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How Conservatism Lost Its Mind

Have intellectuals become extinct on the right?

Earlier this week the New Yorker’s John Cassidy asked, “Where are the real conservative intellectuals?” The short answer is that “conservative” once signified an intellectual tendency with partisan overtones, now it signifies a partisan tendency that would prefer not to have intellectual overtones — there are no votes in that.

The Democratic Party’s publicity apparatus isn’t producing intellectuals either, but liberalism has other institutional bases besides the Democrats, including the academy and a variety of somewhat independent magazines, so the left is not quite as monolithic as the right. The right only has institutional bases in the GOP and among the people whose dollars create and support think tanks, and neither a party nor a moneyed interest is going to be all that keen to promote thinking. Not beyond the minimal amount of thinking necessary to make rhetoric sound clever. Call me a cynic, but isn’t this an accurate, even complete, description of the GOP, Fox, National Review, and all the rest? Ideas are allowed at the edges but must never detract from the bottom line.

It’s telling that Newsweek turned to a British academic, not an American movement conservative, to produce its hackwork anti-Obama cover story. An American movement con might have got the facts right, but wouldn’t have any star power as an intellectual brand, since what makes a movement con a movement con is sticking always to lines of argument that support the team. A cover story by a highbrow movement conservative, if there is such a thing, would only amount to another conservative reciting the team’s line; nobody — left, right, center, nowhere — would treat the story’s conclusions as something arrived at by thinking for oneself. Niall Ferguson, by contrast, is his own demographic, so at least you know what he says is what he thinks (even if he has interested reasons for thinking what he does), whereas movement conservatives — perhaps that ought to be “professional conservatives” — say what they’re supposed to say and what everyone expects of them. Mild exceptions are allowed: the occasional op-ed about prison reform, for example. But that’s just frosting.

Conservatism always had its backers, but it wasn’t a career and wasn’t synonymous with the GOP until after the Reagan era. Recall just how messy the conservative world was before Reagan — when the populist New Right in the late ’70s, for example, was damning Bill Buckley as “Squire Willy” and tensions between class and ideology, expressed in tone as much as ideas, tore at the movement’s institutions. In the years after Reagan but before the solidification of the talk radio/Fox/anti-Clinton right,  there was much talk of a “conservative crack-up,” and the Pat Buchanan movement tried to carve out an identity that was conservative but not just part of the by-then-standard GOP formula: Buchanan is remembered as a populist, which he was, but as David Brooks observed in a 1996 Weekly Standard piece (“Buchananism: An Intellectual Cause”), his movement was also rife with Ph.D.s and exhibited undeniable signs of intellectual vitality — a world removed from Sarah Palin and the Randian cliches of the Tea Party.

Television and radio, though, had a homogenizing effect on the right, and the tension between class (with a high tone) and ideology (rabble rousing) worked itself out, with the millionaires learning how to sound angry and enjoy it, and the grassroots getting trained to accept anger as a substitute for policy results. The populist New Right and Buchananite right lost their manpower to Roger Ailes, while the elite right gave up the fight for realism and broadmindedness.

Cassidy is wrong to say of movement conservatism, “The tensions between its social and economic wings robbed it of any internal cohesion.” The wings of the GOP coalition over the last half-century have not primarily been separated by “issues” social or economic; they were separated by class markers and style. The ideological differences were secondary to those. But now there’s a politically and economically successful, if brain dead, fusion of the classes. The rich sound like the poor, and the poor angrily demand policies that favor the rich. The only problem for the GOP is that external conditions — the real-world economy and the distaste younger people have for the Baby Boomers’ version of the Republican Party (and their version of Christianity) — are eventually going to overpower this mercenary fusionism.