Do Progressives Need “Contrarians”?

It is psychologically important to conservatives these days to argue that the Democratic Party and progressives generally have “moved Left” under Barack Obama, partly to explain away their obstructionism and blur their own extremism, and partly because the pre-Obama Democrats under Clinton broke a long Democratic presidential losing streak. This is why Mitt Romney’s campaign kept trying to assert that Obama had abandoned Clinton’s legacy, to the point of flat-out lying about the incumbent’s position on welfare reform.

At Reason Matt Welch has offered a new variation on this theme based on what he calls “The Death of Contrarianism,” based on his claim that the Washington Monthly and the New Republic–and for that matter, the New Democrats of the Clinton era–have become more or less cheerleaders for liberal and Democratic pieties. Lost in this transformation, Welch suggests, has been a tradition of critical self-examination that was good for liberalism and good for the country:

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.

There is an awful lot of telescoping in Welch’s account of brave left-of-center heretics giving way to hacks. His appreciation of WaMo “contrarianism” seems to be confined to the 1970s and 1980s, which ignores the magazine’s continuing efforts to “make government work” amidst some wildly varying political and economic circumstances. He seems to think TNR went bad when Marty Peretz gave way to Chris Hughes (in truth, Peretz was marginalized at TNR and no longer represented the views of its staff and contributors, much less its readers, from at least the mid-2000s on). Worst of all, he seems entirely innocent of the endless discussion in center-left circles, continuing through the 1980s and 1990s until the present, about how to promote worthy liberal self-examination without descending into mere “contrarianism,” or providing regular material for the opposition.

One important reason the tone of liberal “heresy” has changed is that the “contrarians” won a lot of battles, from the “reinventing government” movement to a more robust support for private-sector innovation to reforms of the “welfare state” to more regular engagement with actual progressive voters as opposed to self-appointed interest group representatives. An equally important reason, which is entirely missing in Welch’s analysis, is what happened on the Right with the gradual triumph of a conservative movement that was more interested in destroying the New Deal/Great Society legacy than in reforming it. In Charlie Peters’ famous “Neoliberal Manifesto” of 1983, which Welch quotes from selectively, in the founding documents of the Democratic Leadership Council, and in the better contribution of TNR, there was a constant emphasis on maintaining progressive values and commitments but modernizing their means in order to make them more effective in meeting their stated purposes and in maintaining political support for them. The most urgent progressive political task today is surviving the conservative onslaught, so of course “contrarians” are a lot more careful about making their fundamental allegiances clear.

Since no progressive wants to find his or her “critical analysis” turned into Fox News talking points, even those most willing to question this or that element of existing policy or rhetorical practice (say, the reflexive opposition to means-testing of Social Security and Medicare on grounds that universal programs are easier to defend politically) need to constantly re-articulate their values. If that annoys or aggrieves people like Matt Welch, he can blame his friends on the Right.

The truth is that for all the past, present and future fighting within the progressive coalition, some of it quite essential (e.g., the fight over Democratic support for the Iraq War), the line separating left from right has always been more important, with the exception of professional contrarians who really didn’t care if they became objective servants of the conservative movement and its media. Maybe those are the people Welch misses. But they were never the dominant personalities at WaMo, the DLC, or even TNR (all institutions I’ve been identified with, BTW). From a personal point of view, the most “contrarian” progressive I know is Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall, who’s engaged in more intraparty fights than you can count. But in 2004, he co-drafted a economic policy manifesto with TAP’s Robert Kuttner. These two men were about as far from each other on the conventional intraparty spectrum as you could get–yet they thought it important to express solidarity over principles and make a largely successful effort to bridge the gap in their policy prescriptions.

That kind of intraparty debate is far from dead, and far from absent at WaMo (and I suspect from TNR). But for all its value, it could easily degenerate into the pointless wrangling you often see from Old Left academics if the broader goals of maintaining and reforming historic progressive achievements are abandoned.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.