IDEAS, FIRST PRINCIPLES,...

IDEAS, FIRST PRINCIPLES, THE PHILOSOPHY GAP, ETC. To add to the pushback against liberal "ideas" hype, I recommend reading Greg Anrig's post as well as Alan Wolfe's essay in the latest Washington Monthly. Neither actually make arguments against the transcendent relevance of big ideas to political parties, but they both make a refreshingly obvious point that relates to that debate: namely, that conservative Republican governance -- the culmination of the right's storied decades-long efforts to build a movement and an intellectual infrastructure and to incubate new ideas while out in the political wilderness and blah blah blah -- has been an unmitigated fiasco and embarrassment. Most of the right's big ideas have turned out to be less than half-baked, and the right in power has failed to advance most of the basic goals of political conservatism.

Wolfe makes a very sweeping and historical case for the inevitability of conservative failure in power ("A conservative in America, in short, is someone who advocates ends that cannot be realized through means that can never be justified, at least not on the terrain of conservatism itself."), but even focusing more narrowly on the contemporary scene, it seems clear to me that right-wing pundits' penchant for incessant ruminations about first principles, conservative intellectual history, and What Would Hayek Do? games represents a dodge -- a way to avoid facing up to the glaring lack of an actual practical Republican governing agenda or arguing about issues of policy and priorities. There are actual, important debates to be had about policy and priorities among liberals (here's an example at random), but, crucially, those debates can't be hashed out at a high level of abstraction. The state of modern conservatism doesn't lead me to think that liberals have a great deal to gain from a lot of intense haggling over first principles or feverish "new idea"-mongering.

--Sam Rosenfeld

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