So I take it that Robert Stacy McCain is unhappy about something. Offhand, as a sometimes “splenetic conservative” myself, I would suggest that perpetuating internecine feuds along class, educational and generational lines is not going to accomplish anything. It seems to me that when conservatives are already largely outnumbered among Millennials and post-graduate degree-holders and are becoming more so among college-educated people, and when the GOP is steadily losing the upper-middle class in general, lecturing, or rather berating, “arrogant” young educated professionals is a good way to drive away members of the rising generations even more quickly. This claim seems particularly hard to credit:
Nothing has corrupted the conservative movement more than this tendency to grab super-bright 20-somethings right out of elite universities and elevate them to positions in the commentariat before they’ve passed any markers of adulthood other than graduating school.
Really? Was this more corrupting than reflexive obeisance to whatever ill-considered Republican policy was being pushed by the leadership or administration at the time? More corrupting than the decision of many middle-aged pols and party strategists that the only hope for the future was to push for immigration liberalization? More corrupting than the near-universal embrace of an unnecessary war by movement leaders? More corrupting than the numerous apologies written on behalf of the administration’s torture regime? More corrupting than endorsing every executive power grab and new surveillance powers? I could go on, but I think you get the point. I suppose there could be some problem in promoting young graduates too quickly, but had the movement not been doing this I’m pretty sure it would have suffered from much of the same corruption.
The signals in recent years have been quite clear: if you are privileged or capable enough to go to elite universities for your education and you are at all right-leaning in your views, you will have to apologize for your education or conceal it for the rest of your life to make yourself acceptable to many of your confreres on the right. Furthermore, should you hold any seemingly or genuinely heterodox views, these will be attributed to your toffy background, which will then be invoked as sufficient reason to ignore you entirely. At the same time, should you exhibit any behavior or preferences that mark you as “crunchy” or otherwise critical of the culture of acquisition and consumption, you will presumed guilty of one kind of deviationism or another, and obviously if you express opposition to needless wars, abuses of power and trampling on civil liberties you will be presumed to be a left-wing wolf in conservative sheep’s clothing. These have been the messages sent to the different kinds of dissident and heterodox conservatives over the last six or eight years, and they are not exactly deepening any loyalties.
Continuing in this fashion portends a future consumed by grievances and cultural cues in which both “defenders of elites” and their critics tell self-reinforcing congratulatory tales to themselves about their superior understanding of reality. The former will cheer their defense of high standards and wonkery, and the latter will celebrate their Middle American ordinariness and jeer at the poncy gits in the Northeast. I know this is where this will go because it is already happening. “Eat your own” is never exactly a winning strategy, but it is an absolutely crazy one when the reason for doing so seems to be based to a significant degree in lifestyle politics and cultural resentments. In place of one conservative cocoon, there will simply be two, and they will take pride in their lack of understanding of what goes on inside the other one.
It’s true that Sarah Palin on her own is not the problem, nor is she really at the heart of all this, but neither is she the solution. Her policy advisors could, I suppose, all be self-taught and homeschooled for their whole lives, but she would still need to be acquainted with the details of major policies sooner rather than later. Presumably, one would want her advisors to be among the best at what they do regardless of where they come from, and surely it is in that sense that Ross means elites in this post. Her nomination has become the occasion to express many simmering resentments on all sides, and this entire controversy echoes to some extent the responses provoked by Huckabee’s candidacy, and so she has been treated as the embodiment of whatever the critic or admirer thinks is wrong/right with conservatism. What all of this back-and-forth avoids is a real debate over policy priorities and what kind of policies conservatives should support. Ultimately, that reinforces the status quo and works to the detriment of populist conservatives, since it leaves the latter with the undesirable rhetorical framing that understanding policy is less important than life experience.
Update: McCain responds in another update to his original post, fixating on the remark about “crunchy” conservatism above. I did not have his criticism of Rod’s book in mind, which I had forgotten about until he mentioned it, but was using the criticism of “crunchy” cons as closet socialists/fascists/whatever as another example of the impulse to hurl abuse at other conservatives without much reason. McCain says:
Conservatism is a philosophy of government, not a matter of lifestyle preferences.
What McCain may be missing here is that much of the hostility to the “crunchy” con view was a rabid defense of individualism and an angry resentment at anyone trying to “interfere” with self-indulgent habits. The people who made an idol out of any and all lifestyle preferences as equally valid choices and viewed criticism of bad habits as unforgiveable meddling were the opponents of “crunchy” conservatism. Ironically, the so-called countercultural voices appealed to authority and tradition, while the defenders of the status quo were reduced to saying something like, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” “Crunchy” cons and their sympathizers made the mistake of attempting to apply ethical and moral standards in everyday life, which was regularly misunderstood as “politicizing” private life because the critics had an impoverished understanding of politics as only those things pertaining to the state and an almost equally impoverished understanding of culture as mostly those things pertaining to sexuality.
Conservatism includes within it a philosophy of government, but that is not all it is. It is surely also a vision of social and moral order, or to the extent that it is a political persuasion it includes within the definition of politics much more than questions of administration and legislation. We would agree that conservatism is not a matter of “lifestyle preferences”–which is why, among other things, conservatives should not be falling over themselves in adulation over Palin’s preference for hunting and the like–but it seems as if we will have to continue disagreeing on other things. Most important, we disagree whether a conservatism of place and virtue, which is what I understand traditional conservatism to be, can coexist with the culture of acquisition and consumption. Conservatism as I understand it calls for restraint and prudence, both of which are discouraged in such a culture, and it assumes the existence of a common good that necessarily involves certain limits on economic behavior, which will either be imposed from within by discipline and self-control or they will eventually be imposed from without. I would go so far as to say that economic liberty and moral restraint rise and fall together, and as the latter weakens public regulation of economic life is bound to become more severe.
Conservatism isn’t about buying organic groceries at Whole Foods or sitting around quoting Russell Kirk, it’s about constitutional government.
I would agree that conservatism is not defined by buying organic groceries at Whole Foods, but that would have a lot to do with the problems with what Pollan has called Big Organic, but I would reject the idea that what and how we eat has nothing to do with a vision of good order. I would say that without the cultural moorings of restraint and self-control that are reflected in our habits, constitutional government isn’t possible. As we have been seeing, the consequences of the culture of acquisition and consumption reveal tremendous dependency, both political and economic, and lead to terrible distortions of the constitutional system. If quoting Russell Kirk might revive some understanding of these basic truths, it could be a worthwhile thing for conservatives to be doing.