John Stuart Mill famously dismissed conservatives as “the stupid party.” He was writing in England during the nineteenth century, but his judgment would hold as well for much of the American experience in this century. Not literally, of course. The conservative deficiency had to do less with IQ than with social imagination. Contrast Robert A. Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt: Taft, the quintessential anti-New Dealer, was almost certainly smarter than Roosevelt”the quip was that Taft had the best mind in the U.S. Senate until he made it up”but Roosevelt had a genius for politics that was beyond Taft’s ken.
From the Progressive era onward, liberals regularly bested conservatives in the war of ideas. Theodore Roosevelt, who became leader of America’s conservative party only by the tragic fluke of William McKinley’s assassination, was rare among the Republicans in his political ingenuity, and after he left the political scene the GOP reverted to its customary position as the party of the dependable but stolid establishment. That position had served the party well in the late nineteenth century—when Republicans belittled the Democrats as “the organized incapacity of the nation”—and, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, it continued to do so until the Great Depression.
For most of the next half century, however, liberalism set the intellectual and political agenda and flourished accordingly. The New Deal responded creatively to the economic downturn, and by its relative success seemed to establish its ideas as those best equipped to handle the challenges of modernity. As late as the mid-1960s the Great Society justified itself as the extension of the New Deal impulse into conditions of prosperity.
Republicans won occasional elections, but mostly under special conditions (Dwight Eisenhower won as a war hero) or when the Democrats handed them the victory (Richard Nixon won because of the liberal civil war over Vietnam). The Democrats remained the majority party—as reflected in their domination of Congress—and Republicans in power acted not to challenge the New Deal but simply to manage it more prudently. There is some evidence that Nixon meant to take on the left directly after his reelection in 1972, but Watergate made any such plans moot. (Watergate mattered, in my view, not as a constitutional crisis—it was never really that—but because it delayed for two decades a major political realignment.)
Beginning with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, things have come pretty much full circle. It now makes a real difference when a Republican wins an election (well, all right, only partly so in the case of George Bush). Conservatives are brimming with ideas, and they mean to change the world. They are today not so much establishmentarians as counterrevolutionaries. The 1994 election gave the conservatives the intellectual and political initiative: the Contract with America, whatever one thinks of it ideologically, presents a political worldview unmatched in comprehensiveness since that of the early New Deal.
So today in America, Mill is turned on his head, and the liberals have become the stupid party. They respond as conservatives used to do, attacking their opponents as extremist and immoral, yet all the while conceding by their behavior the judgment that they can only win national elections by copying, in pastel tones, their opponents’ program—which is precisely how both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton won the White House and how Clinton is struggling to hold on to it.
Liberal true believers, meanwhile, are reduced in their chagrin to outraged moralizing and the endless repetition of the mantras of politics past. To read the editorial pages of the New York Times these days is to find oneself in a political time warp and to be reminded of the quip about the Bourbon restorationists to the effect that they had forgotten nothing and learned nothing. And just when it appears that today’s liberals have learned something, it immediately slips their minds. Thus they will concede at one moment that the Great Society did indeed fail—and in the next breath attack any attempt to cut it back as heartless and retrograde. Or, in a cynical mood, they will placidly accept a Clinton proposal for a two-thirds cutback of a program even while denouncing the Republicans’ three-quarters alternative as intolerably cruel to widows and orphans.
But if the stupid label has switched political location, conservatives should be wary of counting themselves too smart. As Irving Kristol has pointed out, “conservative ‘stupidity,’ properly understood, is intimately connected with sentiments that are at the roots of conservative virtues: a dogged loyalty to a traditional way of life . . . [and] an instinctive aversion to innovation based on mere theoretical speculation.” Kristol goes on: “There is always a kind of immunity to fashionable politics . . . associated with conservatism, and a country that does not have a goodly portion of it is incapable of stable and orderly government. No political or social system can endure without engendering, in a perfectly organic way, this kind of conservative ‘stupidity.’ It is the antibody of the body politic.”
To remind conservatives of the uses of stupidity is not necessarily to counsel “moderation” (in its customary political sense) in their rethinking of contemporary politics. As Kristol also notes, there are moments in all democratic societies when “fundamental questions of political philosophy emerge into the public forum and demand consideration.” At those ideological moments, “stupidity” will not do and conservatives have to offer an articulate and forceful account of their notion of the public good and act on it. There is a widespread sense among Americans that a McGovernized liberalism did severe damage to our society, and it is an open question as to how thoroughgoing conservatism’s response to the damage inflicted ought to be. One can as plausibly make a case in the present moment that conservatives should seize the day as that they should exercise moderation. That’s a matter for prudential judgment, not appeal to first principles.
Yet in making that judgment, conservatives should remember that humility is as much an intellectual as a moral virtue and that one of the few absolutes of politics is the law of unintended consequences. Which is to suggest that conservative devolutionists—those who would allow individual states the greatest latitude in legislative experiment—ought to be attended to rather than those who favor a conservative regime decreed from Washington. In the progressive years prior to the New Deal, liberal states like Wisconsin were seen as “the laboratories of democracy.” That is a good precedent to keep in mind. In politics as in science, there is much to be said for limited experiments prior to general application.
Beyond that, conservatives will always have at best ambivalent feelings toward radical change. Even when it is necessary for them to be counter-revolutionaries, they will be counterrevolutionaries looking to reassert themselves as the establishment. Unlike liberals, conservatives have no innate bias in favor of change as a good in itself. Their instinct is in fact the reverse. They become counter-ideologists, as their founder Edmund Burke did, only in hopes of minimizing the effect on politics of the ideological impulse. They yearn, with Michael Oakeshott, to restore that situation in which it is the task of the naturally ruling conservative party simply to “tend to the arrangements of society.”
Which is to say that their preferred condition—always properly understood, of course—is political stupidity.
James Nuechterlein is an editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.