A tale of two think tanks

Scott St. Louis

Last spring, I accepted invitations to the meetings of two think tanks affiliated with competing ideologies in national life. The first meeting brought together different subcultures of the American Right – paleoconservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives – to discuss the philosophical roots of conservatism and its future. The second meeting was hosted by a progressive organization affiliated with a distinguished public research university on the West Coast, uniting scholars and activists of the American Left for several days of innovative programming that combined research lectures, advocacy presentations, and avant-garde artistic performances. I am deeply grateful to the organizers of both events, as well as to the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, for offering me the valuable opportunity to attend these meetings and broaden the experiential foundations of my worldview.

As a result of my attending both conferences and playing the part of a fly on the wall, I have learned that the virtuosos of America’s ideological echo chambers often employ the rhetorical strategies that they lambast their opponents for using.

For example, I noticed that some of my conservative peers ridiculed what they saw as the excesses of identity politics even as they lamented the supposed marginalization of “conservative identity” in academia and in popular culture. On the other hand, my progressive peers laughed raucously when a high-profile keynote speaker took just two or three dismissive sentences to summarize a book written by an accomplished conservative scholar before shrugging his shoulders and telling them not to read it. After catching their breath, they patted themselves on the back and happily concluded that their movement is indeed free of the mindless chest-thumping that is, supposedly, the exclusive domain of their adversaries.

My time at both conferences reinforced my (admittedly unoriginal) belief that the demands of mass politics do not always lend themselves well to civil discourse. This is especially true in a country where virulent strands of anti-intellectualism have exerted an undeniable influence on the national culture.

By encouraging their peers to ignore the layers of nuance that accompany all wicked problems, some individuals would conflate the fickle world of partisan politics with an eternal struggle between good and evil. Under the guise of “principle,” it becomes possible for such “leaders” to accomplish a stunning feat of acrobatics, throwing their noses into the air and their heads into the sand at the same time. In so doing, they imperil our democracy itself in order to feed the sacred cows of one group or another. (An ample source of manure, if ever there were one!)

Engaged citizens should let both groups know that they can’t have their cake and eat it, too. Shocking though the concept might be, perhaps these organizations should treat each other as fellow stakeholders in the health of public culture, rather than mortal enemies of it. Maybe I’m just naïve. I hope not.

Common ground might be elusive, and the search for it highly challenging to many, but nevertheless, I remain optimistic.