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

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6 Comments on “10.26.08 Intellectualism Makes a Comeback?”

  1. KenF Says:

    Peggy Noonan, intellectual? I don’t think so.

    David Brooks? Pompous? Yes. Amusing? Sometimes. Intellectual? Well, he does play one on TV. But face it, he’s no Paul Krugman.


  2. Leon Morse Says:

    I don’t really see a much different party when the dust settles. You could throw Frum into the mix of those calling for a more mainstream Republican Party. On Colbert he talks about never being able to win if the direction the party continues to take directly alienates urban voters. And although I think that’s true at the core, that they can’t win big, it isn’t true that Republicans would be shut out. They have a lock on enough states that it takes a real screw up president, like W, to get them into these dire straits. They won’t be facing those dire straits in 2012 (in fact, they’ll be blaming Obama for all the crap he’s likely to inherit), and so it’ll be easy to go with what they know.

    On the Democrats’ side, they need to, beginning in 2010, to really start hitting the Republicans hard for being the party of the rich, and not the party of the free market. For ages the Republicans have painted the rich as stewards of the free market: what was good for them was good for the economy, and money and opportunity would trickle down. Anything contrary to that, such as capital gains taxes, would “cost jobs.” And people bought that.

    This never made sense to economists, but what do those eggheads know? The current crisis should serve as proof to the “common sense beats a PhD” crowd that in fact, the rich are only stewards of their wealth, and they have really blown it if they were stewards of the free market. They shouldn’t be trusted to guard the cookie jar, and anyway, they don’t use their wealth as a superconsumer that could generate the kinds of jobs that would make protecting their wealth worthwhile.

    So in addition to hitting the Republicans hard on the fact that they represent the rich and not the free market, there needs to be an educational element. Elections are a good time to educate people, but often this is ignored because the spinmeisters prefer soundbites. Combine them and the points will be picked up. The Republicans have been masters of education. Thanks to their efforts, we know as fact that the media is liberal, global climate change a myth, and higher taxes always cost jobs. Well we can’t undo most of those. But Democrats should begin to educate on facts and make them as well known as those above.

    For example, everyone should know as common sense that individuals stop paying their 6.20% social security tax on earnings greater than $106,800 in 2009. They should begin to understand the concept of total tax burden. So when Bill Kristol smugly asserts that the poor are lucky because they have the lowest income tax rates, everyone will call bullshit on him, knowing that they all pay social security and medicare, plus the fact that as a percentage of income they pay a higher share of federal excise taxes. When you consider total tax burden, it turns out that taxes in this country are pretty flat.

    And the list goes on.


  3. tgibson24 Says:

    Good points Leon.

    I would add one bit though about what an Obama administration needs to do (or in this case not do) from day one: not overreach. I am all for serious reform of the following: the health care system (attempting to make it near universal); social security (up the limit, keep the “donut”), the immigration system (mostly along the lines of what Obama and McCain two years ago both agreed on). Tweak taxes and definitely let the bush tax cuts expire, attempt to get the fed deficit back under $400 billion by 2010 $200 billion by 2012 with a trajectory toward a surplus during his last four years (2012-2016).

    I think if Obama and a Dem run congress do not overreach it does not push the pendulum back and it can really help with “educating” the public as Leon states above. I have been surprised that this election it seems that dumb slogans and mudthrowing by and large have not worked. I even catch myself believing from time to time that many (not those we see at Palin rallies) Americans are fed up with the stupidity with which they are treated. Obama I think will change that a lot in the sense that the President finally will speak in an educated manner to the American public, will challenge them to better understand certain policies, changes etc. Not just “you are with us or against us” type of nonsensical bs.


  4. Leon Morse Says:

    I agree about not overreaching. Resist the temptation to abuse what will hopefully be a good strong congressional majority. Don’t give fodder to the Republican crapmill.

    My worry is that the Republicans have so poisoned the water that for a good number of people it is too late to get them to open-mindedly evaluate what an Obama presidency could accomplish. I suppose there will always be those who, like some old timers I know of who still hate FDR, cling to strong partisanship one way or the other. But I do fear that group has grown in this election cycle. If McCain really were classy, he would have been more vocal–he made some really feeble efforts in this direction–to spell out that “Obama’s not a Muslim, but so what if he were? That’s not what should affect your vote. My experience and plan are better than his etc.” That was an opportunity to educate that was ignored.

    But who knows? The Nixon-Kennedy election was very close and yet Kennedy is well remembered by a solid majority of Americans.


  5. Keith Berner Says:

    Response to Leon: Your points about the need for Democrats to educate the public are excellent. The left has allowed the right to define terms for far too long. It is time to take control of the national discourse.

    Response to Leon & tgibson: I have mixed feelings about “overreaching.” On the one hand, I don’t want to see the Dems become as corrupt and arrogant as the GOP has, so if that is what you mean by overreaching, I agree with you completely. On the other hand, I don’t want to see this period of Democratic rule revert to Clintonian triangulation. Court appointments must be down-the-line liberals. The Iraq war must end. Redistribution of wealth from the poor (and middle class) to the rich must be reversed. The environment and energy independence are nonnegotiable priorities.


  6. Leon Morse Says:

    I would agree that those are indeed priorities. I am thinking about such things as rules and redistricting that put salt in the Republican wounds. I am also thinking about not upholding promises to carefully review the budget and be responsible with taxpayer money. While examples will always exist to give grist to the Republican garbage mill that Democrats are “tax and spend,” not giving them good examples means that their propaganda will ring less true.

    Since the election there has been a lot of talk about the future of the Republican party. I am not writing them off yet. Even in disarray about their long-term future and strategy, they can still revert back to their usual tactics with short-term success in 2010 if things don’t show signs of improving by then.


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