Ever since Paul Ryan was selected to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, the media has been fascinated by the ideas that influenced his political ideology. Specifically, Ayn Rand’s influence on Ryan. When examining Ryan’s relationship with Rand, people have wondered why there’s no left-wing equivalent of Ayn Rand, or why does it seem that conservatives have a canon whereas liberals have no equivalent? I’ve written about this topic before, but Beverly Gage from Slate brought it up again in a recent article:
Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools. This may seem like a strange statement at a moment when American universities are widely understood to be bastions of liberalism, and when liberals themselves are often derided as eggheaded elites. But there is a difference between policy smarts honed in college classrooms and the kind of intellectual conversation that keeps a movement together. What conservatives have developed is what the left used to describe as a “movement culture”: a shared set of ideas and texts that bind activists together in common cause.
Why don’t American Liberals have a canon? I think there are some reasons for this, but I don’t think we can look at this topic just from an intellectual standpoint. One of the reasons conservatives developed a canon is because books are probably the best form of media for persuading people to join a political movement. Think about it; if you’re somebody that wants to focus on politics and you want to see which political ideology fits you, you can find tons of books on the ideas behind conservatism, and just dive right in. By contrasts, there are not many books that specifically focus on the ideas behind liberalism so your options are far more limited if you’re into the left. There’s no doubt that a conservative canon makes it easier for Republicans to recruit new people into the party.
Also, liberalism acquired so many different meanings throughout its lifetime that I maintain it’s the wrong word to use in describing the American Left. Classical liberalism used to mean free markets and limited government. Then came social liberalism – which is the kind of liberalism that’s associated with the Democrats – where government was allowed to play an active role in the economy. Finally, we got neoliberalism, which is basically the modern version of classical liberalism. Anybody that wants to develop a canon for liberalism will have to address the confusing history of this philosophy, and figure out a way to reconciled its disparate meanings.
However, just because they’re not many books that focus on liberal ideas, it doesn’t mean liberals can’t use books to recruit people to their movement. One of the great things about American liberalism is that the values we hold dear are not just “liberal values” but also universal ones. Values such as empathy, fairness, and positive liberty, can be teach through many forms of art; not just through non-fiction books. If we want people to care about the poor, have them read philosophical books such as A Theory of Justice. If we want people to think critically and not just look at the facts, we can look at fiction books such as Fahrenheit 451. And if we want people to care about equal rights for minorities, we can remind them of classical works such as To Kill a Mockingbird, or Things Fall Apart. And we don’t even have to focus on books. Movies, TV shows, and music can also be deployed to get people involve in liberal politics.
The point being that while conservatives have a narrowly defined and easy to read canon, liberals have more tools at their disposal to get people to join their movement. Instead of worrying about the type of books we don’t have, it would be better for us to come up with a list of media that best exemplified liberal values. This I know can be done.