November 9, 2008
Leave it to a liberal to offer sensible advice to conservatives trying to figure out what’s going on in the country right now. This Mark Lilla piece about the intellectual decay of conservatism is all the more striking because it ran in the Wall Street Journal, where op-ed pieces usually read like they were beamed down from Saturn:
How . . . could younger conservative intellectuals promote a candidate like Sarah Palin, whose ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against? It’s a sad tale that began in the ’80s, when leading conservatives frustrated with the left-leaning press and university establishment began to speak of an “adversary culture of intellectuals.” It was a phrase borrowed from the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, who used it to describe the disquiet at the heart of liberal societies. Now the idea was taken up and distorted by angry conservatives who saw adversaries everywhere and decided to cast their lot with “ordinary Americans” whom they hardly knew. In 1976 Irving Kristol publicly worried that “populist paranoia” was “subverting the very institutions and authorities that the democratic republic laboriously creates for the purpose of orderly self-government.” But by the mid-’80s, he was telling readers of this newspaper that the “common sense” of ordinary Americans on matters like crime and education had been betrayed by “our disoriented elites,” which is why “so many people — and I include myself among them — who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism.”
The die was cast. Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders’ intellectual virtues — indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities; in fact, one of the masterminds of the Palin nomination was once a Harvard professor. But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.
Methinks Lilla is a too taken in by the surface charm of William F. Buckley, whose upgrading of conservative intellectual credentials was largely cosmetic. Like Lilla, I remember the sense of exhaustion that surrounded liberalism in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and for a while I was an avid reader of both National Review and The American Spectator. Except for The New Republic under the editorship of Michael Kinsley, the liberal magazines seemed dead in the water, and if the conservatives claimed to have fresh ideas I was ready to hear them.
But after a few years I couldn’t help noticing that whenever a new National Review arrived in the mail, I mainly read John Simon’s movie reviews and Buckley’s amusing patter in “Notes and Asides.” Similarly, The American Spectator was readable chiefly for Emmett Tyrrell’s faux Mencken routine and articles by Bruce Bawer, an openly gay writer whose presence in a magazine given to gay-bashing was puzzling but at least a sign that Tyrrell appreciated some kind of intellectual heterodoxy.
As the Reagan era decayed into the Bush I senescence and the intellectual positions hardened, the conservative magazines stopped making much sense. Buckley did indeed cross swords with the John Birchers and similar kooks, but that doesn’t change the fact that his magazine was a salt lick for a menagerie of Christianists, Confederate nostalgists and racists who’d learned to swaddle their viperish words in talk about states’ rights. While he was correct about the viciousness of the Soviet Union, his fawning over the likes of Franco and Pinochet made it clear that his concern for human rights ran a distant third to regimes that combined professions of religiosity with a winking attitude toward foreign investment. Bawer quit the Spectator and Tyrrell turned his magazine into the house organ of the anti-Clinton jihadis.
But there’s no doubt that the 21st century brand of conservatism cannot claim even the threadbare mantle of a Buckley. In a way, Buckley’s own magazine — sustained only by corporate largesse even as it preached the virtues of the free market — planted the seeds of conservatism’s downfall by pointing the way to the creation of an alternate universe in which all other media are liberally biased, all inconvenient facts are dismissed as partisan spin and the rote recitation of GOP spin points is the only acceptable form of speech. I don’t think all that much of Buckley, but he towers over the pygmy tribe led by Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush and Karl “Son of Lee Atwater” Rove. Talk radio and squawk shows are now the arenas for conservative discourse, and their only method for dealing with opposing arguments is to shout them down until the next commercial break.
We frequently hear that liberalism needs to come up with a full-blown support system along the lines of the right-wing circle of think tanks, books and magazines funded and promoted through the largesse of foundations and wingnut sugar daddies. But I think it was exactly this professionalization of conservative thinking that lobotomized the movement’s already shrunken brain. The days when National Review could help nurture the careers of writers like Joan Didion and Garry Wills are long, long gone. Buckley’s own son became persona non grata for daring to suggest that Barack Obama would make a better president than John McCain.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of conservatism as a political movement. They could regain some power — maybe even the White House. The network is still in place, and the troglodytes are still clamoring for their daily serving of nonsense about white-wine-and-brie-eating liberals making friends with terrorists. The proper symbol of the Republican Party is no longer an elephant, but a dead shark on a pier. It’s not going anywhere and it’s already stinking things up, but if you get too close it can bite hard enough to make you think it’s still alive.
But in a country where demographics are steadily moving away from majority-white dominance and toward ethnic and religious diversity, a party that appeals only to closeted Klansmen and Rapture-ready Christians does not have a glittering future. Anti-tax tantrums will only get you so far when the physical infrastructure of civilization is crumbling because we’ve been waiting decades for magic marketplace fairies to do the necessary work.
Meanwhile, I can only chuckle at the thought of Jonah Goldberg, William Kristol, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck leading the conservative movement anywhere but deeper into the swamp. Have fun guys. I won’t wish you luck, because none of you deserve it. In fact, the worse things get for your bunch, the better things will be for America as a whole.