My friend John Seery, last mentioned here, has written in response to James Ceasers "blue vs. red" paper. From his own vantage point left of center, John agrees with Ceasers observations regarding the relative dearth of theory in liberal/leftist Washington thinktanks:
While one could certainly argue that egghead wannabe-politicos are best left on the sidelines, Ceasers observation about the conspicuous dearth of institutionalized (albeit non-academic) political theorizing on the left ought to be taken seriously--and it may help explain the current "idea deficit" or "vision deficit" among the Democrats. Sure, a few political theorists served as advisers to Bill Clinton (Benjamin Barber, William Galston), and Cornel West was a prominent adviser to Bill Bradleys 2000 Presidential campaign--but theres nothing structurally comparable to the quasi-organized Straussian (or libertarian, or evangelical) presence throughout the Washingtonian ranks of quasi-officialdom. From my limited vantage, I see that if a young conservative Ph.D. in political theory, hailing from Chicago, Harvard, Duke, or the Claremont Graduate University, fails to land a tenure-track teaching post, he or she may still find gainful theoretical work, without much retooling. If a Berkeley, Princeton, Northwestern, or Johns Hopkins Ph.D. specialist in political theory doesnt find a teaching appointment, forget it, the career is over.
He further notes how regrettable this is, taking as his example The New Republics Peter Beinart, whose efforts to get Democrats to take a more sober stance in foreign policy have been much noted.
Heres an author who clearly is insufficiently informed about the classic critiques of political liberalism put forth by Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, and Kojève. My progressive postie friends would cringe at his clunky attempts at defining a national purpose by demonizing and scapegoating an Other. Beinart desperately takes a crowbar to the work of political theorists Michael Walzer and Hannah Arendt in an attempt to dignify his case that the war on terror ought to be seen as continuous with earlier wars against communism and fascism. But my undergraduates, drawing more thoughtfully on Arendt, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Foucault, would have an easy time dismantling his adamant but woefully antiquated notion of totalitarianism. Such a book will not engage or inspire my undergraduates, because--should I say it baldly? --it is theoretically impoverished, something of an embarrassment to read. It is not worthy of their intellectual efforts. Is this the best we can do?
responses to Johns piece are mostly of the "we dont need no stinkin theory" variety, born either of a post-modern "mistrust of metanarratives" or of a kind of anti-intellectualism. Even if all of his friends arent my friends, his "enemies" are mine as well.
There are two questions Id like to ask him, however. First, how easy does he think it would be for left-wing academic political theorists to find a way constructively and effectively to inform political debates? In his HuffPost piece, he mentions Bill Galston, Benjamin Barber, and Cornel West, but I wonder about those whose theoretical work is, from my limited perspective, more heavily invested in jargon and self-conscious challenges to common sense. Second, might it not be possible that the true channel, such as it is, of influence for liberal and Leftist academic theory is through the law schools and the courts?