Into the Wilderness
Megan McArdle suggests that it might be a good thing if conservatives and libertarians get stomped in November and go “into the wilderness for a little while, where they can get their heads together without having to worry about the intellectual compromises of actual politics.”
The Corner‘s Andrew Stuttaford is befuddled by the suggestion: “As for the notion that there’s merit to be found in stepping out of the arena to think great thoughts, I don’t get it. The most useful ideas emerge from engagement with the world, not withdrawal from it.” Daniel Larison thinks Stuttaford is an idiot.
I’m very much a believer in the healing power of getting away from the minutia of everyday battles to rethink the larger strategic environment. So, as it happens, is the U.S. military, which regularly rotates its leaders out of command and staff positions for stints in places like Carlisle, Pennyslvania. As John Nagl and Charles Dunlap, two of our nation’s most capable warrior-scholars put it, “The ability to think, learn, and adapt is what makes America’s military the finest in the world.”
As to political parties, I’d never voluntarily take a loss in the hopes that the forced reflection time will make us stronger for the next battle. Too much is at stake in the meantime and one never knows the circumstances of the next election cycle. Stattaford is right when he says that we really don’t know “what a stint in the wilderness would be like — and how long it would last.” Christopher Johnson McCandless thought going “Into the Wild” was a keen idea, too. That proved a fatal mistake.
It’s true, though, that the best political thinking often comes when you’re forced to battle back. The Republicans renewed themselves after a [sustained bad stretch]* with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the “New Democrats” of Bill Clinton rebranded themselves by 1992. And Newt Gingrich led a “revolution” after decades out of power in the Congress.
Photo credit: Katie Knorovsky
UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge observes, “I can’t think of anything more contrary to the spirit of Burkean conservatism than a search for the ‘next big thing.’ Indeed, I would argue that a large part of the problem with modern conservatism is that Bush and the K Street Gang were more concerned with finding something big to do than with standing athwart history shouting stop.” There’s something to that, to be sure.
Then again, the United States doesn’t have the sort of class system that Burke was trying to conserve. Indeed, Burke shuddered at the very idea that the great unwashed masses should govern themselves. To the extent we have a conservative tradition, then, it’s not a Burkean one.
*UPDATE:The original said “sting of presidential defeats,” which of course isn’t true. They’d lost just just one race, a close one, in 1976. But Nixon lost in 1960, Goldwater got crushed in 1964, and Watergate threatened to destroy the party in 1973. Reagan breathed new life into the GOP while also rebranding it as a conservative party.