public policy school: one week in

Until recently I was a scholar, writer and teacher in the Humanities (history, with a background in philosophy and a doctorate in American studies). The people who I knew in that milieu often considered themselves radical leftists politically but then consistently, albeit reluctantly, voted for Democrats. Now I am in a public policy program and the whole terrain is different. My initial impression of my fellow students is that they are liberal rather than radical. Put another way, they consider progressive politics to be fairly radical in today's political climate. They vote for Democrats with great enthusiasm, because their politics are oriented more toward supporting specific policies (no surprise there) rather than bringing about some long-term shift in people's attitudes that will eventually bring about radical change.

Though both groups of people are on the left side of the political spectrum, their commitments manifest themselves differently. One prominent example of this difference is that, in my view, liberal policy people take Republicans more seriously than do radical Humanities people. The latter group certainly wants to understand the larger forces that have led to the rise of conservatism, but the presumption is so strong against the actual positions, values and arguments of this movement that few feel the need to attempt to refute them. (They do enjoy demonstrating that some liberal shibboleth or other is actually steeped in racism. The narcissism of minor differences is strong in this regard.) For policy people, though, Republicans are those whose votes need to be won in order to enact any policy worth doing. They are the people to whom you're going to have to give up something in order to get what you want. In this context, writing them off is not a viable option.

To the extent that my anecdotal distinction holds up, I am temperamentally a Humanities person. As such, I tend to think that debates between Democrats and Republicans represent little more than factional turf-battles that would only be intellectually interesting if the Democrats were as far to the left as the Republicans are to the right. But putting myself in a public policy environment, I am learning, is bringing this comfortable assumption to the fore, and maybe exposing its limitations.

For example, in a recent assignment in my class on Mobility and Inequality, we were supposed to read and assess competing think tank reports. One was in the mainstream of contemporary liberal approaches, while the other was its conservative parallel. For the liberal one I offered a sort of ho-hum response to the effect that I was already familiar with most of the policies and arguments that it offered. My reaction to the other report, on the other hand, was that it followed the traditional conservative approach of trotting out the same solutions (primarily tax cuts) to every problem.

I had to hustle to get this assignment in on time. I was up late, tired, and just glad to get it done. So I didn't get to really look at it until a couple of days later. It was then that I noticed that those two criticisms are essentially the same. But I offered the first in a blasé manner as though the ideas in question were just not stimulating enough for me (because I am so much edgier than that, perhaps), while issuing the second assessment as thought it pointed to a real intellectual failure.

Up to this point in my life, I had taken the political perspective that I associate with the intellectual historian: that the broad sweep of ideas and interests is the real story, while day-to-day partisan squabbles represent little more than transitory pissing matches. Or, more to the point, I had thought that this was my perspective. But its seems clear to me that, in completing my assignment, I cut the liberal a lot more slack than the conservative. This is an intellectual inconsistency and, to some extent, a political one as well. I guess, then, that I'm learning something in school. Look at that!