At the Washngton Post, Steven Hayward asks, “Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?” He complains that the unwashed masses of conservative populists have taken over The Movement and sent conservative intellectuals into retreat.
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.
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.
Conservative populism may be a Frankenstein’s monster that is destroying the conservative movement. But if so, it’s a Frenkenstein’s monster Mr. Hayward helped to stitch together. Just over a year ago, he made a blatantly populist argument in favor of Sarah Palin’s qualifications to be President:
The establishment is affronted by the idea that an ordinary hockey mom–a mere citizen–might be just as capable of running the country as a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This closed-shop attitude is exactly what both Jefferson and Adams set themselves against; they wanted a republic where talent and public spirit would find easy access to the establishment.
In spite of his hand-wringing, Hayward continues to set a low bar for conservative intellectualism. Going back to today’s op ed:
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.
Of course, Charles Murray’s books have been denounced as frauds by real scholars, and Bob Herbert called Bell Curve “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.” Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument amounted to marshmallow fluff utopianism with big words and footnotes. Etc. But Hayward’s op ed gets even better —
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.
I’ll pause here to let you wipe up the coffee you just spewed all over your monitor. But don’t take another sip just yet —
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.
For the record, Rogers was an unabashed New Deal Democrat, which makes him a critic of progressivism in the same way that Jesus was a critic of religion.
Hayward also is a big admirer of Glenn Beck.
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. … 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.
BTW, Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989.” He is known mostly for being a climate change denier. He has a Ph.D. in American studies from Claremont Graduate School and has been funded by the Movement via a series of fellowships in right-wing think tanks.
At Slate, Jacob Weisberg writes that the late Irving Kristol really did have a brain, unlike his painfully slow son, William. Back in the 1960s 1970s, Kristol’s thinking actually had some connection to reality and “empirical social science,” Weisberg says.
How did this prudent outlook devolve into the spectacle of ostensibly intelligent people cheering on Sarah Palin? Through the 1980s, the neoconservatives became more focused on political power and less interested in policy. They developed their own corrupting welfare state, doling out sinecures and patronage subsidized by the Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations. Alliances with the religious right skewed their perspective on a range of topics. They went a little crazy hating on liberals.
Over time, the two best qualities of the early neocons—their skepticism about government’s ability to transform societies and their rigorous empiricism—fell by the wayside. In later years, you might say Kristol and the neoconservatives got mugged by ideology. Actually, they were the muggers. “It becomes clear that, in our time, a non-ideological politics cannot survive the relentless onslaught of ideological politics,” Kristol wrote in 1980. “For better or for worse, ideology is now the vital element of organized political action.”
I have serious doubts about the alleged intellectual rigor of conservative intellectuals of yore. I haven’t read much of Irving Kristol, but for the conservative writers I have read it’s always been about the ideology. But, yes, they were a couple of shades brighter back in the day. William Buckley, for example, was a master at dressing up dishonest arguments with highfalutin’ rhetoric. Hayward, on the other hand, seems too dim to understand the difference between honest and dishonest argument. At this rate of devolution, the next generation of conservative intellectuals will need help dressing themselves.