism   New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests a different way of looking at the problem (more or less approved by Jonah Goldberg): "There's the elite world of pundits and intellectuals [represented by journalists and think tanks] ... , the broader world of 'the movement' (consisting of populist media outlets like talk radio and Fox News, diffuse activist groups like the Tea Parties, websites like RedState and its imitators, and issue-based pressure groups like the N.R.A. and the National Right-to-Life Committee, etc.), and then the institutional world of the Republican Party." He says the intellectual right has plenty of open debate. Rather, the problem lies with the politicians, and with pundits' and intellectuals' reluctance to call the politicians out on this narrowness of thought.He also rebuts Yglesias's idea that the left is less monolithic:
If you drill down to the level of first principles, American conservatism is at least as diverse as liberalism, and probably more so ... But paradoxically, the right’s ideological diversity is often what breeds intellectual conformity. It’s precisely because American conservatism represents a motley assortment of political tendencies united primarily by their opposition to liberalism that conservatives are often too quick to put their (legitimate, important and worth-debating) differences aside in the quest to slay the liberal dragon. After all, slaying liberalism is why they got together in the first place!
  • Fair Enough--and Here Are 3 Types of Conservatives, adds DougJ at the Balloon Juice blog, who nevertheless thinks Douthat "gives the intellectual right far too much credit." Once one removes "crypto-liberals" like Andrew Sullivan from the mix, proposes DougJ, there are "three basic divisions" among American conservatives:
1. "Atlas Shrugged" conservatives: Megan McArdle, the Reasonoids, Larry Kudlow, etc.
2. "Chronicles Of Narnia" conservatives: Ross Douthat, Peggy Noonan, many other Catholic conservatives.
3. "300" conservatives: Victor David Hanson, war bloggers, any neoconservatives.
  • Repeat: It's About Information, responds a weary Jonathan Chait to Ross Douthat at The New Republic. "The problem is that the movement has created its own subculture, and within this subculture, only information from sources controlled by the movement is considered trustworthy or even worth paying attention to."
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