Once upon a time, our conservatives liked to say that “ideas matter.” They attributed this pithy slogan to their idol Ayn Rand, venerated author of Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, and they tried to live by it, generating books, papers, and legislative proposals by the dozen. Although many of their theories later proved flimsy, they at least appeared to address real problems with fresh thinking.
But ideas no longer matter – and in fact, they’re dangerous, according to the maximum leader of the right.
At the Conservative Political Action Committee convention in Washington last week, Rush Limbaugh declared that new ideas ought to be shunned by every right-thinking American. Draped ominously in black, the radio kingpin savaged those in his movement who have dared to suggest that the right needs policy alternatives to compete with Democratic plans for economic revival, universal health care, environmental stewardship and educational improvement. Ranting on for more than an hour, he warned against any reconsideration of the sacred platitudes of Reaganism.
“Everybody asks me…well, what do we do, as conservatives? What do we do? How do we overcome this?” said Mr. Limbaugh, and of course he had a simple answer: “One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat them is with better policy ideas.” He went on to denounce the “Beltway establishment” conservative “media and policy types” who have written on “the concept that the era of Reagan is over.” That cued loud booing from the audience, which turned into cheers as Mr. Limbaugh roared: “We have got to stamp this out within this movement because it will tear us apart. It will guarantee we lose elections.”
The image of a radio demagogue, dressed entirely in black, roaring against dissenters from the official line, provoked comparisons with Fidel Castro or Mao Zedong. Here was the harbinger of an ideology in decline, exhibiting the pathological aversion to intellectual activity and unfettered debate that is always the surest evidence of political decay.
The irony, of course, is that Reaganism was, at its zenith, a vehicle for policy ideas as well as a personality cult. What began with the founding of National Review and the Barry Goldwater campaign as a tiny protest against stale Republican moderation became a vital current with a vision of its own and a series of policy schemes, from supply-side economics to workfare, faith-based social spending, school vouchers, and Social Security privatization. But while the world has changed radically since those ideas entered the political mainstream a quarter century ago, Mr. Limbaugh and his millions of followers evidently feel that any attempt to cope with those changes is heretical.
Some Republicans clearly understand that their party and their ideology are exhausted, even if they still can’t come up with anything more creative than capital gains tax cuts. (That means you, Newt Gingrich.) They also know that as a public spokesman and symbol, Mr. Limbaugh, whose utterances over the years have been larded with obnoxious racism and sexism, leaves much to be desired. Broadening the appeal of the G.O.P. and renewing the party platform is plainly essential after two elections that have shrunk its base and shriveled its message. Perhaps that is one reason why the party leaders chose Michael Steele, an African-American from Maryland, as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. Even the clueless Mr. Limbaugh seems to realize that his movement has a problem, as he demonstrated when he vowed to convene a “female summit” to figure out why the great majority of women cannot stand him.
But Mr. Limbaugh and his dittoheads — whose prejudices also find expression in the wisdom of “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher — maintain a stranglehold on the right. When Mr. Steele dared to assert his leadership and swiped at Mr. Limbaugh’s show as “incendiary” and “ugly,” he swiftly followed up with the same kind of humiliating apology heard from other Republican critics of the radio host. Having claimed to be the “de facto” head of the Republican Party, Mr. Steele had to back down and heel to the strongman.
For Democrats, these clown shows are amusing and encouraging. As long as the Republicans kowtow to Mr. Limbaugh, they won’t be able to muster substantive opposition to President Obama and the Congressional majority. That may be just as well for now. But every nation needs a competitive marketplace of ideas – and conservatism today offers only retreads.