The Koch brothers are patrons of Big Ideas, interested in the institutions of a free society and what makes them work. Say what you like about the organizations they donate to — Cato, Mercatus, the Institute for Humane Studies (my employer for about a year) — they are oriented toward ideas. I do not expect any Mercatus scholar to host a highly rated cable comedy show in the near future, not even the telegenic Veronique de Rugy.
I do not much blame the Left for hesitating to talk about Big Ideas. The Left has been losing the Big Idea debate for a generation or more, in no small part because its last Big Idea killed 100 million people, give or take, and not in Mr. Klein’s projecting-abstractly-from-a-CBO-study way but in the concentration-camps-and-hunger-terror way. Marxism was the Left’s Big Idea for the better part of a century, and its collapse — which was moral, economic, political, and complete — left a howling void in the Left’s intellectual universe. Nothing has quite managed to fill it: In the immediate wake of the collapse of Communism, the anticapitalists sought shelter in a variety of movements, few of which grew to be of any real consequence, with the exception of the environmentalist movement. But the lenten self-mortification implied by a consistent environmentalist ethic has limited that movement’s appeal as a governing philosophy and an individual ethic both, hence its fragmentation into a motley sprawl of mini-crusades. It is easy to be anti-fracking when that does not require you to give up anything, easy to oppose the expansion of the Keystone pipeline network when you can be confident that the gas pumps in your hometown will always be full, easy for well-off Whole Foods shoppers to abominate varieties of grain that are possessed by evil spirits or cooties or whatever it is this week.
The intellectual decline of the Left has been something to see. I am reminded of a joke that P. J. O’Rourke once made about my hometown: “There’s also a whiff of highbrow in Siberia. For a hick town, Irkutsk had too many opera houses, theaters, museums, and academic institutes. This is because, for hundreds of years, the smarty-pants reformers, annoying idealists, and know-it-all do-gooders were sent here for life. It’s as though everyone who voted for George McGovern was packed off to Lubbock, Texas.” You could not make the same joke about Obama voters or Occupiers — or, especially, about Jon Stewart’s audience — because nobody expects any of them to start an opera house or an academic institute. They are busy watching an ersatz Beavis and Butt-Head
for psychology majors who enjoy having their modest intellects flattered and their perceived enemies “destroyed.”
Alan Simpson’s partisan taxonomy — the Stupid (Republican) party vs. the Evil (Democratic) party — no longer holds, if it ever did. At CPAC this week, you will find students of Robert George debating students of Robert Nozick about the subject of gay marriage, and Governor Rick Perry of Texas, among others, arguing that mandatory-minimum-sentence laws are a failure, while Chuck Grassley and others support them. (How many members of Mr. Stewart’s audience know that Senator Michael Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in January introduced a bill to reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders and to make retroactive the 2010 reforms relating to crack-cocaine sentences?) There is no CPAC of the Left, because the Left is not interested even in its own ideas, much less those of Professor George or the late Professor Nozick.
Jon Stewart’s act is a pretty good one, and it takes a real talent to anchor a long-running television show. It takes something else to anchor a long-running constitutional republic, and that something else includes intelligence and ideas. Mr. Stewart’s half-bright following is now the dominant tendency on the Left. We’d have been better off with Beavis and Butt-Head.
— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.