A useful heuristic?

Slavoj Zizek applied this to the puppet regimes of Eastern Europe under the iron curtain:

The Trilemma: Of the three features—-personal honesty, sincere support of the regime, and intelligence—-it was possible to combine only two, never all three. If one was honest and supportive, one was not very bright; if one was bright and supportive, one was not honest; if one was honest and bright, one was not supportive...

But it applies just as well to the Bush regime. Sincere conservative supporters are not bright. Bright conservative supporters are not honest. Bright and honest conservatives are not supporters--and so are ruled out, and we are left with Larry Kudlow and Ramesh Ponnuru. |DeLong|

Follow the link for DeLong's list of conservatives worth engaging. But here's a question that strikes me. What is it that we want from conservative thinkers? DeLong introduces the post by writing that, "As good Millian liberals, we want to promote authentic, articulate, and intelligent advocates of other points of view." Well, okay, but I'd like to fill in some details. Is it that we have some kind of disinterested interest in conservative minded folk achieving a sort of authentic fulfillment through their participation in the political process? Or is it, rather, that we realize the limitations of our own, liberal, viewpoint and want to encourage conservatives as a way of generating the best possible political decisions?

I would guess that it must be the latter, partly because that formulation does a better job of getting at what's distinctive about Millian liberalism but mostly because otherwise it's not clear at all why we liberals have reason to care one way or another about the quality of conservative thought (as opposed to caring that conservative thought have, as it were, a room of its own). But then there's DeLong's next paragraph:
I think we should recognize that the intelligent, honest conservatives out there are not Bush supporters, and turn that to our advantage in selecting honorable intellectual adversaries.

So DeLong doesn't think that making the best possible political decisions requires letting representatives of every ideology into the debate. Fair enough. I don't think so either. But it strikes me that a whole lot of what passes for conservative thought -- even among those conservatives who have withdrawn support for the Bush Administration -- isn't worth a hill of beans. So why care about it at all?

To put this a little more concretely, consider the first name on DeLong's list: John DiIulio. An honorable guy, I suppose, and admirably committed to the principle that presidential administrations should seek to achieve their goals through the implementation of policies. On the other hand, his signature contribution to American political debate is as an advocate for the idea that insofar as government provides social services it ought to do so by funneling the money for those services through faith based organizations. If you think, as I do, that this idea is so unproductive as to actually be pernicious, then what is the point of inviting DiLulio into the debate? Whatever it is, it isn't that he's going to help you see a truth that you otherwise would have missed.

In fact, I think that there are two things that liberals want from their conservative interlocutors. They want first of all, to be entertained by a good lively argument. On this front the thing that's disappointing about the Bush loyalists is that they are committed to a position which is so bizarre that they can't defend it without resorting to tendentious mendacity. Second and more importantly, liberals want a foil. To bring things back to Dilulio for a moment, no matter how bad his ideas are, one thing that's clear is that those ideas have broad political support. And so it is for a great number of truly bad conservative ideas. Liberals want to believe that if only those ideas could be made explicit and debated honorably then they could be demonstrated to be faulty.

I guess we all know why that's crazy, but here's a nice bookend quote anyway:
And, of course, the candidates aren't mistaken for thinking that a focus on shallow trivialities is what wins elections. We all recall that when Bush lied constantly and Gore sighed and rolled his eyes in frustration the press . . . murdered Gore for being visibly frustrated rather than Bush for, say, completely misportraying his tax proposals. |Matthew Yglesias|

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