Liberals Are Better at Criticism and Honesty Than Conservatives

Diversity on the left, lockstep on the right.

You can tell when Stephen Colbert is righteously angry. He still makes jokes in character as “Stephen Colbert,” self-aggrandizing blowhard of the right—but the jokes land a little harder, with much less of a mischievous glint in the eyes.

We had a Serious Stephen moment last week, when Colbert delivered a segment on “Barack Obama’s Righteous Drone Strikes.” He was riffing off a New York Times story about Barack Obama’s anti-terrorism leadership that revealed (among other things) that civilian casualties in drone strikes are low because Obama adopted a rule that anybody in proximity to a targeted terrorist must also be a terrorist—defining “civilian” out of existence for the sake of some Orwellian number-crunching.

“It’s brilliant,” Colbert said. “He doesn’t have to worry about habeas corpus, because after a drone strike, sometimes you can’t even find the corpus.”

What made Colbert’s diatribe against the president remarkable is that it came on a show known for offering a liberal—but chuckle-worthy—view of the world. That’s because when liberals want the freedom to criticize liberal programs and liberal politicians, they can do so in liberal outlets.

When conservatives need the freedom to criticize conservative programs and conservative politicians, they … also have to do so in liberal outlets.

Take the case of Michael Fumento. He’s been writing for conservative publications for 25 years. Now he’s writing at Salon about how “hard-right” conservatism has left the tracks.

“The last thing hysteria promoters want is calm, reasoned argument backed by facts,” he wrote of his old sponsors at publications like National Review and the Weekly Standard. “And I’m horrified that these people have co-opted the name ‘conservative’ to scream their messages of hate and anger.”

Fumento isn’t alone. David Frum—the former Bush speechwriter who coined the term “Axis of Evil”—lost his sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute after criticizing Republican opposition to the president’s health care bill. Bruce Bartlett, a Reagan adviser, was similarly booted from the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis for criticizing George W. Bush. Frum now writes for Newsweek; Bartlett opines at the New York Times.

It’s a growing list.

Since President Obama took office, though, many of his loudest critics have been on the left, Andrew Breitbart and the Tea Party notwithstanding. Pundits like Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and reporters like Mother Jones‘ Adam Serwer have kept up a steady drumbeat of news and analysis that shows how the president has broken his promises. The ACLU has kept up with persistent legal pressure.

Conservatives like to portray liberals as marching in lockstep, with a “no enemies on the left” mentality, but the evidence indicates otherwise.

Put another way: It sure looks like there’s more intellectual honesty on the left than on the right these days, more willingness to embrace a principle other than winning.

There are exceptions to this rule. Reagan biographer Steven Hayward recently wrote about how conservatives should embrace the welfare state, and still seems to be a conservative in good standing. AnLeftd we all remember the Harriet Miers fiasco.

More broadly, though, it’s liberals who are willing to embrace diversity of thought in their own ranks.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a plan to limit the size of soft drinks in his city. It’s the kind of nanny-state approach to solving problems that conservatives believe liberals love.

Only there was The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart, mocking Bloomberg’s proposal: “It combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect!” he joked.

Liberals can handle the heat. Conservatives kick the heat-bringers out of the kitchen. It’s a big difference between the two movements today.