What’s the Big Idea?

I’ll be taking part tomorrow in the Hudson Institute’s 2006 Bradley Symposium. Entitled “What’s the Big Idea? True Blue versus Deep Red: The Ideas that Move American Politics,” the event features, in addition to yours truly, a who’s who of Washington intellectual heavyweights: Michael Barone, David Brooks, Francis Fukuyama, Bill Kristol, Charles Murray, and Shelby Steele, among others.

The discussion’s point of departure will be this paper by University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser. Ceaser argues that the current red vs. blue political divisions reflect deep-seated and profoundly important differences over the sources and nature of social order.

My short take: I agree with Ceaser that such differences exist, but I disagree that it is useful to shoehorn the various alternatives into just two rival camps. Doing so allows Ceaser to cast contemporary politics as a contest between nihilism on the left and conservatism of some kind or another on the right. Ceaser thus frames the debate in a way that, in my view, unfairly favors the right.

Here’s another typology that I think is closer to the mark: one noisy minority of nihilists on the “true blue” left, another noisy minority of dogmatists on the “deep red” right, and the rest of us moping and groping around in a politically underrepresented center. From this perspective, the main problem with American politics today isn’t the unhinged left. Rather, it’s the disproportionate influence of culture warriors on the left and right alike—and the outmoded political categories that allow the cultural extremes to lord it over the center.