A new era in American politics.
Ideas Don’t Have Consequences
Why conservatives keep losing.
Ideas Have Consequences, a book by Richard Weaver, has animated countless conservative intellectuals and professionals for over half a century. What a pity, then, that the book’s title expresses but a half-truth at best. Still worse: the missing half is by far the more important one. Conservatives of all stripes need to take a sober-minded look at this bromide.
The true half of the half-truth is this. Getting the ideas right is important. Having concepts and ideas that are empirically accurate, historically truthful, and philosophically sound—all of this is important. Motivated by this fact, countless idealistic young people have dedicated themselves to intellectual pursuits. They hope to contribute to The Cause by getting the ideas right. Clarifying, correcting, and advancing the ideas will, they imagine, have consequences.
This was certainly my experience as a young academic. Back then, I identified as a free-market libertarian economist. I imagined that I would contribute to advancing the Big Ideas of liberty. I was involved in, and mentored by, several think tanks that help young academics succeed in their careers. I attended many meetings and seminars and colloquia. I can honestly and sadly report to you: never once did I hear anyone say, “You know, we really need to start attending the Faculty Senate meetings. We should at least keep track of what our intellectual opponents are doing in our institution.”
That is the missing half of the half-truth: ideas, by themselves, do not do a darn thing. People have to do something about those ideas. Someone has to inject those ideas into functioning institutions that make decisions that affect people’s lives. Ideas, by themselves, do not have consequences. People’s actions have consequences.
We have no right to whine and complain about the “Left’s Long March Through the Institutions.” They marched largely unopposed! We lost a game we never even showed up to play. We weren’t even watching from the bleachers.
Having correct, logical, empirically sound ideas is necessary, but not sufficient. If it were sufficient, we would not be where we are today, when grown men and women pretend they can’t tell the difference between and a real woman and a man who says he is a woman. I learned from painful experience in the marriage debates that pointing out the inconsistencies and incoherencies of my opponents was not enough to win. I won lots of arguments. But my side still lost the war.
There are any number of things I could say about the failure of the strategies which the conservative “legal establishment” has used to argue for any number of social policies in the courts. But this is a message for another time. Today, my message is simply that conservatives must stop simply intoning the “ideas have consequences” mantra over and over again, as if getting the ideas right automatically assures victory.
We must moreover abandon the idea that “the truth will win in the end,” just as we must forego our blind allegiance to the economists’ own version of the same notion—that “an invisible hand will automatically course-correct everything.” A lot of people will suffer while we are waiting around for “the invisible hand” or “the end.” The close-cousin concept, that “something so crazy will collapse of its own weight,” is no better. The Soviet Union did not just “collapse.” Pope St. John Paul, Ronald Reagan, and Mrs. Thatcher gave it a good shove. Finally, the religious version—“oh well, we know Who wins in the end”—subtly suggests that waiting for the Apocalypse is an honorable option.
All these stock phrases are familiar from conservative discourse. All of them endorse and encourage passivity. Our opponents have bad ideas, but no shortage of highly motivated followers. Our opponents take seriously the problems of figuring out a plan and then expending the resources and taking the risks needed to implement that plan. We, on the other hand, have plenty of analysts observing the battlefield from 30,000 feet. But we have no ground game.
Conservatives of the professional classes have a disturbing tendency to dismiss activism as being beneath their dignity, and people without advanced degrees as hardly worth bothering with. The only consistent exception I can think of is the pro-life movement, which is filled with volunteers of all ages, races, classes, professions, and education levels. But that exception actually proves the rule. The pro-life movement is the defining core of social conservatism, which is the red-headed stepchild of the conservative establishment.
The Big Idea
And this multitude, all these people from across the social and economic spectrum, are certainly committed to one Big Idea. They believe that God created every person as an act of love for that particular person. The Divine Plan for our participation in procreation is written into our bodies: It is God’s will that every person come into being as the result of an act of love between his or her parents. Each new person is the embodiment of her mother’s and father’s love for each other.
In short, the human person is made by, and made for, love.
This truth has numerous fascinating intellectual aspects, to be sure. But the thing that gets me (and other social conservatives) out of bed in the morning is knowing that millions of people are being denied their most basic birthright. I cannot sit by idly while the Global Ruling Class continues to inflict crimes against humanity. The Sexual Revolution has corrupted every profession and social institution. The Big Idea about the truth of who we are inspires action, not passivity.
Having a good idea in the abstract is not enough. Ideas can motivate people to endure conflict and discomfort. Ideas can guide responsible and constructive action. Confidence in the Big Idea stiffens one’s spine when the going gets tough. But only figuring out the Big Idea in the first place is a purely intellectual pursuit. For the rest, someone will have to step away from their desks, leave their offices, and do something tangible. The social conservative movement tacitly jettisoned the “ideas have consequences” concept long ago. We should stop trusting the guys in suits inside the Beltway and trust our activist instincts.
I am not willing to wait for some impersonal historical process to straighten everything out in some far-distant future. What about you? What are you waiting for?
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
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