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The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Grand old problem in the GOP

The field of Republican candidates for president makes many intellectual conservatives uncomfortable. Of the four Republican frontrunners, three are either woefully underqualified or proposing unrealistic policies and radically weighty social goals. Texas Governor Rick Perry is a radical of extremely marginal substance, so much so that he is trying to avoid presidential debates. (He said, “I’m a doer, not a talker,” in a recent campaign ad. Incidentally talking is part of the whole president gig.) Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann appears to be far more of a personality than a politician and is obviously pandering, just like Perry, to the electorate with simple, folksy rhetoric without intellectual backing. Former businessman Herman Cain is attempting to play off running a pizza company as valid experiential credentials for the highest office in our nation. It’s very difficult to imagine any of these people could be elected after the scrutiny of a national campaign, even if the opposition were much weaker than the dynamic Obama. It’s even harder to think about a realistic scenario where any of the three could pilot the United States through the economic and diplomatic complexities of the upcoming ‘10s with any more subtlety than a sledgehammer. Though that seems a widely known fact, they are still very popular. I cannot help but ask why.

The widespread lack of confidence in these three, who have at one time or another sped to the front of the polls, reflects a lack of belief in the conservative media and electorate. The tactics that are appealing to journalists and voters are the cheapest kind. Talk about small-town Main Street and vague cliches of patriotism are swaying hearts and minds instead of promises and policies. The talk is of frustration and the battle to take back Washington, not what doing so would achieve. Perhaps this was born out of a desire to be more accessible, but it has come to the point where substance is gradually being eliminated. The contest of proving who is most truly American has reached a point where any serious display of intellectual vigor is a serious image problem. But it has become stylish to be a joke, at least to discerning eyes, and electorally unadvisable to be a serious candidate.

A real question: How can one be an intellectual conservative in America? Even outside of the presidential race, most prominent Republicans become so by advocating policies very few people here at Stanford would endorse (think Peter King). There is no viable third-party option and there seems to be no realistic way to stop this simplifying trend, considering what appeals to the electorate. If I am to believe that all of this rhetoric will be transformed into reason after candidates are elected, I still have a problem. I cannot be convinced that it is wise to entrust someone with so much power who is so suggestible or, alternatively, so manipulative of his or her constituency. Either motivation seems unsuitable of POTUS.

The problem isn’t localized to the Republican Party. Last year’s campaign was won in large part by a one-word platform: “change.” That is not to say Obama’s campaign was baseless, but it appealed to voters on a basic level. It lured voters with the aesthetic of progress, but not progress itself.

I have a great deal of respect for the one Republican campaign that I feel, in my limited interaction with news media, continues to press its cause on substantive levels: that of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Romney talks in concrete terms about changing the way America’s entitlement systems work —  a highly unpopular topic. When confronted by folksiness in debates, he is insistently boring. The truth is, policy questions should have boring responses. Yet every candidate insists on couching everything in the nondescript terminology of folksiness. They’re either attempting to be very appealing, or so accessible that the line between communication and entertainment is blurred.

I, personally, would prefer a shamelessly boring campaign of very expected haircuts, so long as that lack of vibrancy allowed the important specificities to shine through. Our politics are far too superficial. We need something better if we are going to actually improve our country. We have an electorate that is continually impassioned but ignorant of the substance of issues — something we cannot afford in the 21st century. I hope there is some way the cycle can be broken.

Spencer would love to know your thoughts on 2012, so email him at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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