American liberalism today is in an advanced stage of intellectual decline

by Ryan Streeter on October 26, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

I know it’s regular fare for pundits to talk about how conservatives have been captured by a kind of anti-government extremism, and there certainly have been some people out there on the right who have reinforced this view.

But Walter Russell Mead’s critique of American liberalism captures the an under-discussed reality that affects so much of the rhetoric filling today’s public square: the utter intellectual exhaustion of the left. Conservatives in America still have quite a few debates among themselves, in public, over big issues. On taxes, social issues, and foreign policy, to name a few, conservatives maintain a culture of debate and dissent that has long marked the movement.

The left, on the other hand, does very little honest intramural debate anymore. It has largely accepted premises formulated long ago, and it behaves as if its job is now merely force those premises through whatever means possible onto whatever public issue is standing before them. As the Blue Dogs die off, the stridency of the left grows louder. We see it in Obama’s bizarre final weeks of his campaign, but we see it clearly, as Mead notes, in how the bastions of liberalism around the country have performed.

He writes:

American liberalism today is in an advanced stage of intellectual decline. Cynical and short sighted interests wrap themselves in the increasingly tattered mantles of sacred ideas. Liberals are right to feel that social justice matters, that the poor should have greater opportunity and that government in a democratic society cannot remain indifferent to the existence of great social evils.

But where liberals in America have the freest hand—in states like New York, California and Illinois—we see incontrovertible evidence that the policies they choose don’t have the consequences they predict. California by now should surely be an educational, environmental and social utopia. New York should be a wonder of glorious liberal governance. Illinois should be known far and wide as the state that works.

What’s interesting about the governance failures of these states is how comprehensive they are. Other than politicians, union officials and Wall Street investment banks, nobody really benefits from the choices Illinois has made. As the Volker-Ravitch report tells us, even the public sector unions, the architects of many of the state’s most destructive policies, are going to get shafted as a result of the bad policies they’ve supported. They’ve created a state that simply won’t be able to honor its promises to the workers the unions represent.