Tuesday, August 22, 2006

E. J. Dionne: A Wrong Turn for Liberalism and those Lakoff frames

Dionne writes of a new biography of historian Richard Hofstadter by David S. Brown: Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.

Now I know what's so flaky about those Lakoff frames. When someone trots out those Frames, the arguments get dismissed. Takes all the fun and creativity out of public policy, which probably explains why Conservative writers usually more fun to read, even when I disagree with them.

They're at least treating me as an adult, and as the Libertarian joke went: Liberals want Gov be your mom, Conservatives a Dad, and Libertarians want Gov to treat you like an adult.

No one appreciates a Liberalism that dismisses reasonable argument as a disorder. As Lasch says below, it's lazy.

Many progressives and reformers, he argued, represented an old Anglo-Saxon middle class who suffered from "status anxiety'' in reaction to the rise of a vulgar new business elite. Hofstadter analyzed the right wing of the 1950s and early 1960s in similar terms. Psychological disorientation and social displacement became more important than ideas or interests.

Now Hofstadter was exciting precisely because he brilliantly revised accepted and sometimes pious views of what the populists and progressives were about. But there was something dismissive about Hofstadter's analysis that blinded liberals to the legitimate grievances of the populists, the progressives and, yes, the right wing.

The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter's students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting "political criticism in psychiatric categories,'' Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves "from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation.''

Lasch added archly: "Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.''

This was, I believe, a wrong turn for liberalism. It was a mistake to tear liberalism from its populist roots and to emphasize the irrational element of popular movements almost to the exclusion of their own self-understandings. FDR, whom Hofstadter admired, always understood the need to marry the urban (and urbane) forms of liberalism to the traditions of reform and popular protest.

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