As I was composing my thoughts about the Biden–Ryan debate, I returned to my initial response to Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his Vice President.
“Ryan’s nomination, I believe, assures the re-election of President Obama. The basis of my belief is a judgment that Americans generally are guided by a conservative insight, an American suspicion of ideological thought. Conservative insight defeats the conservative ticket.”
I reported this on my Facebook page and a very interesting debate developed, the sort of “serious discussion about the events of the day,” beyond “partisan gated communities,” which I hoped Deliberately Considered would stimulate. Thomas Cushman, the Deffenbaugh de Hoyos Carlson Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, was the critical voice, reflecting on my post and on James Jasper’s on anti-intellectualism, which focused on Paul Ryan. The discussion than took off when I responded and then Aron Hsiao joined us.
Thomas Cushman: Honestly, is it possible that anyone could not look at Biden and see the incarnation of the anti-intellectual? It would seem more sociologically accurate and fair-minded to see that ideologue anti-intellectuals abound in both parties.
Jeffrey Goldfarb: Historically for sure, there have been anti-intellectuals in both parties. I really don’t understand on what grounds you label Biden as such, though. And I think ideological temptations, in the form of magical modern thinking about complex problems, exist among Republicans these days, not among Democrats. I wish this wasn’t so as someone who admires conservative thought.
Thomas Cushman: Really, from my point of view, it seems like Obama is almost completely a magical thinker, who inflects most of reality with a utopian narrative, and therein lies the problem. You can’t govern with a narrative, not a complex modern society in any case. I think Ryan comes across as a kind of intellectual technocrat, icy facts, some basic principles. Romney as well. I was here in MA for the Romney governorship, he was very pragmatic and not an ideologue. I think Obama is, at base, an ideologue, and it is his own words that give that sense to me. This is why Clinton, deep down, thinks he’s an amateur politician. Because he is a utopian and that doesn’t work. As for Biden, well, where to start on making the case against him. If you can look at the behavior and thinking of the two men in relation to each other, and come away thinking that Ryan is the anti-intellectual, I’m not sure what to say.
I would add that loud guffaws, eye rolling, bullying, laughing, etc. are not exactly the hallmarks of what I would consider to be an intellectual habitus. Ryan comes off as studious, serious, even professor-like. One could make that observation despite any political preference. There is nothing intellectual in Biden, no literacy, no depth, nothing but bluff and bluster. Obama at least can claim the mantle of intellectual, but of course for the Americans that is something of a liability in politics. Thanks for listening.
Aron Hsiao: Thomas, it seems to me as if you’re confusing an affect associated with certain social statuses with logical and empirical soundness. The socially constructed quantity of “the intellectual” encompasses both, but as a social construction, it is inflected in the process of reception as a matter of the audience demographic at issue and their culture and values.
Certainly both Obama and Biden are more logically and empirically sound than Romney and Ryan in the substance of the platform, policy specifics, and accounts of our present policy universe. In fact, Romney and Ryan have worked hard, to my eye, to ensure that there is relatively little content in this dimension of their “intellectualism” inasmuch as it is claimed to exist and obtain.
What is often described as Obama’s “utopianism” is in fact an acknowledgment that the social dimension of the world (both practice and ideology) are deeply implicated in and constitutive of policy outcomes, a view that is somewhat unpopular in American circles (note the constant dismissal of sociology and, to a lesser extent, other social sciences as “just politics” or “just utopianism” or “soft and wishful”) despite what history has to tell us about the incredible power, both for good and for bad, that inheres in publics and their quotidian lives and interactions.
Thomas Cushman: Fair enough, but one can be a sociologist — like myself – and feel as if some people read the social dimensions of the world differently than, say, contemporary welfare state liberals. My own sociological awareness is deeply suspicious of state power, as Jeffrey Goldfarb’s ought to be, given our common experiences in looking at state socialism. I think hard sociology is actually the best empirical proof of the dangers of utopianism, as evidenced by the now forgotten classical liberal sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, who was the best sociological critic of utopianism, with the possible exception of Raymond Aron. Somehow, liberals forgot that the real enemy of freedom was the state and then came to believe that anyone who actually believed that was somehow retrograde or anti-intellectual.
Aron Hsiao: I think that Obama’s position on the state is a nuanced one; one of the underlying issues at debate is whether he is a statist at heart (the Right position) or seeks a realization and understanding of the state as a responsive expression of the nature and values of its public (the Left position). The problem, of course, is that the public of the state in question is a deeply divided one in terms of value orientations and everyday life practices, which means that in the wild the argument devolves into a debate as to whether the prerogative belongs to the slim majorities or, in the opposed view, the state is to be effectively abolished as an expression of the irreconcilable differences of the public.
My view is that it is in the interest of the best estimable practical and ethical outcomes, given the history of the 20th century and the modernities that we have already observed, that Obama’s nuanced Left understanding of the state ultimately obtain. But obviously, this is precisely the terrain of the value difference in the first place, so on both sides the argument has tended toward the subtly tautological.
Jeffrey Goldfarb: I go to sleep and an interesting discussion happens, too complicated for me to adequately address here. Just a few quick notes, and then perhaps we can reproduce this as a sustained exchange on Deliberately Considered [and here it is]. Tom, I am looking for intelligent criticism of my position on Deliberately Considered, not just agreement. It would be great to get one from you. I agree that Romney is no right wing ideologue, but he sometimes has tried to appear as such. It is difficult to know where he actually stands, what he would actually do. Obama on the other hand is very clear, at least to me. He doesn’t celebrate the magical powers of the state, as you suggest. He is a principled, pro market, centrist, who thinks the market should function in a setting that is developed with state support and control, including controls that facilitate greater social justice and decency. He is quite pragmatic about this, it seems to me. I don’t see this as having much to do with the previously existing socialism, which we both knew and developed our critical skills studying. Ryan as anti-intellectual? As James M. Jasper analyzed, there is pseudo intellectual quality to anti-intellectuals, which I think is present in Ryan. Further, his true believing anti-statist position is ideological (though he controls this) and especially dangerous. And on Obama again, all politics is formulated through narratives, the telling of stories as Arendt would put it. He is a powerful storyteller who in the last debate lost his voice. I hope he finds it soon.
Thomas Cushman: All very good. I’d be interested perhaps in an interchange on DC [It is starting here]. I am not sure why an anti-statist position is dangerous. It could be of course, but not necessarily. It was the wellspring of the anti-communist intellectuals whom your books taught me to appreciate and model my own politics after. I am searching for a liberalism which is more cautious of the state and have been led to something that is being called neoclassical liberalism, which tries to appreciate egalitarian high liberalism a la Rawls but also stresses greater economic individual liberties over and against the state as one of the best means for achieving self realization and more general societal happiness.
I do agree that there is a pseudo intellectual quality to all these politicians these days. I don’t consider Obama to be an intellectual in the strong sense of that term. As a legal scholar, presumably, he never left us any work by which we could judge his legal acumen. His autobiographies are written somewhat more for the Oprah crowd, and as we know now are creations of narrative rather than deep analysis. The smart people who have worked with him have generally left in frustration by his inability to listen (Larry Summers, for instance). Romney is certainly no intellectual either, but he makes no pretensions to being so. And it is difficult to find a person who worked for him who does not have deep respect for his abilities and successes. I wonder if really the US is actually better governed by intellectuals or managers. Seems to me that modernity demands managers of complexity, and that intellectuals are ill suited to govern in this context.
The discussion continued, packed with intriguing insights and competing judgments. I will post them later. For now, note the key questions that arise out of this discussion: Who are and are not intellectuals and what are their proper roles? Is there a distinction between storytelling based on principle and ideology? What is the role of the state and how suspicious of the state should we be? What are the promise and perils of utopianism? And much more specifically: what have Tom and I learned from our experience studying previously existing socialism and our appreciation of what he calls the classical liberal sociology of Ralf Dahrendorf and Raymond Aron?
I find the last question personally interesting. Thomas and I agree in many of our critical observations and judgments. He even maintains that his are informed by my writings (I indeed also appreciate his). Yet, we draw different political conclusions. He asserts that he is surprised by my conclusions, as I am surprised by his. I think such surprise is the stuff that makes for a sound democratic culture. More soon.