The rise of Donald Trump not only highlights the fecklessness of the political class but also the blindness of the conservative intellectual elite.
Conservatism Inc., the vast apparatus of thinks tanks, policy journals, and periodicals that have formed the intellectual foundation for the Right over the past few decades, has failed to deliver on its promise to provide a coherent theoretical foundation for conservatism. Put simply, we’re not well served by continuing to recite from a checklist.
This is unfortunate. Intellectual considerations often serve as the basis for political action.
As statesmen deploy their judgment in order to secure the interests of the people, men of thought should be able to provide them a solid and accurate account of present realities and possibilities for the future. As Lincoln stated in the opening of the “House Divided Speech”: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
A recent interview featuring Arthur Brooks, however, shows how intellectual conservatism has fallen far short of this goal.
Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and he is certainly well-meaning. But he does not seem to realize that his ideas lack a constituency beyond AEI’s donor base. And even if his project had popular support, it would wither in the face of the Left’s nonstop onslaught.
In an extended conversation with Ben Domenech of The Federalist, Brooks shows his estrangement from political realities early on.
He first argues that if President Trump abandoned Twitter, the country could begin focusing on “serious” issues such as the latest tax credit proposal. Presumably, Americans also would have more free time to read the avalanche of white papers being cranked out by AEI researchers.
But prior to the election, how many people paid attention to these things? Where was the rush to read Mitt Romney’s 59-point jobs plan in 2012? Where was (and is) the constituency behind House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” proposal, which to this day remains mostly unpopular with vast swaths of the American public (to the extent they’re even aware it exists)?
In fact, when has Brooks’ vaunted constituency of “serious” people ever appeared in American history? Politics even at its peak has never looked like Plato’s Academy, where reason and dialogue were said to reign supreme and passions were kept under lock and key.
Instead, politics is largely about securing the people’s interests amidst ever-changing conditions, which James Madison made clear in Federalist 10. Though interests should be rooted in something higher than mere unrestrained will, securing them is nevertheless the key to political success and the perpetuity of the nation.
Pet Theories Won’t Cut It
The inability of well-meaning but strangely utopian intellectuals to speak about politics in this manner explains a great deal about why, prior to Trump, the Right was in such sorry shape.
In order to craft a solid basis upon which a statesman can take his stand, intellectuals should develop policies that are informed by the actual concerns of citizens—not upon the pet theories and theoretical concerns of their donors that are abstracted from the everyday lives of average citizens.
Brooks provides a clear example of this. Throughout his interview with Domenech, he leaves the impression that political choices in the realm of economics come down mainly to a choice between an unfettered free market and statism. But these stark options have never been before anyone in Congress, and they have nothing to do with our current situation—which is far from being a capitalist economy.
In the latest issue of American Affairs, the editors note how this rhetoric has hampered the debate over health care policy:
We have not had a ‘free market’ health care system in this country for decades, and obscuring that fact only makes it more difficult to improve the system. Today’s small cartel of health insurers no longer offers any meaningful market in the choice of health insurance, which for most people is chosen by their employer anyway. In most circumstances, the choice of actual medical care is hardly governed by market principles.
While the free market has undoubtedly been a great boon for the United States in the past, speaking about policies using abstract language pinched from graduate seminars about Austrian economists is unhelpful in the extreme.
As Irving Kristol once wrote, “The Founding Fathers and Adam Smith…could not have interpreted the domination of economic activity by large corporate bureaucracies as representing, in any sense, the working of a ‘system of natural liberty.’”
However, unlike commentators such as National Review’s Kevin Williamson, who thinks poorer communities “deserve to die,” at least Brooks seems interested in helping people hurt by unfettered globalization, though his unrestrained admiration for “free trade” is divorced from traditional American trade policies.
Now we come to Brooks’ misunderstanding of the nature of the Left.
In the most telling part of the interview, Domenech tells Brooks about a recent run-in he had with a student while he was attending the Aspen Ideas Festival. Upon learning the student attended Middlebury College, Domenech asked what she thought about her fellow students shouting down Charles Murray, the distinguished political scientist. She responded that she had no problem with the actions of her colleagues because Murray’s “white nationalist” views should not be allowed in a public forum.
All Brooks could muster in response was an exasperated sigh.
How can conservatives, to quote Brooks quoting Barack Obama, “be our brother’s keeper” when their views are likened to the KKK on many college campuses across the country? How can Brooks’ kind of conservative win the hearts of his opponents when antifa thugs are hurling Molotov cocktails toward anyone who violates their safe campuses and cities?
Brooks has no answers. And one more meeting with the Dalai Lama isn’t going to provide him with any.
Enough Moral Equivalence
A Cold Civil War (a term first coined by Michael Walsh) has been brewing for quite some time. The conflict has only intensified with Donald Trump’s election. Instead of facing the truth of the Left’s intolerance and utter disregard of the democratic norms they claim to cherish, Brooks slips into moral equivocation, blaming the Left and Right equally for our current state of affairs.
Around the midway point of the interview, Brooks argues that Americans noting the media’s absolutely disgraceful reporting by shouting “fake news!” is the equivalent of college kids shouting down and attacking speakers on college campuses. But since when has noticing the media’s hostility to the views of Americans who don’t reside on the coasts ever been comparable to infringements on natural rights through actual violence?
Brooks is far from alone in his moral confusion. In fact, it seems that gaslighting of this magnitude is the tie that binds elite circles on the Right together.
For example, just after the attempted assassination of Republican congressmen during a baseball practice, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) implied on CNN (where else?) that the Right was just as culpable as the Left in fomenting a culture of violence.
The obvious problem with this tactic of denying reality is that the Left doesn’t care about Brooks’ and Flake’s hedging and will continue on in their quest to defeat the Right by any means necessary. This is why, against such defeatist strategy, David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation has argued the Right needs to “adopt a much more confrontational approach against progressives and their allies in the public and private sectors.”
Bottom line: Brooks and the conservative intellectual class need to get in touch with the American mind.
Instead of making John Rawls’ theory of justice—i.e., helping the least advantaged—the purpose of government, they should return to the American Founders’ idea that government should secure the rights of everyone to enjoy their lives and liberty and to pursue happiness.
Speaking in vague terms about human dignity and bromides about “pulling people out of poverty” should be quickly discarded as well. The former is an abstraction that has no particular connection to the American character, and the latter idea doesn’t jibe with the American spirit of manly independence and self-reliance seen in the lives of such men as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
The tendency to tell the small cadre of donors what they want to hear is always strong, but the concerns of Americans as a whole must always be front and center in the minds of conservative intellectuals.