Conservative Intellectualism vs. Populism

The discussion between Jerry Taylor, Dan Mitchell, and Brink Lindsey on the Cato Institute blog (and NRO’s Corner) on Rush Limbaugh, tea parties, and conservative thought have been fascinating, and I think a discussion worth continuing.

I agree with Jerry Taylor that Limbaugh and Sean Hannity make a lot of stupid, wrong-headed, intellectually dishonest, and offensive statements, and that conservatives would do well to distance themselves from these statements, calling out Limbaugh and Hannity wrong when they are wrong.  But I also think Dan Mitchell is spot on, when he notes Limbaugh and Hannity are on 3 hours a day, several hundred days a year, are working to draw an audience, and are thus more likely to make such mistakes (contrast that to folks like myself, who edit everything I write several times before publishing).

Brink Lindsey’s comments that conservative/libertarian thinkers “need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents” is indisputable.  But Lindsey’s dumps against populism and Tea Parties were as poorly thought out as a Limbaugh or Hannity tirade. Lindsey rants against “pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican [conservatives].” What happened to the need to convince? Instead of a meritorious debate about immigration laws, the definition of marriage, or wiretapping, Lindsey resorts to cheap name calling.  Unfortunately, I see this too often from libertarian intellectuals, including those of the Cato Institute, who go above and beyond intellectual disagreement with social conservatives to stick a finger in their eye.

Returning to Mitchell’s post, he poses a couple interesting questions (I will ignore the question about “conservative think tanks”):

How come there were no tea parties when Bush was expanding the burden of government? Where were the supposedly conservative members of the House and Senate when Bush was pushing through pork-filled transportation bills, corrupt farm bills, a no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, and a massive entitlement expansion?

I’ll answer the last question first -a large number of truly conservative members did oppose pork-barrel spending, the farm bill, No Child Left Behind, and especially Medicare expansion, in which a lot of intra-party arm twisting occurred.  Certainly the later bailouts faced strong opposition from many conservatives in Congress.  The problem with GOP governance under Bush was not so much “conservatives” (or even “neo-conservatives” or any other category of ideology) voting for bigger government, but largely Republicans who followed the Bush-Rove doctrine of putting the goal of electoral success above any principle of government.

As to why there weren’t any tea parties protesting Bush’s increase in spending, my answer is twofold.  First, spending skyrocketed, even above previous high levels, beginning with the bailouts late in the Bush administration followed by the ‘stimulus,’ omnibus, and the Obama budget.   The video putting deficit spending in terms of driving a car – noting Bush “drove” the equivalent of 64 miles per hours, faster than any president in history, yet Obama’s budget would accelerate that to 174 miles per hour – gives a pretty sensible explanation to why folks are more concerned about spending today.  Second, those who organized tea parties (and the Commonwealth Foundation is among those) never expected the type of turnout we saw – around a million folks attended tea parties, many of whom have never engaged in political discourse before.

This exchange begs the questions, why didn’t Cato organize any tea parties when Bush was expanding the burden of government?  More importantly, following the populism of tea parties, what are Cato and the rest of the conservative/libertarian intellectual community going to do about it? 

The populism of talk radio and tea parties isn’t a bad thing, as it exposes ideas to a larger audience; even Taylor concedes Limbaugh has an element of teaching in his show, getting listeners to read the Road to Serfdom and the like.   Tea party protesters won’t like a federal government takeover of health care, carbon cap and trade raising the cost of electricity, the new auto emission standards, or tax increases being pushed in almost every state.  Given the right tools – the facts about these proposals, and free market alternatives – we have an army of allies in the war of policy ideas.  Instead of bashing tea parties “theatrics” for not occurring soon enough, those of us in the think tank world should reach out to these folks and give them the intellectual ammunition they need.