The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America’s public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised. Yet politicians of both parties are required, by the demands of partisanship, to embrace the convenient lie that our problem can be pinned exclusively on the other side’s elites — as though both liberals and conservatives hadn’t participated in the decisions that dug our current hole.
In this climate, it sometimes takes a fearless crank to expose realities that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly eager to acknowledge.
In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Paul has been the only figure willing to point out the deep continuities in American politics — the way social spending grows and overseas commitments multiply no matter which party is in power, the revolving doors that connect K Street to Congress and Wall Street to the White House, the long list of dubious policies and programs that both sides tacitly support. In both election cycles, his honest extremism has sometimes cut closer to the heart of our national predicament than the calculating partisanship of his more grounded rivals. He sometimes rants, but he rarely spins — and he’s one of the few figures on the national stage who says “a plague on both your houses!” and actually means it.
“Unprecedented elite failure”? Does Douthat actually believe that the conservative elite has failed? That is a daunting suggestion. When I arrived at Columbia in 1969 as a flaming leftist, there was no such thing as a conservative elite. The conservative movement still lay under the rubble of the Goldwater disaster. There was National Review, to be sure, whose readers “also serve who only stand and hate,” as William F. Buckley quipped. Irving Kristol’s Public Interest (to which I contributed much later) was just in transition from liberalism to neo-conservatism. Robert Bartley was yet to take the helm at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Supply-side economics was a gleam in Robert Mundell’s eye (Jude Wanniski’s programmatic essay for Public Interest on Mundell and Laffer appeared in 1974).
Now we have an army of conservative intellectuals, working out of the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and too many other think tanks and publications to follow. Robert Mundell went on to win the Nobel Prize, and the “voodoo economics” of 1980 has become mainstream Republican policy. Natural-law Catholic intellectuals like Princeton’s Robert George and Amherst’s Hadley Arkes–scholars whom I had the privilege to meet as an editor at First Things — have trained a generation of students. The evangelical movement is a formidable political force. Fox News churns out the conservative message daily, along with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and dozens of other media personalities — not to mention PJ Media founder Roger Simon. The universities remain captive to the tenure system that left the ’60s radicals in positions of power, to be sure, but that doesn’t stop conservatives from thinking, publishing, and addressing a mass audience.
There is no shortage of smarts, and no shortage of institutional support, and no shortage of public outlets. Even the New York Times feels obligated to give a major slot to a conservative Catholic like Ross Douthat.
What, then, has failed?
There are any number of particular failures. I began writing a pseudonymous Internet column just before 9/11 in the belief that the ideological stance that beat Communism — the contest between democracy and totalitarianism — led to systematic blunders in confronting radical Islam. I differed with my neo-conservative friends over the prospects for nation-building in Muslim countries, and foresaw instead an ineluctable collapse of Islamic civilization. In my view, the conservative movement erred, and the Bush administration lost the public’s patience and support over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alan Greenspan, a free-market hero, blundered horribly in failing to regulate shadow banking, followed by another Republican appointee, Ben Bernanke. They forgot the old adage that the job of a central banker is to take away the punch-bowl just as the party is getting good. If they had acted to pop the housing price bubble earlier, they probably would have been lynched — it’s easy to beat them up with hindsight — but they still deserve a lot of blame.
These were mistakes, to be sure, but do they imply that America has suffered an “unprecedented failure” of its conservative elite? Just what sort of conservative elite did Ross Douthat have in mind? The victors of the Cold War and the authors of the Reagan economic boom set the tone for an enormous expansion of conservative intellectual life. How could we have done it better?
More disturbing, I think, is the extent to which America has suffered not a failure of the elites, but a failure of the people. Do we measure up to the founders of this country? The fact that Americans fought a revolution against Britain in the first place continues to astonish me. When in all of history have prosperous men with property — farms and businesses — risked their lives and fortunes to establish a better political order? Only a spiritual grandeur of a depth we barely can imagine today can explain it. When in all of history has a country gone to war and sacrificed 5% of its total population to suppress slavery? The evangelical zeal that sent the North to war, singing of the grapes of wrath in the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah 63, surpasses our understanding today.
Some of that sense of American purpose awakened after 9/11, and the conservative elite misspent the spiritual energy of Americans in the Quixotic pursuit of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Ron Paul is not the only candidate to state this plainly. Newt Gingrich has said the same thing.
What sets Mullah Ron Paul apart is something malicious, in my judgment: the assertion that a conspiracy of malefactors is responsible for the economic pain of the American people, and if these malefactors (for example the Federal Reserve) were to go away, the pain would disappear. That is demagoguery of the most insidious kind.
There is no truth-telling here: to absolve Americans of their greed, indolence, and cupidity in the great recent home price bubble is the biggest lie of all. Americans caught a ride on a $6 trillion wave of foreign capital inflows, and thought the free money would be there forever. The smartest kids got MBAs and law degrees instead of learning engineering.
Worst of all, we are suffering from our collective failure to bear children. Our population is aging as a result, so the demands on working taxpayers to support retirees will rise drastically. Most of the rise in entitlement spending is the mechanical result of demographics.We have the choice of paying more taxes, or getting lower Medicare and Social Security payments, or retiring later, or attracting more working-age skilled immigrants to bear more of the tax burden. Do the math. The main reason the deficit is so intractable is because we as a people preferred other things to raising children. Once again, indolence and hedonism threaten to undo our prosperity. With its fertility rate of 1.3, Italy is a goner; whether it goes bankrupt in 2012 or 2022 is a minor question, for it will go bankrupt sooner or later, as 60% of its population retires by mid-century. We are suffering a milder case of the same disease.
In a much, much graver crisis, the greatest of all of our leaders, Abraham Lincoln, told the American people that the terrible Civil War was their fault — for owning slaves, and tolerating the ownership of slaves — and that the suffering must continue until every drop of blood drawn by the lash was requited by one drawn by the sword. We have chiseled these words on his monument, but we do not read them, because we do not like the implication that we might suffer because of our mistakes.
Candidates for public office, to be sure, do not win points by blaming the voters, for it is the job of a candidate to propose how the government might do better. It isn’t necessary to repeat Bertolt Brecht’s quip that the government might consider dismissing the people and electing a new one. But to send frightened and angry people in search of enemies to blame is a fair definition of political evil.
So I have a different view than Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher. From my way of looking at things, what Ron Paul is doing is just plain bad. And if the conservative punditeska fails to call him out, then, perhaps, we will have to speak of an “unprecedented failure” of our own elite.