Ideas are vitally important to a healthy political movement. They are vital, not only go governing, which should be obvious, but in terms of communicating what a political movement is all about and what it stands for. Thus, public intellectuals serve an important role in shaping public opinion, as well as the opinion of those in power.
Yet those who are prominently associated with creating and conveying these ideas are rarely elected to office. A notable exception was when, in 1965, William F. Buckley ran for Mayor of New York City. The godfather of the conservative intellectual movement, Buckley was running more to damage very liberal Republican John Lindsey than to win. When asked what he would do if he won, Buckley, under no illusions about his chances, famously replied, “Demand a recount.”
Buckley didn’t need to demand a recount; he only got 13% of the vote, and Lindsey still won. Yet his run established that ideas, and those who convey them, matter greatly in the conservative movement. Nearly 50 years later, one of Buckley’s contemporaries finds himself in a similar, yet very different position. Instead of New York City, it’s the Mobile, Alabama metro area. Instead of the mayoralty, it’s congress. And this time, the studious conservative has a good chance of winning.
Quin Hillyer, a prolific conservative writer whose resume also includes time in the Reagan Administration and as a staffer on Capitol Hill, is a candidate for Congress in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District in an upcoming special election. Widely considered one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and accurate observers on the right, Hillyer offers the kind of intellectual heft that we rarely see in Congress. Hillyer is a man equally comfortable in a range of specific policy areas, from healthcare to EPA regulations, as he is dealing with big-picture politics. He famously predicted how many congressional seats each party would win in every election from 1998-2004 within one. His commentaries on virtually every major policy dispute in the past 15 years are thoughtful, accurate, and usually provide constructive criticism.
Hillyer’s similarities with Buckley stand out. Like Buckley, he is smart, very well read, and an outstanding writer. Also like Buckley, he is a man of ideas. He wants to move the debate rightward, not just make a feel-good statement. Also like Buckley, he recognizes the need to defeat fringe ideas and candidates that contradict the values of the conservative movement. Buckley did this by throwing the kook-conspiracy theory peddling John Birch Society out of the conservative movement, Hillyer by helping to form the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism to drive David Duke out of politics.
Yet he also has a number of differences from Buckley. Buckley, for all his virtues, was a genuine New England blue-blood, born into wealth, who could not as easily relate to the everyday man. Hillyer, on the other hand, was born into a middle-class family in Louisiana, and has spent the majority of his life in the gulf coast region. He is a man of relatively modest means who can more easily relate to Gulf Coast fishermen or farmers.
These factors, along with the unique circumstances of the special election, give Hillyer an excellent chance to win. But why should conservatives care? It’s a safe Republican seat and there are other respectable candidates in the race.
Ideas matter, that’s why. All too often in Washington, urgency and pragmatism crowd out long-term goals. Hillyer’s background in campaigns and on the Hill, as well as his encyclopedic understanding of politics, policy, history, and his honest-to-goodness smarts, give him the tools to shake things up. His opponents won’t have that kind of impact. Prior to his come-from-behind victory in the Texas Senate race, Ted Cruz, one of the few other genuine intellectuals in elected office, told a reporter that, “If I go to Washington and just have a good voting record, I will consider myself a failure.” Hillyer also wants to do more than just vote correctly.
The real question is what role do intellectuals have in congress? Some see them as mere critics, better to be a “doer of deeds” as Teddy Roosevelt once said. But this is misguided. Intellectuals need not be mere critics, but map-makers, people who can guide you to where you need to go and ensure you stay on the right path.
Hillyer’s path won’t be easy. Like Cruz, he needs to beat better-established candidates with better name recognition, more friends amongst local power-brokers, and with records in elective office. But the strength of ideas and the respect he has earned amongst smart and learned conservatives all over America give him a real opportunity to translate his ideas into action.