Now comes another conservative voice advocating our partial withdrawal from the political arena, for its unending, turbulent imbecility and our resulting feeling of helplessness make us "unhappy." Thus at least our marginal disengagement from everyday politics — a kind of controlled indifference — would be for our own good.
So says the American Enterprise Institute's Arthur Brooks, who, naturally, (in that other Brooksian fashion), proffers social science evidence to support his argument: In a University of Chicago study, writes Brooks, researchers found that "being "very interested in politics' drove up the likelihood of reporting being 'not too happy' about life by about eight percentage points."
Brooks is careful not to argue causation; only correlation. His implication of a direct connection, however, is thunderous: Closely following the pratfalls, stupidities and riotous incompetence of modern American "governance" is bound to make you unhappy, so as best you can, flee from it all, ignore it, or, in Brooks' own words, "Just let go." For Pete's sake find other ways to occupy yourself; try not to focus on the imbeciles in charge of our country. Work crossword puzzles or watch reruns of "Gilligan" and you can erase that eight-point deficit of unhappiness. It's for your own good.
Such grossly ill-advised advice has become a staple of contemporary conservative philosophy. Today we have the AEI's Arthur Brooks serving it up, but throughout countless yesterdays, to name just two others, George F. Will and that other Brooks, David, have served up the same. We've become too engrossed in the abominations and colossal embarrassments of American politics, they say; this makes us unhappy, and so we should stop. We should find other ways to invest our energy and spend our time. "Just let go" of the cretinous incompetence and deliberate meanness of modern politics.
It doesn't require a hand-wringing Machiavelli to grasp the concealed, underlying purpose of this relatively new, recently developed conservative advice to the masses. The practitioners of prevailing governing incompetence and political mean-spiritedness — that which has caused your unhappiness — have, for several decades now, been Republicans of Gingrichlike or Ryanesque stripes. The more aware and informed you are of their upward redistributionism and pursuit of a "Father Knows Best" Americanism that never was, the unhappier — which is to say, the more pissed off — you'll be. Hence, according to our modern conservative advice-givers, you can preserve your sanity only by pretty much ignoring it all — in other words, by getting out of their way, letting the Gingriches and Ryans have their way. Which is precisely what our helpful conservative advice-givers desire.
The subtle irony — or should I say, raging hypocrisy — of this underhanded conservative advice lies in what virtuously preceded it. Conservatism once argued that we should hone our small-r republican sensibilities. The apostles of old-school conservatism preached that America's founders understood what a thriving, healthy republic demanded: a lively public spirit, civic virtue, vigilance against government stupidity and official tyranny and, above all, an informed, politically active, unremittingly engaged electorate. The founders reached back to ancient Greece and (republican) Rome as archetypes of these collective virtues, along with the Enlightenment writings of Montesquieu, Locke, and Rousseau.
Inconceivable is that any among the latter would have advocated withdrawal — even a partial withdrawal — from the political arena. Contemporary conservative writers know this, of course, but they've a purpose in dismissing the history they once hailed: A truly informed, unremittingly engaged electorate would throw Republican pols out on their ass.