Sam Tanenhaus has a long piece in the NY Times, lamenting the failure of the latest attempt to convert the Republicans into a “party of ideas”. His star candidate for this role (one of only a handful of possibles) is Yuval Levin, and Exhibit A is Levin’s journal National Affairs, which he lauds for its mind-blowing wonkiness, in a way that’s impossible to summarise without parody. Here’s Tanenhaus
This was the sterile soil in which Levin planted National Affairs, which exudes seriousness of an almost antiquated kind. Each issue is the size of a small book, unleavened by illustration or even reported narrative. The typical Levin-assigned-and-edited article leads the reader through a forced march of acronyms and statistics and of formulations like this: “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.R.W.O.A.) replaced A.F.D.C. with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under TANF, families can draw federal aid for only five years, to underline that welfare is supposed to be temporary. And where federal funding for A.F.D.C. had been open-ended, for TANF it is fixed, so that states must pay for any expansion of welfare.”Wow! an article that actually names a policy and describes its central features. It’s hard to believe that anyone still does this stuff. The tone is as if Tanenhaus had encountered a tribe in some remote wilderness engaged in ritual debates about tensor calculus.
On it goes, article after article — “Taxes and the Family,” “Social Security and Work,” “Recasting Conservative Economics,” “Reality and Public Policy.” And yet with its stodgy prose, its absence of invective and red meat for the angry right, its microscopic circulation (6,000 subscribers, though some articles reach as many as 100,000 digital readers) and its one blogger who provides links to academic writings, National Affairs has become the citadel of reform conservatism.
And of course this is pretty much what is going on. The Republican party is, in essence, a combination of an ethnic voting bloc (Southern whites) and an economic interest group. The latter is dominated by the 1 per cent, but including small business owners, and high income members of the “white working class”, as defined by the lack of a college education. The tribalists don’t care about policy analysis, and the 1 per cent would prefer that their policies be implemented as quietly as possible. Nevertheless, open tribalism is hard to sell to the majority of US voters who don’t fall into the core category of white, (heterosexually) married, non-poor, Christians, so some pretence of having ideas is desirable.
It’s worth looking at the pieces mentioned by Tanenhaus. “Reality and public policy” sounded promising, for example, given that the primary critique of the Republican Party is its divorce from reality. It turns out to be a bizarre panegyric to (now former) Pope Benedict for restating the fundamental importance of the differences between men and women.
“Recasting conservative economics” is mostly standard blame-shifting about the causes of the financial crisis (mercifully not peddling the Community Reinvestment Act) but it gives an interesting insight into the assumed intellectual level of the readership with the following definition and gloss
Keynesian economic theory — named for early-20th century English economist John Maynard Keynes — calls on governments to step in with an active program of expansionary fiscal policy when the private economy is contracting.
I couldn’t find “Work and Social Security” but the general line is what you would expect: privatisation and raising the retirement age. This is about as close as the reformicons get to a substantive debate over policy issues.
As I said with respect to Ross Douthat, the point here isn’t to think about policy issues, but to talk about policy in a way that isn’t obviously crazy, while not saying anything that contradicts the interests of the 1 per cent or the tribal taboos of the Republican base.
It’s all a kind of cargo cult. The central dogma is that, if a suitable simulacrum of a landing strip (in this case, a policy “journal” that looks vaguely like the Brookings Papers) is constructed, the cargo of intellectual credibility will magically arrive. At least as far as Tanenhuas goes, the magic seems to have worked.