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.