Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Birthers, Blogging, GOP Reform, Government, Politics, conservative reform — Rick Moran @ 10:54 am

I could have just as easily titled this piece “Ideologues vs. The Realists” or some other descriptive caption for what boils down to a debate now fully underway among conservatives about the best way back to power.

Are the ideologues in the movement correct? Is a lack of “passion” regarding opposition to the left, as well as a less than 100%, strict adherence to their idea of conservative “principles” responsible for the right’s slaughter at the polls in 2006 and 2008?

Or are the pragmatists correct that the demand for “purity” by the ideologues coupled with the prominence of a conspiracy mongering, angry, paranoid base has connected conservatism to an unsavory, and unelectable politics?

At stake, a battle for the soul of conservatism in America and perhaps even the preservation of republican virtues given the left’s ascendancy and their first real opportunity in 40 years to “remake” America in ways that are an anathema to the tenets of modern conservative thought.

In the midst of this fight, a book by Sam Tanenhaus called The Death of Conservatism has been published which has already added fuel to the fire. Tanenhaus’s thesis is that movement conservatism has undermined the Burkean roots of conservative philosophy and that rather than trying to preserve and “conserve” institutions, movement-cons, who he terms “revanchists,” seek to destroy that which has been carefully built up over centuries.

The book is based on a shorter essay Tanenhaus published in The New Republic (no longer available) that I wrote about in depth here. I found that the essay reflected some of my own beliefs about where conservatism had gone off the rails, but was seriously flawed in its analysis of what Tanenhaus believed were “excesses” of the movement.

In reviewing the book, Garry Wills pointed to the classic tension between Burkeans and the movement personified by one of the most intellectually productive relationships in American history; the friendship and mutual admiration society that existed between Whittaker Chambers and William Buckley:

Tanenhaus is a deep student of modern conservatives. He wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers, a self-professed Beaconsfieldian (Disraeli was the Earl of Beaconsfield), and he has been working for some time on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. This short book is a kind of bridge between his two great projects, and it fits his revanchist–Burkean paradigm. Chambers and Buckley, though friends, began at opposite ends of the “conservative” spectrum. Buckley, who admired Chambers’s witness against communism, tried with all his lures and charms to recruit him as an editor of National Review when it began in 1955. But Chambers thought Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom the magazine championed, would doom Republicans. Besides, he was loyal to his ally in the Hiss case, Richard Nixon, and to Nixon’s meal ticket Dwight Eisenhower, while the magazine opposed them both as impure compromisers. (In 1956, only one National Review editor, James Burnham, endorsed Eisenhower for reelection.)

But Buckley finally wore Chambers down—in 1957, with great misgivings, Chambers joined the magazine. Murray Kempton wrote that Chambers finally went to work for a boss he could respect—which was not saying too much, since “Chambers’s former employers happened to be Colonel Bykov of the Soviet Secret Police, the late Henry Luce, and John F.X. McGohey, ‘then United States Attorney’ for the Southern District of New York.”[2] Chambers soon had to withdraw from the magazine for health reasons, but he and Buckley stayed in constant communication, Chambers advising, Buckley deferential. Tanenhaus makes the case that Chambers finally converted Buckley from a revanchist to a Burkean. Kempton, who studied both men closely, doubts that Chambers’s advice ever really took: “Buckley worshiped and did not listen: the Chambers of his vision is a saint whose icon stands in a Church where his message is never read.”

So close, yet so far apart. What we should take away from that extraordinary exchange of ideas between two brilliant men is that it was done amicably, with great respect for each other, and the debate was carried out with the recognition that both were working toward a common goal.

I don’t see that being possible today. With the absolute refusal of the ideologues to abandon their purge of who they consider less than ideologically pure conservatives, and with the pragmatists fighting what amounts to a rear guard action to marginalize the crazies who are, if not embraced then certainly tolerated by the revanchists, there is no “common purpose” that could lead to any amicability or respect.

Indeed, the revanchists look with askance upon most attempts to criticize conservatism at all, believing that “intellectual elites” are simply playing into the hands of the enemy by taking fellow conservatives to task for their idiocy, or paranoia. Relatedly, any criticism of conservatism coming from the left is automatically dismissed - usually without even reading it - because that would be allowing your enemy to define you.

As for the former, the idea that honest criticism is rejected outright because we’re at war with the left reveals a sneering anti-intellectualism among the revanchists that flies in the face of conservatism’s most cherished and important virtue; a duty to the truth above and beyond loyalty to ideology.

And while I sympathize and agree to a certain extent about not allowing your political foe to totally define your philosophy, that shouldn’t preclude anyone from exposing themselves to ideas with which you may disagree or close one’s mind to looking at the world from a different angle.

Tanehaus is a man of the left (former editor of the Times Book Review section) but he has also immersed himself in the history and personalities of modern conservatism more than most. He is a sincere critic of the right, a thoughtful man who wants to engage in serious discussions about the issues he raises. And while there is precious little empiricism on which you can hang your hat in his writings, some of his analysis will ring true with students of history who have given some thought to what ails the right today.

When Tanenhaus points to the very un-Burkean beliefs of many movement-cons, he is questioning how these revanchists can square their conservatism with the more traditional school of thought represented by Buckley, Hayek, Kirk, Arnold, and others who believed that preserving society’s institutions was the right’s highest calling. A reverence for our past has morphed into a psuedo-reformist mantra that seeks to destroy rather than build upon, tear down instead of conserve. Hence, liberals should not be defeated, they must be annihilated, along with the Great Society, the New Deal, and other “socialist” ideas. Supporting anything less calls into question one’s “true conservative” credentials.

The recent efforts by Jon Henke and Patrick Ruffini to counter these destructive beliefs are instructive. Henke’s call for advertisers and the Republican party to boycott World Net Daily for their enthusiastic coverage and endorsement of the Birther nonsense (among other idiocies) and Ruffini’s defense of Jon, along with a general criticism of the revanchists that is both trenchant and on point:

As a fiscal and social conservative, I happen to think Jon is completely in the right here, both substantively and strategically. Don’t raise the canard that we ought to be attacking Democrats first. Conservatives are entirely within their rights to have public debates over who will publicly represent them, and who will be allowed to affiliate with the conservative movement.

The Birthers are the latest in a long line of paranoid conspiracy believers of the left and right who happen to attach themselves to notions that simply are not true. Descended from the 9/11 Truthers, the LaRouchies, the North American Union buffs, and way back when, the John Birch Society, the Birthers are hardly a new breed in American politics.

Each and every time they have appeared, mainstream conservatives from William F. Buckley to Ronald Reagan have risen to reject these influences — and I expect that will be the case once again here.

But there is another subtext that makes Jon’s appeal more urgent. As a pretty down-the-line conservative, I don’t believe I am alone in noting with disappointment the trivialization, excessive sloganeering, and pettiness that has overtaken the movement of late. In “The Joe the Plumberization of the GOP,” I argued that conservatives have grown too comfortable with wearing scorn as a badge of honor, content to play sarcastic second fiddle to the dominant culture of academia and Hollywood with second-rate knock-off institutions. A side effect of this has been a tendency to accept conspiracy nuts as a slightly cranky edge case within the broad continuum of conservatism, rather than as a threat to the movement itself.

In addition to “the trivialization, excessive sloganeering, and pettiness” exhibited by those in the movement, one might add the curious and debilitating attitude of equating thoughtfulness with “elitism.”

Stacy McCain, who can be brilliant when the mood strikes him, wrote this about Henke’s and Ruffini’s efforts at marginalizing the crazies:

Grassroots conservative activists are, by their very nature, not engaged in the political process as a career. They tend to be older, well-established in non-political occupations and less concerned about the Big Picture questions than in finding immediate, practical ways to oppose the menace of liberalism. The question one hears from the grassroots is not, “Whither conservatism?” but rather, “What can I do?”

The Tea Party movement — which will host a major rally in Washington next weekend — has given the grassroots something to do, so that joining en masse to voice their opposition to the Obama agenda, they are actively engaged in the political process.

However, grassroots activism has consequences. One of the consequences of a ressurgent conservative grassroots is that their concerns, beliefs and attitudes are sometimes not in sync with the concerns, beliefs and attitudes of smart young Republican activists like Patrick Ruffini.

Stacy, who later goes on to say that the Birthers “are diverting attention from more valid critiques of the Obama administration and its liberal policies. So they should be discouraged or ignored…” fails to see the Birthers as a symptom of a larger problem; movement-cons rejecting criticism - even of Birthers - as “elitist” and ascribing dissent from their closed, ideological worldview as the critic having insufficient attachment to conservative principles.

McCain doesn’t engage on quite that level but doesn’t mince words when it comes to taking down those he believes have “elitist” attitudes toward the movement (”rubes”). And while he makes some valid points about “careerism” and its deleterious impact on what passes for “acceptable discourse,” methinks he paints with too broad a brush at times. The Ruffini-Henke critique is hardly born out of a desire to advance or augment those two gentlemen’s standing with other conservatives or the Republican party but rather - and I think this fairly obvious - the practical, and pragmatic calculation that we can’t get there from here. Changes are in order so that the public face of conservatism has a smile, rather than a snarl, and promoting the idea that one can vigorously oppose Obama without descending into the fever swamps of conspiracy and hate.

The road back to political power and intellectual relevance for the right will not be found in the rantings of Birthers, the false accusations of apostasy directed against conservative critics, a dogmatic and ideological approach to defining principles, nor an unrealistic and unattainable political agenda.

Nor should we count on the self destruction of the opposition which, at this point, seems well underway. What we do when we achieve power is as important as how we get there. For that, Jon Henke, Patrick Ruffinini, and others like them should be heard out and their call for a return to reason heeded.


  1. It is quite instructive to just look at all the love Ruffinini got at HotAir. So the basic story line is as follows: there is the evil left and the RINO traitors (all elitist, of course) and here are the true conservatives, fighting in the trenches, defending freedom, Rush and Sarah, real men and women (not sissys like all those East Coast country club conservatives) who don’t need any of this intellectual babbling to know what is right from wrong. I’d call that attitude pretty arrogant and elitist!

    However, surprisingly I’m pretty optimistic that sound minds will prevail because ultimately most of this is really nothing more than Hot Air. It will just play itself out. What are they going to do? Drive Olympia Snowe from her Senate seat to be replaced by….? Not a lot of clear thinking here.

    Comment by funny man — 9/6/2009 @ 3:50 pm

  2. the original article is now located at:


    Comment by John — 9/6/2009 @ 5:53 pm

  3. When differences arise, it’s easier to lecture than to listen and compromise. If conservatives hope to influence the direction of government, they must somehow reconcile differences and present a positive agenda to the public. My fear is that Republicans would rather focus on regaining control than go through the hard work of finding essential principles worth fighting for. Right now, the two political parties act like the “Spy versus Spy” cartoons in Mad Magazine. They’re so preoccupied destroying each other they’ve lost sight of their political mission, which isn’t to govern but to govern well. The purist and pragmatist factions within the GOP may be headed down the same road.

    I would love to see more civil discussion and debate within the GOP about the great issues such as health care, immigration, social security, and defense. One reason I value this blog is that I learn things from people who think differently than me. The GOP needs a balance between principle and Realpolitik. It will die if it does not recover that balance. And it has to start with RESPECT for each other.

    Comment by Doug King — 9/6/2009 @ 6:04 pm

  4. John Said:
    5:53 pm

    the original article is now located at:


    How did this happen? One reason is that the most intellectually sophisticated founders of postwar conservatism were in many instances ex-Marxists, who moved from left to right but remained persuaded that they were living in revolutionary times and so retained their absolutist fervor. In place of the Marxist dialectic they formulated a Manichaean politics of good and evil, still with us today, and their strategy was to build a movement based on organizing cultural antagonisms. Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy–”statist” social programs; “socialized medicine”; “big labor”; “activist” Supreme Court justices, the “media elite”; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government.

    So basically a bunch of Marxists joined the right-wing conservative movement forty years ago, took it over and almost destroyed America from the inside?

    You’ve got to wonder if ex-Marxists like David Horowitz aren’t really still a part of the Brotherhood of Evil Muntants and that he, as Magneto is having a glass of wine every night saying to himself “suckers”.

    Comment by Richard bottoms — 9/6/2009 @ 6:10 pm

  5. Excellent work.

    The Pink Flamingo

    Comment by SJ Reidhead — 9/6/2009 @ 8:08 pm

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