If the ascendancy of the Tea Party has signaled anything in American politics, it is the striking of the death knell for mainstream conservative intellectualism. Gone are the Milton Friedmans and Irving Kristols of the conservative movement. Replacing them are droves of opportunists tapping into general frustrations with government and the economy, posing flimsily as faux libertarians. Gone are the policy prescriptions of the right, swapped for ungrammatical Twitter updates from Sarah Palin and angry rants from Glenn Beck.
Speaking on the dearth of intellectual conservatism, Brink Lindsey, a former Cato Institute researcher, recently remarked, “Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. … On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.”
Maybe Brink is being somewhat melodramatic. But that doesn’t mean he is incorrect. He is echoed by Richard Posner, conservative judge for the Seventh Circuit, who remarked that “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. … By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber.”
This shift in the GOP and conservative movement from the academic championing of free-market principles to a largely undirected mass of anti-Democratic fervor has led the Democrats to label the Republicans the “Party of No.” Sadly, the GOP has done little to shed this pejorative brand.
However, a flash of hope for conservatives is shining in the state of Wisconsin. Representative Paul Ryan may be the harbinger of a “Second Coming” for smart, policy-driven conservatism. Ryan has become a folk hero for deficit opponents and market champions because of his long track record of proactive behavior in Congress. He is notable for forcing the GOP to introduce free-market reforms into the Medicare prescription drug program. He spent 2007 fervently advocating for earmark transparency before it became a major issue in the presidential campaign. But the center of his policy prescriptions is his Roadmap for America’s Future, an 87-page plan to reform entitlements, simplify the tax system, and undo government distortions in free markets.
In a period where many frontrunners for governorships and seats in Congress are the Palin-esque reactionaries, Ryan’s policies are a refreshing change of pace. Hopefully Ryan will lead the way for more level-headed conservatives who invest time, thought, and energy in their official positions.
That is not to say that Ryan’s Roadmap is airtight. Though he had the numbers crunched by the Congressional Budget Office, many economists have criticized his plan. Ryan responded, “I really sincerely hoped that a few other people from both parties would start throwing their plans out there, and then we’d get into the business of debating these things.” This is the confident response of a man whose plan has a strong intellectual basis with research to back it up. One can hope that Tea Party nominees will follow his example and retreat from their initial ideological yearnings to more realistic plans grounded in academic research. Ryan represents the kind of political approach that will move America forward.
As a liberal bemoaning the collapse of what I consider to be the most valuable tenet of conservative politics, I hope that Stanford can help breed a culture in which young conservatives espouse the return to academia. The anti-elitism of the rural right and the populist panderers who fight for their votes is not a winning combination for the GOP. When the midterm elections end and the dust settles for Republicans, it will be time for the party to make a serious decision about their image and ideology.
Flash-in-the-pan conservatives can decide to continue tapping into evangelistic fervor, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobic identity politics, or they can return to intellectualism. Stanford, as a stepping-stone for many of the Republican leaders of tomorrow, can help reinvent the culture of conservative academia. It is the responsibility of the conservative scholars of today to write the future for their party. I am eagerly waiting.
Nik Milanovic ’11 is majoring in Philosophy and Political Science and his interests include political ethics. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.