BIG IDEAS. It's sadly locked behind The New York Times cursed subscription wall, but Maureen Dowd has penned one of the best op-ed columns I've read in months. The context is yesterday's launch luncheon for Democracy, where Andrei Cherny, Ken Baer, Bill Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and Mike Tomasky batted around the worth of "Big Ideas." Cherny recalled a conversation with a conservative pundit who asked, "Who's on your tie?" Apparently, the Reaganites signaled their seriousness by using Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as neckwear. This struck me as stupid: John Kenneth Galbraith may be a massive influence for me, but there's not a doubt in my mind that he would consider anyone wearing his face on their chest a doofus. The intellectuals I revere were too iconoclastic and skeptical for that sort of hero worship. But I'm in the minority: The aesthetics of seriousness are in vogue now, and it's only a matter of time before George Lakoff becomes a fashion statement.
It's odd, though. The sartorial symbolism of our unnamed conservative is just one manifestation of the rightwing punditocracy's sort of ostentatious intellectualism, which is usually signaled by smug and constant reminders of their slavish devotion to philosophical forebears. WWHD? What would Hayek do? What's weird is that he wouldn't get nominated by the right. "Republicans," Dowd writes, "don't own all three branches of government because of little cameo pictures of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke hanging over their blue Oxford button-down shirts. Mr. Smith and Mr. Burke would blanch at the shape W. and Karl Rove have given conservatism � the political muscle of the Christian right, the withering of the social contract, greedy capitalism, fiscal profligacy." Their standard bearers, after all, aren't tweedy guys who quote Burke, but swaggering Texans who misquote Christ. George Bush, not George Will. I've always assumed that to be the root of this obsession with past thinkers; the party's cherished anti-intellectualism forces its intellectual elite to over-project erudition.
Indeed, as Dowd writes, Big Ideas, and great minds, get things wrong. Fukuyama's a dazzling intellect who offered a huge idea, but history, last I checked, stubbornly continues. Kristol's neoconservatism made for some good speeches but a very bad war. When big ideas go wrong, their scale turns a mistake into a catastrophe. So rather than scouring the earth for ever-larger concepts, maybe it's time to simply think about who could best package, implement, and explain current solutions. The search shouldn't be for bigger ideas, but better people. Speaking of which, Ross Douthat, in today's Wall Street Journal, thinks Barack Obama should run in '08.
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