Quote of the Day: Irving Kristol

Symbolic Politics and Liberal Reform, Dec. 15, 1972

“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” wrote Oscar Wilde, and I would like to suggest that the same can be said for bad politics. . . .

It seems to me that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of what we call “the New Politics” is precisely its insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings—we must “care,” we must “be concerned,” we must be “committed.” Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof.

Share With Friends


Now an Ohio Catholic!


  1. And this would not characterize the “symbolic action” of a Republican legislators who successfully might get unborn children covered in the SCHIP program in their state legislatures and celebrate it as a hard-fought pro-life victory (which it is), but then they somehow neglect to mention they might have later voted to cut the budget of the program, which limits the number of recipients in the program, thus the number of pregnant women assisted, and thus the number of unborn children assisted in their great tribulation against abortion-minded forces?

    I’m not so sure if this problem is, the present concerns of health care aside, uniquely a “liberal
    problem. So while I would agree, I think it is unfair to assign this characteristic to one side of the political spectrum and not the other.

    Because of the issue is health care, I haven’t seen major analysis of a deep and abiding problem by the GOP or any real grass roots conservative movement to reform the health care system with market-based solutions in the 12 years the GOP was in majority.

    Would I assign this lack of action indifference? Perhaps not–at least not immediately. Therefore, I would not characterize the Democrats as “immensely indifferent” to the consequences of the actual proposal of health care legislation unless we knew for certain that all parties were actually in agreement about said-negative consequences.

    So I’m not sure if it’s a fair assessment, though I can sympathize with the sentiments.

    Additionally, I think there is no justification of ad hominem attacks across the board — period. So, yes, it might characterize Pelosi and Read — but I can’t see how this is applicable only to them.

    Moreover, to Pelosi’s defense, as I read it her comments about “un-American” protesters were not directed at the protesters. In its context, if I’m not mistaken–because I remember rolling my eyes at FOX when I was looking at the actual script–she said “drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.”

    This is not necessarily an ad hominem against the person. And I’m not saying Pelosi is non-partisan. But all the screaming and yelling is really nonsense and really kills the actual debate — and opposing the reform discussion itself is what I think is what was being called un-American.

    So, I’m giving Pelosi the benefit of the doubt. I think her words were taken out of context and of course, as seen in most of this blog, sentiments toward her really don’t give leeway for benefit of the doubt or a second glance.

    Basically — a problem? Yes. Liberal only? Not in the slightest.

  2. Tito,

    No, I think Pelosi’s remarks might represent a tendency to assume that no one would oppose one’s current agenda item except through ill will, but I don’t think it’s an example of what Kristol was talking about here.

  3. Eric,

    Actually, I think the example you highlight with SCHIP serves to underline a major change in the “conservative” side of the political spectrum since Kristol wrote this in ’72. Conservatism at that point was pretty tiny, and consisted mainly of a great skepticism about the idea of progress and the possibility of achieving it through government programs — especially social programs. So for instance, Kristol may have been thinking about things like the War On Poverty — which many conservatives at the time predicted would have roughly the same consequences that the Gingrich/Clinton welfare reform sought to rectify.

    However, conservatives have since fallen prey to their own bouts of symbolic actions. Some anti-illegal-immigrant measures spring to mind — ones which send a message without actually doing much about immigration. So do some of the more pointless fights in the gun control area. And so do some pro-life bills.

    I guess I’d tend to think of this as being a case of “conservatism” becoming an ideology in a way that it wasn’t back in the 60s and early 70s — at a time when it was pretty nearly a mindset without a party. Some of that may be good. Straight up hesitation to change is not always the answer (the civil rights movement comes to mind — where MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail is basically an argument against taking a conservative “wait it out and don’t make waves” approach.)

    But it certainly means that there are quite a few in the “conservative movement” who would also be subject to Kristol’s critique here.

  4. “Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof.”

    I’d say that pretty well sums up the Welfare State.

  5. I think this observation, accepting that I concur with the view that persons of many political and social persuasions behave thus, ties in nicely with my observation that specific examples of injustice do not carry the argument.

    Increasingly, I see people hold up particular injustices as a rallying cry for the change proposed. When objections to those changes are raised, other examples of the injustice are put forth without addressing the objections. And so the “discussion” goes – with no headway being made.

  6. Have any of you read the book American Fascists by Chris Hedges?

    I have not. And I must confess, the summary does not exactly entice me:

    From Publishers Weekly
    Starred Review. The f-word crops up in the most respectable quarters these days. Yet if the provocative title of this exposé by Hedges (War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning)—sounds an alarm, the former New York Times foreign correspondent takes care to employ his terms precisely and decisively. As a Harvard Divinity School graduate, his investigation of the Christian Right agenda is even more alarming given its lucidity. Citing the psychology and sociology of fascism and cults, including the work of German historian Fritz Stern, Hedges draws striking parallels between 20th-century totalitarian movements and the highly organized, well-funded “dominionist movement,” an influential theocratic sect within the country’s huge evangelical population. Rooted in a radical Calvinism, and wrapping its apocalyptic, vehemently militant, sexist and homophobic vision in patriotic and religious rhetoric, dominionism seeks absolute power in a Christian state. Hedges’s reportage profiles both former members and true believers, evoking the particular characteristics of this American variant of fascism. His argument against what he sees as a democratic society’s suicidal tolerance for intolerant movements has its own paradoxes. But this urgent book forcefully illuminates what many across the political spectrum will recognize as a serious and growing threat to the very concept and practice of an open society. (Jan. 9)

    Among your recent reading? Did you find it enlightening?

    Personally, I’m rather down on that, “And I’ve just discovered that my enemies are even worse than I imagined!!!” style of book, whether written by the left or the right.

Comments are closed.