A few days ago I finished The Right Nation, by Micklethwait and Wooldridge, a pair of "Economist" writers. Perhaps you recall their June 21, 2005 WSJ op-ed, “Cheer Up Conservatives, You’re Still Winning,” in which they declare “the right has walloped the left in the war of ideas.” Ahem:
One of the reasons the GOP manages to contain Southern theocrats as well as Western libertarians is that it encourages arguments rather than suppressing them. Go to a meeting of young conservatives in Washington and the atmosphere crackles with ideas, much as it did in London in the heyday of the Thatcher revolution. The Democrats barely know what a debate is.
Well, the book is not such a polemical and high-handed affair as that portends. Mostly. It’s really – like a long "Economist" article. At many points it has that signature ‘it’s a golden age but there are storm clouds on the horizon/it’s cloudy but there’s a silver-lining’ rhythm. It’s worth reading, like an “Economist” article, but affords many irritations to the non-conservative reader. "In this exercise, we may have many weaknesses, but we would like to claim one strength: we are not members of either of the two great political tribes that dominate the American commentariat. Throughout this book, we have tried to avoid using any of the jibes that are commonplace on both sides of the debate" (p. 24). This is mostly true, but the authors still enjoy toying with the idea that America is a 50/50 nation, half of which isn’t really American, but more … European. They equivocate between using ‘right nation’ as a tag for America, and a tag for half of America. "To people who wonder "What sort of place is Texas? the simplest answer is that it is America exponentiated. Texas is America’s America, or at least conservative America’s America" (p. 134). Lots of little nudges like that. Also: American conservatism is given credit for resisting the emergence of extreme forms of itself, but the fact that the American left stayed moderate is credited to the constraining effects of the ‘conservative’ American Constitution. The authors basically have a Louis Hartz ‘liberal consensus’ argument. Do a change-all ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’. Which is really a substitution they ought to think through a bit harder. Since they cite much of the same evidence Hartz cited for his thesis way back when.
All in all, they don’t belly up to the bar and drink the conservative kool-aid, but they do take many a debonair, pinky-raised sip. Then, on p. 159-60 these Brits do some Texas-style kool-aid bong hits. (PZ Meyers is going to go spare! He’ll throw a wobbly! as Nobby Nobbs might say.)
Discovery is also the leading proponent of an increasingly influential idea on the Right: "intelligent design." The intelligent design movement, according to Chapman [Bruce Chapman, Discovery founder], holds that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not as a part of an undirected process, such as natural selection." In other words, Darwinian theory does not wholly explain either the origin of life or the development of species. Chapman, a committed Christian, first got interested in the subject because of worries about free speech: in 1995 he rallied to the defense of a California science professor who was threatened with the sack merely for arguing that evolution does not explain everything. [Anyone know the real details of this case?] Most orthodox scientists dismiss intelligent design as upmarket creationism. But books and papers spew out of Discovery’s Center for Science and Culture, and Chapman points to several victories in his battle against what he calls the neo-Darwinists …
The intelligent design movement is an example of the Right’s growing willingness to do battle with what it regards as the liberal "science establishment" on its own turf, using scientific research of its own. Right-wing think tanks have attacked scientific orthodoxy on stem cells, arguing that there is no need to harvest embryos, as it should be possible to extract stem cells from adults. They have also pored over the data on global warming. Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), an indictment of green overstatement, is a cult hero in places like the AEI and Discovery. There are also battles brewing on animal rights, euthanasia and the scientific origins of homosexuality [science causes gays?] So far the science establishment has given little ground to the conservative upstarts, particularly on intelligent design. In Ohio, some scientists equatted supporters of intelligent design with the Taliban. But the Right is clearly extending the battle of ideas into new territories, just as Milton Friedman and others did in economics forty years ago.
Puts the ‘crack’ back in ‘crackle of ideas’, you might say.
This encapsulates the main problem with the whole ‘conservatives are winning the battle of ideas’ thesis/meme. There isn’t any intellectual quality control in the strategic assessment. Of course the authors would reply that it is very hard for anyone to assess whether the quality of left or right ideas is better absolutely. Leftists say the left is better, the right says the right – obviously, otherwise the sides would switch. But, still: if you are going to count any effective rhetoric as ‘winning the war of ideas’ – if you don’t even make any attempt to test, prima facie, for intellectual seriousness and credibility – then you ought to just ‘fess up that you mean ‘winning the culture war’, which sounds less intellectually high-toned.
In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank has a description of the Second Annual Darwin, Design, and Democracy Symposium, at Rockhurst College , Kansas City.
Modeled after an academic conference, the keynote speeches and panel discussions all aimed to publicize the much ballyhooed theory of Intelligent Design. The inevitable Jack Cashill [see below] kicked things off with a denunciation of Hollywood for accepting a God-free vision of the universe. He kept things lively by showing clips from sinful films supposedly influenced by the doctrines of Darwin, such as Hud and High Plains Drifter. Cashill was followed, however, by an Intelligent Design theorist who lectured monotonously on the faked evidence supposedly used by evolutionists, and heads began to nod. To everyone’s relief, the speaker finally yielded the stage to the Mutations, "three fine Christian ladies" in pink dresses who strutted and whirled like an early-sixties girl group and proceed to sing "Overwhelming Evidence," a ditty set to the pulsing beat of "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough." Comically assuming the voice of the arrogant science establishment, the women pretend-derided the audience, singing that "the truth is what we say" and that, as professional scientists, "we don’t have to listen to you!" The audience had plainly been bored by the preceding recitation of science’s errors, but this lighthearted bit of presecuto-tainment hit exactly the right note, and sent everyone home with a smile on his or her face. (p. 214)
Ah, if only the Democrats remembered what a debate is: namely, an expression of populist ressentiment at perceived cultural elites. It really is very shameful that these British Tories, who I don’t suppose believe in ID, find it sufficiently amusing that liberalism is taking kidney shots from these people that they are willing to check their intellectual consciences at the door, for the sake of ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’. (Who doubts this is the reason why Southern theocrats and economic libertarians are under the same tent? Who thinks they are really staying for the rigorous arguments, across their respective positions?)
Oh, and Cashill – the guy Frank mentions – is a Kansas City publisher and pundit; and author (in 1996) of a novel, 2006. [You can read the first five pages at Amazon.] Here is Frank’s summary:
America is enduring the second term of the Al Gore presidency and the common people lie prostrate beneath the iron heel of liberalism. The old-school Populists were fond of a novel called Caesar’s Column, a vision of a hideous future in which nineteenth-century capitalism had expanded without restriction. And Cashill gives us the contermporary equivalent: a vision of a hideous future in which all the elements of the conservative persecutation fantasy have flowered just as grotesquely. The government has forced Rush Limbaugh off the airwaves, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has been assassinated, and SUVs are no longer being manufactured. Runaway trial lawyers have destroyed the tobacco industry, and the wineries are next. Laws against "hate crimes" are being used to punish ordinary speech, motorcycle riders have to wear helmets, as do Amish factory workers, and jack-booted federal thugs dispense stiff jail sentences to patriotic Americans. It’s what the world would look like if some evil sorcerer made reality conform to the op-ed apge of the Wall Street Journal.
So anyhow, Cashill’s protagonists – a bunch of Latin-mass Catholics, Indians, and gun fanciers, all led by a sportswriter – form a militia, stage a heroic rebellion, and capture several of the nations most ee-vil liberals. One of these soulless creatures has to be shot, and a special South African gun for which considerable admiration has been expressed gets to do the honors. Before its steely Boer chastisement, this liberal scoundrel, his body as hollow and corrupt as his politics, simply flies to pieces. (p. 163-4)
Another passage from Micklethwait and Wooldridge:
Yet from the first, Bush saw that conservative intellectuals could be useful – much in the same way that an R&D department is useful to a chief executive. His formative experience in Washington was to watch his father’s administration disintegrating, in large part for want of "the vision thing." …. Nobody would pretend that Bush, a man who regarded Yale University as a drinking competition (which he damn-near won), spends his evenings reading Strauss’s Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse. But he knows the importance of people who do. (p. 156-7)
This reminds me of a quote from Mill I like:
Speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey.
Well, it all depends on what influences it must obey. If it has to obey politicians, who treat philosophers more like PR consultants than R&D researchers …
One last passage from Micklethwait and Wooldridge:
Here it is worth making a subtle distinction. Bush’s enthusiasm has generally been for business, particularly big business, rather than for the free market. His own career was a textbook example of Texas crony capitalism, characterized by a succession of takeover deals in which outside investors with ties to his father periodically stepped in to save one floundering oil company after another. Arbusto Energy became Bush Exploration, which merged with Spectrum 7, which merged with Harken Energy. Bush’s equity magically increased in value, despite a dismal oil market. Then in 1990 he sold 212,000 shares in Harken stock for $848,560 to pay for his investment in the TExas Rangers baseball team. Construction of a spanking-new ballpark in Arlington was subsidized by an increase in the local city sales tax.
This sort of buddy capitalism is hardly the stuff of Harvard Business School case sudies. Yet Bush still saw himself as a businessman, and his base has always been the business class. Texas was an ideal state for such a politician because the state’s campaign-finance laws placed almost no limits on contributions. In his 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial campaigns, more than half the contributions came from corporate executives (including hefty contributions from Ken Lay, the boss of Enron). And he eventually used his business connections to create the most successful fund-raising machine in presidential history. (p. 142)
It is worth pointing out that the difference between the free market and cronyism is not really subtle – and getting less subtle by the minute, as the resumes of FEMA execs. rise to the surface of the floodwaters. (Maybe someone should write a post-apocalyptic novel "ripped from the headlines" about how, in the last years of the Bush administration, the United States of America was reconstituted as Iraq-or-Bust-o-Energy, then Bush Exploration, then Remnant 7, then …) OK, one final stray note for the night.
It’s interesting that, less than a year ago, Newt Gingrich was playing this tune: "Given an electorate in which values really do matter to a large segment, one wonders how comfortable many Democrats will be having a minority leader (Rep. Nancy Pelosi) from San Francisco, one of the most liberal districts in the United States." [link to an old post of mine. The original link within the post is dead or down.] But now (via Kos):
Gingrich argues that the values debate that has divided America so sharply during the past decade is over. There’s a broad consensus about most issues, and anyway people realize that the country’s big problems aren’t about morality but performance. "We’re not in a values fight now but over whether the system is working," Gingrich told me. "The issue is delivery." And that’s true at every level—city, state and federal.
Yet surely the result of ‘winning the war of ideas’ – this sea to shining sea (except for the coasts) coalition of drown it in the bathtubbers and God-botherers – is a big tent of conservative rhetoric that forbids precisely this shift in favor of an ethic of competence. The very notion: that government might be subject to intelligent design! After 40 years in the wilderness, conservatives seize control of all the levers of the government only to realize that the liberal consensus was right all along?
Neither Grover Norquist nor James Dobson can possibly stump for a government (large or small) of elite, performing technocrats who have managed to put ideology behind them, or to one side, for the sake of figuring out how government can solve the nation’s (non-moral) problems.
And if you’ve lost Norquist and Dobson, who’ve you got? Olympia Snowe and whose army? Are we going to start hearing about neo-Rockefeller Republicans. (Modern Rock-cons, they might call themselves.)
Didn’t Dukakis run on the slogan: "competence not ideology"? I would like to think Democrats could win on such a platform, but the past suggests caution. I suppose the next thing we’ll hear is that only Nixon can go to China. Only the Republicans can be the party of "competence not ideology". Honestly, if they would even try it, I wouldn’t mind losing to them so much.