The Decline of Conservative Intellectualism

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Steven Hayward had a good op-ed in the Washington Post, Is Conservatism Brain-Dead? This is certainly not the only article to address this issue and I could probably find many who would say that it has always been brain dead. Partisanship aside, I have been troubled by what is happening within the Conservative movement. It has been harder for me to defend it and I wondered if it was because my beliefs were shifting or was their something else at work. While my beliefs have changed, sometimes radically, I still think that there are many good conservative positions on a variety of issues.

So, what is wrong? According to Hayward, the balance between populism and intellectualism amond conservatives is skewed towards populism:

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.


I agree that this isn't a good thing. I am not a complete snob and enjoy some level of populism, but the voices from the Right are overwhlemingly populist.

Yet it was not enough just to expose liberalism's weakness; it was also necessary to offer robust alternatives for both foreign and domestic policy, ideas that came to fruition in the Reagan years. Today, it is not clear that conservative thinkers have compelling alternatives to Obama's economic or foreign policy. At best, the right is badly divided over how to fix the economy and handle Iran and Afghanistan. So for the time being, the populists alone have the spotlight.


This can be seen in the health care debate, too. It is not enough to just sit there and yell about Big Government. You need to offer some constructive alternatives. I am certainly not going to argue that Conservative priciples are the ones we should follow (I don't even agree with all of them), but I would argue that a vigorous debate, that is characterized with reason and logic, is something that benefits us all. We are not getting enough of that from the Right.

As a kind of post script, I don't want to give the impression that the Left hasn't made the same mistake in the past, but they are far more balanced right now.

6 comments:

Smitty 3:24 PM  

At some point, book-learnin became bad for conservatives. There was a point, recently, within not only a Gen-Xers lifetime, but within recent memory, where "common sense" became the mantra of conservatism. This common sense rallying cry morphed itself into this gut-instinct thing, which includes a mistrust of people in suits with educations.

College education and think-tank smarts became something that conservative politicians decried as elitist, inherently liberal, and overly-complicated. Issues weren't nuanced; that's what liberals want you to believe. No, the world is black and white and simple. Years of liberal-thought policies led us to overspending and a moral collapse. The only way out is church-related (Christian) moralism, tax cuts for business and rich people (who stimulate the economy because they *are* the economy) and policies that the common man can understand.

Personally, I think it started with Newt Gingrich's Contract For America. Which is even more sad because while evil, Newt is smart as hell and wildly educated. But he's politically astute.

As for populism, I don't think you have to be stupid to be populist (I am not saying, steve, that that's what you said, I'm just saying it). But you do have to appeal to the latter part of my paragraph above: your policy and politics has to appeal to everyman. I know everyman. He's a dumb fuck who's more concerned about you not taxing his fuckign satellite tv service than he is about international policy or economics. Just dont appear to be fucking up the other stuff, and don't tax his tv, and he'll vote for you just fine. So, populism isn't so much stupid as it is very intellectually lazy. Call me elitist. Whatever.

And that brings me to my point: intellectual laziness. Why spend all this time and energy on real political conservative thought, when you can spend it on bloviating, talk show hosts...and winning elections. Who gives a shit about Buckley's wankery any more! That doesn't win elections! I think the decline has as much to do with political expediency from the political machine as it has to do with incuriosity from Everyman. See what I mean?

I think liberals have a hand in conservatisms downfall. I don't say this to appear balanced. I don't give a rip about balance. My point is wackos. Liberal wackos have been around a long time and are plenty vocal, but everyone is used to their wackiness. They've been wacky since the 60s. DFHs. Wingnuts, in their new, vocal form, are new and exciting. And even fucking crazier. They are, in fact, all that's left of the "conservative" party in DC. See, the liberal DFHs in Congress are now balanced by the moderate reflection of what most Americans really are: slightly left-leaning fiscal conservatives with a heavy dose of social liberalism.

But the crazy party minority makes a lot of noise. And since they're new and exciting, they get lots of press coverage. And the average American, reflected in Congress, shrugs and says "well that's stupid." And they leave it at that. Nobody cries out against their intellectual dishonesty in the MSM. Maybe it's not the MSM's job to do so (I think it is...), but somebody has to.

When the intellectually lazy meets the crazy, and there is no force to say, loudly, THAT'S STUPID, then all that's bred and encouraged is laziness. Thus...in a milloin words, how liberals' general lack of enthusiasm to respond to idiocy plays a direct role in the decline of conservative intellectualism.

Bob 4:30 PM  

"Liberal wackos have been around a long time and are plenty vocal, but everyone is used to their wackiness. They've been wacky since the 60s."

While it has not always been true, at least today most liberal wackos are harmless in the non-violent sense. They (we?) are a bunch of tree-hugging freaks.

"...what most Americans really are: slightly left-leaning fiscal conservatives with a heavy dose of social liberalism."

If by fiscal conservative, you really mean, fiscally responsible, then I agree and fit the description. Fiscal conservatism means debt and spend.

"Thus...in a million words, how liberals' general lack of enthusiasm to respond to idiocy..."

Lack of entusiasm = lack of spine. This is why liberals loved Howard Dean.

steves 4:53 PM  

You are right, populism doesn't necessarily have to be stupid and I don't think liberals are 100% intellectual. If they weren't able to generate some level of populism, they wouldn't win elections. I think Jon Stewart is somewhat of a populist, and I don't mean this as an insult. He is kind of a Will Rogers for our time.

I still think the biggest problem is a lack of balance. I know there are smart conservatives out there, but they just need to speak up more.

Smitty 7:24 PM  

I know there are smart conservatives out there, but they just need to speak up more.

The ones that have recently, steve, have been smacked-down by the crazy element. Smart ones tried to stand up and say things like Limbaugh doesn't matter that much, and they got their asses kicked. Lesson learned: conservatives are not interested in a variance of opinion or in discussion. So no, they won't speak up more.

Smitty 7:26 PM  

I think Jon Stewart is somewhat of a populist

that he may be, in terms of messaging. But he is clearly not anti-intellectual.

steves 8:22 PM  

No, but the Daily Show (while funny) is hardly what you would call intellectual.

Lesson learned: conservatives are not interested in a variance of opinion or in discussion. So no, they won't speak up more.

At some point, this should change. This has happened in the past. I hope it happens soon. I don't think this country is served well by a one-party system and I don't see the current iteration of the GOP regaining power anytime soon. I keep hearing calls for a Palin/Jindal ticket. (Insert your deity of choice) help us.

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