The Magazine

Ideas Matter

So long as they are ideas and not partisan talking points.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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"Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Stephen Colbert said at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. 

Photo of Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg

American Enterprise Institute / Peter Holden Photography

It’s hard to say whether the line is original to Colbert: Variations on this specimen of bumper-sticker wisdom have been circulating on the American left for ages. In any event, such a self-righteous and self-negating declaration says a lot about progressive America—none of it good. It’s even more revealing that Colbert’s line was delivered at Washington’s “nerd prom.” That such a poor imitation of a deadly quip would provoke hearty laughter among the Beltway elite shows how much liberal clichés have insinuated themselves into political discourse. 

Thankfully, the idea that only liberals have a grasp on the facts is one of the first notions Jonah Goldberg eviscerates here. Goldberg quotes Barack Obama, arguably the most liberal president in American history, repeatedly asserting that it’s his Republican opponents who are “locked into ideologically rigid positions,” even as he racks up $5 trillion in debt, attempts to expand the welfare state more than any president in nearly half a century, and his administration argues before the Supreme Court that the federal government has the power to compel every citizen to purchase health insurance. In contrast to those dastardly Republicans, of course, none of this radicalism is motivated by ideology: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” Obama declared in his Inaugural Address. David Axelrod has even gone so far as to claim that his boss is a “committed, practicing non-ideologue.”

As Goldberg notes, this pragmatist pose is nothing more than “self-serving verbiage passing itself off as statesmanlike wisdom.” Or, as he puts it more affirmatively: “Pragmatism is the disguise progressives and other ideologues don when they want to demonize competing ideologies.” No doubt, many conservatives, pummeled for being honest about their ideological preferences by being told that their empirical judgments aren’t liberally biased enough, have surmised as much. But they probably didn’t know this tendentious argument has such an illustrious pedigree. Goldberg takes us on a jaunty tour through history and shows us how that noted pragmatist Napoleon employed very similar appeals decrying the supposedly radical ideology of his opponents on the way to amassing supreme power. The emperor even claimed to have coined the term “ideologue”—as an epithet.

Which is not to say that Barack Obama is a budding Bonaparte; he’s not nearly so canny about his pursuit of power. All evidence indicates that the president truly believes he is unencumbered by ideology. Thus, candidate Obama argued in 2008 that his preferred progressive—er, pragmatic—political agenda is thwarted because rural Americans “get bitter, [and] they cling to guns or religion.” Now ensconced in office, he has signed an executive order monitoring gun sales in border states in the wake of a fatal Justice Department gun-running scandal, and undermines religious freedom in the name of the mandated provision of free contraception. So it looks as if the president is foisting his own ideology about guns and religion on a country with a majority of religious gun owners who have their own opinions that often run contrary to the president’s—and not the other way around.

Once Goldberg establishes that Obama and the rest of liberal America believe their own hype about their ignorant opponents trapped in ideological false consciousnesses, he’s off to the races. This is a Russian nesting doll of a book, with the author unpacking and inspecting one unexamined liberal trope after another, including essays on “Dissent,” “Social Justice,” “Separation of Church and State”—and much more. If many of Goldberg’s readers have intuitively rejected these half-baked conceits, they’ll walk away from this read with some fleshed-out historical and philosophical reasons for being wary. And it’s hard not to agree that these clichés are tyrannical, given how often the same dumb ones get recycled. While advance copies of The Tyranny of -Clichés were circulating in Washington, President Obama accused his Republican opponents of practicing Social Darwinism, a fallacious claim with little historical justification that’s the subject of Goldberg’s eighth chapter. The chapter on “Science” flays attempts to conduct pseudoscientific research proving that conservatism is a mental illness that short-circuits empiricism (see Andrew Ferguson’s “The New Phrenology,” on page 21). 

Yet effectively rebutting liberal arguments isn’t where this book shines the most. Goldberg quotes George Orwell’s famous observation that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Of course, the real need goes beyond restating the obvious; it’s finding a way to make the obvious engaging. And here, Goldberg succeeds admirably. Which is not to say that The Tyranny of Clichés is without flaws. A few chapters feel needlessly discursive, and some topics could stand to be fleshed out a bit. Given Tyranny’s short length and wide ideological/historical sweep, it would be nearly impossible for most readers not to have a few objections, or stumble across places where they feel the argument could be made better. Still, it’s quite a feat to write a polemic about byzantine ideological disputes and political semantics and make it thoroughly enjoyable. If you’re interested in giving a precocious student or open-minded liberal an explanation for why they should take the trouble to understand conservatism, this is the book to give them. There’s a good chance they’ll actually read it; it will likely make them do some rethinking; and it almost certainly will make them laugh. 

Unfortunately, those most in need of freeing themselves from the tyranny of clichés are still bitterly clinging to their own transparent attempts to dismiss people who don’t share their worldview. Jonah Goldberg recently found himself on the receiving end of a contentious interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, who, in the middle of the interview, made a point of defending an Obama attack ad about Mitt Romney while insisting he supports neither political party. “If you’re not batting for Democrats,” responded Goldberg, “it’s a wonderful approximation of it.” To which Morgan quickly responded: “Let’s deal with reality.” 

Inadvertently or not, Morgan couldn’t have made the case for reading Goldberg’s book any better.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.