January 16, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
The Republican Party’s dangerous bankruptcy of ideas
They won’t persuade you. They’ll force you.
In The Liberal Imagination (1950), Lionel Trilling explained why European society collapsed under the weight of fascism and “totalitarian communism.” How could a democratic culture destroy itself? Because, Trilling said, it was “bankrupt of ideas.”
Europe’s collapse “revealed the dangers of a society that puts limits on the free play of the intellect,” wrote Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, explaining Trilling’s views. He said that “in the modern situation,” meaning the early 20th century, “it’s just when a movement despairs of having ideas that it turns to force, which it masks in ideology.”
I applied Trilling’s concept in a recent piece to anti-trans laws and the American imagination. But it can be applied to the GOP, too.
It’s not going to destroy itself the way Europe did.
But it might destroy other things.
“Free play of the intellect”
For years, Republican talking points were strictly enforced. New ideas were suspect. Fealty to tax cuts and deregulation was binding. Independent thinking was verboten. Modern conservatism began with a profusion of ideas. (See Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind or the journal he founded, Modern Age.) Four decades later, it has devolved into a means of rationalizing multiple cults of personality.
Over time, there were severe limits on “the free play of the intellect” if only because expedience demanded it. Eventually, as restrictions got tighter, the GOP became “bankrupt of ideas.” The only ideas that remained were vestiges of the past and resentments of the present. The only idea appearing to gain the attention of the new House Republican majority is impeaching someone, anyone, somewhere.
While the Republicans were tightening the coils of innovation, the Democrats and their intellectuals were releasing them, churning out new and useful ideas and policies for years (in forums such as The American Prospect, Democracy and Washington Monthly). Some of them reached their zenith in the administration of Joe Biden.
Those ideas, especially the belief that spending, not tax cuts, spurs economic growth, came at just the right time. What began as “a battle for the soul of the nation” quickly turned, for Biden, into a battle against an existential threat, the covid. In short order, Biden, as president, assimilated progressivism’s most useful ideas.
History coming back around
The shift from supply-side economics, which concerns scarcity, to demand-side economics, which concerns abundance, was too historic to ignore. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Alan Crawford, in “Big Government Is Back with Massive State Interventions,” said governments the world over are stabilizing economies rocked by inflation with huge public investments or even “nationalization.”
“Policymakers are going above and beyond to cushion the blow from surging prices on consumers and businesses,” Crawford wrote. “Some of this is tactical — fuel subsidies and food assistance programs can win votes — but the spending is also motivated by strategic considerations about economic competitiveness.”
“Massive state intervention” is another way of saying that the US, under Biden, is re-reviving ideas about the political economy that had been revived in a previous era in our history. Progressives looked to Germany in the early 20th century without knowing that they were “reimporting the modified themes of the earlier American school of political economy,” wrote Michael Lind in Land of Promise.
Lind said Germany of the late 19th century had modeled itself on the “American system” of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster “by creating a large internal market and using a protective tariff to promote its infant industries.” Rather than Bismarckian authoritarianism, Lind said, Germany adopted what it called “American-style democracy.”
The American progressives of the early 1900s, Lind wrote, brought those ideas back home in order “to found the institutional school of American economics, which had a profound influence on American reform in the first half of the 20th century, even though it was marginalized in the American academy after World War II by excessively abstract, unrealistic approaches to economics.”
Those “excessively abstract, unrealistic approaches to economics” prevailed for pretty much Joe Biden’s entire time in public service. The Democrats ran from the word “spending.” But in the face of an existential threat like the covid, spending had taken on a new high glow. In the middle of public health emergency, spending isn’t wasteful. It’s useful. It’s another way of practicing statecraft.
Statecraft and stagecraft
Some Republicans still cling to the old ways of thinking about the political economy, but most have abandoned “excessively abstract” economics – ie, “neoliberalism” – in favor of “the culture war,” “owning the libs” and any theatrical hoohah that wins time on Fox.
They do, however, pretend to care.
Here we find the least recognized difference between the parties.
The Democrats believe ideas are crucial to democratic politics and republican government. Under Biden, who folded into his administration, in the face of crises, the most useful of progressive ideas, the Democrats have returned to being the party of statecraft.
The Republicans, however, won’t craft anything. Taking any action would mean taking some responsibility. They can’t have that. The GOP stopped caring about republican government after the election of the first Black president. They stopped caring about democratic politics under Donald Trump. They stopped caring about ideas.
All they have left is pretending to serve the people.
All they have left is stagecraft.
“Force, which it masks in ideology”
Stagecraft, however, is not benign.
The “conservative movement,” another way of saying the Republicans’ four-decade-old hegemony, is like all political movements. It began with fresh ideas, a burst of intellectual energy seeking to countervail the presumptions and preconditions that shaped the status quo.
Over time, the movement’s ideas attracted attention, resources and people. Properly organized, and with enough effort, it went on to achieve its goal. The election of Ronald Reagan undid the status quo of Roosevelt. It established the Republicans’ 40-year hegemony.
But with success and power came apathy, decadence and decline. “Message discipline” got greater credence than independent thought. “Excessively abstract” economics – tax cuts and deregulation, “neoliberalism” – seemed fresh in the late 20th century. By the second decade of the 21st, however, it seemed more rote than revolutionary.
Abandoned by most Republicans in favor of “the culture war” and “owning the libs,” and impotent in the face of the covid pandemic and its inflationary consequences, it was just a matter of time, as Trilling might have said, before the conservative movement despaired of having ideas and turned to “force, which it masks in ideology.”
Persuasion out, extortion in
Kevin McCarthy, the new speaker of the House, bargained away much of his power to secure the support of Republican anarchists, who want to use the debt ceiling (the cap of how much the US government can borrow) to extort the country into meeting their “demands.” (I use quotes here because I don’t think they know what they want.)
According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, McCarthy appears ready to go along. “McCarthy said he would not agree to raising the debt limit — that is, honoring the debts the country has already incurred — without ‘fiscal reforms.’ That promise seems to hold the threat of a showdown over a national default,” she wrote recently. (The debt ceiling is expected to be reached some time this year.)
This danger, however, is usually met with shrugging indifference. The Republicans can’t possibly mean it, the thinking goes, since allowing the US to default on its debt would trigger Armageddon. As I said some time ago, $15 trillion in household wealth would poofthph.
They mean it. They don’t have anything else to offer. In the absence of ideas, as Trilling said, they have turned to force, which the GOP masks in ideology. They are going to force the US, and the world, to bend to their will. Democratic persuasion is out. Extortion is in.
The Republicans are “bankrupts of ideas,” because they put “limits on the free play of the intellect,” because they don’t care about thinking as much as they care about obedience to their authority. They won’t destroy themselves the way Europe did in the Second World War.
But they might destroy other things.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.