Wealthy Frenchman

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fukuyama, Hannah and Zegna



As he launched a progressive journal to ponder big ideas that might help the wretched Democrats stop driving on Ambien and snatch back a little power, Andrei Cherny sought advice from a conservative pundit.

"Who's on your tie?" the pundit asked, explaining that Reaganites had been able to sum up their philosophy in the 80's by wearing Adam Smith and Edmund Burke ties.

Mr. Cherny did not say. (John Stuart Mill?)

So far, Democrats have been more famous for who gave the tie — Monica draped Bill with a Zegna — than who gazed from it.

Besides, Republicans don't own all three branches of government because of little cameo pictures of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke hanging over their blue Oxford button-down shirts. Mr. Smith and Mr. Burke would blanch at the shape W. and Karl Rove have given conservatism — the political muscle of the Christian right, the withering of the social contract, greedy capitalism, fiscal profligacy.

If the Democrats need anything, it's not a new tie. It may not even be big ideas.

The Republicans, after all, got a monopoly while headed by W., a guy who makes Reagan look like Hannah Arendt. "Compassionate conservatism" was an alluring alliteration, not a paradigmatic philosophy.

In politics, big ideas are too often just big slogans and big marketing techniques and big slime campaigns.

Besides, big ideas can backfire. Yesterday, Mr. Cherny and his fellow editor, Kenneth Baer, former Gore speechwriters, introduced their journal, Democracy — it's sort of like Foreign Affairs without the glitz — at a panel at the National Press Club with Francis Fukuyama and Bill Kristol.

Mr. Fukuyama's big idea was The End of History. But a couple of little things like religion and nationalist ideology, not to mention history, got in the way.

Mr. Kristol was a key backer of the neocon push to knock out Saddam and create a model democracy in the Middle East. As he pointed out ruefully yesterday, big ideas cannot survive "contact with politicians, unbruised," and are sometimes "applied inappropriately." That was no doubt a veiled shot at Donald Rumsfeld, whom Mr. Kristol faults for the slide in Iraq.

"And since my relations with conservatives these days are so bad — with Rumsfeld and immigration and other things — I'd just as soon hang out with you guys," the Weekly Standard editor told the room of liberals, bloggers and journalists. "You're less mean."

You'd think that incorrectly predicting history is over would get you banished from the intelligentsia forever, but Mr. Fukuyama proffered another big idea, warning that the pendulum was not making its customary swing left because "values" voters were clutching it.

"There's a guy I buy my barbecue from who says, 'I think we're in a class war and my class is losing,' " he shared. (Is this The End of Barbecue?) In Europe, he said, such brisket purveyors would be voting for the left, but in America, "the values issues have been much more prominent, and so people who for economic reasons ought to be voting on the left are held still in the Republican column precisely because they don't trust the left on all the issues having to deal with family, and identity, and this sort of thing."

Big ideas are not enough, because personalities and circumstances intervene. What matters is the bearer of an idea.

Bill Clinton had big ideas but short-circuited his presidency when he elevated his chaotic, self-regarding and gluttonous personality to a management style. Al Gore had big ideas but was too neutered by political mercenaries and focus groups to make those ideas compelling. Maybe because she had one idea that was way too big, Hillary has been running away from big ideas as though they're poison.

After 9/11, Dick Cheney transposed his desire to expand executive power and his personal paranoia into a national policy. Ron Suskind reports in his new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," that Vice dictated that the war on terror allowed the administration to summarily reject the need for evidence and analysis before action.

Mr. Suskind describes the Cheney doctrine: "Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It's not about 'our analysis,' as Cheney said. It's about 'our response.' ... Justified or not, fact-based or not, 'our response' is what matters. As to 'evidence,' the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn't apply."

In the hands of the wrong person, big ideas can be terrifying.


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