Defeating the Tyranny of the ‘Conventional Wisdom’

I really feel sorry for Katherine Mangu-Ward: she walked into a hornet’s nest when she appeared on Fox News the other day and disparaged Ron Paul – or, rather, mocked his chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination. She might have thought she was merely expressing the Conventional Wisdom on Paul’s candidacy – which, indeed, she was – but her comments underscored an important point about how social change works, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first … 

As senior editor of Reason magazine, an ostensibly libertarian publication, the Paulians rightly expected her to stand up for her team. Oddly, it was left to the other panelist, journalist and author Liz Trotta – not a libertarian, as far as I know – to defend Paul, and her defense was interesting: she said the wars are a bigger issue than anyone realizes, and since Paul is the only Republican candidate calling for an end to US intervention around the world, the issue could conceivably catapult him into the top tier. Mangu-Ward, a former staffer at the Weekly Standard, sat there and rolled her eyes, as if someone had suggested the moon is made of green cheese. 

Immediately after her performance, a howl of outrage went up from the libertarian ranks, demanding Mangu-Ward’s head. “Fire her!” they demanded – indeed, so numerous and loud were the protests and subscription cancellations that Nick Gillespie, former editor-in-chief at Reason and now resident Talking Head, was forced to take to the Reason blog with a rather weak defense of his colleague’s faux pas. Since Reason’s slogan is “free markets and free minds,” averred Gillespie, their editors are free to say and write whatever they want. According to this theory, Mangu-Ward could predict the victory of the Socialist Party candidate, and not collect a pink slip. That this would never happen is irrelevant: Reason is a Beltway institution, although they still retain their office in Los Angeles, and Gillespie was simply defending his fellow Beltway pundit – and the Conventional Wisdom she gave voice to — against the mob of ignorant hoi polloi, 

But why were the libertarian hoi polloi so angry? It was, I think, much more than the fact that one is supposed to defend one’s own tribe against external attack: after all, this isn’t the first time Reason has sneered at Ron Paul, who is so far removed from the trendy “lifestyle” issues the magazine loves to write about that the distance can only be measured in light years. The “cosmopolitan” wing of the libertarian movement has very little in common with the grassroots, and this is true for the simple reason that the “cosmotarians” nearly all live and work in Washington, D.C., where the tyranny of the Conventional Wisdom is strongest. 

No one in the Imperial City, outside of Ron Paul and his staff, believes the Paul campaign is going anywhere, and, more – they don’t believe it can go anywhere but into the dustbin of yesterday’s failed campaigns. It is they – the self-appointed gatekeepers and guardians of the Conventional Wisdom – who define the parameters of the possible, and they have deemed a Paul presidency impossible because it goes against everything they’ve ever known and were taught to believe. Even the “libertarians” among them – and I use the term very loosely – are trapped inside this bubble where nothing much ever changes, and this means the State and its worshippers are always going to be on top, and the libertarian “radicals” (and their progressive brothers-and-sisters-in-spirit on the “far left”) are always going to be marginal. This ultra-conservative mindset – conservative in the temperamental sense – is a function not only of what the Beltway pundits believe, but, rather, of who they are and where they live. 

They are intellectuals, albeit of the third or fourth tier, publicists, policy wonks – denizens of the Beltway subculture, where Power is at the center of everything. In these circles, one’s relationship to Power determines one’s social and professional standing, and the attainment of Power is the end-all and be-all of existence. If you’re not in Power, then you’re constantly angling and scheming to get back into Power. The role of libertarians in such a milieu is to act as the class clowns, or the Bad Kids – who are allowed a certain amount of leeway, but, in order to keep their jobs and their vaunted credibility, invariably police themselves so as to avoid expulsion from Olympus. Thus, the Beltway “libertarians” are allowed to play in their own sandbox, contenting themselves with extolling methamphetamine addiction and calling for the immediate importation of the entire Mexican population to Arizona – but beyond that they dare not stray. Thus, Reason stayed “neutral” – i.e. objectively pro-war – during the run up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, running both pro and anti-war pieces as if the two held equal weight from a libertarian perspective. War is debatable over at Reason magazine, but the legalization of heroin and the sale of babies – not so much. 

In any case, the really interesting part of all this – didn’t you know we’d get to the interesting part eventually? – is what it says about how differently the two main classes in American society see the possibilities of social change. 

To us ordinary Americans, the hoi polloi if you will, the process of social and political change is simple: we get to decide if and when a political change occurs, because, you see, we have these events known as elections. Which means we get to pick and choose our leaders: if we don’t like the current occupant of the Oval Office, we can pitch him out and raise someone else up to take his place. It could be any native-born American in theory at least. 

To the Beltway crowd – the elaborate society that has grown up around what can only be characterized as America’s version of a Royal Court – this is an archaic fiction, a theory that will never be put into practice. In reality, they believe, they get to do the choosing, by setting up the standards and nominating candidates to the “top tier.” From these chosen few will come the actual winners. Having jumped through all the traditional hoops, and survived the scrutiny of the various lobbyists, both foreign and domestic, the elite’s favored candidates will be dutifully rubberstamped by the American public, and two will emerge from the two state-privileged parties – one from Team Red, and one from Team Blue – to do battle. This way, no matter who wins, the status quo prevails unto eternity. 

To our rulers in Washington, and their intellectual sycophants, their reign is slated to last practically forever. Sure, Team Red may take the throne White House next time, but that just means a few billion dollars less will be spread around at home and a few billion more will wind up in the pockets of military contractors and the Koch brothers. From the Beltway’s point of view, change on a fundamental level is not only undesirable – it’s impossible. 

The reason has to do with the mindset of a certain sort of intellectual, best described by George Orwell in his treatment of James Burnham, a professor of philosophy and a figure who commanded some attention in intellectual circles in the late 1930s and early 40s. Burnham was a former leftist who switched over to the right after World War II, going on to become a founding editor of National Review. His 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution, made a splash when it appeared, prophesizing a German victory in Europe and the break-up of the USSR. Tracing the trajectory of Burnham’s mistaken predictions and ideological predilections, Orwell notes that whomever seems to be winning at the time – the Germans, when Burnham’s book was being written – is presented as if their victory was all but inevitable. Being proved wrong didn’t stop Burnham: after the war, he took to praising Stalin in an eerie essay for Partisan Review, “Lenin’s Heir” – just at the point when Stalin and FDR were divvying up the spoils of war in Central and Eastern Europe. As Orwell put it

“Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. … Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.” 

Bowing before the conqueror of the moment is the leitmotif of life in official Washington, and it defines the limits of the possible. No one foresaw the implosion of the Soviet empire, including especially the Soviets and our own CIA – just as no one can imagine the decline and fall of the American empire, which Ron Paul has been predicting, now, for all the years he’s been in politics.  

The incredible short-sightedness of our elected officials, and their Washington hangers-on, is part and parcel of the ruling elite’s self-referential way of looking at the world — the byproduct of extreme hubris, untrammeled narcissism, and a half century of American global hegemony. This is an occupational hazard of all ruling elites throughout history: encased in a bubble, and blinded by their impregnable complacency, they never see the crack-up coming until it’s already too late to do anything about it.  

Deaf to the tumult rising above the castle walls, they go about their routine rituals of power-worship and inside baseball, oblivious to what’s coming. That’s why the so-called budget “crisis” produced an agreement to basically continue as before: real spending won’t drop, only the rate of increase. That’s why Anne-Marie Slaughter and her fellow Valkyries at the State Department and MSNBC are dancing a “victory” jig over Libya. To the idolators of Power, as Orwell puts it, “whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” 

The lords of Washington are devoted to the myth of their own invincibility: the colonnaded halls of the Capitol and the sacred precincts of the White House are, for them, the inviolable epicenter of all that really matters, with the rest a mere afterthought. Who cares what those rubes in flyover country are saying about Ron Paul, the wars, or anything else? 

This is the great weakness of decadent elites: they develop a debilitating tunnel vision which is all mixed up with their power-worship and, of course, their career prospects. In order to advance through the ranks, they must continually reaffirm their belief in the validity (and, if not that, then the de facto invulnerability) of the system. To do otherwise is to risk being sidelined, and marginalized. You can’t really blame Ms. Mangu-Ward: after all, everyone has to make a living. 

Blinded by hubris, and succored by their own complacency, ruling elites have been known to march to the guillotine still believing in their own invincibility. Revolutions do take place, however, and they occur because, suddenly, the majority comes to see that another world is possible. And it doesn’t have to be a majority of the country, at that: it can be a determined and very well-organized minority that knows what it wants and seizes the opportunity to get it. 

With the crisis of the country – economic, social, and moral – reaching the boiling point, Mangu-Ward’s flippant dismissal of the idea that another world is possible, that a true outsider like Paul could come from behind and seize the moment, was infuriating indeed. It made people angry because it underscored the arrogance, and the tired cynicism, of Washington politics-as-usual, made all the more abrasive coming out of the mouth of a supposed “libertarian.” 

Americans are getting very close to the breaking point: that is, the point where they are ready to break with the old and take their chances with the new – because anything is better than the status quo. When they get there, a committed minority with the passion and the political savvy to make a difference could very well win an election – or, at any rate, make it so difficult for the ruling elite to retain Power as to wipe the smirk off Ms. Mangu-Ward’s face. 

The war issue, as Trotta trenchantly observed, is quite conceivably the spark that will set the prairie aflame: we’ve been through economic downturns before, without a political and social revolution overturning the established order. This time, however, we’re a world empire — the Lone Superpower — still sending out expeditionary forces to subdue new territories while we ourselves teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.  

In the wake of the Soviet empire’s collapse, the American ruling class and its European allies are making a real attempt to establish a “world order” – with themselves at the top, naturally enough. The imminent collapse of the world economic system, however, is putting a bit of a dent in their plans: to them, however, this is just a bump on the road to empire. They don’t see the danger – to themselves – ahead. 

This is the issue that will send Americans over the edge, and – unfortunately – only Ron Paul is talking about it. I had really hoped the left might wake up in time to mount an insurgent challenge in the Democratic presidential primaries, but today’s lefties (redubbed “progressives”) are too domesticated to even contemplate it. Would you expect a house cat to take down a mountain lion? 

The paladins of the status quo are riding high, these days, but there are tremors shaking their world, and they’re a bit unsteady on their feet. One can only note that, the day after Mangu-Ward sneered at Paul’s chances, a Gallup poll was released showing him in a statistical dead heat with Barack Obama. Another poll showed him surpassing Bachmann nationally, and coming in with 13% in New Hampshire, nearly double his previous showing.  

Let the cosmotarians smirk all they want: let them dredge up the alleged “dirt” on the Good Doctor, in coordination with their neocon friends, and go on Fox News to denigrate a decent and principled man. He’s making history: they are making background noise.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].