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A Liberal Comity Show

In which the “moral high ground” proves a little . . . mushy

In a decorous but momentous gathering, our leading political savants adjourned to the Kaufman Center in midtown Manhattan last week to settle the sort of controversy that’s the NPR equivalent of an opioid rush—the proposition that “liberals hold the moral high ground.”

Yes, this was an actual convocation of sentient adults debating a sadly self-deconstructing glop of unalloyed nonsense, for the better part of two hours. What’s more, the sanctimonious nonprofit convening the debate is pleased to call itself “Intelligence Squared,” and is solemnly dedicated to combat “the extreme polarization of our nation and our politics. Their [sic] mission is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse.”

Cavilers could note that a group devoted to the exponential increase of intelligence might well tend to the basics of pronoun agreement before moving on to the big-ticket challenges of reason-restoration, polarization-smiting, and the like. Though come to think of it, the whole notion of “squaring” intelligence seems like it’s anathema to the acquisition of critical reasoning skills, calling to mind the ur-American notion of self-improvement by supersizing, rather than patiently interrogating and empirically testing the premises that govern our great res publica.

But this is all, as I say, the merest caviling. High ground was to be staked, and liberals, now locked out of any meaningful exercise of power that doesn’t involve demanding the resignation of congressional liberals, were tasked with making it their own political franchise. Philanthropic largesse was deployed, a prestige venue procured, a livestream activated. What could possibly go wrong?

Yes, this was an actual convocation of sentient adults debating a sadly self-deconstructing glop of unalloyed nonsense.

Well, here’s what: the assembled worthies on all sides were constrained by the terms of engagement to treat liberalism, conservatism, and indeed politics at large, as primarily an exercise in procedural comity. To be sure, liberals and conservatives may disagree on key policies and philosophical claims, but per the Intelligence Squared mission statement, the four debaters—Howard Dean and Melissa Harris-Perry for the affirmative and Robert George and David Brooks in the negative—were exhorted, over and over again, to stress the common ground they shared, to reason peaceably together, and to tread cheerfully toward greater civility. In this spirit, moderator John Donvan told each speaker to recite his or her pet American virtue before proceeding to his or her opening statement—a kind of ID check that may represent the only true instance of virtue-signaling yet recorded.

Since both Dean, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, and Harris-Perry, a revered former MSNBC host, are in a sense professional liberals, you might expect they could have managed to carry the day, even given the insupportable special-pleading baked into the very phrasing of the question under debate. But instead of laying out a robust and confident brand of liberal politics, each of the standard bearers of the notional left recurred by instinct to agreeably broad and vague nostrums of what Harris-Perry called a shared national “civic religion, that is laid out by our Framers as an aspirational morality.” As she enumerated the elements of this faith, things didn’t get much clearer: the “standard of American civic morality” is made up of “human freedom, meaningful equality, the cultivation of human flourishing and substantive popular governance.”

Such ideals, of course, are so broad as to admit virtually anything as their proximate causes—which is why the present American scene is overrun with meaningless equality (like, say, in-person reality TV voting on one’s smartphone, which is how this debate was settled) and cultivations of human flourishing that oscillate within an artificial narrow spectrum of opinion (which is why the readings presented as “research” for this midtown Chautauqua consisted of a Nick Kristof column on “blue state” morality, a Politico magazine feature on liberal intolerance, and—of course—a TED talk by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt on the “moral roots of liberals and conservatives”).

In addition to the terminal shallowness of the colloquium, all the debaters relied on the civility-promoting tenor of the evening to effectively invert the brunt of political reasoning that might do a measure of good in the actually existing world. Hence conservative political philosopher Robert George, in his opening statement, obliged with a standard both-siderist lament of runaway partisanship: “Neither side today has the moral high ground and that’s because both sides have permitted themselves to descend into dogmatism, ideological tribalism, contempt for people who disagree with them, an unwillingness to listen and consider that they might be able to learn something from people who have a different view.” But by the end of the statement he was decrying (correctly, as it happens) a “crony capitalism” that is “the work of both conservatives and liberals”—i.e., a product of the very bipartisan spirit of consensus he was calling for at the outset.

Things got more hopelessly confused as the evening wore on. As Harris-Perry tried, forcefully at times, to direct the conversation to existing social conditions—noting, for example, as Donvan dragged out the topic of affirmative action for ritual pundit flogging, that the biggest beneficiaries of such admission policies are men, who are dramatically overrepresented in college freshman classes—the moderator castigated her for failing to show how this made liberals true high-grounders, or to hew to the tightly circumscribed question of “fairness” he was then urging on the debaters. (This flourish was still another instance in the nonsignifying character of civility discourse; in any strict reading, affirmative action can be made to seem “unfair” in the sense of benefitting applicants with different qualifications than others—but the point of the policy in the first place is to scrutinize and broaden the very definition of procedural “fairness” in a polity and university culture that has cheerfully rationalized racist policy outcomes for four centuries and counting.)

In procedural-civility land, no one raises much in the way of objections arising from economic interests—it’s just not bi-partisan enough.

David Brooks, meanwhile, was in his oleaginous element, barking out glib one-liners in near-involuntary fashion. (“I want to thank St. Howard and St. Melissa for coming down from their high ground to the ground that most of us occupy,” he said at the start of his opening statement, and things went rapidly downhill from there.) There was, just as predictably, this bit of genial culture-war invective delivered as stern behavior-monitoring prophecy: “A lot of people voted for Donald Trump because they thought a lot of tenured radicals along the coasts thought they were morally superior to them. So if you want the kind of politics we have today, think you’re morally superior to the other side.” Brooks also revisited his conversion to the conservative cause, back when he was exposed to the baleful effects of liberal social engineering during his eighties tour of reporting on the state of things in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini–Green and Robert Taylor housing projects. Before the high-rises leveled the single-family homes that preceded them, arrogant liberal urban planners failed to see that “there was social capital there. And they tore that down by their outsider elite vision and made them materially better but socially and spiritually poorer.”

Of course, time was when a Great Society liberal might have risen to decry self-appointed moral arbiters of inner-city character and culture to be the real “outsider elitist” types here—much as Franklin Roosevelt had cheerfully derided his opponents as “economic royalists.” But in procedural-civility land, no one raises much in the way of objections arising from economic interests—it’s just not bi-partisan enough, you see. Yes, Harris-Perry did reproach Brooks’s Chicago reminiscence on the grounds that liberals endorse the precept that nonwhite and nonaffluent communities should agree to “nothing about us without us”—but this, too, is a tellingly procedural way of framing things. Surely the more relevant point here is that Brooks, George, and the policy consensus they represent remorselessly depict ongoing public harms as questions of individual virtue and character, so as to direct material resources away from the communities deprived of them, for the ostensible betterment of their social and spiritual lives. Indeed, there was a distinctly sick-making quality to Brooks’s and George’s paeans to the sacrosanct character of “covenantal relationships” in civil society and the evocation of the family as “the primordial department of Health, Education, and Welfare” (in George’s pet formulation) at a moment when the hurricane-ravaged power grid is still flickering out routinely in Puerto Rico, and when the self-styled guardians of family values in Congress have revised the federal tax code to make the middle-class livelihoods that actually support families a relic of our own primordial liberal past.

After a great deal of procedural fussing and a host of technological SNAFUs, the ballot result directly undercut the will of the largest segment of voters.

And for the most part, the Liberal Team obligingly took the bait. Dean, who’s cashed out his political credentials, per the great Washington tradition, to pursue a lucrative corporate advocacy career, went out of his way to tout the charter school movement as a sign of his own policy open-mindedness—still another reminder that school-choice dogma is destroying the Democratic party from within. Small wonder that, when the time for closing statements mercifully arrived, Dean could only offer a template of blather that was exponentially more vague than the civil-religion dictums Harris-Perry had used to launch the proceedings. Liberals can survey the moral scene with proprietary smugness, he burbled, because “we look forward, we have hope, we are not clinging to the past, and we are not fearful.”

Well, why didn’t you say­ so? None of these no-doubt pleasing traits has anything to do with morality, or politics, for that matter—any more than the encampment at Occupy Wall Street would have rocked out to “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).” But Dean’s envoi was, in a sense, perfectly suited to the ultimate disposition of the question under debate. At the end of the closing statements, there was an interminable wait for the audience’s smartphone votes to be tallied. Donvan issued a painfully long series of fundraising appeals for Intelligence Squared, and touted forthcoming debates. (Don’t miss the Valentine’s event scheduled for February 6, which is, yes, titled “Swipe Left.”) A twelve-year-old questioner was trotted on stage for still more painfully awkward snapshots with the debaters.

Finally, the results came through Donvan’s iPad and were duly beamed onto the auditorium screen: a plurality of the crowd assented to the proposition, as they had in the vote taken prior to the debate. But as Donvan explained, the winner was adjudicated on the movement of opinion that occurred within a specific cohort. By this measure, the against team of Brooks and George carried the day, since they gained 19 percentage points between tallies (chiefly, one assumes, that the crowd came to fully grasp the idiotic way the debate question had been worded in the first place). So in other words, after a great deal of procedural fussing and a host of technological SNAFUs, the ballot result directly undercut the will of the largest segment of voters—with everyone leaving under the inexplicable assurance they had learned something. Intelligence Squared may not have produced a brief for any brand of resurgent American liberalism, but the evening’s final tally at least presented a perfect snapshot of twenty-first-century American democracy in action.