Vain In Our Highmindedness

by digby

It's funny that Atrios highlights this perfect quote by Charlie Peters just as I was writing a post on this very subject as another follow-up to Jonathan Chait's piece on the netroots.

I'm very fond of Mike [Kinsley]. He's genuinely brilliant, but I think there has always been a tension between Mike and me, in that I sense he is embarrassed by passion. Mike's detachment has notably decreased since his marriage and the onset of Parkinson's, both of which had a pronounced humanizing effect, but his more sardonic imitators have become a major problem in journalism -- very bright people who seem too concerned with being bright.

Well, you know, that's true. But it's probably been true forever. In fact it's been the subject of rumination among political observers for a very long time. I wrote this a couple of years ago:

This interesting post from Steamboats Are Ruining Everything takes us back to 1820 and reminds us that brutish conservatives are nothing new:

William Hazlitt explained the nature of it in his 1820 essay, "On the Spirit of Partisanship."

Conservatives and liberals play the game of politics differently, Hazlitt wrote, because they have different motivations. Liberals are motivated by principles and tend to believe that personal honor can be spared in political combat. They may, in fact, become vain about their highmindedness. Hazlitt condemns the mildness as a mistake, both in moral reasoning and in political strategy. "They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse."

The conservatives, on the other hand, start with a personal interest in the conflict. Not wishing to lose their hold on power, they are fiercer. "We"---i.e., the liberals, or the "popular cause," in Hazlitt's terminology---"stand in awe of their threats, because in the absence of passion we are tender of our persons.

They beat us in courage and in intellect, because we have nothing but the common good to sharpen our faculties or goad our will; they have no less an alternative in view than to be uncontrolled masters of mankind or to be hurled from high---

"To grinning scorn a sacrifice,
And endless infamy!"

They do not celebrate the triumphs of their enemies as their own: it is with them a more feeling disputation. They never give an inch of ground that they can keep; they keep all that they can get; they make no concessions that can redound to their own discredit; they assume all that makes for them; if they pause it is to gain time; if they offer terms it is to break them: they keep no faith with enemies: if you relax in your exertions, they persevere the more: if you make new efforts, they redouble theirs. While they give no quarter, you stand upon mere ceremony. While they are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, you talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanité. Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them---to treat them according to your own fancied dignity. They have sense and spirit enough to take all advantages that will further their cause: you have pedantry and pusillanimity enough to undertake the defence of yours, in order to defeat it. It is the difference between the efficient and the inefficient; and this again resolves itself into the difference between a speculative proposition and a practical interest.

It is not fair play, and Hazlitt thinks that liberals who decline to fight fire with fire are fools. "It might as well be said that a man has a right to knock me on the head on the highway, and that I am only to use mildness and persuasion in return, as best suited to the justice of my cause; as that I am not to retaliate and make reprisal on the common enemies of mankind in their own style and mode of execution."

Hazlitt was right. And never more than today when the stakes are so high...History proves that bad things do sometimes happen. Being barely left standing to say "I told you so" will be no compensation.

(The link to the "Steamboat" blog is now dead, but you can read Hazlitt's piece here. )

I wrote that post three years ago in the midst of what seemed like an overwhelming Republican juggernaut. I felt intense frustration at the fact that so many political and opinion leaders seemed to think there was something distasteful about the passionate outrage that many of us were experiencing and dismissed our passion as simpleminded and unsophisticated . (Admittedly, that frustration, born of a decade or more of ever increasing assaults on our politics, fueled a sense of mistrust of the Democratic establishment and liberal punditocrisy that lasts to this day --- I simply don't trust their survival instincts.)

But passion is more than just reaction. It also provides the opening for ordinary people to involve themselves in politics generally. Whenever I hear people complaining about the unseemly behavior of people who go to peace marches or Cindy Sheehan or the DFH's who just ruined everything for all of us back in the 1960's I can't help but wonder how they expect non-news junkie policy wonks to connect with the world around them? Stirring debates between Peter Beinert and Jonah Goldberg?

Humans need to feel part of something, that they have a stake in the outcome. Emotion is what moves people, whether it is demagoguery, fear, anger or inspiration (and there's often tension and similarity among those things.) To get people engaged you have to give them something to care about, to feel connected with, to want to devote some of their precious time and resources to something for which there is no direct compensation except a feeling of doing the right thing or righting a great wrong. Change requires energy and energy is one thing that sophisticated intellectual salons and learned political journals, however important they may be, simply do not provide.

Sadly, liberals are far more difficult to draw in to that for the reasons that Hazlitt cited nearly 170 years ago. It's a temperament thing. We are just more dispassionate as a rule than the rowdy right because they feel they are protecting their prerogatives --- and they just get off on the fight. But from time to time liberals simply have to get religion or risk losing it all. There have been certain periods where they were able to mobilize, usually in reaction to a great social upheaval or obvious conservative failure. Over the long run, we have actually progressed. (And you know where we'll all be in the long run...)

But mostly it's been as Hazlitt observed:

It is the difference between the efficient and the inefficient; and this again resolves itself into the difference between a speculative proposition and a practical interest

Chait grants that the netroots "instrumentalism" (our "practical interest") is perhaps necessary, but he frets that there is a danger that the movement will devolve into some sort of unthinking know-nothingness that rivals the right. I think that's highly unlikely. As much as we grubby netrooters have a different temperament than the more staid punditocrisy, we have much more in common with them than the other side --- and will always be at a disadvantage because of it. We are not, as a rule, drawn in solely for the combat, where the action is the juice and dominance for the sake of dominance is our motive. Indeed, just like the sniffing pundits, we all tend to be vain in our highmindedness, it's only a difference of degree. It seems to be intrinsic to our nature.

So I think we liberals can afford to take at least a little of what Hazlitt wrote back in the day to heart without fearing that we will turn into mouthbreathing demagogues. If the last few years of modern conservative dominance have proved nothing else it proves that we "betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse." The best case scenario is that you get left with the ruins of failed conservatism to clean up and straighten out over and over again. The worst case scenario is that someday they may just break the country for good.

Update: Caleb Crain, the author of the post I linked above, has moved his blog. The link to the post is now here. Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

H/T again to KG