Brink Lindsey's post, triggered by Jerry Taylor's controversial critique of conservative talk radio at National Review online, is part of a much-needed debate about the changes needed to create more fertile soil for limited-government -- a task that is especially difficult given the GOP's decade-long embrace of statist economic policy.
But in the spirit of friendly disagreement, the problem is not Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Talk radio, after all, existed when Republicans were riding high and promoting small government in the 1990s.
The real problem is that today's GOP politicians are unwilling to even pretend that they believe in limited government. In such an environment, it is hardly a surprise that anti-tax and anti-spending voters decide that talk show hosts are de facto national leaders.
This does not mean that Rush Limbaugh is always right or that Sean Hannity never engages in demagoguery. But I suspect if any of us had to be live on the air three hours every day and support our families by attracting an audience, our efforts to be entertaining might result in an occasional mistake - either factually or rhetorically. Heck, when I had to be on the air for just one hour each day in the mid-1990s for the fledgling conservative television network created by the late Paul Weyrich, I'm sure I had more than my share of errors.
This being said, I agree with Brink's main points about conservatism being adrift. How come there were no tea parties when Bush was expanding the burden of government? Why didn't conservative think tanks rebel when Bush increased the power of the federal government? Where were the supposedly conservative members of the House and Senate when Bush was pushing through pork-filled transportation bills, corrupt farm bills, a no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, and a massive entitlement expansion?
I sometimes wonder if the re-emergence of another Reagan would make a difference, but Brink (and Posner, et al) offer compelling reasons to believe that the problems are much deeper.
If you're unclear what's wrong with conservatism these days, I urge you to check out the tragicomic dustup accidentally provoked last week by my colleague Jerry Taylor at National Review Online's "The Corner" blog.
I don't want to give a blow-by-blow recount of the fracas, but happily a convenient compendium of the relevant links is provided here. Go read the whole thing; you'll be entertained, that's for sure. For present purposes, suffice it to say that Jerry made two basic points: (1) talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not popular outside the conservative movement; and (2) the two have a habit of making "dodgy" arguments even when their positions are sound. He might have added that the sky is blue and A comes before Z. For his effrontery Jerry was verbally beaten to a pulp by his fellow Cornerites.
The whole thing seems like an updated version of the Emperor's New Clothes, except this time the crowd turns on the truth-telling kid and gives him the Rodney King treatment. And that response to Jerry's innocent and obvious points captures the essence of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement. That the flagship publication of the movement will brook no criticism of demagogic blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity says it all: A movement founded on the premise that "ideas have consequences" has suffered a calamitous decline in intellectual standards.
Richard Posner agrees. In a recent blog post, he offered this withering assessment of the state of the conservative mind:
My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of managment and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.
By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.
I don't endorse every detail of Posner's bill of indictment, but the broad thrust is correct. Movement conservatism has regressed to something like the days before National Review was founded -- back when Lionel Trilling could say that conservatism consisted of nothing but "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." And as Jerry's trip to the woodshed demonstrates, those gestures can be very irritable indeed! Conservatism today has degenerated into a species of especially unattractive populism, pandering to the pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican prejudices of a dwindling, increasingly sectarian, increasingly regional "base."
Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. Sorry, but I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.
In order to make gains for the cause of limited government, we need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents, and we need to educate the public so that it is less susceptible over time to "rational irrationality." None of this can be accomplished by consorting with and apologizing for merchants of intellectual junk food, or by making common cause with some of the ugliest cultural attitudes in contemporary America. Greater economic freedom will not come with pitchforks and torches; it will come, as it has in the past, by reshaping the elite consensus.
“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”
That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.
That was before reality set in.
With the Department of Education's media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan's galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program's fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn't necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.
It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they've delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren't good enough for the president’s children.
So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.
I'm two weeks late coming to this, but the "Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party" Obama Administration Farm Team Center for American Progress has developed a quiz aiming to answer the question, "How Progressive Are You?" The quiz asks you to rank, on a 10-point scale, how much you agree with 40 different statements. Now, I won't quibble here with the misuse of the word "progressive" -- having debased the term "liberal" (which in any other country pretty much means what Cato supports), the Left moves on to its next target -- but the quiz highlights the false dichotomy between "progressive" and "conservative."
The fallacy of this linear political spectrum forces people to wring their hands and call themselves "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" -- does anyone call themselves "fiscally liberal" even if they are? -- or "moderate" (no firm views on anything, huh?) or anything else that adds no descriptive meaning to a political discussion. Where do you put a Jim Webb? A Reagan Democrat? A Ross Perot voter? A gay Republican? A deficit hawk versus a supply-sider? Let alone Crunchy Cons, Purple Americans, Wal-Mart Republicans, South Park Conservatives, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and, oh yes, libertarians.
And the statements the quiz asks you to evaluate are just weird. I mean, yes, "Lower taxes are generally a good thing" (I paraphrase) gets you somewhere, but what does "Talking with rogue nations such as Iran or with state-sponsored terrorist groups is naive and only gives them legitimacy" get you? Or "America has taken too large a role in solving the world's problems and should focus more at home"? What is the "progressive" response to these statements? The "conservative" one? I think I know what the Bush response and the Obama response would be to the first one, but how does either fit into any particular ideology?
The Institute for Humane Studies at least gives you a two-dimensional quiz, so you can see how much government intervention you want in economic and social affairs (the "progressive" view presumably being lots of intervention in the economy, none on social issues). And IHS poses classical debates in political philosophy rather than thinly veiled leading questions relating to current affairs.
In any event, when you finish the quiz, it tells you your score and that the average score for Americans is 209.5. How do they get this number? A selectively biased survey of people who frequent the CAP website would surely score much higher on the progressive scale. No, it's based on a "National Study of Values and Beliefs." Well, ok, but, again, if those are the types of questions you ask people -- or, even worse, the quiz designers code the survey responses -- I'm not sure how much I care about the result. (Incidentally, the survey reveals that "the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades." Great, that's either a banal formulation of the fact that Democrats have retaken the political branches or a self-serving conclusion. Or both.)
In case anyone cares, I scored 100 out of 400, which makes me "very conservative." I suppose that won't come as a surprise to my "progressive" friends, but then I'm always talking to them about how bad the bailouts/stimuli are for the economy, how we should actually follow the Constitution, etc. All the folks who over the years have called me a libertine or hedonist, however, will not be amused to learn that I'm actually one of them...
Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz debates Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, over the legacies of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
In light of the current economic crisis, who serves as the better role model for President Obama?
For more videos, subscribe to Cato's YouTube channel.