In their more grandiloquent moments, conservative publicists will say that the decades-long Republican ascendancy in American government has been an intellectual achievement, that the G.O.P. prevails because it is the “party of ideas.” And, indeed, during the last three decades a cottage industry of conservative institutes and foundations has grown into a powerful quasi-academy with seven-figure budgets and phalanxes of “senior fellows” and “distinguished chairs.”
While real academics dither and fret over bugbears like certainty and balance, the scholars of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute act boldly in the knowledge, to quote a seminal conservative text, that ideas have consequences. Luckily, the consequences are for other people.
Now upon the national stage steps one Karl Zinsmeister, formerly the editor of the American Enterprise Institute’s flagship magazine and now the president’s chief domestic policy adviser. In right-wing circles he is regarded as an intellectual heavyweight. What his career really shows us, though, is the looming exhaustion of the conservative intellectual system; its hopeless addiction to dusty, crumbling clichés; and a blindness to the reality of conservative power so persistent and so bizarre that it amounts to self-deception or, in Zinsmeister’s case, delusion.
Let us begin with Zinsmeister’s infamous remark that the people of Washington are “morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings,” a declaration he later clarified to encompass only the city’s “overclass.” One could justifiably read his words as an obvious reference to the lobbyists, think-tankers, and fund-raising Congressmen who make up the Republican machine.
But a brief read through Zinsmeister’s journalistic oeuvre reveals that liberals are, with a few exceptions, the only ones capable of repugnancy, shiftiness and membership in overclasses. This last quality is a point of particular emphasis in Zinsmeister’s writing. Over the years, his editorials come back again and again to “elites” and their nefarious ways: “educated elites,” “East Coast elites” and “professor/lawyer/journalist/activist elites,” all of them shamefully out of tune with the good people of America.
Now, I am all for criticizing elites, beginning with Zinsmeister’s former employer, the American Enterprise Institute, which has long been the reliable voice of corporate money. Its principals effectively ran the Goldwater campaign in 1964, and it was deep thinkers from the institute who, after moving into the Bush administration, dreamed up the war in Iraq. Today, its roster is a comprehensive directory of conservative Washington power; there is no better-connected group of people outside the government itself.
One might say the institute is a living lesson in the power of elites and shifty overclasses to distort debate. But that would imply that we have classes, and as Zinsmeister once wrote, the idea “that the United States has separate classes is dubious.”
Then why has Zinsmeister expended so much ink assailing elites and their works? Enter the magic concept of the market, the source of corporate power and all else that is sacred. The working of the free market “is democracy,” Zinsmeister writes, “with pluralities of economic actors exerting votes.” Democracy itself, however, if it takes the form of a regulatory state, “is monarchism. It lets the handful at court boss the masses.”
Swallow this, and all the rest of it starts to make sense: how liberals are elites even when they aren’t, how the sweatshop economy of the Mariana Islands is the will of a humble people looking to be free from a domineering central government (an argument Zinsmeister’s magazine made in 1997), and how a well-subsized think-tank editor can advise the victims of economic dislocation to stop whining.
Swallow too much of it, though, and the almighty market will start to dissolve your moral sense. You might even unconsciously decide to reduce the Almighty to an advertising slogan. For an issue in 2003, Zinsmeister’s magazine bore as its headline the words, “Things Go Better With God,” a repurposed Coca-Cola slogan in which the King of Kings was allowed to momentarily occupy the throne of the brand of brands.
A better writer would have titled it, “I’d Like to Buy the World a God” — but maybe Zinsmeister can propose that as a motto for his new employer.
Thomas Frank is the author, most recently, of “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.’’ He is a guest columnist during August.