Anti-Intellectualism, the Right, and Rudy

David Frum, on populism and anti-intellectualism:

Conservatives have drawn strength from populism. But you can overdo any good thing —and I am beginning to think that on this one, we've zoomed the car into the red zone.

For me, the lights started flashing in 2005, during the battle over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court of the United States. Defenders of the president's under-qualified nominee began attacking the concept of qualification. One wrote: "The GOP is not the party which idolizes Ivy League acceptability as the criterion of intellectual and mental fitness. Nor does the Supreme Court ideally consist of the nine greatest legal scholars." Harriet Miers, we were told, had a good Christian heart. That was enough ... In the end, it was not quite enough for Ms. Miers. But it may be enough for many voters in 2008.

The currently front-running candidate in Iowa, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, has built his campaign on a plan to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax ... Economists and tax experts virtually unanimously agree that the plan is beyond unworkable -- that it is downright absurd.

... Just a little lower down in the polls is a libertarian candidate named Ron Paul. Paul is best known for his vehemently isolationist foreign policy views. But his core supporters also thrill to his self-taught monetary views, which amount to a rejection of everything taught by modern economists from Alfred Marshall to Milton Friedman.

Huckabee and Paul have not the faintest idea of what they are talking about. The problem is not that their answers are wrong -- that can happen to anyone. The problem is that they don't understand the questions, and are too lazy or too arrogant to learn.

Fair points all: Huckabee's Fair Tax zeal and Paul's anti-Fed enthusiasm are genuinely foolish; there is a touch of Miers-ish identity politics in the evangelical community's Huckaphilia, and Frum's larger worry about anti-intellectualism in the contemporary Right is one I share in spades. But if you're going to be hard on the current crop of Republican candidates for making bogus claims about public policy, it seems awfully unfair to leave out the candidate given to running ads in which he announces: "I know that reducing taxes produces more revenue. The Democrats don't know that. They don't believe that." (They don't believe it, of course, because in the current fiscal landscape you can't find a serious conservative economist who thinks it's true.) Or penning op-eds in which he explains that "the meaning of fiscal conservatism" includes the principle that "lower taxes can result in higher revenue." Or telling a GOP debate audience, in response to a question about whether we need to raise taxes to fix up our nation's transportation infrastructure, that the way “to do it sometimes is to reduce taxes and raise more money.”

Now it’s true that occasionally Rudy Giuliani hedges his bets (“sometimes,” “can,” and so forth) on this topic, and it’s true as well that he may not actually believe the extreme supply-side talking points he’s spouting, in the way that Huckabee presumably believes in the Fair Tax and Paul in the gold standard. On the other hand, neither of those ideas are likely to serve as the basis for economic policy in the United States any time soon, and both are marginal even within the right-wing coalition; the “tax cuts raise revenue” canard that Giuliani keeps promoting, on the other hand, is a staple of Bush Administration rhetoric and probably the dominant view among movement conservatives. If you’re looking for cases where the Right’s anti-elitism has shaded into outright anti-intellectualism - for cases where, in Frum's words, a GOP politician has deliberately failed to "study the problem, master the evidence, and face criticism" - Giuliani’s frequent channeling of Larry Kudlow seems like at least as telling an example as anything Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are peddling.