Avik Roy: Conservative Intellectuals Turn Out To Be Less Than A Representative Sample of Human Political Behavior

Back to an old theme: politics is not about ideology. When Donald Trump forces this reality upon conservative intellectuals, they come to the same conclusion I have about the future of the Republican Party. 

Human behavior is all around us. It is the substance of our lives. So how does it come to pass that the conventional wisdom about human political behavior is flat wrong? Why do journalists and academics describe a "political spectrum" which represents the range of possible ideologies centered on the preferred size and scope of the Federal Government? Why wouldn't journalists and academics describe human political behavior accurately? Are the people who form this conventional wisdom maybe observing robots and confusing them with humans? Is the conventional wisdom formed by non-humans and the dutifully transcribed by the press?

No. It's a vicious circle of human behavior that causes the conventional wisdom about human voting behavior to be so wrong. As humans, we project our inner lives upon our fellows, who are sometimes very different than we are. 

Take one of the groups responsible for the conventional wisdom: so-called "conservative intellectuals." Like all humans, conservative intellectuals are tribal animals who belong to an identity/interest group made up of folks who share their self-identity and interests.

What is the "conservative intellectual" identity/interest group like? Highly educated and interested in abstract ideas, these folks imagine themselves to be rational actors, succeeding in this world thanks to superior brain power. From their perspective, politics and ideology are the same thing. Their self-esteem requires it. Turning policy preferences into a coherent system of abstract ideas is the job they were born to do!

As youngsters, the "conservative intellectuals" soon find like minded individuals have already done much of the work, crafting a system called "conservatism". The process then becomes a dynamic one, as the individual rejects loosely held policy preferences that don't match up with the broader accepted system. But when the individual's strongly held preferences don't match, the dynamic goes in the other direction, as the conservative intellectual argues that his idea is the "true conservative" position. This dynamic creates the illusion that the intellectuals are getting ever closer to the full true politics.

In 1955, William F. Buckley created the intellectual architecture of modern conservatism by founding National Review, focusing on a free market, social conservatism, and a muscular foreign policy. Buckley’s ideals found purchase in the Republican Party in 1964, with the nomination of Barry Goldwater. While Goldwater lost the 1964 general election, his ideas eventually won out in the GOP, culminating in the Reagan Revolution of 1980.

Then, like all human beings, the conservative intellectual projects their inner life onto all other human beings. Everyone, they imagine, is trying to craft a coherent system of political ideology. But not everyone is as smart as the conservative intellectual. Liberals are the unfortunates who just aren't very good at thinking. Liberals imagine themselves to be rational, but are overcome by their emotional "bleeding hearts."

Then Donald Trump comes along and "conservative intellectuals" are forced to confront the reality that politics has almost nothing to do with ideology. Only a tiny majority of humans identify based on ideology. The vast majority belong to identify/interest groups defined by other factors such as race, religion, region, culture, and economic class. 

Here we see this dawning on health care policy "wonk" and conservative intellectual, Avik Roy:

“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Roy says. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

So, having come around to my position that all politics is identity politics, what does Avik Roy see for the future of the GOP? Not surprisingly, he now agrees with my conclusion as well: 

“I left a comforting and rewarding career as a biotech investor to do this kind of work. I did it because I felt it was important, and I care about the country. Maybe it’s cheesy to say that, but I really sincerely do,” he continues. “So then, okay, what do I do? Do I do the same things I’ve been doing for the last four years? To me, just to do that to collect a paycheck didn’t make a lot of sense.”

This soul-searching led Roy to an uncomfortable conclusion: The Republican Party, and the conservative movement that propped it up, is doomed.

Both are too wedded to the politics of white nationalism to change how they act, but that just isn’t a winning formula in a nation that’s increasingly black and brown. Either the Republican Party will eat itself or a new party will rise and overtake its voting share.

“Either the disruption will come from the Republican Party representing cranky old white people and a new right-of-center party emerging in its place, or a third party will emerge, à la the Republicans emerging from the Whigs in the [1850s],” Roy says.