Kevin Mattson’s reply to my provocations (I and II) was fantastic. I concede to Mattson on several points. For instance, I agree about the centrality of McCarthyism to postwar conservatism, which is particularly apropos given that Irving Kristol, the “father of neoconservatism,” made a halfhearted defense of McCarthy on the grounds that liberals could not be trusted to wage the Cold War.
Yet, I stand by many of my original arguments, especially over the centrality of neoconservatism to the culture wars. This argument rests on my belief that the sixties represent a significant break, that the New Left is crucial to understanding the later culture wars, and that neoconservatism took form precisely in opposition to the New Left. In their reaction to the New Left and in their full-throated attack on those intellectuals who comprised, in Lionel Trilling’s words, an “adversary culture,” neoconservatives helped draw up the very terms of the culture wars. But since I have made that argument on this blog several times and would like to save some of my material for my book, I will let this debate go for now.
The one point of contention that I would like to return to, however, is the ongoing discussion about style and substance. Bill Fine’s many comments on this topic, as well as LD Burnett’s posts (here and here), have inspired me to think through where I stand on the style-substance spectrum in relation to Cold War liberalism. Both Mattson and LD claim that the New Left and the New Right evinced similar styles, implying that this fact is more important to our historical understanding of these two ideological trajectories than any political differences they might have had. I disagree.
In Rebels All!, Mattson argues that American conservatives are the true heirs to sixties radicals. Conservatives are the ones who carried on their legacy of anti-establishment utopianism. In this elocution, style matters. Such rebellious sensibilities stood in marked contrast to the political style that Mattson holds dear, the style of Cold War liberalism. Mattson appreciates the insights offered by postwar liberalism: “That irony and humility are necessary guards against self-assured expansion of American power. That style, the way you hold your ideas and worldview, often guide the way you do things in the world.”
Similarly, in her recent post—“Common Ground for the Culture Wars”—LD contends that William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Tom Hayden’s “Port Huron Statement” evinced strikingly similar sensibilities, particularly in their notions about the moral and political centrality of the university. Both Buckley and Hayden believed the university was worth fighting for, and in this fight they both saw themselves as doing battle with a corrupt system otherwise known as Cold War liberalism. That their critiques arose from divergent political views is less important than understanding their shared sensibilities.
Mattson points out that perhaps our main difference is over politics. Mattson writes: “He appears much more of a leftist; I’m a liberal. Some of his criticisms seem less about the substance of my own argument and getting things wrong and more with my own political conclusions.” Mattson is half correct here. Indeed, we do disagree about politics. He correctly mentions that we have different takes on historian-activist Howard Zinn, which seems to be a Rorschach test for left-leaning historians these days. Fair enough. (If you want my opinion on this matter, see my reading of Michael Kazin, who is chief among Zinn’s left-leaning critics.)
But I would argue that Mattson and my political differences do not merely lead me to dislike the conclusions he draws from history. I think it leads him to get the history wrong. This is particularly the case with his conflation of the sixties left with the post-sixties right, which seems to stem from his defense of Cold War liberalism. In this, Mattson repeats the Cold War liberal move, made most famously by Schlesinger in The Vital Center: he concludes that political ideas to the left and right of liberalism are non-sensible. Whereas Schlesinger and the consensus thinkers of the 1950s misapplied psychoanalytic theory to argue that non-liberal political views were crazy, Mattson argues that the rebellious style, whether a fashion of the left or the right, is antithetical to the good democratic society.
As far as I can tell, LD’s analysis of postwar sensibilities does not originate from any such political passion. And yet, in her historiographic commitments, she prioritizes the wrong thing. The point that Buckley and Hayden both opposed aspects of the university establishment, and in doing so were part of a larger counter-zeitgeist, is banal. Given that the university was central to the Cold War liberal project, and given that Cold War liberalism was hegemonic (there’s a reason it was called the consensus), all critics, left or right, might seem like “rebels all.” They were rebelling against powerful institutions, undergirded by powerful ideas. But their differences are more important to our historical understanding.
Buckley saw the university as an anti-traditionalist, anti-religious, secularizing institution. As such, his critique nicely anticipated the Christian Right’s war for the soul of America that took on added valence in the 1970s and after. Hayden, in contrast, saw the university as the soulless representation of a technocratic capitalism. Both critiques were compelling. Both spoke to the various weaknesses of Cold War liberalism. And both had later consequences. But they were substantially different.
That both left and right offered withering criticisms of Cold War liberalism might say a lot about Cold War liberalism. But only by analyzing the specific substance of the respective criticisms do we learn about left and right and, consequently, about the culture wars that resulted from the crumbling of Cold War liberalism.