Are "ideas" the cure to what ails conservatism?

[Kathy G.]

Lately, we've heard a lot about how conservatives are allegedly "out of ideas." Lack of ideas is supposedly the reason conservatives have recently been losing a slew of elections and scoring low ratings in public opinion polls, and why George Bush is the most hated president since the final days of Richard Nixon. What conservatives need, say some, are "new ideas." That's the ticket! Then their fortunes, currently in such spectacular free fall, will rally once again and stage a dramatic comeback.

I confess that talk of ideas in the context of American electoral politics long puzzled me. What on earth are these idée fixe-ated pundits talking about? Surely they don't mean ideas in the philosophical sense. American political discourse in no way resembles the Oxford Union debating society, let alone Plato's Republic.

Then I finally got it. By "ideas," by and large the pundits seem to mean a boutique-y marketing of a political agenda to the policy-making elites. As the historian David Greenberg once wrote, the main task of the Heritage Foundation (and I would argue, of other think tanks as well) is to "flood politicians and editorialists with ready-made policies and easy-to-digest talking points." Many political "ideas" amount to changing the packaging, but not the basic product. Old wine in new bottles and all that. Because I don't believe there really are any big "new ideas" in politics. It's just the same old ideas dressed up in a fancy new set of clothes.

For example, an old idea that conservatives have is that markets pretty much always work better than the public sector. So they thought up school vouchers as a way to strengthen the private school system and weaken the public school system. They don't like government programs, so they've been trying, for years now, to privatize Social Security. They don't like progressive taxation, so they've advocated a flat tax. And on and on.

Conservative "ideas" tend to amount to policies that transfer resources out of the public sector and into private hands. On the other side of the coin, liberal "ideas" do the reverse: they take money out of private hands and put it into the public sector, for the purpose of helping the less advantaged or solving social problems. Often, liberal "new ideas" take the form of new government programs. For example, several years ago when Tim Russert asked Rahm Emanuel what the Democrats' "new ideas" were, Emanuel mentioned enacting universal health care, significantly increasing subsidies so that more people can attend college, and creating a national institute for science and technology research.

The distribution of money and power in our society is basically what liberals and conservatives fight over. Liberals tend to want the money and power to be more equally shared, while conservatives want it to be concentrated in the hands of the corporations and the rich. But it's considered rude to speak publicly of things so vulgar as money and power, so when attempting to persuade elites, both sides find it helpful to talk about "ideas." That makes these things a lot more comfortable for all concerned -- we can all pretend that we're have a high-minded debate about ideals, instead of a grubby, down-and-dirty fight about power.

Greenberg noted that "In American politics, liberalism and radicalism have been the preferred ideologies of the intellectuals." With the glut of liberal intellectuals around, coming up with "ideas" -- new programs and policies -- has not been much of a problem for the left. Those ideas may not have been fashionable, and some of them -- like universal health care, for example -- are very, very old. But "ideas" have always been there.

Conservatives have had more of a challenge along these lines. For one thing, once upon a time there were very few conservative American intellectuals. As Greenberg points out, "So insignificant was conservatism a half-century ago that Lionel
Trilling could claim there were no true conservative ideas in our
culture, only 'irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble
ideas.''' But it's not only that conservatives tend to attract fewer eggheads to their cause; while it's easy to frame a new government program as an idea, it's much harder to make dismantling such a program sound like an idea.

Half a century ago, at the dawn of the conservative movement, conservatives faced another, even deeper problem: their political aims were viewed with distaste by many of the elites -- policymakers, middle- and high-brow journalists -- that they were trying to appeal to. Racism and class warfare have an ugly edge to them, after all. So it was all the more important that conservatives come up with some high-minded "ideas" to sanitize their more controversial and unsavory goals.

In this respect, Milton Friedman was God's gift to the conservative movement. Friedman was a great economist and a world-class intellectual who, like the conservatives, believed in a radically deregulated state and in free markets as the best (or least bad) solution to virtually every social or political problem. Better yet, his ideology implied that screwing over the working class was not only the most economically efficient way to run our society, but conformed to the highest ideals of cosmic justice.

Eureka! in Friedman-style economics, conservatives had at last found their "ideas." Friedman-omics provided the figleaf of intellectual respectability which covered the moral depravity of much of their politics. Friedmanesque ideologues began to prevail in economics departments across the country, so many of the policy elites the conservatives sought to influence were already thoroughly schooled in the "magic of the market." Economics-based appeals flattered the elites by making them feel smart, and also by implying that their worldly success was entirely deserved, earned by the dint of their hard work and "human capital," and not by the luck of the draw of what class they happened to be born into.

No doubt that, once conservatives captured the policymakers and the elite opinion-making journals like The New Republic, it became much easier to get their policies enacted. Why, all the right-thinking people were united in their belief that dismantling the welfare state was the way to go; it was so uncool, so déclassé, so retro to believe otherwise. Only those dirty fucking hippies at The Nation would disagree.

It's a mistake, though, to believe that conservatives, or liberals, win elections because of "ideas." I've long believed that the power of "ideas" in politics to be way overrated. Jonathan Chait once made this point in an interesting New Republic piece, but even now, a year or so after their web redesign, TNR's archives are still fucked up, so regrettably I can't link to it. But the point is, politics has a two-track strategy: populist messages for the masses, and "ideas" for the elites. "Ideas" are crafted so as to win the political allegiance of the policymaking classes. But populism is what wins elections.

The right and left have different populist strategies; liberals use economic populism, while the conservative tack tends to be cultural populism. The liberal platform often amounts to "we're going to give you stuff." That message has an obvious intuitive appeal; as a populist politician whose name escapes me once said, "Nobody shoots Santa Claus." During and long after the New Deal, the Santa Claus strategy was a really tough one to beat. Red-baiting was sometimes effective; not only did it enable conservatives to smear liberals as totalitarian extremists, but it also appealed to nationalist concerns about protecting America from the perceived threats of communist countries overseas.

However, the red-baiting was only intermittently successful. Then Richard Nixon discovered the politics of cultural grievance, and bingo! -- the right had hit on a winning theme at last. Ever since, conservatives have run on the platform that "we're going to stick it to the hippies/the snobby latte-drinking liberals/the uppity Negroes/the bitchez who don't know their place/the gays who are trying to recruit your children into their 'lifestyle'," etc. George Will recently claimed that it was "ideas" that powered "conservatism’s remarkably idea-driven ascendancy," but that is a steaming load of self-serving horseshit. Unless you count the Southern strategy as an idea.

Now that conservatives are in deep doo-doo, it's fashionable in some quarters to blame their current miserable state on their "lack of ideas." Strangely enough, up until recently it was supposed to be liberals
who were "out of ideas." And though I don't know of any world-historic
ideas that liberals have invented recently, I don't hear them being criticized for that much anymore. But that's because whichever party is unpopular gets accused of having "no new ideas." However, the truth is, each party has plenty of "ideas," if by ideas you mean policy proposals. It just that, at certain political moments, their ideas may be unpopular or have little traction politically.

Indeed, the lack of ideas has little to do with conservatism's failure. Conservatives are increasingly unpopular because they have run this country into the ground. As the conservative writer P.J. O'Rourke once said, "The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it." Moreover, the old politics of cultural grievance is not working so well anymore. Even in a solid Republican Congressional district in deepest Mississippi, a barrage of negative ads featuring Reverend Wright didn't work, and a Democrat won a special election by a comfortable margin.

Part of the reason why cultural populism doesn't have the same salience it used to is because, with the recession, the mortgage crisis, and gas prices going through the roof, economic concerns have moved to the fore. But it's also because Republicans have been milking the same tired politics of cultural grievance for 40 years now, and Americans are finally catching on that it's empty, manipulative bullshit. Also, Woodstock was a lifetime ago, and people are no longer so freaked out by the idea that women and African-Americans deserve equal status in our society. Even gay marriage is gaining popularity. The Archie Bunkers are dying out and being replaced by a more tolerant younger generation. So that "silent majority" shit is just so played out these days.

Which is not to say that conservatism is dead. But right now it's in a decadent phase and has exhausted itself, and we're entering a liberal era. However, conservatism will be back, in one form or another. Liberals will reign for a while, but one day they, like today's conservatives, will become complacent. They'll make mistakes. Voters will decide the liberals have "gone too far" and will kick them out. This is the cycle of history, and it's the way the eternal war of the moneyed elites vs. the masses tends to play itself out. Reports of the death of history are, indeed, greatly exaggerated. Though the war between conservatives and liberals will never end, I like to believe, probably naively, that history moves along an upward spiral, and that  over time, some progress occurs which can't be wiped out, the best efforts of the conservatives to the contrary.

Ideas, though, are not what motivates political change. What does is people's sense of which party does a better job of looking out for their interests. Since, for most people, liberals have the advantage on the economic front, conservatives will probably continue to focus on cultural and nationalist appeals. And both sides will continue to rely on "ideas" as a means of winning over the intellectuals, journalists, and policymakers. But their success or failure politically ultimately will have little to do with "ideas."