The late Italian Communist and Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci was correct. Before any major social change can take place — such as the revolution he favored — those who seek it have to wage a fight for what he called cultural hegemony, via a war of position in which the intellectual and cultural issues that will decide the nation’s future are adopted by the people who desire a new path.
When he was a Marxist, the great historian Eugene D. Genovese, now a rock-ribbed conservative, wrote against what he called the “cult of perpetual adolescence,” in which would-be revolutionaries rebelled against society for its own sake, and did not want to “face the necessity of waging a long, hard struggle to reshape our national culture as well as our national politics.” That is what is meant by waging the war over culture — and just as Tea Party members and other conservatives have now adopted Alinsky’s tactics as a rule-book for organizing, so must conservatives adopt Gramsci’s insight and wage a war over cultural issues before they can be successful in changing our country’s politics.
Fortunately, there are a few major conservative intellectuals who understand this vital task. I wrote months ago about the journal National Affairs, which is carrying on this vital work. Today, I want to single out the equally important Claremont Review of Books, which is the preeminent intellectual journal of conservative ideas and books. It does for conservatism what the New York Review of Books has done for liberalism and leftism, and which has had a major impact on the mindset of the majority of academia.
The new issue arrived in my mail last weeks, and I urge all PJM readers to subscribe. The issue is filled with many gems — there are simply too many important articles in this one issue to cover them all.
The most outstanding article, to my mind, is by Denis Boyles, an author who lives and teaches in France. Called “Spineless Intellectuals,” [unfortunately not online] it deals with the vital arguments made by Paul Berman and Theodore Dalrymple against the capitulation of today’s liberals to Jihad and terrorism, one author coming from the left side of the spectrum and the other from the right, but both agreeing on the “failure of the culture…to synthesize and make useful the episodic insanity of our times.”
Boyles makes one of the most cogent observations about how liberal intellectuals think, and why despite so many facts that face them, they refuse to change their minds no matter how strong the evidence. I myself come across this all the time, particularly when writing about the importance of understanding the reality of what Soviet espionage meant to America in the 1940s and 50s, and how to this day, the guilt of people like the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss is not accepted by so many mainstream liberals.
My friends and colleagues Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes say they are simply “in denial,” but that does not go far enough. Boyles nails why they are. He writes:
In the end, most people- but especially contemporary intellectuals-believe what they believe because it’s too uncomfortable (or just too much work) to disrupt the seamless narrative of a carefully shaped worldview by trying to accommodate contrary evidence. The result is the kind of ignorance of obvious factors. … In fact, simply tracking the needed refutations to these intellectual narratives can make one tipsy with anger.
Or to paraphrase the famous statement of George Orwell, there are some things so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them. Orwell understood what he called “the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia,” and were he alive today, he undoubtedly would have been rather shocked at how shallower their thought has become since his own time. Boyles comments on the clever attitude taken by the so-called moderate Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who knew he could win over the support of most liberal intellectuals because he understood “that they would believe what they needed to believe in any case,” and would ignore the kind of evidence the brave Paul Berman massed against him.
Now, on to William Voegeli’s important discussion of the impact of Rep. Paul Ryan’s detailed plans for how to deal with our current economic situation. Voegeli, a Claremont fellow, is author of the important book Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, one of the most cogent discussions of the failures of our nanny state. Ryan’s prominence, he writes, “derives from his ability, increasingly rare in Washington, to be serious about public policy without being strident about partisan politics.” When liberals complain that conservatives just say “no” to their wonderful schemes, they simply ignore that Ryan stands out for bringing to the discussion his own thorough and carefully thought out conservative alternative to statist liberalism.
Ryan shows, Voegeli notes, that deficits and debts simply cannot be ignored. He also notes, citing the wise words of an intelligent liberal who faces facts — Brookings’ scholar William Galston — that “we can’t keep borrowing a trillion dollars a year (and turning over a total of five trillion a year in public debt) without incurring burdensome interest payments and running grave risks.” He continues to note, citing other experts, “that to go on borrowing money in lieu of raising taxes or cutting spending, in the hope that faster economic growth renders such distasteful medicine unnecessary, will have the effect of reducing economic growth. If a 3.5% growth rate solves all our problems, a 1 or 2% growth rate turns them into catastrophes, making the spending cuts and tax increases that, ultimately, do have to be enacted bigger and more painful than the ones that could have been implemented earlier.”
His point is that our nation must face hard choices that cannot be avoided. When I try to raise these points with liberal friends (the few that I still have), they ignore it completely and simply say we have the money and must spend more. They have their own answers. As Voegeli writes: “Liberal Democrats will strive to fill the gap between revenues and spending by increasing taxes, especially on the rich and big corporations, and reducing defense spending. Conservative Republicans will fight to keep defense spending unaffected by fiscal stringencies and seek to save money by reducing domestic spending rather than raising taxes.”
So what can we do when both sides have two completely different approaches? Conservatives may insist on the second, but unless we have a completely Republican House and Senate and a Republican conservative president, that path will not be followed. Given the need to maintain a high defense budget — we do live in an unsafe world — Voegeli writes that “the political fights over fiscal policy will be waged between conservative advocates of lower domestic spending and liberal proponents of higher taxes.”
So the question arises: Is any kind of meaningful compromise possible in the short run? Ryan has the most audacious and detailed plan for a way forward along conservative lines, one that at the time of this writing Ryan is getting ready to update. It is a starting point in the attempt to get spending in line with revenues, and the article, which I trust you will all read, outlines its main points.
Ryan himself says it is not a take it or leave it package, and he is open to suggestions for refining it. It is a serious proposal, which liberals will ignore at their own peril. And it does not engage in the chimera that all the welfare state proposals of the last century have to be repealed — as some Tea Party advocates argue. Voegeli writes: “The roadmap will transform America’s social contract, enshrining the New Deal principle that the nation has a collective responsibility to alleviate and prevent poverty through government actions, while stipulating that these actions should be targeted and limited, replacing the open-ended, universal approach that defines New Deal and Great Society liberalism.”
What is striking about Voegeli’s sophistication is that he realizes that while the Democrats will never get the kind of unrestricted tax increases they desire, conservatives will not be able to enact all the provisions that Ryan proposes. As he puts it, “The first result would require liberals to win a series of electoral victories that obliterate conservatism as a political force, leaving Democrats free to steer America back toward solvency by relying entirely on tax increases. The second outcome requires conservatives to drive liberalism off the American political map, leaving Republicans free to make all the social welfare spending cuts needed to reduce the deficit without increasing any taxes.”
So we are back to square one, that of political reality. The answer will be what liberals like Galston find acceptable (I wish there were more Galstons): “a compromise incorporating both tax increases and spending cuts,” what Galston terms “a grand bargain.” It will work and will correlate with the political reality, hence,
[T]he ratio of dollars from taxes, and ones from spending reductions, will correspond closely to the ratio of votes between liberals and conservatives in the nation at large. To the extent that the liberal enterprise dominates the coming decade in American political life, when the hard decisions must be made if they are ever to be made, tax increases will be the dominant mechanism for taming the deficits, and spending cuts will be relatively few and mild. To the extent conservatism is politically ascendant, America will scale back the welfare state first, and raise taxes only when further spending cuts prove intolerable.
What Voegeli and the other writers for the Claremont Review succeed in doing is to offer the intellectual clout needed to convince Americans that they must move in a new direction, and that conservatism is much more than just mean-spirited negation of great liberal programs — but the necessary steps that have to be taken if our republic is to grow and prosper.
And so I return to my starting point — the question of cultural hegemony. Before we can advance, our citizenry and our intellectuals — who think about the policy issues and argue about how we should approach them — must begin to give up the old liberal bromides, and come to realize not only their irrelevance to our current situation, but the dangers they pose if they are not challenged. That requires a long war of position — an intellectual fight to change the culture. So I give my kudos to those conservative intellectuals who are carrying on this vital task.