Magazine | May 23, 2016, Issue

Ideas Have Consequences?

Not in short-term politics.

‘Ideas have consequences” is a phrase conservatives of a certain age may associate with Rush Limbaugh. Before that, it was associated with the philosopher Richard M. Weaver, who published a famous book by that title in 1948, arguing that the Western world was in decline because William of Ockham convinced Europeans that there is no such thing as absolute truth, hence Buchenwald, Communism, and the oeuvre of Jackson Pollock.

(I may be simplifying Weaver’s thesis a little bit here.)

The belief that ideas have consequences is implicit in advocacy journalism; indeed, one obituary of National Review’s founder and guiding spirit, William F. Buckley Jr., was headlined “Ideas Have Consequences.” Dinesh D’Souza’s obituary of Buckley insists: “Buckley’s life proves that ideas have consequences.” The mission statement of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale affirms: “We believe that ideas have consequences.” Geoffrey Kabaservice, reviewing Carl T. Bogus’s biography of Bill Buckley in the New York Times, added a qualification: “Ideas have consequences, but they don’t make political realities by themselves.”

The political realities are, at the moment, a source of despair for conservatives. Regardless of what in the end becomes of the presidential ambitions of game-show host Donald Trump, his Godzilla stomp across the ideological landscape of organized conservatism in pursuit of whatever it is he is in fact pursuing has left this bedrock principle of the Right — that ideas matter — cracked. The Trump partisans do not believe that ideas, and the related enterprises of persuasion, matter very much at all. Andrea Tantaros, occasional Fox News personality and vocal Trump enthusiast, demanded to know: “What has ‘conservatism’ done in 15 years?”

That short historical timeline — 15 years — is telling. Given a historical perspective that is more statesmanlike and less talking-heady, the question of what the conservative movement has done is easier to answer.

Of course ideas have consequences. The political consensus of the immediate post-war period would be unrecognizable to a 21st-century American, and a very large share of the reform that has been achieved since then has been in a conservative direction. When this magazine was founded in 1955, the top federal income-tax rate was — meditate on the figure for a moment — 91 percent. That figure was not about collecting adequate revenue for a massive federal apparatus: Total federal tax collections were slightly (not radically) lower as a share of GDP during the Eisenhower years than they are today. Rather, that high rate was purely redistributive, an exercise in social engineering left over from the war years. The conservative critique of high marginal tax rates (the oversimplified version of which is expressed by the Laffer curve) was that these rates discouraged marginal work and investment, distorted economic activity, encouraged tax avoidance ranging from the creative to the criminal, and were unnecessary to the collection of sufficient revenue. Conservatives made the case to intellectuals and politicians of both parties (John F. Kennedy’s views on taxation would fit in well with those of contemporary Republicans), and the rates eased down, a bit. But Americans in the 1970s, when the top rate was still 70 percent, might have asked: “What has ‘conservatism’ done for us lately?” Fifteen years isn’t that long in history, though it may seem like a long time in politics: It is approximately the period that elapsed between the defeat of Barry Goldwater and the victory of Ronald Reagan, or, if you prefer, between “Tear down this wall!” and 9/11.

The alienness of the political consensus of the 1950s isn’t best expressed by a figure on an IRS form, though. Convincing people that they’d rather pay 28 percent in taxes than 91 percent in taxes doesn’t take much of a philosophical breakthrough. What has changed most dramatically is the baseline assumption about what government can and should do.

The mobilization of the Arsenal of Democracy during the war years was, in retrospect, something to behold. Even accounting for all the usual shenanigans, errors, waste, fraud, and self-service inevitably associated with dramatic political intervention in the economy (much of our wartime production was comically mismanaged), what happened was without precedent. The United States had gone from the depths of the Great Depression to saving the world to being the greatest peacetime economic power in human history over the course of approximately 15 years.

The cultural ramifications were extraordinary. Classical liberalism and the traditional Jeffersonian skepticism toward central government were dramatically attenuated. The federal government, government in general, and central planning were in the 1950s at the height of their prestige. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Organization Man, published practically back to back, were perfectly matched fictional and nonfictional indictments of the post-war culture of bureaucracy, collectivism, central planning, the corporate aesthetic and ethic, and the diminishing value perceived in what Americans had called, without blushing, “rugged individualism.” But, in reality, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his fellow Organization Men in the private and public sectors had never enjoyed better reputations or more popular deference. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the words “government scientists” were practically an incantation, and the capital-P Progressive assumption — that political discipline would empower expertise in every field to assuage every felt social problem, one at a time — was so pervasive as to be hardly remarked upon outside of intellectual circles.

When conservatives decided in the middle 1950s that they would undo this state of affairs, people thought they were mad. Even Ronald Reagan, the great conservative champion, considered himself a New Deal Democrat who had been abandoned by his radicalized party rather than the other way around. The only respectable conservatism of the era was that of President Eisenhower, who accepted the New Deal and social insurance but pledged to police their excesses and to manage them with prudence. Given the cultural consensus of the era, Lionel Trilling and the rest were absolutely correct to sneer at the nascent conservative movement as nothing but an “irritable mental gesture.”

Under the influence of a million books, lectures, seminars, and articles in National Review, Commentary, the Orange County Register, etc., that political consensus changed, and changed radically.

Until the advent of talk radio and cable-news opinion programming, conservatives mainly followed a Hayekian model of social change, partly out of prudence and partly because we had no other real choice. F. A. Hayek argued that the people he would have called “liberals” and we would call “conservatives” or “libertarians” did not have much hope of changing the political consensus through reaching out to mass audiences, because our ideas require a little bit of homework (at least some elementary economics) and a certain emotional discipline (e.g., elevating the rule of law over our own desires, or, more generally, valuing process over outcomes in legal questions) that ill suit them for mass consumption. On the other end of the spectrum, trying to persuade the genuine geniuses of our time, the truly original thinkers, is largely pointless as well, inasmuch as such minds are unique, unpredictable, and not generally open to persuasion through ordinary means.

So, Hayek argued, we should concentrate on the “second-hand dealers in ideas.” Don’t bother trying to convince Stephen Hawking that fracking is, in the long run, preferable to the alternatives, but convincing Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye would be very valuable indeed. Professors, business executives, entrepreneurs, city councilmen, newspaper editors, public intellectuals of various kinds — these were to be the targets of our efforts.

Conservatives have been remarkably successful in making that case. But if you think that’s what elected Ronald Reagan — or what will elect the next important conservative — then you don’t understand how elections work.

Senator Barry Goldwater got massacred in the 1964 presidential election, but it wasn’t because he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or because of the “Daisy Girl” ad, or because Lyndon Johnson was such a gifted and ruthless politician (though he certainly was). And it certainly was not Senator Goldwater’s deeply felt libertarian conservatism that cost him the election. Goldwater lost practically the entire country in November 1964 because John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in November 1963. No Republican was going to win in that year.

And though the country’s intellectual consensus did move to the right over the next 15 years, it wasn’t a sudden new and deep commitment to limited government, free enterprise, and anti-Communism that put Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1981. It was gas lines and the Iranian hostage crisis. Jimmy Carter did not play the hand that was dealt him especially well, to be sure, but there was no great ideological realignment in 1979: There was a gasoline shortage, largely caused by events outside any ideological considerations of the Carter administration.

Indeed, if the Arabs had only known what a great Israel-hater President Carter would come to be, they probably would have kept us up to our necks in oil, and Ronald Reagan would be remembered as a kind of aberration, a Hollywood activist on the right, whose political career had coincided with the high-water mark of Orange County–style conservatism.

Scholars of voter behavior have long known that ideas, ideology, and issues play only a very small role in the outcomes of elections. In my report in our last issue on the state of the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign (“The Empty Pantsuit,” May 9), I made reference to a new survey and synthesis of the scholarship on the issue, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, a very digestible book by Princeton’s Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels. Much of what the authors document will come as little surprise to those familiar with the depressing realities of American political discourse.

For example, voters who believe that they are choosing a candidate based on an issue or a set of issues reliably do not know what their candidate’s actual position is on those issues and instead have projected their own preferences onto a candidate they pre-selected for other reasons. Effectively none of the electorate is equipped to judge the effects of economic policy on the country in the near term, but to the extent that voters do consider economic developments, they tend to take into account only the state of the economy in the few months prior to the election, and they are unable to distinguish the results of economic policy from those of exogenous factors: A tax hike, a new regulation, and a hurricane all are received in roughly the same way. The end of the presidency of George H. W. Bush coincided with a mild recession, which had ended before the election; in fact, real economic growth in 1992 was 3.6 percent, considerably higher than during any year of Barack Obama’s presidency and higher than the historic median annual rate of real growth. Bill Clinton inherited a growing economy from one Bush and left a contracting one to the next Bush, but the public’s estimate of the Clinton years does not reflect that.

Voters, as Achen and Bartels document, are moved mainly by two things: The first is social loyalties, generally acquired during youth in the home. The second is recent events, though, as noted, voters do not distinguish between events that are the results of political decisions and those, such as natural disasters, that are not. This sheds some light on questions that often perplex conservatives.

For example, in spite of the offensive and counterproductive “plantation” rhetoric that is unfortunately an article of faith among many on the right, the reason black voters vote Democratic is not that they are generally poorer than whites and more likely to benefit from the welfare programs that are Democrats’ stock in trade. In fact, black voters’ identification with the Democratic party intensifies slightly as their incomes go up: Rich black voters who are never going to benefit from welfare programs, and who are going to be taxed like hell to pay for them, are slightly more likely to support those programs than are the poor black voters benefiting from them. Likewise, the attitudes of white voters toward those same programs, and toward the politicians associated with them, are not much affected by their own economic status, or even by their own participation in those programs.

In fact, the “Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis” has been studied at great length, and evidence for the proposition that voters make choices based on the pursuit of particular economic or political outcomes is scarce. For example, race, sex, and family affiliations far outweigh factors such as income when it comes to choosing a party or a candidate. Why do black women vote so overwhelmingly Democratic? The nearest answer scholarship can provide is: Because they are black women.

The talk-radio and cable-news arms of the conservative movement, which aren’t especially conservative these days, do not take a Hayekian approach to social change. In broadcast, you need a large audience, not an audience that has read Individualism and Economic Order. That they have rallied in no small part to the banner of Donald Trump isn’t surprising: He is the most popular political figure at the moment, and popularity is their business. Like many of their programs, he is conservative in form (an “R” next to his name, for the moment) but not in content.

The usual challenge levied at the egghead types who do things such as work at think tanks and write articles for National Review is: “Give us a conservative agenda that can win.” It is a demand that misunderstands the nature of mass democracy. There is no such thing as a conservative agenda that can win, because agendas do not win, and they do not lose. In the wake of Newt Gingrich’s great victory in 1994 with his “Contract with America,” probably not one Republican voter in 50 could have identified what actually was in that contract. Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama . . . Cruz/Sanders/Clinton/Trump: Does that look like a rational progression to you? Bill Clinton ran for office promising a confrontation with China, and George W. Bush as a soft anti-interventionist who was deeply skeptical about nation-building abroad and wanted to focus on school reform at home. Barack Obama wasn’t elected because he wanted to bankrupt the coal industry, but because the country felt the need to punish Republicans in 2008 and wasn’t in the mood for a Mormon private-equity investor in 2012. No Republican platform in either year, no speech delivered by John McCain or Mitt Romney, was going to change that.

That isn’t how elections work. Ideas matter in the long term, but operational politics is conducted in the short term. The question for 2016 is how much short-term damage this country can withstand.

In This Issue



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