Liberals may argue that they are better off knocking on doors and brainstorming policy than muddling through the great works of midcentury America. “Americans usually reject the party of theory,” E.J. Dionne wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post, responding to Ryan’s nomination, “which is what conservatism has now become.” The problem is that most liberals couldn’t put together the sort of intellectual short list that conservatives now take for granted even if they wanted to. In my Yale seminar on liberalism and conservatism, I try to assign some plausible candidates: Arthur Schlesinger, Reinhold Niebuhr, Betty Friedan, Michael Harrington, Martin Luther King, John Kenneth Galbraith. Undoubtedly many people reading this essay can come up with alternatives, and register strong objections to any of the above. But liberals rarely ever have the conversation. Putting together the conservative side of the syllabus is always vastly easier than putting together the liberal one, in part because conservatives themselves have put so much time and energy into the selection process.
Some of this imbalance is due to the relative weakness of the current American left. Liberals are not the logical counterweight to conservatives; leftists are, but they are few in number. Still, we have the political spectrum that we have, and liberals fail to take up the intellectual challenge at their peril. Conventional wisdom suggests that Romney may have doomed his electoral bid by choosing an ideologue—one who likes to go on about Ayn Rand!—as his vice presidential nominee. Yet it seems equally possible that Ryan’s nomination will do just what Romney wants: mobilize a base of committed activists who share most of Ryan’s basic ideas.
The default mode for liberals and progressives in such situations has often been to celebrate “diversity”—intellectual, racial, sexual, and of most other sorts. In many ways this is for the best. Nobody wants to return to an era in which politics and political ideas were dominated by a handful of white men, however thoughtful. Yet we rarely pause to consider what liberals have lost by neglecting a common intellectual heritage and by attempting to win political success without a political canon. At its best, a canon helps people put the pieces together, offering long-term goals and visions that sustain movements through periods of trial and defeat. Without those visions, liberals have no coherent way of explaining where we’re headed, or of measuring how far we’ve come.
In the current election this means that liberals also run the unnecessary risk of ceding intellectual authority to the right. Despite everything you may hear, Paul Ryan is not an original thinker or a great intellectual. Most of his big ideas were laid out 50 years ago by the thinkers—themselves often overrated—who now make up the conservative canon. Perhaps this simply reinforces an old political truism: Liberals look to the future, while conservatives look to the past. But liberals could do worse than to heed Ryan’s words last Saturday, in his first speech as a vice presidential candidate. “America is more than just a place,” he noted, “it's an idea.”