Crisis of Conservatism? The Republican Party, the Conservative Movement and American Politics after Bush

By Joel D. Aberbach; Gillian Peele | Go to book overview

9
Compassionate Conservatism,
Domestic Policy, and the Politics
of Ideational Change

STEVEN TELES

Ideas are tools used by rational political actors to achieve their ends.1 That does not mean that ideas are simply “cheap talk.” To believe that is to hold to the contradiction that rational actors would devote considerable time to an activity with no purpose, or that consumers of “cheap talk” are stupid or easily manipulated by ideas that conceal underlying motivations. Politicians’ “talk” and the ideas that animate it are consequential and strategic, rather than simply expressive.2 Political ideas are developed and deployed because they do things for ambitious officeholders and office seekers that other tools of the trade cannot.

I assume that politicians are rational—that is, strategic and goal-oriented—actors who seek continuation in office (for themselves, and to a lesser degree for their party) and desirable policy outcomes.3 With few exceptions, politicians operate on the “demand” side of politics, as consumers of ideas rather than their producers. They seek ideas that enhance their office-seeking and policy-making goals, and they are risk-averse, hesitant to change their ideas without evidence of their failure or tangible evidence of untapped opportunity. In addition, they are resistant to new ideas that are not “backward compatible” with their existing ideas and commitments.4

The other dimension of the politics of ideas is the “supply side,” understood here as actors who generate specific policy proposals and overarching rhetorical justifications for action. As I have argued elsewhere, a supply-side network includes intellectual, policy, and network entrepreneurs and the patrons who support them.5 Since politicians are primarily demanders of ideas rather than suppliers, changes in ideas are not simply a result of shifts in politicians’ opportunities and constraints, but of the supply of ideas they can draw upon. Opportunities and constraints underdetermine action, since opportunities may be missed and their meaning can be interpreted to dictate multiple modes of response. Actors on the supply side, whose

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