In a brief profile of Texas Republican Senate nominee Ted Cruz, the New York Times‘ Eric Eckholm quoted several Cruz fans calling him an “intellectual force,” and Jonathan Bernstein quite properly called him out for failing to supply any other evidence that the man is some sort of genius. But in suggesting that such descriptions of Cruz ought to include examples of the “conservative ideas” the Texan has originated (or might in the future), Jonathan makes me wonder what, exactly, passes for “ideas” among “movement conservatives” these days.
The essence, after all, of contemporary U.S. conservatism is the immutability of principles of good government. Many conservatives practice what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”–the accumulated human experience of many centuries. Others are “market fundamentalists” who identify human progress and prosperity with the struggle for the minimum feasible quantity of collective action, which they often identify with the governing philosophy of America’s Founders. Another and probably more prevalent brand of “constitutional conservatives” think of principles like absolute property rights, American Exceptionalism, and a conservative-Christian approach to cultural issues as part of a divine design that more recent Americans have betrayed to their everlasting peril.
What passes for “conservative ideas” is usually not some novel way of governing or solving problems, but some more popular or efficient means of moving the country towards the fixed, immutable system of governance it ought to maintain forever, world without end. Supply-side tax policy, education or health care vouchers, devolution, tax incentives for this or that desired behavior–it’s all interim stuff, the kind of approaches Marxists used to be famous for in calculating appropriate contemporary measures aimed at the ultimate achievement of a classless society.
Can highly cerebral people embrace such conservative visions of the perfect society? Of course. Are they necessarily a lot better at articulating that vision or coming up with ways of marketing it? Maybe not. When it comes to being a brilliant United States Senator, the qualities we normally look for involve creativity, flexibility, the ability to pay attention to empirical data, eloquence, and most of all negotiating skills. With the exception of eloquence, these are qualities that Cruz and his supporters seem to consider morally tainted if not actively evil. And perhaps this is what Jonathan may have been getting at in suggesting that Ted Cruz could turn out to be “just a smart guy who will vote and act like a generic Tea Party Senator but otherwise leave little mark.”