The Closing of the Conservative Mind

Mix one incompetent president and two ill-considered, poorly planned and waged wars together with rapacious economic policy and deficit spending, add institutional decline and structural budgetary problems, spice with dilemmas that require long-term thinking in a society shaped toward short-term demand, top with with ugly, ignorant, demagogic cultural warfare opposed by ideological platitudes, and serve up to a president with sometimes fiery rhetoric but little fire in the belly for leadership in the political trenches – and what do you get? The increasingly likely return to power of forces ethically puny and intellectually bankrupt, and that are completely unprepared and undeserving of their ascent.

David Frum at FrumForum:

But in the Lindsey-Wilkinson case, we confront the problem of the closing of the conservative mind in its purest form. Unlike NCPA, Cato is not a marginal institution.  Unlike AEI’s action with me, Cato’s apparent termination of Lindsey and Wilkinson seems the result of a considered strategic decision.

It might be objected that Cato and the others have no choice. The waters are surging in the conservative world, and conservative institutions must either ride the wave or be swamped. But if wave-riding is all that these very expensive institutions are doing, who needs them?

Right-of-center think tanks claim to do objective research that can be trusted by all policy players, regardless of point of view. They boast that they care about ideas, not parties or personalities. They aspire to set a broader agenda for the right, in lieu of the narrow demands of K Street special interests.

These claims look increasingly false. The right-of-center world is poorer for the dessication of the institutions that used to act as the right’s brains.

We are likely soon to have a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, maybe the U.S. Senate too. And what will that majority do? The answer seems to be: They have not a clue. Unlike the Republican House and Senate majorities of 1994, unlike the Republican Senate majority of 1980, these new majorities will arrive with only slogans for a policy agenda. After staging a for-the-record vote against Obamacare, and after re-enacting the Bush tax cuts, it will be policy mission accomplished.

There’s little other policy inventory, because the think tanks have not done their proper work. Without a think tank agenda, the new majority will rapidly decline into a brokerage service for K Street.

After the GOP lost its majority in 2006, a leading think tanker said to me: “Somehow I always thought we’d get more done before we became completely corrupt.” How much will we get done next time given the poverty of our think tank work over the past half decade? And how can we expect better work from institutions that have so emphatically warned their employees that an unwanted answer can end a career?

The losers here are not Brink Lindsey (who has moved to a fine new position) or Will Wilkinson (whose personal future is more unsettled, but whose talents will surely also be recognized). The loser is a conservative political movement waiting at the end of the intellectual conveyor belt for a product that increasingly arrives so shoddy and defective that it might as well not come at all.



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