The Old Stupid
Sorry, but it's not Ted Cruz who's paranoid. It's his critics.
This story is a response to “Paranoia is the New Stupid,” which ran in the May issue of Texas Monthly.
The new thing on the Left, apparently, is to say the Right is paranoid. Think the federal government is overreaching? Trampling on the Constitution? Threatening liberty? You’re paranoid. It’s “the new stupid” in conservative politics, and its poster boy is our own junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.
Or so says Michael Ennis, who claims Cruz, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, is “reinventing stupid” by bringing “the paranoid style in American politics back into fashion.” Ennis points to Cruz’s opposition to Agenda 21, a non-binding United Nations plan to discourage “unsustainable” development—golf courses and suburbs and such—as evidence of a conspiracy-mongering “alarmism” that means to convince voters that liberty is under assault. (Nevermind that the conspiracy-obsessed Republican National Committee also opposed the U.N. plan, citing concerns over property rights.) It’s all part of a grand scheme, Ennis explains, to gin up a “paranoia everyone can believe in,” since conservatives have exhausted their other “dumbed-down, incendiary cultural issues.”
Ennis anticipates the obvious counter to his argument—namely, that the Left is not immune to charges of paranoia: “You don’t have to believe that cavemen saddled up dinosaurs,” he says, “to worry that a handful of secretly scheming elites could unleash a global catastrophe—you need only have lived through our ongoing economic crisis.” That he evidently expects readers to agree with this characterization suggests how mainstream and accepted paranoia has become on the Left.
Ennis thinks it’s not paranoid or stupid to suspect that a handful of scheming elites are overreaching, or that liberty is, in a creeping way, under assault—but only if those suspicions are held by those on the Left. When people on the Right have those fears, it’s “the new stupid.”
But the paranoia Ennis thinks he sees on the Right was actually perfected by the mainstream media during the Bush years. Call it the old stupid. After Bush “stole” the 2000 election and began executing his ten steps to “Fascist America,” Naomi Wolf laid out what was really happening in a harrowing piece for The Guardian: “Beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable… that it can happen here.” Wolf wanted people to know that the true purpose of Bush’s Terrorist Surveillance Program (which Obama voted for the following year) was to “keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.”
Fortunately, Bush’s evil assault on democracy was chronicled by a morally outraged and indignant media. American writers and pundits on the Left, though persecuted, would not be silenced. They faithfully churned out courageous films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and books like Michael Lind’s Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics, which casts Bush as a post-sixties conservative formed by white backlash against the civil rights movement. Bush was “born in New Haven, Connecticut, but reared in the reactionary culture of Anglo-Southern West Texas.” Throughout the book, Lind insinuates that in spite of his so-called compassionate conservatism, Bush is really a product of the Jim Crow South. After all, the Ku Klux Klan used to be active in Waco, which is near Crawford, which is where he bought a ranch. See the connection?
And remember in 2003, how the billionaire Koch brothers founded and “micromanaged” the radical front organization Americans for Prosperity, which secretly laid the groundwork for the Tea Party movement, which the Kochs later used to manufacture political opposition to Obama? Thank goodness for that 2010 New Yorker exposé by Jane Mayer that blew open the Tea Party-Koch conspiracy and unmasked the Kochs as right-wing ideologues bent on dismantling the federal government. The Kochs’ political activity is, apparently, cynical, motivated not by conviction but by self-interest, unlike that of leftist billionaire George Soros, whose spokesman told Mayer that “Soros’s giving is transparent, and that ‘none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.’ ” Once all that was clear, Paul Krugman and Howard Dean, among others, were quick to spread the word. “We don’t want the right wing buying elections,” said Dean. Wrote Krugman: “What the Koch brothers have bought with their huge political outlays is, above all, freedom to pollute.”
Almost no conspiracy on the Left is too crazy to be dismissed by people who should know better. By contrast, you would never catch Cruz on the side of the birthers or insinuating that Obama is a Muslim the way the mainstream Left rolled out the red carpet—literally—for Fahrenheit 9/11, with its outrageous thesis that Bush was dismantling democracy in league with international capitalists. That Ennis latches on to something as relatively minor as Agenda 21 for proof that Cruz is a conspiracy nut, but declines to engage Cruz’s central critiques of liberalism (which are the basis for his opposition to Agenda 21) is telling. It’s certainly easier to scoff at perceived paranoia on the Right than to engage in a broader debate about ideas.
Cruz’s ideas and criticisms of the Left are philosophical, not conspiratorial. They belong to a new generation of principled, old-fashioned conservatives—the successors of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, who believe that liberty is fragile and must be protected, that government must be constrained by the Constitution, and that the majority cannot simply do whatever it wants. It’s not stupid to criticize the steady expansion of the post-New Deal welfare state when we run up record deficits and swell federal food stamp rolls to nearly 48 million. Neither is it paranoid to claim that the Left is abandoning the Constitution when prominent law professors like Louis Michael Seidman openly dismiss it on the op-ed page of the New York Times and advocate “extricating ourselves from constitutional bondage,” or when President Obama, according to a federal court, violated the Constitution by making recess appointments when the Senate was not in recess.
When that happens, it’s the duty of principled conservatives to stand up and say something. Opposition to federal overreach, whether the Affordable Care Act or the failed Toomey-Manchin gun control amendment—or even Agenda 21—isn’t part of a secret ploy to drum up more “inclusive” paranoia so the GOP can win the next election. It goes deeper than that, to the core of what conservatives believe about the nature of democracy and liberty, including the belief that Leftist policies have “wreaked devastation” on the people they were meant to help.
That’s what Cruz told an audience in Austin back in January; he said he disagreed with Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent quip and could not “think of an idea more antithetical to what it is we believe.” True conservatism, Cruz said, helps the poor by making prosperity possible and empowering individuals to improve their lives. Conservatives should talk every day about the 47 percent, and “articulate every domestic policy with a laser focus on easing the means of ascent.”
That kind of conservatism is ultimately about liberty and prosperity. If that makes the Left nervous—and it should—they’ll have to do more than dismiss their opponents as a bunch of “nerdy conspiracists.” They’ll have to do something much harder: let go of the old stupid and actually make the case for ever-expanding government on its own merits.
John Daniel Davidson is a health care policy analyst in the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.