Last week I wrestled with Rick Perlstein’s reassessment of the historiography of conservatism, and particularly with his worry that in trying to throw off a tradition of writing condescendingly about conservatism, historians had effaced the record of right-wing extremism and its bizarre but significant place in the history of the conservative movement.
One of the most famous such instances of condescension—which Perlstein quoted—is to be found in the preface of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination—you probably remember it for the backhanded slap at conservatism as a series of “irritable mental gestures.” The notoriety of Trilling’s glib dismissal of conservatism has often overshadowed his more detailed but not really less acerbic demolition of liberalism’s flaccidity and lack of, well, imagination. One lesson we can take from Trilling’s arrogance—the lesson Perlstein took—is that condescension toward conservatism is dangerous: it risks underestimating the visceral appeal of many of conservatism’s core elements. But the more important lesson, I think, is that a critique of liberalism as a superficial ideology lacking in both passion and vision is equally plagued by a kind of eager blindness, and it bears its own dangers.
In the rest of this post and some that will follow, I want to try to make good on that claim. I do so not in the interests of defending liberalism per se, but because I have grown frustrated with the cramped conventions of leftist critique of liberalism and neoliberalism. This response is not meant to be polished or final in any way but rather a sort of thinking aloud, a mumbling as I try to pick my way through an increasingly unstable political landscape of acrimony and irritability. Continue reading