U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Newt Gingrich’s Big Ideas

JOHN KING: Speaker Gingrich, I want to start with you. You’re at this for months and you’re out there. If there’s one thing, just one thing in this campaign you could do over, what would it be?

MR. GINGRICH: I would skip the opening three months, where I hired regular consultants and tried to figure out how to be a normal candidate, and I would just to straight at being a big-ideas, big- solutions, Internet-based campaign from day one, because it just didn’t work. I mean, it’s not who I am. I’m not capable of being a sort of traditional candidate. I’m a very idea-oriented candidate. And I think the Internet makes it possible to create a momentum of ideas that’s very, very exciting.

Newt does not have ideas, he has ideas about ideas. He keeps saying what a good idea it is to have ideas. . . . He is the least substantive major political figure I’ve ever seen.
He’s a stupid man’s idea of what a smart man sounds like.

Newt Gingrich has apparently always liked “big ideas.”  And, just as apparently, critics have felt that his attachment to “big ideas” was largely devoid of content.  Gingrich’s “interest in long-range and broad-range planning for the future…is clearly more appropriate to the orientation of our Department of Geography” noted his then employer, West George College President Ward Pafford, in a 1975 letter announcing Gingrich’s removal from the History Department.  “Not only is Mr Gingrich not a problem-solver,” quipped The Economist‘s Democracy in American Blog last year,  “he is a problem-aggrandiser.”

Following Newt’s big win in SC over the weekend, skeptical beltway pundits are having trouble identifying the ideas his campaign is supposedly based on.  Via Gary Johnson, Ezra Klein unearthed the justly defeated Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1996, which would have put to death anyone bringing more than two ounces of marijuana into the U.S.*  Ultimately, Klein concludes, when it comes to Newt’s ideas, there’s no there there:  “Can anyone name some actually big, actually workable, actually new ideas that Gingrich has been associated with during his career? What has he brought to the table that wouldn’t have been there in his absence?”

But although Newt Gingrich’s vaunted ideas don’t amount to much, I think it would be wrong to dismiss their importance to his political success.  Newt is hardly alone on the right in valuing the idea of ideas.  Indeed, ideas a key part of what one might call the brand identity of modern American conservatism.

One of the founding texts of post-war conservative thought was Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.  Conservative scholars have most often continued to view their own history in terms of ideas; it’s no accident that the first major academic narrative of modern American conservatism understood the movement in fundamentally intellectual terms: George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.**

Conservatives have made exceedingly long novels of ideas into best-sellers.

The chief organizing strategy of the John Birch Society, the signature organization of the late 1950s and early 1960s far right, involved exceedingly long, detailed and dry seminars by founder Robert Welch:

More recently, we’ve seen the bizarre infamy of the Frankfurt School among some rightwing groups in the last two decades. Glenn Beck built his fame around weaving complicated conspiratorial histories on his whiteboards.

Whether or not we join Corey Robin in seeing conservatism as fundamentally an “ideas-driven praxis,” there’s no question that the idea of ideas has great power on the right.

The question is why?

This is, after all, a movement that has also boldly embraced a rhetoric of populist anti-elitism and has often celebrated anti-intellectualism.  In 2005, in the midst of praising George W. Bush in the wake of Katrina, David Frum could conclude that the then President was “sometimes glib, even dogmatic, often uncurious, and as a result ill-informed . . . (but) outweighing the faults are his virtues: decency, honesty, rectitude, courage, and tenacity.”

And yet, my guess is the fact that Newt Gingrich has a PhD in history probably does him a lot more electoral good than George McGovern’s PhD in history ever did him.  As Ezra Klein and others have noted, Newt’s ideas don’t much distinguish him from most of the other GOP presidential candidates. But the place of ideas in Newt’s self-presentation is one of the distinguishing characteristics of his campaign and indeed his entire career.  That it confounds and infuriates people like Barney Frank, Paul Krugman, and Ezra Klein is, among Gingrich’s base, doubtless a feature not a bug.

Although I happen to agree with Corey Robin that it’s worth spending time to understand the actual ideas of conservatives, I also think that historians ought to spend time understanding the imaginative place of ideas among movement conservatives and its relationship to the equally powerful strains of anti-intellectualism on the right.  Rather than opposing tendencies, my sense is that they are actually two sides of the same coin.  

* This is all the more amazing since Newt himself admits to having smoked pot in grad school.

** And not just scholars on the right.  Corey Robin, too, argues that conservatism is a movement of ideas and that leftists and liberals have made a terrible mistake not to take those ideas more seriously.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve seen a variation of the Krugman quote attributed to others. Of course right now I can’t find it, because that’s always how it goes, isn’t it?

    Anyway, all I will say about Dr. Gingrich is that he is all the proof one needs that the philosopher king was Plato’s worst idea. If I had a few million dollars lying around, I just might put that in an ad.

  2. Gingrich is the Cliff Klaven of American politics.
    On the other hand we historians ought to have figured out by now that smarts is no guarantee of or qualification for, the Presidency.

  3. That is so. And in the unlikely event Gingrich gets in, I doubt we’ll see the fawning, nearly sycophantic embrace of him as one of their own the incumbent has received from (certain portions of) academia.

  4. Conspiracy theories are indeed ideas, aren’t they?! As such, it’s no stretch at all to say that today’s Right is the movement of ideas. Newt’s full of them. As is Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Saray Palin, and Rush Limbaugh. Their ideas are the ideas of my crazy uncles and aunts (you don’t know know how literal I’m being here). – TL

  5. Ben – Interesting – I wonder if you could clarify how the right’s “anti-intellectualism” and emphasis on the importance and power of “ideas” [and ideas about ideas I guess] – are “two sides of the same coin.” How does this work? Do we re-read Hofstadter? I recalled George Marsden’s emphasis on the empirical, indeed Baconian, not irrationalist, mind-set of the fundamentalists.

    I took a look at Buckley’s “Introduction” to American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century [1970]. He gestures at a number of themes which may help illuminate the conservative impulse to intellectualistic formulation and the possibly anti-intellectual — in the sense of not fully rationally explicable and/or defensible — principles the inform it. For one, he looks forward to a growing “intellectualization” of the American conviction that the “spiritual side of life… is an unshakable part of us,” to articulation of the truths that have been implicit, unformalized, and thus undefended in the modern age. As he puts it, “modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths… because the idiom of life is always changing, and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.” Sounding a bit like “The American Scholar,” he says that American intellectuals such as Galbraith, Riesman and Adlai Stevenson have mostly spoken “in European accents” and ignored “the intuitive wisdom of the founders.” Then a great sentence: “The meaning of the West is being exhumed; impulses that never ceased to beat in the American heart are being revitalized.” This morphs into the hope that in the miserable 20th c, “man” might yet rediscover “essential reliance on his Maker,” and the essay ends with a sort of Niebuhrian twist on “the end of ideology” — “how dangerous it is, to strut about ideologizing the world when we need to know that it was born intractable and will die intractable.”

  6. Ben – you beat me to it, I wrote most of a similar post yesterday but it was also our first full day of classes for the new semester so I did not get a chance to post it until this morning. Then I do my morning check of USIH and see your (better) post on the same topic.

  7. To elaborate a bit on my reference to George Marsden — In Fundamentalism and American Culture [1980] he criticizes Hofstadter and disputes the science versus religion frame, explicating the differences between liberal and conservative religion using Kuhn’s notion of paradigmatic opposition of “two scientific worldviews.”

    The fundamentalist was “a ‘Baconian’ model based on common sense…. Truth was unchanging, and … could be known by true science and common sense.” [214-216] In fundamentalist writings — and expressed as well in Bryan’s argument at the Monkey trial —

    the Bible was thought to be scientific (in the sense of reporting the facts accurately) whereas evolution was wholly unscientific. Scientists and PhD.’s might deserve ridicule, but not because they were scientists or Ph.Ds. The joke was that in spite of so much learning they arrived at conclusions that common sense knew to be patently unscientific. [212-213]

    Back to Buckley – he appears to make a strategic claim grounded in the perception that conservatives need to become or appear more intellectual in order to counter liberal dominance of cultural life and, more broadly, stay in step with the growing rationalization [in Weber’s sense] of modernity.

    He seems to perceive, and call for, an emergent intellectualization of “ancient truths” – truths which he might also claim are commonsensical and known by non-intellectual folks.

    One could see it as reactive, or merely adaptational, but also as a process of recovery or restoration in a more up-to-date format or medium.

    This might be viewed as purely instrumental, or even cynical … but also/or based on a sincere belief that the truths of spirituality, morality, etc. are rationally defensible… a more foundationalist position. Reason, science perhaps, are less discovery than confirmation or verification of that which is already known. It’s perhaps interesting too that it’s “intractability” rather than the malleability of things that he calls attention to in his concluding sentence.

    What do you think?

  8. @ Varad: To be fair to Krugman, he prefaced that comment by saying “someone once said that.” But nobody has, as far as I can tell, identified who that someone was. And in the months since, people have started attributing it to Krugman. Maybe someone else did say it. Or maybe it’s like Marx in “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” attributing to Hegel the notion that history repeats itself.

    @ Bill Fine: What’s the relationship between the right’s anti-intellectualism and their love of the idea of ideas? I tried coming up with a couple formulations. None made for a snappy conclusion to the post. So I kept it aphoristic. But I figured someone would ask. Here’s my hunch: both of these aspects of conservatism are related to seeing ideas as fundamental to politics. The danger of liberalism is precisely its dangerous ideas. The importance of this notion to modern American conservatism has something to do with the desire of much mid-twentieth century American liberalism to take ideas out of politics and to see politics, at least in a stable, modern democracy, as being about finding compromises among competing, concrete interests. In the 1950s, this disagreement limns one of the most striking differences between leading liberal anti-communists like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and leading conservative anti-communists like Whittaker Chambers. In The Vital Center deep commitments to ideas make politics dangerous, whether coming from abolitionists or communists. The chief problem isn’t what people believe but how they might believe it. In contrast, in Witness, the only live alternatives are deep commitments to ideas: God or Man. That’s the choice. Not to choose is, at best to make oneself irrelevant to the great political struggles. At worst, it’s to choose dishonestly against God while dressing one’s choice up as something else. To put this another way: part and parcel of conservative anti-intellectualism is a belief that intellectuals are very, very important.

  9. @ Bill Fine: I hadn’t read your second comment when I wrote my first. What do I think of Marsden’s account? I think that’s very interesting! For centuries, the view that common sense, reason, and science (rightly understood) confirmed scripture was more common among Catholic thinkers than Protestant thinkers. The conservative Protestant position was (in Luther’s words) sola sciptura. If the evidence of the senses disagreed with revealed truth, one questioned the evidence of the senses. But this seems to be a minority view among contemporary American Evangelicals. For example, the “Appearance of Age” thesis regarding the Earth (i.e. that evidence that the world is older than 6,000 years is there to test our faith) seems much less popular among contemporary “Young Earth” Creationists than various forms of “scientific creationism” that claim that the scientific evidence when correctly understood suggests that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Mainstream science is then turned into a conspiracy of ignorance on the part of enemies of God.

    (The Thomistic view that reason can lead us to the same truths–including moral truths–as revelation is of course also convenient when making arguments for including these supposed truths in a secularized public sphere….and it’s one of the reasons that the intellectual wing of the Christian right is very heavily Catholic…see, for example, the current composition of the Supreme Court.)

  10. Ben – I am a bit confused — is it that liberals wanted to withdraw ideas from politics, while conservatives perceived them to be committed to dangerous ideas? If by ideas you mean “ideology,” then maybe liberals wanted them removed to allow the interplay of interests; but weren’t mid-century liberals believers in ideas and persuaded of the importance of intellectuals, as long as they were the right kinds?

    Schlesinger for example calls for the kinds of ideas that Maciag calls “beliefs,” ie, settled, shared convictions and fundamental values In his last chapter, “A Fighting Faith,” he appeals to Whitman to solve the problems described by Tocqueville, and especially by Fromm in Escape from Freedom. But as you say, maybe the distinction is mostly about how not what people believe, which is a better way to put what I said about Buckley [not to identify him too closely with Marsden’s fundamentalists].

    On the faith and reason issue — maybe contemporary evangelicals reflect the history that Marsden traces. I recall your post about evolution vs creationism … and personally I’m glad that the National Academy of Science didn’t finally take the skeptical view.

    Finally, I wonder if there’s anything particularly unique in conservatives’ interest in ideas, or in understanding their history in such terms; or their putative anti-intellectualism. If it’s an ideology, it’s about ideas by definition; if it’s a social movement, don’t they all entail some sort of ideas, what some like to call interpretive “frames?”

    It seems that left and right are very similar players in a sort of game in which each defines itself partly over against the other. Depending on the circumstances of a strategic moment, each might characterize the other as either bereft of ideas, or full of the wrong kinds. Each might see the other as a-moral instrumentalism, dedicated to bureaucratic rationality, etc; or as a dangerous, “utopian” ideology, a political religion. Each has to satisfy itself that it’s achieved some judicious mix. In the mid-century world, fascism or communism – both forms of totalitarianism, the discussion of which circles around the issue of whether it’s the apotheosis of rationalization or regression to traditional or tribal religion. Interesting to see how different constructions of “ideas” figure in all of this.

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