When Rick Perry’s brain froze at last Wednesday’s GOP debate—leaving him unable to name the third of three federal departments he proposes to shut down—it wasn’t like someone setting up a joke and then forgetting the punchline. He was reciting something straight out of his standard stump speech: shutter the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy. I know that Meat Loaf says two out of three ain’t bad, but in this case it was disastrous.
How did we devolve to the point where a leading Republican candidate for the presidency can’t count to three? Whatever happened to conservative intellectuals?
John Stuart Mill famously dismissed mid-19th-century British conservatives as the “stupid party.” But in the America of my youth, it wasn’t true. Conservatives looked up to intellectuals. William F. Buckley set the tone with his sesquipedalian erudition. George F. Will was a must-read, and my conservative classmates at the University of Texas in the Age of Reagan could all quote Milton Friedman.
No more. Today’s conservatives are more likely to mimic Rush Limbaugh than Buckley, and they probably know more of the work of Salma Hayek than Friedrich Hayek. To be sure, Will still commands respect, and intellectuals like David Frum and Bill Kristol carry the torch ably. But today’s Republican Party is more the party of Sarah Palin’s defiant know-nothingness than the brainy conservatism of Bill Bennett. The GOP is a party of ideologues, not ideas.