A world without straw men
May 7, 2010 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Inspired by this question-- what are some liberal writers who start from a position of comprehension of, and respect for, conservative viewpoints?

I've been frustrated and depressed lately by the polarization and lack of dialogue in American politics. To cheer myself up, I'm looking for writing by liberals who appear to understand and respect conservative positions on various issues. In particular, I'd like to find writing that doesn't make (or pretend to make) the maddening assumption that conservatives must believe as they do because they are simply:
--stupid, ignorant, or misinformed
--"crazy" or "evil" or otherwise burdened with psychological issues (!)
-- naively fearful (of Change, or The Other, or Women's Sexuality, or whatever)
-- hateful, racist, or bigoted, interested in harming particular races/genders/sexualities/the environment for purely selfish reasons, or just for the hell of it
-- somehow duped by or under the control of some mysterious larger entity, like The Corporations or The Man

In other words, I guess I'm looking for liberal writing addressing what an educated conservative would recognize as actual conservative arguments. Either fiscal or social topics are fine, and the conclusions can be as far-left as necessary, as long as the writer has a fair, intelligent and accurate (and preferably, nuanced and respectful) sense of what can be said for the opposing position. Any ideas?
posted by yersinia to Law & Government (14 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I'd love to see something like this. The liberal version of the Volokh Conspiracy, if you will.
posted by thesmophoron at 9:31 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend Rick Perlstein enough. He is on the liberal end of the spectrum, but his books on Goldwater, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, and on Nixon, Nixonland, are balanced, incredibly readable works that look at the motivations of each man's politics and the historical circumstances attending the rise of the modern conservative movement.
posted by Bromius at 9:39 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Barack Obama - The Audacity of Hope

It's a really intellectually honest book and I'd say that Obama's politics in general lean towards a more centrist flavour of old-school liberalism. In the book he addresses a lot of the beliefs and concerns of conservative constituents (as opposed to conservative pundits). He goes to great lengths to emphasize that their concerns are not crazy.
posted by 256 at 10:00 AM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ditto on Rick Perlstein.

David Weigel respectfully covers the conservative movement in a reporting-based blog, although he seems to lean generally liberal himself.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones seems to be more likely than most liberal pundits to bend over backwards to give credit to conservatives. Likewise Brendan Nyhan. Nyhan previously edited a non-partisan fact-checking site, and seems to be cherish a reputation for even-handedness.

Nate Silver is a polling expert who leans left but mostly writes data-driven posts. If he's going to argue with a conservative position, it'll most likely be with data, not with an argument based on the deficiencies of character of the speaker.

Andrew Sullivan long considered himself a conservative, and spent the first half of this decade as a ferocious liberal-basher and backer of GWB, the war in Iraq, and so on down the line.

Times have changed, and I think that he's come to terms with the fact that he's pretty well divorced from the conservative movement. Nowadays, regardless of his self-conception, his work product is much more recognizable as liberal punditry. But I think he starts with the assumption that conservative principles (as opposed to the conservative leaders/ pundits that he increasingly loathes) are more right than wrong.
posted by Clambone at 10:05 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

This may not be exactly what you want, but it may be what you need. The League of Ordinary Gentlemen isn't truly liberal (the term "liberaltarian" gets some play) but they seem to come from the standpoint that most political ideologies have something useful to offer. The fact that they often change their own minds through debate and open pondering is very refreshing.
posted by charred husk at 10:05 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Don't Think of an Elephant" by George Lakoff.
posted by bstreep at 10:13 AM on May 7, 2010

Read up on John Stuart Mill.

When you start, your gut instinct will be to say "OMG, he's a Libertarian"

By the time you finish, he'll have used those same principles to lay the foundations for classical Liberalism. He was a great many years ahead of his time, and in many ways is still a great many years ahead of ours.
posted by schmod at 10:19 AM on May 7, 2010

I think (just my take on it) that you are starting from some unsound preconceptions. Really, it was the 'conservatives' that vilified the left, and still do, (to them 'liberal' is a dirty word without any real meaning.) many of them have little else to say, which makes it very hard to start a dialogue. If you are looking for coherent answers to the Tea Bag Party (or what ever they want to be called this week), first you would have to make a coherent statement of what they are in favor of. Maybe you know what it is, but I can't find it, to me it seems to be, no taxes, no deficit, strong (uber strong) military, and fix my roads and social security (but not theirs). This doesn't work, does it?

Much of their rhetoric has become a string of catch phrases combined with any position that will get them some votes, (and make their core angry and scared). IE: the 'Free Trade' trope used to support protectionist programs; 'deregulation' in order to control the abuses of the finance giants.

I sorry that those paragraphs seem to be exactly what you are trying to escape, but surely you see the problem when facing so much cognitive dissonance. But wait! There is hope! There really are real, honest, thoughtful conservatives in the world, and it is their own thoughts that can be addressed and discussed on a level of intellectual honesty.

To get a grasp of the troubles with the American right, I think you should start with the writings of some of those conservatives, look into the fears and anxieties they have for there on aims. David Frum and Christopher Buckley would be good places to start. Buckley's '08 article in the Daily Kos on why he supported Obama for instance. Frum has many pieces that go into this. Or read the many articals in The Economist on the topic. All of these have pretty strong conservative credentials, and are repelled by what is happening.

If you are totally committed to a liberal answering right, then look for Paul Krugman (The Conscience of a Liberal would be a start), but here you are going to find him discussing true conservative thought, rather than trying to pin down the current right and/or Republicans to any kind of program and addressing it.

If you
posted by Some1 at 10:23 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Public opinion is always a great way to stay grounded. Whatever political gripe a pollster might have, at the end of the day they need to accurately reflect a population or risk losing reputation/clients.

While a bit dated, I've kept around Values Divide, which does a good job parsing through the polarized electorate. I also adored Zogby's The Way We'll Be, which mostly looks at young voters and how they'll shape policy when they become a larger force. While it's mostly good news for Democrats, it does a good job pointing out where Republicans have a foothold in the younger generation.

The current discussion floating around the blogosphere about epistemic closure is fairly interesting. A quick google search will pull that up, but it seems to have gotten legs from David Frum's Waterloo article. Unfortunately, I've been pretty disappointed that the Democrat's current success has limited the discussion to one party.
posted by politikitty at 11:06 AM on May 7, 2010

You should read academic journals, particularly in applied ethics and social and political philosophy, as well as legal journals. Flagrant fallacies (ad hominem, genetic, straw man, tu quoque, all the ones you're tired of) are not tolerated there. The downside is that it's harder to find commentary on current events, though the huge ones will be discussed.

For example, in several public lectures, McGill University's Margaret Somerville has attempted to give a conservative but secular case against gay marriage. Several philosophers have aimed to refute it, not by accusing her of bigotry, but by dealing with her arguments point by point. Here's one example (abstract only).

Also, I have to agree with Some1 about the way the question is posed. Accusing liberals of failing to address "what an educated conservative would recognize as actual conservative arguments" strikes me as potentially unfair, since educated conservative opinions in the media these days are so massively outweighed by ones that can only be called crazy, fearful, bigoted, etc. So they attract the kind of dismissals they deserve. If you named some contemporary conservative voices that you think merit respectful discussion (e.g. Somerville), it would be easier to think of commentary from the left that attempts to critique them rationally rather than write them off as wingnuttery.
posted by Beardman at 11:20 AM on May 7, 2010

Thomas Frank comes from a middling-conservative background, so I think he "understands" conservatism, but if you're looking for a liberal who is sympathetic to conservatism, he's not it.

In the same vein, Paul Krugman. Seriously. He didn't start out liberal: conservatism (or what passes for it in the USA now) drove him to liberalism.

In his book What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank also points to a problem with your question, which is that there really is more than one stream of conservatism in this country, the two can be at odds with each other, and one of them isn't amenable to rational argument. The Senate race in Florida is just the latest evidence of that.
posted by adamrice at 12:00 PM on May 7, 2010

I used to call myself a conservative. But during the G.W. Bush years, I found that conservative thinkers I once respected and admired were willing to argue feverishly in favor of ideas that were utterly anti-conservative. Ideas that they themselves had preached against for years, and that were clearly contrary both to the concept of conservatism and the good of the country.

Now we're at a point where "conservative" means anything the Republicans or Tea Partiers say it means, without regard to a rich conservative intellectual history or common sense.

So because I no longer know what "conservative"means (if it still means anything at all) or what "conservatives"stand for, I'm afraid I can't answer your question as posed.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:06 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The slacktivist's blog -- he's a progressive & devout Christian. Is currently engaged in a multi-year takedown of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind series, on theological, moral and literary grounds.

Seconding Andrew Sullivan, whom I guess I'd call an American Tory, and a gay Catholic to boot, and also the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, mentioned above: they're in my crack pipe RSS feed as well and sort of remind me of a slightly more conservative (but certainly still moderate and fair-minded) version of what my clique from university would do if we were type-A enough to start a group blog. Neither of those blogs, however, would happily accept the label 'liberal' or 'progressive'.

But yeah, I have to agree with coolguymichael. The rump GOP and their Tea Party bedfellows claim to be the sole heirs* of the ancient Anglo-American conservative tradition in these united states, but they certainly are not. That venerable mantle has been more or less taken up by, er, Mr. Barack Obama and the Blue Dog Caucus.

wordfilter: Can two entities be the sole heirs to something?
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:14 PM on May 7, 2010

FYI - Dave Weigel is a conservative.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:50 AM on May 8, 2010

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