September 22, 2005

Liberals as Goldfish

It's almost a shame that the Mythbusters guys disproved the old saw that goldfish have no memories in Episode 11, since it makes such a good metaphor. Jonah Goldberg commented last year on how liberals are much less interested in their own intellectual history than conservatives and libertarians are in ours. (Jonah's follow-up post, in response to Kevin Drum, is also worth reading.) "This is a huge tactical advantage for liberals in political battles because they can disown old ideas in ways we cannot," he wrote.

But it's also a disadvantage to liberals if the old ideas they aren't up to speed on are ideas about political strategy. I thought of this after seeing Matt Yglesias argue that it's worth defending the bad policy of the Davis-Bacon Act to shore up the strength of unions, and then get shredded by Mickey Kaus, who writes in exasperation,

All these arguments were thoroughly hashed out in 1984, 1988 and 1992. Now we're having them again. It's as if Gary Hart and Bill Clinton (and Theodore Lowi) had never existed, as if "constituency liberals" like Mondale and Harkin had been routinely winning the presidency while Carter/Clinton "policy liberals" were the rare Democrats who'd lost, as opposed to the only Democrats who'd won.

Yglesias (after linking to a policy argument in favor of Davis-Bacon, which is seperate from the political question) responds, rather strangely, that it's Kaus who wants to refight old battles. "I was eleven in 1992 and three in 1984. I have no stake in those fights."

That is, not to put too fine a point on it, a really dumb thing to say, all the more striking since Matt isn't a dumb guy. I'm close to Matt's age (one year older), but if I were to write (for example) about the political efficacy of a pro-choice, anti-Roe campaign (which would mirror my policy preferences on both abortion and judges), I would be obliged to deal with the fact that Pete DuPont tried that approach in the 1988 Republican primary. If I didn't, and my conclusion cut against the historical lesson, I'd have quite a few readers with long memories dismissing me as an ignorant flake, and rightly so. That I was a child in 1988 would be no excuse for ignoring history.

Doesn't Matt have readers with long memories? Or are they all just swimming in circles, surprised on each pass to discover the little plastic scuba-diver in the tank?

Posted by John Tabin at September 22, 2005 05:33 PM

You are so right, John!

It never ceases to amaze me how little liberals remember about their own actions and beliefs. I`ve had libs say that Republicans opposed the civil rights movement, and they refuse to believe that it was the Democrats who fought against it!

It`s good to see we may be able to benefit from their weak memories!

Posted by: Tim Birdnow at September 22, 2005 07:12 PM