Into the Wilderness

Into the Wild Bus Photo 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anthony says:

    “Daniel Larison thinks Stuttaford is an idiot.”

    Pity. I tend to think Stuttaford is the best contributor to the Corner.

    Larison says:

    “As Stuttaford presumably knows, it was during their time in “the wilderness” that the Tories did some of their best policy thinking and laid the groundwork for what followed in the 1980s, and the same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, about conservatives here during the same period.”

    I think this is true, as far as it goes. However, Stuttaford will also be well aware, being a Brit, of the fate of the Tories in the 1990’s, when sections of the right wing of the party, believing that the Major government had lost its shine and its ideological commitment, decided that the only way to salvage Mrs Thatcher’s legacy (or their reading of it), was for the party to be driven on the rocks in a massive cataclysm and for them to then take control and spread the good word about the true faith. This way of thinking resulted in what amounted to an internal party civil war that played a significant role in the scale of the 1997 Tory meltdown.

    And, of course, although the Tories are now an increasingly refreshed force, this has come after a decade of Labour government in which sweeping, irreversible changes have taken place on the British political scene that horrify many Tories. And, incidentally, the revival has taken place only after the right wing has had their hands taken away from the controls, not because they got hold of them.

    One suspects that’s more on Stuttaford’s mind than anything else.

  2. SDM says:

    The Republicans renewed themselves after a string of presidential defeats with Ronald Reagan in 1980

    76 was a loss for the Repubs – to Carter – but Nixon won the previous 2 presidential elections. “string” isn’t quite right.

  3. Michael says:

    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.

    So maybe you just need to put the GOP leadership out into the wilderness for a while, and not the whole party. Of course, if they don’t make it back, no harm done.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    If time out of the day to day worries about governing is what will build a strong party, the libertarian party should be all set to take over the political reins of the country if they can just get past the Green party.

    The democrats are coming back now not because of great new ideas they generated from their time in the desert, but from GOP missteps. Anthony is spot on in what can happen. Think entitlement programs and taxes are bad enough, imagine the democrats adding in their universal healthcare.

  5. Spoker says:

    How I do love reading comments and opinions by those that neither know or bother to take the time to get recent historical facts correct.

    And these are the ones that are offering solutions to strategic problems. We do seem to be repeating history.

  6. legion says:

    Pity. I tend to think Stuttaford is the best contributor to the Corner.

    Dude. That’s like saying King Kong is the least-smelly thing to ever fall out of the sky onto a NYC street.

    But I have to (at least partially) agree with YAJ here – the GOP had the power and the opportunity to actually seal up a long-term GOP majority across the US gov’t, but then they got corrupted by that power and abandoned every principle that actually _got_ them where they were.

    And if we’re going to look at recent Presidential history for comparisons, I seem to recall hearing that LBJ was only shoved into the veep slot because he needed some sort of political glad-hand, and he was the only person the various factions could agree on – they all hated him. But they never expected him to actually get the Big Chair. Similarly, when the GOP made Bush the nominee, I don’t think they ever believed he’d actually try to, you know, govern. But 9-11, like JFK’s assassination, gave real power to the guy who never should have had it. Buyer’s remorse is a bitch, fellas.

  7. Having someone who has said they are going to vote for your political opponent tell you the best thing for you is to lose does sound a bit silly. Three thoughts though…

    Generally, I thought the big ideas tend to come from those near, but not in government, to begin with.

    Can these Democrats be trusted to not raise new variations of gerrymandering to an unprecedented level, that might make the trip to the wilderness a lot longer than anyone anticipates? Rump Congress anyone?

    Who gets to play Moses?

  8. Michael says:

    Who gets to play Moses?

    Moses never made it out of the wilderness, so I don’t think you’ll have too many volunteers.

  9. True, but volunteering and leadership aren’t the same thing. Somebody has to display the leadership to get you to the edge of the wilderness.

  10. Michael says:

    The Israelites didn’t have a problem finding their way out of the wilderness, they knew where Canaan was and how to get there. In fact, they were at the edge before they were forced to wander the wilderness for 40 years. It would be more interesting to find out who gets to play Joshua, than to worry about Moses.