While inspecting the body politic, one encounters one clear sign that liberalism is dead. It is the condition of our political discourse. Polite commentators note that the dialogue is “rancorous.” Some say toxic. Actually, it is worse than that. It is nonexistent. From the right, from the sophisticated right, there is an attempt to engage the liberals. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, just did it by presenting a budget that cried out for intelligent response. President Obama’s response was to invite Mr. Ryan to sit in the front row for Mr. Obama’s “fiscal policy” speech at George Washington University. There, Mr. Obama heaped scorn on an astonished Mr. Ryan and his work. He did not even mention Mr. Ryan’s name. This is what Mr. Obama calls an “adult” debate?
From the rest of the liberals there generally is silence. They prattle on about Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, but they pay almost no heed to the think tanks on the right, to their journals of opinion or to the writers and figures of heft. The liberals are dead.
There are the zombies out there - well-known politicians such as Al Gore - or writers such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who howls about the Heritage Foundation while fudging that think tank’s findings or about the aforementioned Mr. Ryan. But there is no one capable of engaging the serious conservatives. None even tries. Their idea of dialogue amounts to hurling lines fit for a bumper sticker - “I am a citizen of the world” or “War is not the answer.” Or perhaps they hurl a slur - conservatives are “extreme,” though by now, the conservatives have been around for decades and running the country more frequently than not: the Reagan and Bush administrations and the Gingrich Congress. Have the liberals not noticed this? As I say, liberalism is dead.
This has not always been the case. There was a time when liberals - say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan - engaged conservatives brilliantly. They knew what conservatives thought. They even could find elements of conservative thought that they disagreed with without disfiguring that thought and pouncing on the resultant red herring. This is not the way it is today. There has been a change in the politically charged audience in this great republic.
It is not in the vituperation. The vituperation has always been out there. Sometimes it has been delicious. As early as the presidency of George Washington, invective was eloquent of the political bad blood between the contending factions. In looking for a secretary of state to replace Edmund Randolph, Washington was turned down by five candidates; the last, Rufus King, explained to Washington’s agent, Alexander Hamilton, that he had rejected the offer because of “the foul and venomous shafts of calumny” then being heaved at public servants. Washington was disparaged as a monarchist, Hamilton as a lackey. Things have not improved in the public discourse since then.
Yet now, something is different. I blame the liberals. They do not engage their adversaries. They have been able to avoid doing so because they have controlled the public media, the Kultursmog. The smog reported their grotesqueries with the utmost seriousness. Thus, if you were visiting from a foreign country, you might think Glenn Beck to be a major force in American politics and you might be gravely frightened of Mr. Beck and of Fox News. But Mr. Beck is only an entertainer, and he is leaving Fox News - some say under duress. Sarah Palin and her whole family might sound like the Marcos family of the Philippines, but she is from Alaska and out of office.
Or take the recent imbroglio between Mr. Krugman and the Heritage Foundation. Heritage recently ran Mr. Ryan’s numbers through a perfectly mainstream, nonpolitical, economic model, the U.S. Macroeconomic Model developed by Global Insight. Mr. Krugman responded in a New York Times column by impugning Heritage’s integrity, claiming Heritage used a model that would force the conclusions that Heritage wanted. Heritage’s Bill Beach called out Mr. Krugman in an open letter. Now it has been more than a week, and not a peep of response from Mr. Krugman. As I say, liberalism is dead, but its nigh-unto-totalitarian control of media has ended. Fox News, talk radio and the Internet have arrived. Raise a toast to free speech.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His new book is “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).