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Liberals, the Supreme Court, and “Speaking Conservative”

In the New York Post today, I diagnose the shock at the powerful Constitutional arguments advanced against Obama’s health-care plan as another example of the self-defeating parochialism of American liberals, who are continually surprised that conservative ideas and conservative arguments are formidable and can only be bested if they are taken seriously: “the strength of the conservative arguments only came as a surprise to [Jeffrey] Toobin, [Linda] Greenhouse and others because they evidently spent two years putting their fingers in their ears and singing, ‘La la la, I’m not listening’ whenever the conservative argument was being advanced.” (There is nothing new under the son, as the “fingers in their ears” analogy was, it turns out, rather more wittily deployed by James Taranto in February 2011 in a column called “Law Law Law.”)

Indeed, yesterday, as I was writing my column, liberal New York Times columnist Gail Collins literally wrote these words: “How can this law not be constitutional?…Really, I have my hands over my ears. Not listening.”

But this gets at a more fundamental point about American discourse. Until very recently, American conservatives were, by necessity, bilingual. To be sure, they were fluent in the language of conservative or classical liberal thought—the language of Burke and Adam Smith, the language of enumerated rights and governmental limits, the distinction between freedom and egalitarianism and between liberty and license.

But they were also entirely conversant with liberal concepts—the centrality of fairness as an organizing principle, the notion that justice (in John Rawls’s understanding) involves redistributing goods to repair the injustices of nature and human nature, the elevation of reason over faith.

That has never been true of American liberals. They know their own language but they don’t know the language of their ideological and partisan opposite numbers, and usually default to a form of prosecutorial analysis or psychoanalytic diagnosis to explain how so many people could come to so wrong a conclusion about things. They ascribe it to naked self-interest (i.e., greed), or irrational hatred and fear (i.e., ignorance), or mere stupidity.

So conservatives speak liberal, but for liberals in the United States, conservatism might as well be Esperanto.

This is less and less true in a way that is both fair (in the liberal sense) and relativistic (in the conservative sense). It is possible, now, for a young conservative to be born and raised and come to adulthood in a world in which liberal ideas are seen entirely through a conservative prism—through Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio and homeschooling. This represents an enormous cultural advance for the Right, in that it is no longer forced to make its way through entirely hostile precincts.

But there is something lost at the same time—the comparative advantage of knowing two languages and using that knowledge to strengthen arguments and blindside the opposition. Paul Clement and Mike Carvin, the two conservative lawyers at the Supreme Court this week, show just what is possible intellectually as a result of this bilingualism. It would be more than a shame if the rise of the conservative bubble proved just as blinding as the liberal bubble has been for the past 40 years.



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