Conservative Intellectualism: An Oxymoron

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.

19 thoughts on “Conservative Intellectualism: An Oxymoron

  1. I haven’t encountered a single “intellectual” conservative outside of William F. Buckley. Buckley’s primary problem was he was born rich and all of his political philosophy was dedicated to making rich people richer, keeping poor people poor and keeping rich people rich. Unlike Ted Kennedy, who was born rich, and dedicated his life to helping the poor and raising people up out of poverty.

    That is why I am a liberal.

  2. There’s not much reason to read anything after: “We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.”

    Hasn’t conservatism always been slogans and sound bites? Ronny Raygun their savior was nothing but an empty shell of a man stuffed with sound bites and slogans. And anyone who thinks Jonah Goldberg is an intellectual should have his head examined, Jonah Goldberg is a hack, he’s built his career on mis-information, lies, and FAUX news appearances, he’s one rung above Dick Morris on the FAUX news food chain. He’s only part of the conservative scene because his mother was instrumental in jerry rigging the “Lewinski affair”. Hayward should have saved time and ink and just answered his question without the hyperbole: “Is conservatism brain dead?” – Yes.

  3. Sam has it right. Conservatism starts with the premise that the rich are the worthy producers of wealth who must be left independent of the demands of the unworthy masses, who are obviously unworthy because – they aren’t rich.

    Every conservative argument is a painting on a canvas which has these lines already drawn and they MUST not be ignored. The rich are to be protected. So whether it’s William F. Buckly or George Will conducting civilized dialogue or Limbaugh/Beck conducting whatever-you-want-to-call-it since it does not qualify as dialogue the result is just as certain when you get to the nitty-gritty issue – requiring the rich part with cash to provide for the poor.

    Those of us who are progressive argue that the rich would not be rich except for the labor of the poor. Except for the efforts of countless thousands of slaves, the design of the Great Pyramids would be drawings on papyrus long since turned to dust. I don’t undermine the genius of the designers in ancient Egypt but in modern times, such a partnership between the planners and the workers REQUIRES that the planners pay back the workers.

    Conservative intellectualism and rude punditry are BOTH committed to denying the obligation of the rich to the poor.

  4. I agree with you, Doug.

    We live in a caste system created by the wealthy to serve the wealthy. Frankly, I can think of no other reason why it is considered fitting and just that CEOs of corporations are “entitled” to make hundreds of millions of dollars “because they work hard,” while those who actually make a difference in our lives are considered of inconsequential value.

    I seriously doubt that we people on the street would notice, much less care, if any of those “deservedly wealthy” folks took a few months off to photograph penguins in Antarctica. But things would fall apart pretty damn fast without plumbers, electricians, trash collectors, mechanics, construction workers, police and firemen.

  5. “I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work” of comedy, perhaps. My question is, was Hayward OK when the hallucinogens wore off?

    I think there are two tangled issues here for the wingers. First, it’s not just a failure to develop a new crop of Buckley-type intellectuals, it’s actually rejecting intellectualism. The idea that people are supposed to “know stuff” using a brain and thought has been usurped by “knowing in my gut” or faith or unquestioned trust in tribal leaders. Sarah Palin doesn’t know anything, and that’s a selling point to some of her fans. Hayward does observe that even (such lunatic rightie) books as The Bell Curve aren’t selling anymore. Even trying to justify themselves with ‘book learnin’ ‘ is out-of-fashion.

    Together with this willful, even joyous, ignorance is a rejection of reality and the concept of empiricism, perhaps because, as has been noted, reality has a liberal bias. Any honest right-wing intellectual would have to confront the accumulated objective evidence that many of the beloved theories of their past have been proven wrong in the real world, and either create new theories, or deny the evidence and slip into fantasy.

    It is amusing that Hayward points to Liberal Fascism as an example of modern right-wing intellectualism, since Goldberg’s treatise rests upon just such a clumsy refusal to acknowledge obvious contradictory evidence and a plunge into a fantasy world.

    One could imagine an right-leaning ideology giving some allegiance to objective reality, but we don’t have one. It is one thing to suggest that we ought to cut taxes because taxes are a moral evil and we should cut government services, and acceptance of the real consequences, but to argue that we should cut them because that’s the way to get MORE government revenue, and that we can have all those goodies free? That’s simply delusion, not ideology.

    And really, why bother going to all the work of spinning such theories, if you’re just going to make your choices based on what your prejudices, base instincts, and “gut” tell you?

    I’m not sure that a prejudiced, rapidly shifting angry mob mentality qualifies as an “ideology.”

  6. I agree with this article. If Jonah Goldberg is Hayward’s idea of an intellectual, then it is no wonder that conservatism is in trouble. I just think Jonah happens to be a shining example of the inevitable devolution of conservative thought into stupidity. Buckley was intelligent, I grant that. Despite the fact conservatism is (or should be) in trouble, the self-described conservatives sure have a lot of followers among the media bobbleheads, and they have an unmatched ability to finance and distribute their screeds.

  7. …starts with the premise that the rich are the worthy producers of wealth who must be left independent of the demands of the unworthy masses, who are obviously unworthy because – they aren’t rich.

    That has been stated so many ways. They are deserving because they have and they should have more because they are deserving. The reverse argument can be applied to the poor.

    It is an argument against opportunity. Opportunities made available to those who are unproven require resources and we all know the conservative matra there which is “If they can’t afford it themselves then why should the government pick my pocket on their behalf”…which is exactly the distraction that the status quo want for us.

    The problem with this is that it reduces human worth to an amount rather than a potential. Maybe it is the potential to make something of oneself with the opportunity of an education or a good job that requires effort and excellence for success. This is good for society on so many counts but according to conservatives, the utilization of such untapped potential is wrong because they weren’t deserving enough to have the money to get it for themselves.

    And they all know that when the government helps anyone but them that it’s socialism. Yeah sure, maybe if the only goodness that exists in people is the almighty dollars that they possess.

    Our culture and way of life will be reduced to shambles if this type of thinking prevails. Higher learning becomes out fo reach to all but the wealthy and a smaller and smaller minority making the rules for the rest. That’s what it will bring us. We haven’t seen the worst of this yet.

  8. Hayward completely misses the obvious: the terms are “conservative” and “progressive” for a reason. Conservatives want to hang on to the status quo; progressives want to move society forward. Conservatism is naturally reactionary and fear-based, neither condition being conducive to higher thinking.

  9. “Conservative intellectuals” = thuggery dressed in big words. The difference between them and conservative populists is there are at least a bit more blatant about their thuggery.

  10. John Dean addressed this oxymoron of conservative intellectuals in his books. Dean’s conclusion is that there are very few, if any conservative intellectuals, and this is further clouded by the fact that nobody can define what conservativism really is, or at least there are ten different strains of it, trying to elbow each other out. It’s a mess, and Hayward’s comments (Jonah Goldberg? Really?) reveal him to be an idiot.

  11. I don’t get it. Fukayama was right politically in that Western Liberal Representative Democracy is the pinnacle of human governance. That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s problems, but the solutions are not to make the governments less LR or D. Things like money, demagoguery, apathy are all issues but none of them requires a chance in LRD, only the rules around it. Once a state reaches that, it can no longer positively evolve.

    I guess my difference with Fukayama is that societies can still go backwards into authoritarianism, theocracy, whatever. Reaching LRD does not guarantee LRD into the future–we must always fight to keep the system from collapsing, but until a fundamental change in the nature of humans (transhumans, post humans, machine life) this is the best system possible as a political system.

  12. Jonah’s book about Liberals and fascism is about as reality-based and funny as a book entitled, ‘Hitler’s Humor – Updated to Include The Fuhrer’s Favorite Jewish Jokes!” I wouldn’t know. Even if I could steal his book I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t read it if it was the only thing to read on a desert island.
    If Jonah is the best you can offer for intellectual discourse, then maybe we can bring out Soupy Sales to discuss foriegn affairs; but only if Bozo in on another international mission.
    Jesus, how dumb are these people? Don’t answer that….

  13. “I haven’t encountered a single ‘intellectual’ conservative outside of William F. Buckley.”

    There were some, but they’re similarly dead now. Russell Kirk, for example.

    Having read Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind not long after it came out, although this is merely an opinion of mine, and not a fresh one, my conclusion at the time was that it was a case of an intelligent old man being extremely, highly, cranky, and wrongheaded. And that the book got much much worse in its argumentation as one proceeded further into it.

    As I, admittedly somewhat vaguely at this point, recall, he started out on the point that the “Great Books” had a great deal of value; I’m fine with that. But it went downhill from there into rants about the mindlessness of Sixties leftist though –where he still had some point up to a point — into claims that liberal philosophy inevitably led to such a crisis of philosophy and failure, and got worse from there. Not long thereafter he was ranting about the sex lives of students, the evils of rock music, and generally sounding like Al Capp in his late years. Bloom wanted all the kids and leftists off his lawn.

    On a point of fact, Bloom disclaimed being a conservative:

    […] Although Bloom was characterised as a conservative in the popular media, Bloom explicitly stated that this was a misunderstanding, and made it clear that he was not to be affliated with any conservative movements:

    “ “I am not a conservative – neo or paleo. Conservatism is a respectable outlook… I just do not happen to be that animal… I differ from both theoretical and practical conservative positions.”[2]

    I’m perfectly willing, however, to concede that Steven Hayward knows quite a bit about being brain-dead.

  14. Conservatism is naturally reactionary and fear-based, neither condition being conducive to higher thinking.

    It may be but they are having a great deal of success at instilling fear in others…at keeping them arguing over crumbs while they themselves commit grand larceny.

  15. Glenn Beck fits the description of an intellectual conservative to me. He might look and act like a complete moron but, within his thick skull I’m sure there are some very profound and complex thoughts… After all, who else was intelligent enough to decipher a communist plot infiltrated through artwork at Rockefeller plaza and the NBC building. Sure it’s not exactly Rosetta stone complexity…..Yet nobody was intelligent enough to pick up on it —except Beck.

    As far as I’m concerned, Glenn Beck is an intellectual dynamo of conservative though.

  16. I’m afraid it’s true that with an attention span of 3 minutes, we’re a nation of soft-boiled eggs. (I’ll give conservative intellectuals attention spans of 6 minutes so some of us are actually hard-boiled eggs.) Which brings me to the popularity of Palin.

    Hayward entirely missed the draw of Palin. But Adam Brikley, one of Palin’s early and avid supporters got it right when he attributed Palin’s meteoric rise in Republican circles to “the hand of God playing a role in choosing her” and concluded his observation with the profound remark that “something else was at work.”

    (If I remember correctly the last person ‘chosen by God’ to run America didn’t work out too well.)

Comments are closed.