Andrew Ferguson wrote that political power had compromised conservatism’s intellectual standards; Powerline criticized him; now Ross Douthat is defending him (with a bit more heat than I’ve come to expect from Douthat). Being in the middle of a blogfight is probably the last place on earth Ferguson would want to be, but I’m going to add a few cents anyway.
First: The growth of an intellectual movement might bring down its average intellectual level without causing any of its intelligence to disappear. Michael Lind jeered 10 years ago–the piece was called “The Death of Intellectual Conservatism,” if I recall correctly–that Rush Limbaugh had supplanted George Will in conservative thought. I don’t think highly of an intellectual technique that counts on readers’ automatically sneering at the mention of Limbaugh. But leaving that aside: Has Will been defenestrated? He’s still churning out smart columns, and I imagine those columns are having some direct and indirect influence on Limbaugh, as they have on me. I’m not sure that Ferguson’s comparisons keep this point in mind.
Second: While we have lost some things as conservatism has acquired power, we have also gained some things. Conservatives hate to criticize our ancestors, of course. But read the books of the founding fathers of conservatism in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s and you will find, in addition to originality and brilliance, a fair amount of obscurantism, crankiness, and theoretical maximalism. (I’m a big fan of Frank Meyer in some respects, but was the federal school lunch program really a harbinger of totalitarianism?) Having to exercise an increasing amount of political responsibility has beaten a lot of this stuff out of us–and a good thing, too.
Third: Douthat switches the topic to the question of whether conservatism has lost “its ability to effect real political change.” He treats this question as though this loss simply follows from the decline in conservatives’ intellectual standards. It’s not at all obvious to me that it would. And he keeps stacking the deck.
He has a list of nine questions for conservatives. Here are two: “Conservatives have controlled both houses of Congress for the better part of the last decade. Since the 1996 Welfare Reform was passed, name a major legislative accomplishment other than the Bush tax cuts that made you proud to have a conservative majority in power.” And “Are you a social conservative? If so, do you feel that conservatives are ‘winning’ on (choose one, or all): the cloning debate; the stem-cell debate; the gay-marriage debate? Do you feel that American popular culture has grown more or less coarse, puerile, and sex-obsessed during this era of conservative dominance?”
Why exactly should conservatives who thought the Bush tax cuts were a major achievement exclude them from their list of accomplishments? Why should social conservatives ignore abortion, where I think there are some hopeful signs, or the judiciary, where we certainly seem to be making some progress as we speak? Why should social conservatives take smutty tv shows and songs as failures without taking the declines in the abortion, crime, divorce, and illegitimacy rates as successes? Why should conservatives who see themselves as conserving the political inheritance of the Founders comply with Douthat’s request to explain their political philosophy without reference to the American Revolution?
Douthat’s premise that conservatives have controlled both chambers of Congress for ten years strikes me as inaccurate. We have had a majority of a majority in both chambers for most of that time. We have not had an absolute majority–and it’s odd to find Douthat, of all people, equating conservatives with Republicans. (It’s also odd to find him complaining about Republicans’ failure to shrink the government when normally he complains about the small-government aspects of the Republican agenda.)
When did conservatives show a greater ability to effect domestic-policy (or, for that matter, foreign-policy) change than they do now? The Reagan administration? Popular culture coarsened then. Public opinion on abortion moved in the wrong direction. Federal spending went up–Reagan even enacted a new entitlement (catastrophic health care, in 1988).
In his comments section (yes, I know I’m getting into the weeds), Douthat goes after the Medicare bill again. “Given that the Democrats weren’t the party in the power at the time, choosing between a bad bill and their bad alternative seems like a bit of a false choice. I know that ‘Medicare reform,’ generally construed, was popular with the general public, and the bill was perceived as a way to defuse the issue before the 2004 election–but it isn’t clear that passing a really lousy, crony-capitalism-style bill did anything to increase the public’s support for the GOP. So essentially you had a situation where conservatives compromised their principles and got very little in return. . .” As a political analysis, this just seems to me to be a mistake. Like it or not–and I mostly dislike it–the Medicare bill succeeded in defusing the issue. If John Kerry had been able to run ads, and pound Bush in the debates, about how the president had failed to deliver on his promises to create a prescription-drug benefit, Bush could well have lost Ohio.
It’s fine to criticize conservatives and Republicans in Congress, and I agree with some of the specific criticisms that Douthat makes. But too much of the criticism seems romantic and, worse, nostalgic for a time that never existed. Which should not surprise us, I suppose, since he is a conservative.