Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Heckuva 'swathe' there, Ross

Ross Douthat describes "a large and diverse swathe of the right-of-center intelligentsia," and elsewhere, he writes that "center-right scriveners who work for institutions more liberal than they (or merely exist in a climate more liberal than they) have both personal and professional incentives to criticize their own side as often as they do the other one, and to advance arguments and strike attitudes that drive more committed partisans up the wall."

Until rather recently, the think-tank "intelligentsia" of which Douthat speaks has concerned itself mostly with policy, as opposed to politics. Conjuring up data-filled arguments about taxes, health care, etc. -- that's policy. Figuring out ways to win elections or to gain public support for policies -- that's politics.

The problem with the conservative intelligentsia is that their elite backgrounds, which prepare them so well for policy debates, separate them from the ordinary voters whose sympathies must be enlisted in political debates.

The think tanks of Washington (and the offices of political journals) are crammed full of people who don't personally know any voters in Ohio or Florida or Colorado. Almost all the Republican intelligentsia are blue-staters. And their close friends are like them: Graduates of elite universities and residents of the urban Northeast. They are thus ill-equipped to understand what makes swing voters swing.

Writing about politics is easier than writing about policy. But understanding politics -- why is McCain losing? -- requires an insight into the lives and minds of ordinary people that they can't teach you at Harvard, and that you're never going to learn in dicussions with policy wonks.

Policy wonks are necessary to the conservative project, but it has been a major mistake of the conservative movement over the past 15 years to blur the distinction between policy and politics, so that on the one hand, Karl Rove was dictating policy to the Bush administration and, on the other hand, you have people who've never set foot in Ohio providing analysis and commentary about election campaigns.

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