Inflammatory conservatives

The other day, in my post about liberal condescension, I said that conservatives are often as contemptuous of progressives as progressives are of them, and that when it comes to making a space for intelligent dialogue, there is little to choose. Glenn Greenwald has some good examples of inflammatory conservative rhetoric.

Greenwald is an interesting, informed, and bravely unpredictable commentator (see his unflinching praise for the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, a ruling that enraged most liberals). He is a constitutional fundamentalist, and follows the logic of his arguments wherever it leads – an admirable trait, mostly. But he is nothing if not angry. Any decent person would be, he believes. That leads me to wonder about the argument he is making here.

Conservatives, he says, can be just as intemperate and defamatory in their opposition to liberalism as progressives are to conservatives. Conservatives who say otherwise are hypocrites. Agreed. But does Greenwald think this equal and opposite rage is OK? Is this how a healthy democracy works – with one side talking about Dumbf***istan and the other about “liberal fascism”? Or would we get further if both sides toned it down and tried talking to each other?

Greenwald, to judge by his own commentary, is very much against toning it down. But this must qualify his objection to conservative extremism. He can attack the claim of “liberal fascism” on the merits; and he can complain of hypocrisy on the part of conservatives who deny their own side’s rhetorical violence. But he can hardly object to violent rhetoric in its own right. He is for that. In an adversarial democracy, it is fine to despise a good number of your fellow citizens, if they deserve to be despised.

I wonder if there is a disconnect between this way of thinking and reverence for the constitution. Greenwald does not admire the constitution because it always gives the right answer. He argues that if the constitution rules something out (an abridgement of free speech, torture, whatever) you obey the prohibition even if the results are bad. If the constitution gets something wrong, you amend it, you don’t just ignore it. This is a very defensible position, though not always a convenient one. But the question is, why exalt a necessarily imperfect constitution to that degree? This is not a religious commitment. It is an instrumental undertaking. The reason must surely be, in part, to make it possible for people with different views to engage productively in civil society. If productive engagement is the purpose, that argues not just for a beautiful constitution, but steady effort to see merit in the other side’s positions. In a way, the constitution exists to institutionalise that effort. Ideological rage and commitment to the constitution seem to pull in opposite directions.

I also  wonder if Greenwald would be more effective in advancing his views if he dialed back the anger. The answer to that is not obvious, however. He would have a smaller following, most likely. But I think he might have more influence, because people who disagree with him would find his (always deeply reasoned) arguments harder to ignore.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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