The Intellectual Deterioration Of Politics

Richard Posner has gotten a bit of attention on the Right for writing a piece bemoaning the intellectual deterioration of the conservative movement. Here’s an excerpt,

I sense intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States. As I shall explain, this may be a testament to its success.

Until the late 1960s (when I was in my late twenties), I was barely conscious of the existence of a conservative movement. It was obscure and marginal, symbolized by figures like Barry Goldwater (slaughtered by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election), Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, and William Buckley–figures who had no appeal for me. More powerful conservative thinkers, such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and other distinguished conservative economists, such as George Stigler, were on the scene, but were not well known outside the economics profession.

…By the end of the Clinton administration, I was content to celebrate the triumph of conservatism as I understood it, and had no desire for other than incremental changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. I saw no need for the estate tax to be abolished, marginal personal-income tax rates further reduced, the government shrunk, pragmatism in constitutional law jettisoned in favor of “originalism,” the rights of gun owners enlarged, our military posture strengthened, the rise of homosexual rights resisted, or the role of religion in the public sphere expanded. All these became causes embraced by the new conservatism that crested with the reelection of Bush in 2004.

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My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

First of all, the “intellectual deterioration” is society wide, not just in the conservative movement. Education, entertainment, and even religion have been “dumbed down” in an effort to make them more accessible to the masses. The advantage of this, in a society where half the people have a below average IQ, is that the “reach” is further. By making things simpler, more people can understand. The downside is that the quality of the information has dropped. Ironically, despite the almost overwhelming number of news sources that people can choose from, many Americans are less educated about things that matter than they were 50 years ago. Sure, they can tell you who got knocked off of American Idol this week, but do they understand the Constitution? If they’re Christians, do they understand basic biblical concepts? Do they even know who the Vice-President is or which party supports which position on key issues…which leads us back to the issue at hand.

Nowhere has the dumbing down of society been more evident than in our political discourse and furthermore, it’s considerably more true on the Left than the Right. People miss this because the Democrats are the party of far left-wing college professors and faux intellectuals, but their politics are about as simple as the dialogue in a Hulk comic.

“You nice! Hulk like! You mean! Hulk Smash!”

Whether you are talking about a Nobel Prize winner like Paul Krugman, a liberal college professor, or the dimmest bulb in the Daily Kos forums, 90% of the arguments operate off of a “We should do this because it’s nice and people who oppose it are mean” template. That’s as deep as their thinking gets on the subject and the only difference between the “intellectuals” on the Left and the drooling morons is that the “intellectuals” just say the same thing using words with more syllables. Moreover, there is seldom any real “debate” over the issues on the Left and when there is, studious care is taken by everyone involved to avoid any data that might contradict some tenet of liberal dogma.

On the Right, the debates are ferocious and very real. Moreover, a considerable amount of time is often spent trying to explain conservative principles to each other and anyone else who might be inclined to listen. That being said, most conservatives are not philosophically grounded in conservatism in the same way that someone who has inhaled Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Edmund Burke and the other great thinkers of the Right may be. But, they are very familiar with the people who’ve simplified, explained, and popularized those people’s work like Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Sowell, Ronald Reagan, Walter Williams, & Newt Gingrich.

Quite frankly, that gives them far more of a foundation and ability to explain their ideas in a logical fashion than you will find on the Left. For example, Posner complains about Joe the Plumber. From what I’ve seen, Joe the Plumber seems to have a much better intellectual understanding of the economy than our President, who taught law school. So, out of those two, who’s really more of an “intellectual?”

In this “dumbed down” world, too often, what we end up seeing are people who prefer the trappings of intellectualism to less-than-ideal intellectualism. To them, a college professor who can only support his position by screaming, “Nazi, bigot, homophobe, evil!” at his opponents is much more of an intellectual than someone who may not have read the collected works of Milton Friedman, but can explain his arguments and give a good explanation of how the free enterprise system works.

Last but not least, it’s worth noting that I don’t agree with much of Posner’s thinking in that piece. He seems to confuse conservatism and the Republican Party a great deal and some of his conclusions don’t make much sense, particularly in light of the subject he’s talking about. Global warming, for example, is the ultimate “anti-intellectual” scam. Every debate about the subject features politicians and celebrities screaming, “There’s a scientific consensus! The polar bears are going to die,” while their opponents slice them to shreds using scientific evidence that indicates there’s no manmade global warming. But that, is another post for another day…

Also see,

On Anti-Intellectualism

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