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Why Today’s Conservatives Are Useless Debaters

They don't have the grit nor guts to make coherent arguments.

In a recent commentary in The American Conservative, editorial assistant Maria Biery made it clear who won the annual CATO (libertarian) vs. Heritage (conservative) interns   debate earlier this month:

Conservatives should take notes from the libertarians at this debate. Their speeches were filled with hard, fact-based evidence, and they drove their core points home repeatedly. The conservatives were taking a roundabout approach to get to the central thesis of their arguments, and the fleeting references to philosophers that most young people have not read did not help. If conservatives in the future figure out how to better channel their audience they will be much more persuasive.

I’ve no doubt that Maria, a summer intern and senior at the University of Pennsylvania, has offered an accurate description of her experience. Although I wasn’t at the event, I’ve attended so many like them featuring representatives of different groups from the establishment Right that I can easily imagine what Maria was seeing. The conservatives were clearly less prepared for a high-stakes debate. Approved “conservatives,” or approved interns, whom Washington-foundations and publications send to such affairs, are usually not the best minds produced by the American Right. The “conservative movement,” as I’ve documented repeatedly, has been driving out heretics, many of whom have been rhetorically gifted deviationists, since the 1980s and in some cases since the 1950s.

“Conservative” enterprises or “Conservative Inc.,” now peddle in narrowly-focused policy-wonks and (oh, lest I forget) cultural conservatives. Their audiences are usually people in their late sixties or early seventies, judging by the average age of Fox-news viewers; and these true believers are not impressed by mental acuity as much as they are by thematic predictability in their favorite news commentator or conservative celebrity. A younger generation of conservative celebrities repeating the same soporific talking points hardly bodes well for Conservatism, Inc.

Cultural conservatives of my acquaintance have rarely made it up the greasy ladder of media fame but usually labor to sound profound. These are the intellectuals who appeal to “permanent things” and “value conservatism” without taking a controversial stand on something that could come back to bite them. They are neither fish nor fowl in the Weberian sense. It was the great German sociologist Max Weber who sharply distinguished in two related tracts between “Politics as a Calling” and “Science as a Calling.”  According to Weber, educated people have to decide whether they are making statements as scholars, or whether they’re doing so as political advocates. One cannot do both, according to Weber, without losing one’s intellectual integrity and sacrificing one’s scholarly reputation. Although Weber lived in a time when academics were not as frenetically politicized as they are now, his distinction still has instructional value.

Of course cultural conservatives never have to address the Weberian choice, since they are usually neither noteworthy scholars nor daring political advocates. They make careers in a region that intersects quite superficially the two areas of activity discussed by Weber.  For example, if one were to ask the people I have in mind in a public debate whether gay marriage is a good idea (to pick an extremely loaded example!), they might pull out a passage vaguely in support of that position from an ancient classic. These reluctant debaters might also quote from the King James Bible and indicate there is biblical disapproval for the practice under discussion but then also suggest that they’re happy to live in an age that is so tolerant of gay lifestyles. A cultural conservative might then segue into an anecdote about Russell Kirk or Flannery O’Connor meeting someone with an unconventional lifestyle and expressing friendly feelings toward him. Cultural conservatives engage in such bizarre practices because they are terrified of conflict. If you want someone on the Right to debate with social leftists, then please don’t call on such discussants.

Those on the Right who can debate effectively, however, are often on the outs with the conservative movement. Try John Derbyshire or Steve Sailer if you need someone to debate CATO about the cultural effects of immigration or about any other forbidden topic. What about asking Tom Woods to debate any representative of Conservatism, Inc. about the vast discretionary power that has been given to judges and public administrators because of civil rights legislation? And let’s ask Phil Giraldi or Scott McConnell to take on someone who insists that Israel is America’s most indispensable ally. Good debaters on the Right are not hard to find. But the “Washington policy community” may not want to push forward such controversialists.

A serious debater avails himself of all evidence at his disposal. If evidence can be found that a gay lifestyles correlates with certain pathologies, then an able and honest debater won’t hold back in pointing this out. If it’s clear that the enforcement of gay rights has extended government control over speech and social interaction, then the debater will bring this up.

On another subject: What Aristotle or some other long-dead thinker said about a particular subject (if he did offer an opinion about it) may be corroborative but hardly proves one’s case about contemporary social issues. Not that I’m disparaging Aristotle, whom I revere as a great philosopher. But invoking him or some other ancient worthy won’t clinch an argument for Maria and others of her generation, who don’t automatically defer to great names out of the past.  They’re persuaded far more often by facts than name-dropping.

Another practice among inept conservative debaters who don’t do well outside of Republican nursing homes is belaboring the observation that Democrats back then in the distant past were slave-owners, eugenicists or admirers of Benito Mussolini. Anyone but a total cultural illiterate or a GOP fanatic would recognize the fact that American national parties have changed over time, and that the present Democratic Party bears no significant resemblance to the party of Jefferson and Jackson. It’s one thing to counter the charge made by black Democrats that Republicans opposed the civil rights movement by showing that GOP Congressmen voted for civil rights laws in even larger number than Democrats. It’s another, less defensible thing to drag out J.C. Calhoun, or a caricature of this Southern statesman, and ascribe his views on slavery to the modern Democratic Party.

Even more fatuous is the attempt to link Democratic presidents to interwar fascist leaders because they all favored social security. Needless to say, Republicans who make this spurious argument are not about to repeal FDR’s measure—or the even more extensive federal intrusions into our lives since FDR’s presidency. Republican news sites have gone viral trying to score points against the Democrats by underlining the fact that Margaret H. Sanger, who was a eugenicist as well as a birth control advocate, was a founder of Planned Parenthood. What these partisans don’t mention is that a quintessentially Republican family, the Bushes, were longtime generous supporters of the same organization. And regarding another implausible GOP debating point, let me say for the millionth time: Contrary to what Republican commentators say nonstop every January, Martin Luther King never opposed affirmative action. The slain civil rights leader spoke vigorously in defense of that policy.

Perhaps conservative movement publicists should stop these old tired games and start giving their side an edge they can work with, with people who can mount a coherent argument, and know how to win. Until then they can’t expect to  best anyone, even interns, in any debates, anytime soon.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.