Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?

Over his decades as a columnist, lecturer, TV host and debater, William F. Buckley Jr. lost his cool in public only once--when he threatened to sock Gore Vidal "in your goddamn face" on the third night of their joint appearances on ABC during the ill-fated 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Three nights on a television set with Vidal might drive anyone mad, yet Buckley also tangled with the roughest players on the left, from Jesse Jackson to William Kunstler, with unfailing composure.

But suppose that instead of his formal addresses and his weekly "Firing Line" show on PBS, Buckley had hosted a talk radio show 15 hours a week for 20 years, or hosted a nightly hour-long cable news show, sliced into six-minute segments. One can imagine him archly sniffing: "You can't possibly immanentize the eschaton in six minutes!" But one can also imagine him overexposed, spread thin chasing the issue of the moment and perhaps losing his cool now and then--in short, less the man of style and ideas who inspired two generations of conservative thinkers and more just a populist shock jock with a funny prep-school accent.

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and '70s to its success in Ronald Reagan's era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We've traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We've traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

President Obama has done conservatives a great favor, delivering CPR to the movement with his program of government gigantism, but this resuscitation should not be confused with a return to political or intellectual health. The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flat-lining.

Consider the "tea party" phenomenon. Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. Meanwhile, the "birthers" have become the "grassy knollers" of the right; their obsession with Obama's origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama's putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn't have found it 18 months ago?)

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption," Glenn Beck's new "Arguing with Idiots" and all of Ann Coulter's well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov's dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams's dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, pot-boilers.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman's "Free to Choose," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," Paul Johnson's "Modern Times," Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Charles Murray's "Losing Ground" and "The Bell Curve," and Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man." There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don't sell. (I have my own entry in the list: a two-volume political history titled "The Age of Reagan." But I never expected the books to sell well; at 750 pages each, you can hurt yourself picking them up.)

About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism," which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work, even though I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work. Had Goldberg called the book "Aspects of Illiberal Policymaking: 1914 to the Present," it might have been received differently by its critics. And sold about 200 copies.

Of course, it's hard to say whether conservative intellectuals are simply out of interesting ideas, or if the reading public simply finds their ideas boring. Both possibilities (and they are not mutually exclusive) should prompt some self-criticism on the right. Conservatism has prospered most when its attacks on liberalism have combined serious alternative ideas with populist enthusiasm. When the ideas are absent, the movement has nothing to offer--except opposition. That doesn't work for long in American politics.

The late Irving Kristol, who appeared on TV about as often as a solar eclipse, spoke to this point when he remarked that even though Sen. Joe McCarthy may have been a "vulgar demagogue," at least the public understood that he was anti-Communist. "They know no such thing," Kristol said, about liberals.

Yet it was not enough just to expose liberalism's weakness; it was also necessary to offer robust alternatives for both foreign and domestic policy, ideas that came to fruition in the Reagan years. Today, it is not clear that conservative thinkers have compelling alternatives to Obama's economic or foreign policy. At best, the right is badly divided over how to fix the economy and handle Iran and Afghanistan. So for the time being, the populists alone have the spotlight.

It's tempting to blame all this on the new media landscape. The populist conservative blockbusters of today have one thing in common: Most are written by media figures, either radio or TV hosts, or people who, like Coulter and Malkin, get lots of TV exposure. The built-in marketing advantage is obvious. The left thinks talk radio and Fox News are insidious forces, which shows that they are effective. (Just ask Van Jones and ACORN.) But some on the right think talk radio, especially, has dumbed down the movement, that there is plenty of sloganeering but not much thought, that the blend of entertainment and politics is too outre. John Derbyshire, author of a forthcoming book about conservatism's future, "We are Doomed," calls our present condition "Happy Meal Conservatism, cheap, childish and familiar."

The blend of entertainment and politics is not unique to the right (exhibit No. 1 on the left: "The Daily Show"). And it is perfectly possible to conduct talk radio at a high level of seriousness, and several talkers do well at matching the quality of their shows to their intellectual pedigree. Consider Hugh Hewitt (Michigan Law School), Michael Medved (Yale Law School), William Bennett (Harvard Law and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas)--all three of these brainiacs have popular shows on the Salem Radio Network.

With others--Michael Savage and "Mancow" come to mind--the charge of dumbing down is much more accurate. Rush Limbaugh adheres to Winston Churchill's adage that you should grin when you fight, and in any case his keen sense of satire makes him deserving of comparison to Will Rogers, who, by the way, was a critic of progressivism. Others among the right's leading talkers, such as Sean Hannity, seem unremittingly angry and too reflexively partisan on behalf of the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement (they are not the same thing).

The case of Glenn Beck, Time magazine's "Mad Man," is more interesting. His on-air weepiness is unmanly, his flirtation with conspiracy theories a debilitating dead-end, and his judgments sometimes loopy (McCain worse than Obama?) or just plain counterproductive (such as his convoluted charge that Obama is a racist). Yet Beck's distinctiveness and his potential contribution to conservatism can be summed up with one name: R.J. Pestritto.

Pestritto is a young political scientist at Hillsdale College in Michigan whom Beck has had on his TV show several times, once for the entire hour discussing Woodrow Wilson and progressivism. He is among a handful of young conservative scholars, several of whom Beck has also featured, engaged in serious academic work critiquing the intellectual pedigree of modern liberalism. Their writing is often dense and difficult, but Beck not only reads it, he assigns it to his staff. "Beck asks me questions about Hegel, based on what he's read in my books," Pestritto told me. Pestritto is the kind of guest Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity would never think of booking.

Okay, so Beck may lack Buckley's urbanity, and his show will never be confused with "Firing Line." But he's on to something with his interest in serious analysis of liberalism's patrimony. The left is enraged with Beck's scandal-mongering over Van Jones and ACORN, but they have no idea that he poses a much bigger threat than that. If more conservative talkers took up the theme of challenging liberalism's bedrock assumptions the way Beck does from time to time, liberals would have to defend their problematic premises more often.

Beck and other conservatives can start by engaging the central argument of the most serious indictment of conservatism on the scene, Sam Tanenhaus's new book, "The Death of Conservatism." Tanenhaus's argument is mischievously defective; he thinks the problem with conservatism today is that it is not properly deferential to liberalism's relentless engine of change. In other words, it is an elegant restatement of G.K. Chesterton's quip that is it is the business of progressives to go on making mistakes, while it is the business of conservatives to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. That won't do. A conservative movement that accepted Tanenhaus's prescription would be consigning itself to be the actuaries of liberalism.

But Tanenhaus is right to direct our attention to the imbalance between the right's thinkers and doers. The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. To the left's belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking "markets" and "liberty." Beck, for one, is revealing that despite the demands of filling hours of airtime every day, it is possible to engage in some real thought. He just might be helping restore the equilibrium between the elite and populist sides of conservatism.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Steven F.
Hayward
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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