With a column in the Independent, the British Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has officially joined the growing ranks of conservative intellectuals who are card-carrying members of the “reality-based community”:
At Oxford in the early 1980s, I was one of those Tory boys who cheered Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as they stood up to the Soviet Union, the trade unions and rampant inflation. For us, conservatism was about freedom in the sense of free markets and individual freedom versus collectivism. This is not what the Republican Party today means by freedom. Not so long ago, I saw one of my old Oxford friends, who now lives and works in Washington. “You know, Niall,” he said to me, “I used to think of myself as a conservative. But I have learned something about myself since I came to this country. It is that I am in fact a liberal.” Such sentiments help to explain why so many of us — from Andrew Sullivan to the Economist — ended up backing Kerry.
At the end of his article, Ferguson quotes extensively from the Ron Suskind story that introduced the now-famous ontological phrase. The question is how politically significant the “reality-based community” will remain in the long run.
Some of the (British-born) conservatives are abandoning ship, and moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee may not be far behind.
The contradiction of a political coalition between economic liberals and authoritarian social conservatives is the chink in the Republican armour. Whether the Republicans’ libertarian faction will be willing to stick with the Bush social agenda will be the interesting thing to watch over the next four years. Can the “reality-based community” including both Nozickian and Rawlsian liberalism become a genuine electoral coalition rather than just a catchphrase of disenchanted intellectuals from both ends of the political spectrum? Given the post-Clinton Democrats’ general rightward shift, Bush’s fiscal recklessness, and the willingness of Americans to vote against their economic interests, it’s hardly an absurd idea anymore. The 2008 could well become a contest between modernism versus traditionalism rather than the usual infighting within America’s liberal tradition.