05 December 2011

If Gingrich isn't conservative, who is?

Just as Herman Cain's ignominious departure from the race for the Republican presidential nomination appeared to clarify the picture into a two-man battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, George Will's weekend column threw a grenade into the ring. Defying the conventional analysis that makes Gingrich the new Tea Party darling, following Bachmann, Perry and Cain, Will bluntly labels the former Speaker the "least conservative candidate" among the Republicans. Of course, the charge can only tell us more about Will's conservatism than Gingrich's.

So why isn't the man who retook Congress for the Republicans after decades in the wilderness, the great promoter of the Contract With America, not a conservative. For Will, it's Gingrich's personality that seems to disqualify him.

Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything....His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today.... Gingrich, who would have made a marvelous Marxist, believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how.

There's no need to infer George Will's conservatism from this. The columnist gives us an explicit definition: "Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies and Genesis deplores: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.”

In other words, Will follows the prescriptions of that Dr. Pangloss of the 20th century, Friedrich von Hayek, who argued, in effect, that the Market (i.e. "spontaneous order") was the best of all possible worlds, if only because politics could only ever make things worse. By this standard, even Mitt Romney's "conservatism as managerialism," as Will describes it, would be preferable to Gingrich's pseudo-intellectualism.

Will makes some fair hits on Gingrich's many hare-brained notion, specifically citing that embrace of Dinesh D'Souza's indictment of President Obama's apparently hereditary "anti-colonial" mentality that earned Gingrich an Idiot of the Week nod from this blog. But leaving Gingrich out of it for a moment, we're left with a peculiar anti-intellectualism emanating from a writer still widely regarded as a leading intellectual among conservatives. It isn't as much anti-intellectualism in general, however, as it is anti-politics: a rejection of the premise that politics is an intellectual discipline or field of knowledge in its own right. At a minimum, Will rejects the idea that political intervention of any kind, however motivated, can have a positive effect on the Market. In effect, he's accusing Gingrich of the same offense Gingrich himself accused Rep. Ryan of earlier this year: "right-wing social engineering." If people like Gingrich (or Ryan) believe that politics is a machine that can be manipulated to produce positive economic outcomes, Will appears to believe that the economy would be better off were the machine smashed entirely.

While Romney might be preferable to Gingrich or to "today's bewildered liberalism," Will still thinks the Republicans can do better. Given his dissociation between politics and intellect, it may be no surprise that Will asks Republicans to reconsider Gov. Perry -- whom he admits is advised by Mrs. Will. Perry's various misstatements are "not important to presidential duties," he writes, while Perry's "Southwestern zest for disliking Washington and Wall Street simultaneously" still recommends him to anti-ideologues like Will. Finally, the columnist still waits patiently for the Huntsman boom, reminding us in advance that, his moderate demeanor notwithstanding, the man from Utah has the "most conservative" program of the GOP aspirants, including a middling foreign policy poised between Rep. Paul's "isolationism" and the others' "bellicosity." If Perry and Huntsman are his favorites, then Will's conservatism still covers a lot of territory. It's the territory it doesn't cover that's the problem.

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