Conservatives have a heavy-weight like Ayn Rand and Hayek. Liberals have... Well, liberals rely on scattering of idea people like Galbraith and MLK.
You can see the problem when you check with Yale history professor, Beverly Gage, interviewed yesterday on NPR. Gage has written about this in her column at Slate.
NPR: And you mention in your column, Professor Gage, that it's vastly easier for you to put together the conservative side of your syllabus than it is the liberal side.
BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I teach an undergraduate seminar called Liberalism and Conservatism in America. And it basically goes from the New Deal up to the 1980s or so, up to Ronald Reagan. So it's sort of the rise and fall of liberalism and the fall and rise of conservatism, I guess you could say. And so, when I put together the conservative side of the syllabus, many of the people that Paul Ryan cites end up on there. And then when I get to the liberal side it's much more catch as catch can, so I turn to figures like John Kenneth Galbraith, like Michael Harrington, Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King; people who are coming at liberal issues from a pretty wide variety of perspectives. And I guess what's interesting to me is whether outside of the classroom liberals are reading those folks anymore.
NPR: And you say that that wide variety of perspectives from the liberal side isn't the equivalent really of Rand or Hayek or the conservative icons. Why not?
GAGE: Well, I think conservatives, and particularly a segment of the conservative movement, have been pretty self-conscious since about World War II in coming up with a coherent intellectual tradition. And I think liberals have been much less self-conscious about doing that. I mean, partly the project of liberalism is to be sort of skeptical and eclectic and, to some degree, the kind of default position of liberalism has been diversity, the big tent, bringing in lots of voices. And as an electoral strategy that's probably got very good points to it. But what it doesn't do is create a really coherent movement of people who feel like they're engaged in a common cause and who know where they are headed.
NPR: We also have seen cases recently where liberal thought has been used against politicians. Republicans, especially Newt Gingrich, slammed President Obama as a Saul Alinsky radical, talking about the community organizer. There is a backlash sometimes.
GAGE: Absolutely, and I wondered if one of the reasons that Paul Ryan can get up and say I was inspired by this set of books and I have this set of ideas is precisely because this doesn't feed into some pre-existing narrative about, you know, egg-headed conservative elites and their bookishness. Whereas on the liberal side, of course, it kind of does. And so, liberal politicians may actually shy away from articulating what their own intellectual heritage might be for that very reason.
NPR: I'm curious what your students say as they're going through the syllabus that you described. Do they feel that there is not an equal counterweight from the liberal side to their conservative thinkers that they're reading?
GAGE: Well, so often the conservatives who come into the class have already read the books that are on the syllabus. Whereas, the students who tend to be on the more liberal side of the spectrum often have not, which I found interesting.
GAGE: To some degree, liberalism has changed a lot over the past 50 years, in terms of limiting its vision a little bit more than you would've seen, say, in the 1940s and 1950s. So one thing that students are always very struck by in going back and looking at liberal, left-leaning figures from earlier periods is just how ambitious and confident and farseeing they appear to be. And that to them is often quite a foreign experience.
Professor Gage writes in Slate: "Despite everything you may hear, Paul Ryan is not an original thinker or a great intellectual. Most of his big ideas were laid out 50 years ago by the thinkers—themselves often overrated—who now make up the conservative canon. Perhaps this simply reinforces an old political truism: Liberals look to the future, while conservatives look to the past. But liberals could do worse than to heed Ryan’s words last Saturday, in his first speech as a vice presidential candidate. 'America is more than just a place,' he noted, 'it's an idea.'"