The following lecture was given on February 8, 1995 at the New York University Institute for the Humanities, in a lecture series on "Intellectuals and Public Life"

Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Intellectuals

Paul Starr

Much of the writing in this country about intellectuals, going back at least fifty years, has been a literature of lament. We are told that intellectuals are in decline, that the greatest of them have left no successors, indeed, that extinction threatens the genuine species -- the kind that lives freely and independently in the wild, as opposed to the artificial breed that lives caged all too comfortably in the academy or, worse yet, cooped up in research and governmental bureaucracies. In the previous lecture in this series, Daniel Bell stood this lament on its head: "The End of the Intellectual, and Why Not?" he titled his talk.

But this view of intellectuals in decline, sadly or happily, seems to me to be tenable only if one has in mind a restricted conception -- restricted to intellectuals of the left and, even among them, only certain types. In Russell Jacoby's book The Last Intellectuals, the conception is of a wide-ranging moral and social critic, uncorrupted by the culture of the academy or the culture of commerce. Left intellectuals of this type have declined -- but, then, so has the left. In Professor Bell's lecture, the conception is of the thinker who rationalizes evil on the basis of theories about the ultimate destination of history. With the collapse of communism, intellectuals of this sort have virtually disappeared, at least on this continent.

To describe these changes as the end of intellectuals, however, is to mistake a political shift for a sociological trend. In past several decades, the number and vitality of conservative intellectuals have enormously increased, and many of them, contrary to the conventional picture, flourish outside the academy. I am not, I confess, overjoyed at their success, and I do not believe they have brought about anything like the "revolution of ideas" that Newt Gingrich, Christie Whitman, and other Republicans are celebrating. But the conservative writers and chatterers do live by their wits, and many are critics, indeed quite severe ones, of our culture and moral life -- albeit never our economic institutions. By any reasonable standard, they count as intellectuals.

The decline of intellectuals on the left and the rise of intellectuals on the right has dramatically changed the politics of ideas in this country. For much of this century, the principal debate among intellectuals took place between liberals and the left. The overriding question was socialism versus capitalism, revolution or radicalism versus reform. Even among liberals, the key divisions were often about their relation to the left: Were they anticommunist or anti-anticommunist? Did they reject or accommodate socialist ideas about planning and public ownership?

Conservatism did not figure as an intellectual force in the same way; liberal intellectuals did not worry about their relation to conservatives or what they thought about conservative ideas. In his introduction to The Liberal Imagination in 1954, Lionel Trilling could write that conservatives had no intellectual tradition in America. The absence of conservative ideas "does not mean," Trilling wrote, "that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction"; rather, such impulses do not "express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

No one could honestly say that any longer. Where liberal intellectuals once found themselves engaged in a debate with the left, they now find themselves in a running debate with the right. This conservative challenge has replaced the radical challenge on a whole series of issues: What is the source of our deepest social maladies? What should we believe about ourselves? How should we raise our children? What is the meaning of our history and direction of our future? And just as liberals were once divided about their relation to the left, the key divisions now are often about whether to accommodate conservative ideas or reject them entirely, whether to rethink liberalism or only to restate it in the face of the conservative challenge.

This contemporary battleground of ideas has changed in another respect as well. The terrain of intellectual combat has shifted. With the end of the cold war, foreign policy has ceased, at least for the time being, to be a primary subject of controversy between liberals and conservatives. This is not to say there aren't differences of opinions about foreign affairs, only that they do not amount to deep and defining divisions.

There continue, for example, to be differences about military spending, but this does not actually reflect a difference in attitudes toward the use of military force in a particular class of instances today. Conservatives do not seem more willing than liberals to intervene militarily in the kinds of conflicts that characterize the post-communist world.

To some extent, trade and the world economy have replaced traditional international security concerns on the foreign policy agenda, but such issues as intervention on behalf of the Mexican peso also do not create clear liberal-conservative divisions. Both liberals and conservatives, both Democrats and Republicans, have their outward-looking, internationalist wings and their inward- looking, isolationist wings. To be sure, if one camp tilts decisively in the direction of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism -- and there are signs of that in the anti-immigrant measures now being sponsored on the right -- these issues may again become defining. But for the moment, this is not a clear axis of liberal-conservative definition.

Issues of war and peace -- the bomb, the Vietnam War, policies toward the Soviet Union, responses to Third World revolutions -- used to be such fundamental sources of intellectual as well as political division that one might have thought that their declining salience after the end of the Cold War would bring a softening of antagonisms, perhaps even an era of good feeling, between liberals and conservatives.

But, instead, we have an era of exceptionally bad feeling. While battles over foreign policy have diminished, battles over culture, education, and moral life have intensified. There is even a tendency, particularly among conservatives, to regard these battles as the domestic equivalent of war, as if the so-called "culture wars" had replaced the cold war as the great historic struggle of our time. In the view of many conservatives, the American cultural and intellectual landscape is almost entirely in the possession of the left -- so much so that the left exercises a frightening dominion, the rule of political correctness. The left -- here I am quoting Hilton Kramer from Commentary a few years back, "nowadays includes almost (if not quite) everybody in the media, the academy, the arts, the literary and publishing worlds, the entertainment industry, and the Democratic party." And the left's agenda, Kramer says, is rooted in the idea that "Amerika" is "intolerably repressive" and the "principal source of evil" in the world--an idea, according to Kramer, that "currently prevails at almost every level of cultural life," from our universities down to our "wretched pop music."

This picture seems to me wildly inaccurate but highly revealing. The use of the vocabulary of treason is a measure of how thoroughly conservatives have transferred the passions of anticommunism into an internal war against those whom they think of as the enemies of American culture and values. And these were, as I recall from the 1960s, the same people who decried the loss of civility.

Just as differences have deepened over cultural and moral issues, so they have also deepened over the conduct of government and social and economic policy. After the Second World War, there was a segment of conservative opinion that continued to oppose the New Deal. But what seemed distinctive about the neoconservatives in the 1970s is that they accepted the New Deal, while contesting the liberalism and radicalism of the 1960s. In a definition of neoconservatism in 1976, Irving Kristol insisted as his first point that "neoconservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of the welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state." Even in the 1980s, during the Reagan and Bush administrations, despite frequent conservative animadversions, there seemed to be a de facto acceptance of government's role in sustaining the incomes of the poor, stimulating the economy during recessions, even supporting the arts and the humanities, albeit on a limited scale. But with the 1994 election, not only are Republicans in Congress calling for a massive rollback of these governmental functions in social welfare and other areas, including the arts; conservative intellectuals, even those who headed the Endowments and supported the basic social protections only a few years ago, are also supporting that rollback, pretty much down the line.

And so the fight has been joined. Generally speaking, American liberalism and conservatism are siblings, or at least cousins. American conservatism is liberal in a philosophical sense, and American liberalism is conservative in a practical sense. But the breach is wide today. This is not a time when it is possible to say that the differences among parties and intellectuals are merely matters of pragmatic adjustment, of fine-tuning. First principles are being debated at the highest levels of government, in the press, and around the family breakfast table. It is not a good time, but it is a good time for intellectuals. Unfortunately for my side, however, it is time when conservative intellectuals seem far better prepared for battle than do their liberal counterparts.

Conservative Energy, Liberal Confusion

One striking feature of contemporary politics and intellectual life is the contrast between conservative energy and liberal diffidence, conservative discipline and liberal disarray. Since the 1970s, conservatives have built an intellectual counterestablishment outside the academic world that includes foundations, think tanks, communications networks, and publications. Highly partisan, free from typical academic caution, the institutions of the right have trained and fielded a small army of intellectuals to contest liberal ideas and to foster consensus among conservatives.

There is no liberal counterpart to this effort. Peter Steinfels' book The Neoconservatives and Sidney Blumenthal's The Rise of the Counter-establishment describe the self-conscious effort in the 1970s by conservative intellectuals, such as Kristol, to convince business to create such a force. In Blumenthal's phrase, money not only talks, "money thinks." The relation between money and ideas was never so direct and so effective.

Curiously enough, this success in building a conservative intellectual counterestablishment has led to a subtle shift in conservative ideas about intellectuals. The traditional formulation was that intellectuals were a dangerous group of rootless cosmopolitans, drawn to socialism because it would enlarge state power and hence their own influence. The theory of the "new class" was an expanded version of this old idea. But more recently, some conservatives draw a distinction between independent and academic intellectuals. Martin Anderson's Impostors in the Temple argues that intellectuals who live by their wits are disciplined by the marketplace and hence to be highly esteemed, whereas professors who live in the lap of a quasi-socialist university system are reprehensibly given to arid and irrelevant academic work. You cannot read Anderson's attack on the professoriat, or some other right-wing attacks on the professors' "scam," without hearing some echoes of campus radicals from the 1960s. And, of course, some radicals once on the left have now famously had their "second thoughts" and moved all the way to the right. Since their first thoughts were not too good, I am glad that they have had second thoughts, which are an improvement, but I am looking forward to their "third wave" and wondering on what shore they will wash up next.

Another crossover irony is that conservative intellectuals have taken on the left's sense of persecution and repression -- though in this case, at the hands of cultural commissars. The same conservative intellectuals who denounced the psychology of victimization have been nursing a fine sense of victimization of their own. How many times have we read or heard the same half-dozen stories about the horrors of political correctness? This sense of being victims at the hands of multicultural barbarians, militant feminists, and spineless university administrators (the usual characters in this drama) gives conservative intellectuals, as it has long given their counterparts on the left, a kind of collective identity. It is a powerful, organizing myth, which is not to say the individual stories are untrue--it is the total picture that is false. The myth of liberal repression allows the conservatives to cross-dress as intellectual insurgents. Charles Murray has perfected this appropriation of radical rhetoric--the courageous, lonely truth-teller, sadly bearing the hateful facts but facts they are, willing to voice the unspeakable, to break through the repressive apparatus of liberal conformity.

In some other respects, too, conservatives have taken on the rhetoric of the left. The conservative appropriation of the term "empowerment" is one obvious example. Newt Gingrich speaks of himself as a revolutionary and his opponents as reactionaries who will stop at nothing to prevent change. He has an extraordinary conviction that conservatives own the future -- the same confidence that once led Marxists to consign their opponents to the dustbin of history. There is even a streak of technological determinism: In Gingrich's view, the new electronic technologies (let us call them the "forces of production") determine a particular framework of society ("the social relations of production"), to be initiated through a revolution, albeit of the free market. This was a theme of a conference held last month by Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation, which sounds to my ear like the name of a popular front organization.

A few years ago, especially in the second half of the Bush administration, it seemed that disagreements among conservatives, particularly the much publicized spats between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives over Israel and anti-Semitism, might lead to a breakup of the conservative movement. But conservatives have been able to unify around a negative -- opposing the federal government and, in particular, opposing Clinton. Being out of power has been a powerful stimulant.

By comparison, the liberal intellectual world seems to be suffering from acute anemia. Many liberals, especially in the academy, have been trained to be ideologically incompetent; in the face of a direct challenge from the right, they retreat into windy protests about the need for more research. Here the Jacoby critique of intellectuals is correct. Absorption into the academy has diverted many liberals from writing for the wider public and from articulating their underlying beliefs and purposes. But amid this confusion, there is a serious effort at liberal redefinition.

Liberalism's Internal Debate

As Alan Brinkley argues in the next issue of The American Prospect, liberalism in the United States has redefined itself more than once before. Beginning around the turn of the century, liberals moved away the antistatist individualism that originally characterized liberal politics, and they bequeathed that position to what is now known as American conservatism. There were two responses among liberals to rise of industrialism and the modern corporation. One was to try to break up the great corporations and restore nineteenth-century capitalism; the other was to accept the corporations and regulate their power. As economic organization had moved to the national level, so would governmental authority--to achieve, as Herbert Croly put it, Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means. This realism about the discipline of private power became the basis of the twentieth-century liberalism that Croly, Walter Lippmann, and other intellectuals helped to formulate; it was this progressive liberalism that culminated in the New Deal.

A second renovation of liberalism began in the 1940s. The election of 1942, Brinkley points out, was an even greater reverse for Democrats than 1994; Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats took control of the Congress and eliminated many of the signature programs of the New Deal; then in 1946, Republicans themselves gained a majority. It was in this period that liberals abandoned the idea of government as an economic planner, as a reorganizer of industries, and turned instead to a Keynesian emphasis on the management of aggregate demand -- a much more limited conception of government's role, as conservatives are wont to forget in their frequent efforts to link liberalism with the failures of socialism. In the same period, liberals also began emphasizing individual rights, particularly civil rights, which culminated in the rights-based movements of the 1960s.

Of course, the 1960s and '70s represented more than just a culmination of earlier trends but in many ways a redirection. The emphasis on individual rights became an emphasis on group rights; by the 1970s, civil rights had turned to affirmative action. Environmentalism and feminism enormously expanded the range of liberal concerns. This process affected the very conception of liberalism, blurring the boundaries between liberalism and radicalism. The collapse of socialism indirectly had the effect of turning liberalism into the left -- or rather what was left of the left.

This is the context for the internal debate among liberals that has been going on more or less for the past decade about how to respond both to the conservative challenge and to new social and economic circumstances. The intellectual problem has been compounded by the blurred popular understanding of liberalism, because much of what is thought of as a rejection of liberalism, such as the rejection of affirmative action, would be a return to liberalism, not as it existed in the nineteenth century, but as it existed up right through the 1960s.

Affirmative action and group entitlements are an instructive case. I am convinced they are politically unsustainable; the revolt of white men against the Democratic party in the last election was only the most recent sign. A referendum that would abolish affirmative action in education and employment will be on the ballot in California in 1996; pollsters disagree about whether it will pass with 60 percent or 80 percent of the vote. Republicans at the national level stand poised to pass legislation that will drive a deep wedge into the Democratic party and liberal coalition. And, yet, there may be nothing healthier for liberal politics than to be rid of the onus of group entitlements which conflict with the universalism of liberal ideals and convince many people that liberal purposes are not theirs.

Tendentious descriptions of the sides in the internal debate over the renovation of liberalism have become commonplace. For example, various publications -- among them The Washington Monthly and The New Republic -- have imported the neo/paleo distinction from the internal conservative debate to describe the differences among liberals. If I recall correctly, it was Gary Hart versus Walter Mondale in the 1984 campaign that first symbolized this contrast between so-called neoliberals and paleoliberals, although it is now hard to remember in what sense Hart was "neo." My objection to the term "paleoliberal" is that it's an attempt to win an argument with an epithet. In fact, among liberals there are a variety of intellectual and political attempts to reframe liberalism besides what has come to be known as "neoliberalism," and to characterize all the others as going backwards to a "paleolithic" period -- in this case, the ancient era of the 1960s -- is unfair and inaccurate.

Characterizing the conflict as a dispute between "liberals" and "communitarians" is also inaccurate, because it suggests that those who call themselves communitarians are making a fundamental philosophical break. Yet when communitarians specify their views, they typically amount to relatively modest modifications of conventional liberal positions -- well within the ambit of the liberal tradition. Moreover, in the popular form Amitai Etzioni has given it, the communitarian platform is a grab bag of ad hoc positions, not a consistent working through of a new philosophy. It is useless for communitarians to discard the term "liberal"; others will characterize them as liberals, and in the American sense of that term, they are.

This is not to say that all the changes that communitarians have been trying to bring about are mistaken. It is eminently reasonable to balance rights with responsibilities and to emphasize the principle of reciprocity and the importance of community as a positive force. I would just characterize this effort differently. The problem left by the 1960s was the failure to set limits -- limits on behavior, limits on rights, limits on costly public expenditures. Conservatives are convinced the entire enterprise of the sixties was mistaken; liberals are not prepared to ditch the achievements, but they need to find countervailing, limiting principles. Many of those are civic in character; they have to do with the health of other elements in civil society. A reassertion of principles of civic obligation, the revitalization of civic participation, countervailing norms of reciprocity -- these are resources for restoring the necessary balance without discarding the underlying purposes of liberal reform.

This civic program is only one of several efforts at redefinition and reframing. There is another analysis with a more materialist basis: the stagnation of most Americans' real incomes since the mid-seventies. In this view, Americans have become more restive politically because the system is objectively not working for them. They are reluctant to support the poor because they feel the ground shifting under their own feet. In fact, rising tides today are not lifting all boats: the benefits of economic growth are going almost entirely to those at the top of the income scale. Liberals have said to the public: spend money on education and training, on public investments in research, infrastructure, the information superhighway, and you will be better off. Conservatives have offered Americans cash on the barrelhead in the form of tax cuts. Liberals are asking people to believe in a long chain of causal linkages; it is not hard to see why many accept the conservatives' offer.

But the liberal argument, however difficult to make, is the right one. We face deep currents in the global economy widening income inequalities. Liberal policies that support education and training and strengthen the bargaining power of lower-income groups are more important than ever precisely because of the powerful trends in the market undercutting the incomes of American workers. If government now reinforces those trends by adopting highly regressive tax policies and retrenchment in services to low- and moderate-income people, the inequality express will move even faster.

The conservative attack on liberalism in recent years has consistently had as one of its themes liberal naivete -- summed up in Irving Kristol's famous remark that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been mugged. Supposedly, liberalism is unduly solicitous of defendants' rights and naive about crime -- as about other pathological behavior -- trusting in rehabilitation rather than punishment out of a misplaced conviction that criminals are victims and should be helped.

Undeniably, some liberals have been naive. But the favored right- wing remedy of mass incarceration is not going to solve our problems. This past year, the nation was swept by demands for "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws. As Jerome Skolnick has pointed out in The American Prospect, the problem of violence is concentrated among males in their teens and early twenties, but "three strikes" will confine an older population. When convicted for a third strike--that is, after serving a second prison sentence--most criminals will be nearing if not past age 30, and they will be in prison for decades. Thirty years from now, according to an estimate by the district attorneys' association in California, the three-strikes legislation in that state will expand the prison population by 275,000 people, a population the size of the city of Anaheim; the state will have to build another 20 prisons on top of its current 28 plus the 12 now on the drawing board, mainly to hold a population of aging men. Ten years ago, Skolnick points out, California devoted 14 percent of its state budget to higher education, 4 percent to prisons; now it devotes 9 percent to both, but in the future it will devote far more to corrections because it is going to be building prisons rather than campuses for decades to come. I have seen the studies by conservatives that purport to show imprisonment is cost effective. But I do not believe that mass incarceration instead of mass higher education can benefit this country. It is not naivete, it is foresight, to make drug abuse treatment, crime prevention, and rehabilitation a central part of anti-crime efforts.

Contrary to the conventional images, liberals have effectively become the party of responsibility. Conservative intellectuals today are providing a patina of justification for reducing public responsibilities to the poor and for the public services of which children are disproportionately the beneficiaries. They are providing a patina of justification for incapacitating the federal government with changes in the Constitution and congressional procedures that will set us on a course toward self-inflicted political paralysis in the face of some future economic or international crisis. They are providing a patina of justification for punitive measures that will burden this country with an imprisoned--and yes, dependent--population for decades. They have struck opportunistic alliances with gun owners, the tobacco industry, Christian fundamentalists, small businessmen, and other interests with whom they have nothing in common except a negative interest in curbing liberal government. This is a powerful alliance, but it is an alliance based on convenience and expediency -- not ideas.

In a democracy, political success easily gets translated into intellectual validation; political failure, into intellectual discredit. The responsibility of intellectuals, however, is not to follow the election returns, much less the opinion surveys, but to uphold principles they know to be true. For liberal intellectuals, there is no time more urgent than when the voters seems to go against them, and when they face the task of rearticulating and reframing principles to fit new conditions. This is no time to be discouraged; there is plenty of work to be done.