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Joe Conason
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Rushing Toward Irrelevance


Once upon a time, conservatives liked to say that "ideas matter." They attributed this pithy slogan to Ayn Rand, venerated author of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Virtue of Selfishness," and tried to live by it, generating books, papers and legislative proposals by the dozen. Although many of their theories later proved flimsy, they at least attempted to address real problems with fresh thinking.

But ideas no longer matter — and in fact they're dangerous, according to the maximum leader of the right.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week, Rush Limbaugh declared that new ideas ought to be shunned by every right-thinking American. The radio kingpin savaged those in his movement who have dared to suggest that the right needs policy alternatives to compete with Democratic plans for economic revival, universal health care, environmental stewardship and educational improvement. Ranting on for more than an hour, he warned against any reconsideration of the sacred platitudes of Reaganism.

"Everybody asks me ... well, what do we do, as conservatives? What do we do? How do we overcome this?" said Limbaugh, and, of course, he had a simple answer: "One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat them is with better policy ideas." He went on to denounce the conservative "media and policy types" in the "Beltway establishment" who have written on "the concept that the era of Reagan is over." That cued loud booing from the audience, which turned into cheers as Limbaugh roared: "We have got to stamp this out within this movement because it will tear us apart. It will guarantee we lose elections."

The image of a radio demagogue, dressed entirely in black, roaring against dissenters from the official line, provoked comparison with Fidel Castro or Mao Zedong. Here was the harbinger of an ideology in decline, exhibiting the pathological aversion to intellectual activity and unfettered debate that is always the surest evidence of political decay.

The irony, of course, is that Reaganism was, at its zenith, a vehicle for policy ideas as well as a personality cult.

What began with the founding of National Review and the Barry Goldwater campaign as a rump protest against stale Republican moderation became the dominant current — with a vision of its own and a series of policy schemes, from supply-side economics to workfare, faith-based social spending, school vouchers and Social Security privatization. But while the world has changed radically since those ideas entered the political mainstream a quarter-century ago, Limbaugh and his millions of followers evidently feel that any attempt to cope with change is heretical.

Some Republicans clearly understand that their party and their ideology are exhausted, even if they still can't come up with anything more creative than capital-gains tax cuts. (That means you, Newt Gingrich.) They also know that as a public spokesman and symbol, Limbaugh, whose utterances over the years have been larded with obnoxious racism and sexism, leaves much to be desired. Broadening the appeal of the G.O.P. and renewing the party platform is plainly essential after two elections that have shrunk its base and shriveled its message. Perhaps that is one reason why party leaders chose Michael Steele, an African-American from Maryland, as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. Even the clueless Limbaugh seems to realize that his movement has a problem, as he demonstrated when he vowed to convene a "female summit" to figure out why the great majority of women cannot stand him.

But Limbaugh and his dittoheads — whose prejudices also find expression in the wisdom of "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher — maintain a stranglehold on the right. When Steele dared to assert his leadership and sniped at Limbaugh's show as "incendiary" and "ugly," he swiftly followed up with the same kind of humiliating apology heard from other Republican critics of the radio host. Having claimed to be the "de facto" head of the Republican Party, Steele had to back down and heel to the strongman.

For Democrats, these clown shows are amusing and encouraging. As long as the Republicans kowtow to Limbaugh, they won't be able to muster substantive opposition to President Obama and the Congressional majority. That may be just as well for now. But every nation needs a competitive marketplace of ideas — and conservatism today offers only retreads.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer ( To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



8 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;.....No matter what Mr. Limbaugh says about new ideas, he is still an ideologue of the worst sort.... Ideas are nothing....I do not mean that as a truth, but only be way of consideration....We think we have an ideal government and the ideal economy.... When it becomes clear that the government or the economy does not work; what is important???Is it the people who work within that form, that ideal, as a structure for behavior, or is the form all that is important??? The people in the form, as a form of relationship are the thing, and the form is nothing.... But how often have we seen people destroyed in this world because they did not fit with the form, or the ideal of their society... How many did the communists kill because the human beings could not measure up with the ideal???. How many did hitler kill because they did not fit his ideal of the master race??? How many have we killed because they did not like our ideal??? Ideas are worse than nothing....They are the problem -if they could be considered apart from the idealogues who force them, even when they clearly do not work....We have to be able to step out of our ideas, and judge them objectively.... Who can do that about capitalism or our republicanism??? The least challenge to capitalism is considered a step toward socialism....Why??? It is because idealogues can only think in terms of their ideas...If it is not white to them, then it is black....If it is not capitalism, it is socialism.... Why could it not be what ever works??? What they deny to people is the ability to create new forms that are based solely on what works today, and perhaps tomorrow.... Our founding fathers did not try to build perfection into the constitution.... They assumed it would be changed...Now it has reached a point where change is beyond it.... And the perception that the constitution is ideal prevents its change, even in the face of the reality that it does not work in fact, and it does not work by its own standards....Ask then, if the republicans love the old ideal because it does work, or because it does not.....In resisting reform as needed they make violent revolution all the more certain...The past offers us examples of peoples who could not change the forms of their society.... Before Rome or Greece failed, they first fed on themselves for many years, and depopulated themselves, and still, it was by invasion that they failed...As a society, we are facing catastrophic failure... Our economy is failing, and capitalism is failing world wide...Our government does not have the trust of the people on the right or on the left....The right is still holding to an ideal, but it has never worked, and it is that failure which has led to their frustration....But when the right has held the government, moral idealists have driven the government into a wall of reality.... We are a divided society...It is not an ideal that says society must work for all people...It is common sense.... Just as a marriage must work for the man and the woman, all relationships have to work, and ours does not...Mr. Limbaugh; as fits his appearance, is a symptom of our dis ease, and is not the cure...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Mar 5, 2009 5:33 AM
Mr. Conason,

Ayn Rand actually identified the source of the republican demise long ago:

From her essay "Conservatism, An Obituary" in "Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal"

"What are the “conservatives”? What is it that they are seeking to “conserve”?

"It is generally understood that those who support the “conservatives,” expect them to uphold the system which has been camouflaged by the loose term of “the American way of life.” The moral treason of the “conservative” leaders lies in the fact that they are hiding behind that camouflage: they do not have the courage to admit that the American way of life was capitalism, that that was the politico-economic system born and established in the United States, the system which, in one brief century, achieved a level of freedom, of progress, of prosperity, of human happiness, unmatched in all the other systems and centuries combined—and that that is the system which they are now allowing to perish by silent default.
If the “conservatives” do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone.
Yet capitalism is what the “conservatives” dare not advocate or defend. They are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: the morality of altruism . . . Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society."

The entire essay is available online:

Anders Ingemarson
Centennial, CO
Comment: #2
Posted by: Anders Ingemarson
Fri Mar 6, 2009 6:23 AM
Shut up, Sweeney. Damn I'm tired of seeing your name every time I go to comment something. As for you, Mr Conason, I'm curious as to which ideas of the right that you find to be "failed." Would this be the strong national defense idea, the lower taxes leading to more revenue idea, the abstinence idea, the securing our borders idea? Comparing a radio talk show host with some communist dictator like Castro or Zedong is frankly, reprehensible. You're talking about a political pundit here, not some thug who throws dissidents in jail or has their families shot. What the hell is wrong with you? I'm looking forward to watching your friends get their butts handed to them in 2010, after the public has learned its lesson and gotten a belly full of the socialization of our economy and endless bailouts. Good grief, you're an idiot.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Matt
Sun Mar 8, 2009 7:42 PM
Re: Anders Ingemarson. Actually, capitalism simply recognizes that altruism is a poor engine for driving an economy; that profit is a far better motive toward effectively meeting the demand for goods and services. All you really need to do is ask whether altruism has allocated resources properly in nations like the USSR, or if it's capitalist nations like ours that do so. Altruism is fine when you're talking about charity; in fact, when people are doing better economically (as they tend to do under a capitalist system), they're more inclined to give generously to the less fortunate in the first place. Then again, I have to remember I'm dealing with a bunch of people here who think that a businessman in business to make a profit is the incarnation of evil itself.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Matt
Sun Mar 8, 2009 7:46 PM
Oh, and by the way..."Atlas Shrugged" is a work of FICTION. It's not meant to be taken as a freakin' economics Bible. Get a grip, all of you.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Matt
Sun Mar 8, 2009 7:48 PM
So Obama's plan to tax, spend and socialize everything in sight is NEW? Ok, I'm going to bed, reading this almost doesn't even a response. Joe, next week try spending at least more than a few minutes thinking about what you are writing.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Darek
Tue Mar 10, 2009 9:04 PM
The demise of the Republican party was a sure thing once it gained total control of the government as it revealed their philosophy as greed greed and more greed. Could the drug addled, ridiculously obese draft dodger(courtesy of an anal cyst) Rush L baby be any more appropriate as a symbol? Just asking, but why hasn't(and thank God he hasn't) Rush ever sired any children with even one of his three wives? Were they all barren?
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