Friday, April 30, 2010

The Coming Intellectual Crisis

As regular readers know, I'm a big fan of Fox News's Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld, which airs weeknights at 3:00 AM. In the past, I've compared Red Eye to the Daily Show and made the argument that Red Eye was a funnier and superior program. Now Red Eye is an unabashedly conservative program, but I've always enjoyed it for it's humor, it's libertarian leanings, and the equal forums given to all sides of most issues ... until recently. Just the other night, Red Eye opened with two segments that troubled me. One was host's Greg Gutfeld's Greg-A-Logue in support of Arizona's new draconian immigration restrictions and the other was a critical segment on British hip-hop artist MIA's just recently banned from YouTube video which featured the American military rounding up and executing ginger kids.

It's the sort of stuff I'd expect from knee-jerk Republicans, but not what I've come to expect from Red Eye. Not that Red Eye is typically nuanced, but I've usually found it to be comfortable in the nether regions between nuance and knee-jerkism. Now, before I get any further, I've got to point out that Red Eye is very much reflective of it's host, Greg Gutfeld. The guest panelists on the show are there to react and respond, while the other two regulars, Bill Schultz and TV's Andy Levy, are joke-first, politics distant second personalities. And what troubles me is that Greg's politics, his brand of conservatism (which seems to epitomize the conservatism I see among young people), is more based upon reaction and rejection than it is rooted in any sort of intellectual ideaology.

What I mean by that is that some of the positions Greg takes seem to stem not out any particular view about the role of government and it's relationship with individuals, but from a reaction to the left. If leftists have a problem with Arizona's draconian new immigration bill, than by golly, we better be for it. This sort of thinking seems to be laid out most clearly in the areas of war, foreign policy, and law enforcement issues. How else do you explain a conservatism that reacts with skepticism to bureaucrats and politicians, but defers to military and law enforcement? There's an argument to be made that the roots of some of those positions could be found in the ideas of the leaders of the early conservative movement. But that ignores the fact that the world is different now and more importantly, young conservatives have no real connection with that intellectual tradition.

Reflecting upon my own experiences, I have to say this theory accurately reflects my own experiences. The conservatives I knew in college were far more anti-liberal than anything else. (To be fair, I think many of the leftists I've known found their politics as a reaction to a conservatism that doesn't even really exist- but that's neither here nor there.) While it's not the same thing, I think this concept of reaction rather than organic intellectual development plays a part in the tea party movement. Now, the tea party movement is obviously somewhat older than the younger conservatives I've been discussing, but this idea of reaction is somewhat the same. It's why the tea parties have been so successful at demonstrating opposition to Obama and the Democrats, but have not been a fertile ground for any ideas about what our government should be doing.

The focus here has been the right, but obviously, as I hinted at above, you find some of the same reactionary sort of thoughts on the left, even amongst the intellectual left. Just look at the standard leftist response to school choice, or social security privatization- these ideas are rejected because they come from the right and from free market think tanks. Never mind that school choice and government-enforced private retirement plans are common throughout most of "socialist" Europe.

But the real problem here, as I suppose it always is, is that politics risks becoming a team sport with two sides, where no one actually engages in debate. When your political views are only reactions to what someone else is doing, the sum total of your politics is in danger of becoming stale and intellectually stifled. Real political thought needs to come from the ground up and real policy proposals need to stem from the world as it is, not the world we'd like it to be. Conservatives lost the health care debate (in terms of the fact that Obamacare was actually passed) because far too many public spokespeople for the conservative movement refused to engage in any sort of real debate. It would have been nice to hear just one conservative voice say, "yes, we want to do more to provide health care for those who don't currently have health insurance, but the Democrats are going about it the wrong way." There were plenty of ideas kicking around out there in the intellectual world of think tanks that could have provided coverage to more individuals, yet tilted power away from government and back towards markets.

Anyone who reads many of the young liberal columnists and bloggers out there (Ezra Klein comes to mind), knows that this younger generation of leftists arose by intellectually addressing many of the arguments conservatives have been making for decades. Economics matter, or at least it does now. Costs used to not matter to the left, but they do now, which is why there was so much financial acrobatics that went on (and is still going on) in the debate over Obamacare. The rightness or wrongness of those sorts of argument aside, the point is, the opposing side was taken seriously and addressed seriously. And I fear we're seeing less and less of that on the right.