THE BLOG
06/06/2006 02:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where's the Beef?

For a moment I want to take this posting away (as it were) from the tit-for-tat world of punditry and into the somewhat rarefied world of political theory (which is what I teach and write about in my non-blogospheric, non-virtual life). Recently I ran across a provocative piece by James Ceaser, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, titled, "True Blue vs. Deep Red: The Ideas that Move American Politics." In the piece, Professor Ceaser offers his own birds-eye view of the cultural divide between red states and blue states. One passage about "red vs. blue" think tanks in the nation's capital struck me as particularly interesting:

Beneath the common features of all think tanks--their control desks at the entrances, their carefully designed logoi, and their proud displays of books and pamphlets known as "intellectual product"--a world of difference appears between the institutions on the Left and on the Right. It relates not only--as one would expect--to what they think, but to how they go about thinking. Blue tanks are filled with an impressive array of experts and wonks, often producing studies of the highest quality on the issues of policy confronting the nation. The blue tanks also contain a group of excellent political strategists, skilled not only in nuts-and-bolts analysis but also in high-level social commentary. But something else is apparent: there is hardly a theorist to be found engaged in the study of "classical" political ideas. Now pass over to the red tanks. In addition to an opposing cadre of experts and wonks, each institution has a connection to at least one theoretical school and to the pantheon of its thinkers. Visit these institutions and you will likely hear mention, at some point along the way, of Tradition and Culture, of the "invisible hand" and "spontaneous order," of natural right and natural law, and of revelation and faith. Nor would it be a shock to overhear a whisper of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk, Adam Smith or Friedrich von Hayek, James Madison or Leo Strauss, or Calvin or Aquinas....For conservatives, it is clear that the attention they devote to their theoretical principles is meant as much more than a gesture to good breeding. Conservatives consider these principles to be directly related to the political world and to how it should be governed, which is precisely what the Left reproaches them for.

Certainly one could dismiss this invidious description of the two parties as a dressed-up version of the campaign slogan that the GOP is the "party of ideas," to be contrasted with an image of the Democrats as a bunch of reactive, spineless complainers. Or, knowing his scholarly portfolio a bit, one might pigeonhole and thus try to dismiss Professor Ceaser's views on account of his Straussian affiliations. But I think he has a point, maybe one that the Democrats should listen to and even take to heart.

It came as something of a shock to outsiders that the Iraq War might have been planned in some strong measure by persons who have deep intellectual investments in a particular reading of Plato's Republic (among other things). For my part, I can attest that my Straussian colleagues in political theory talk and write a lot--in earnest--about "Big Picture" issues and the possible real-world implications of these ideas for contemporary American politics. They argue amongst themselves (and with others) about, for instance, the differences between ancient versus modern democracy--and they wonder about where American democracy is headed. They worry that liberal pluralism may be insufficiently attentive to standards of truth (whether that truth be revealed and/or rationalist). They are concerned about whether "the good life" should be pursued in, or away from, the political realm. They discuss whether a liberal political economy should promote self-reliance or collective goods. They worry that pragmatism, in both domestic and foreign policy, might simply be a cover for shortsightedness and lack of clarity and conviction. They entertain seriously the broadside that our epoch of democratic liberalism might be one of almost-incorrigible cultural decadence, and their sweeping critique is neither Marxist nor Jihadist.

One can certainly take issue with their methods and conclusions (as I often do). Quickly I must add that there are conservative Straussians of many different stripes, and they engage in behind-the-scenes (and above board) debates with other conservatives of various stripes (libertarian, moral majoritarian, Aristotelian, Kantian, Burkean, etc.). But Ceaser's point is that this conservative intellectual activity--Straussian and otherwise--takes place, and is valued, not only in ivory tower venues but also in policy-making, inside-the-Beltway circles (even if it may not be readily apparent in such idiotic and vicious national GOP measures as gay-bashing, science-bashing, immigrant-bashing, and so on).

While one could certainly argue that egghead wannabe-politicos are best left on the sidelines, Ceaser's observation about the conspicuous dearth of institutionalized (albeit non-academic) political theorizing on the left ought to be taken seriously--and it may help explain the current "idea deficit" or "vision deficit" among the Democrats. Sure, a few political theorists served as advisers to Bill Clinton (Benjamin Barber, William Galston), and Cornel West was a prominent adviser to Bill Bradley's 2000 Presidential campaign--but there's nothing structurally comparable to the quasi-organized Straussian (or libertarian, or evangelical) presence throughout the Washingtonian ranks of quasi-officialdom. From my limited vantage, I see that if a young conservative Ph.D. in political theory, hailing from Chicago, Harvard, Duke, or the Claremont Graduate University, fails to land a tenure-track teaching post, he or she may still find gainful theoretical work, without much retooling. If a Berkeley, Princeton, Northwestern, or Johns Hopkins Ph.D. specialist in political theory doesn't find a teaching appointment, forget it, the career is over.

Yes, big ideas can come from many sources, and political theorists hardly have a monopoly on them. But the absence of high-minded political theorizing in the Democratic think tanks may be symptomatic of a larger problem. The party insiders do seem to include, as Ceaser points out, a vast assemblage of wonks, analysts, technocrats, ex-officials, magazine editors, commentators, consultants, columnists, strategists, and pollsters--but few resident philosophers, and certainly no latter-day Walt Whitman poets.

Case in point: Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of The New Republic, has written a book, with follow-up op-eds, on how to save the Democrats. In short, he wants the Democratic Party to fight totalitarianism, and liberals should be unapologetic about such puffed-up belligerence. (Beinart now regrets his early support for the Iraq War, a mistake he attributes to getting "the facts" wrong. Yeah right, buddy. That was the whole point of the doctrine of pre-emption: Shoot first, ask questions later.) But I can imagine my Straussian colleagues, even those who supported the neo-con movement, simply rolling their eyes: Here's an author who clearly is insufficiently informed about the classic critiques of political liberalism put forth by Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, and Kojève. My progressive postie friends would cringe at his clunky attempts at defining a national purpose by demonizing and scapegoating an Other. Beinart desperately takes a crowbar to the work of political theorists Michael Walzer and Hannah Arendt in an attempt to dignify his case that the war on terror ought to be seen as continuous with earlier wars against communism and fascism. But my undergraduates, drawing more thoughtfully on Arendt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Foucault, would have an easy time dismantling his adamant but woefully antiquated notion of totalitarianism. Such a book will not engage or inspire my undergraduates, because--should I say it baldly? --it is theoretically impoverished, something of an embarrassment to read. It is not worthy of their intellectual efforts. Is this the best we can do?

Where, indeed, do we want American democracy to go--and why? Let's ponder some of those heady issues--in organized fashion--before we jump headlong into the next laundry list of proposals about health care reform, campaign finance, environmental protection, tax policy, affirmative action, national defense, and so on. I think back to JFK's "Ask Not" speech, or MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech, or LBJ's "Great Society" speech, and then I compare those grand notions to the current DNC's apparent vision for the upcoming elections: "Had enough? Vote Democratic." What a let down. Arghh.