Imagine going to the Heritage Foundation to see Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s. Or listening to Margaret Thatcher at a National Review dinner at around the same time. Or applauding Charlton Heston at the NRA’s annual meeting. This must be the feeling that liberals get during a week of activities at the Aspen Festival of Ideas. A mix of political camaraderie, self-righteousness, and triumphalism oozed from every panel discussion and roundtable.
Only in its third year, this week-long conference, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the Aspen Institute, has quickly established itself as the intellectual Woodstock for the wealthy and well-meaning. Bill Clinton made his annual pilgrimage—Aspen is his new Renaissance festival, apparently—and was reliably greeted as healer and seer for those who have had to endure two terms of Republican rule. This year Hillary joined him for some nighttime high-dollar fund-raising. The old Clinton crowd showed up, too: there rarely seemed to be a panel without Rahm Emmanuel, Gene Sperling, Madeline Albright, David Gergen, or Justice Stephen Breyer. True, there were a few Republicans thrown in for appearances, but mostly of the safe variety: Colin Powell or Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove showed up on the final day for a ritual yet respectful skewering, just so everyone could feel bi-partisan and open-minded.
But what struck me in the four days of sessions I attended was not Bush-hatred (or any particular display of partisanship), but rather the insipid and anodyne quality of the ideas under such grave discussion. After just two days, it was clear that the assembled crowd of the good and the great strongly believed that teachers should be paid more, that more investments need to be made in early childhood education, that energy and environment issues ought to be at the top of the national agenda, and that far too many college graduates want to become hedge fund managers. In dozens of panels, there were certainly exceptions, but I would refer anyone interested to the Aspen Festival blog posts by Ross Douthat, whose dry yet incisive commentaries captured the hollowness of this gathering of worthies.