10.26.08 Intellectualism Makes a Comeback?
Way back in July, I wrote about the Republicans’ awkward coalition of unnatural allies (here and here). I described a wobbly stool made up of the ultra-wealthy, the ultra-religious, and the national defense hawks, with a handful of libertarians thrown in. It was apparent then that this unholy alliance was in danger of flying apart at the seams, due to inherent mistrust within it and the Bush administration’s record of utter incompetence.
July. An era (epoch?) ago. Before McCain decided that ideas would take a back seat to attacks. Before the Palin pick. Before the financial house of cards came tumbling down.
Well, there’s nothing like failure to bring out the circular firing squads, and we have seen them aplenty in the past couple of weeks, as the GOP blame game gets into full swing. It is lovely to watch McCain’s team blaming Palin’s team and Palin’s team blaming McCain’s handlers, right-wingers’ bemoaning the incoherent presidential campaign’s drag on down-ticket races, and Republicans with names like Buckley, Goldwater, and Powell endorsing the Democratic candidate.
It is in this environment that one more GOP fissure I hadn’t noticed previously is leaping to the fore: we now have a clear split between the Know-Nothings (personified by Palin and led by William Kristol and the gang at National Review) and the Intellectuals (led by David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, among others).
Anti-intellectualism is nothing new in the US body politic, of course, having been used to co-opt the unwashed masses for a couple of centuries. Since Ronald Reagan, it has been the purposeful province of the GOP. The religious freaks in the party are all about know-nothingism, of course – the very essence of their worldview denigrates science, empirical reality, and the role of the human brain. The ultra-wealthy have had a remarkable string of success exploiting the resultant culture wars to get Americans to vote against their economic self-interest. And the neocons (nee defense hawks) have delighted in the dovetailing of religiously driven intolerance with their desire to fight aggressive wars against anti-Judeo-Christian demons abroad.
But suddenly, Brooks, Noonan and others are calling for the Republican Party to embrace intellect. This still small — but likely to be very influential — band is actually suggesting that being smart is a virtue, that results matter as much as ideology, and that governance requires coherence and competence.
Do not underestimate the importance of this news. It is both the harbinger of change and a reaction to it.
This new wave of GOP thought presages a more serious splintering of the GOP than the Wall Street-Bible Belt breakup I wrote about this summer. In the short term, the GOP is going to be so busy with internecine warfare that it will be in no position to beat up on anyone else. In the longer term, there is some potential that the party might be reborn as a conservative – but less dangerous – force: one that can be done business with.
While indicating something about the GOP’s future, Brooks and Noonan are also reacting to reality on the ground: for the first time since the late 70s, the American people are (apparently) refusing to be taken in by name-calling and cultural bogeymen. In this time of national crisis, they seem to be choosing the guy with a brain over the guy you would rather have a beer with. (Of course, Reagan and W were the epitome of the latter. McCain, on the other hand, has turned himself into the know-nothing whom no one even wants at the backyard BBQ.)
I am not declaring this to be an enduring, nonetheless permanent, trend. But it is heartening – even delicious — for as long as it lasts.
©2008 Keith Berner