No less than 5 recent articles (and a spirited debate between two very smart conservatives in David Frum and David Horowitz) have taken on the question regarding the demise of intellectual conservatism and the rise of movement or “populist” conservatives.
The intellectuals go under several names, depending on which side of the divide you sit. They are “reformers,” or RINO’s, or “Elders,” or “squishes.” And to varying degrees, they have either died off, disappeared, or been marginalized by the populists.
With such a huge divide between the two camps in even trying to define conservatism, much less agree on what the public face of conservatism should look like, it is apparent that there will not be a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nor will the two sides be pooling their intellectual capital to fight the liberals on the battlefield of ideas where it would do the most good, rather than in the arena of soundbites and bitter, exaggerated denunciations that only makes the right look like angry kooks or worse.
I will examine each of these articles and critique them, beginning from the premise that the intellectual right is not dead, but made quiescent by the surge of the populists and their ability to dominate the discussion through the sheer brutality of their critiques which drown out the far more reasonable, and reality based analyses of - what should they be called? I guess “reformists” is as good as any moniker although it doesn’t exactly speak to the critique of movement conservatives whose whole idea of reform seems to be kicking the reformists in the teeth.
Let’s start today with an excellent defense of Glenn Beck and the populists tactics by David Horowitz, who took part in an informal “Symposium” at FrontPage.com:
There are two issues here. One is a remarkable conservative outburst against the broadcaster Glenn Beck which includes you, Mark Levin and Pete Wehner among others, and which collectively wishes for his early self-destruction. The message from the three of you is that for the good of the conservative cause he should be silent — and the sooner the better. Wehner expresses the judgment I detect in all three of your blasts in this sentence: “The role Glenn Beck is playing is harmful in its totality.”
More than anything else, it is this is that I am reacting to. I think this attitude is wrongheaded, absurd, destructive to the conservative cause and a blatant contradiction of the “big tent” philosophy which you otherwise support.
Glenn Beck is daily providing a school for millions of Americans in the nature and agendas and networks of the left – something that your fine books do not do, and Mark Levin’s fine books do not do, and Pete Wehner’s volumes of blogs and speeches and position papers – all admirable in my estimation, also do not do. How are conservatives going to meet the challenge of the left if they don’t understand what it is, how it operates and what it intends? And who else is giving courses in this subject at the moment?
Now I have to confess my own vested interest in this. Because the fact is that I have been attempting to do this from a much smaller platform than Beck’s for many years. Five years ago I put an encyclopedia of the left on the web called Discover the Networks. It details the chief groups, individuals and funders of the left and maps their agendas and networks. Since I put it up five years ago, 20 million people have visited the site, many of whom have written articles and even books from its information. So far as I can tell, this site has never been mentioned by you or Wehner or Mark Levin or National Review or the Weekly Standard or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. But it has been read by and profoundly influenced the producers and anchors at Fox News. Among these no one has used it so systematically and relentlessly and to such great effect as Glenn Beck.
Horowitz gives David Frum what has become the standard attack on moderates and intellectual conservatives:
It seems to me you are suffering from a kind of political Stockholm syndrome. You inhabit a mental universe shaped by media like Newsweek and the New York Review of Books, in which you are a hostage of the Left. As a result you’ve absorbed some of their attitudes, and look at Palin and other non-U conservatives through their eyes, instead of your own.
Spoken like a true believer. Of this argument, I will say this; Hogwash!
Horowitz presupposes that all news media is biased and that only he and his band of intellectual dilettantes can see it. That notion, by itself, is ignorant. It rejects the idea of professionalism of any kind in the media, while insulting the intelligence of the American people who, sheeplike, are led to feed at the liberal trough without a clue that they are being “indoctrinated.”
I prefer to take my biases one reporter/writer at a time, thank you. There are good, solid, objective (as possible) correspondents and then there are biased ones - both liberal and conservative. To lump them all into a liberal universe is ridiculous - as is the notion the only good source of news is Fox or some other conservative outlet. It seems to me that people who accuse me of being held “hostage” by a liberal media are themselves in thrall to a one note, equally biased media where they get most of their information from Fox News and ranting talk show hosts.
Come back and see me when you are able to discuss an issue from all angles, thus proving to me that you have taken the time to truly understand the subtleties and nuances - the clash of interests and ideology. It is my belief that unless you can argue both sides of an issue effectively, you don’t know it and should keep reading. Those who see only black and white, good or evil, suffer from one dimensional thinking - a disease far too prevalent among Horowitz and those he is defending.
I am not an intellectual - obviously. But I think it important to rigorously examine both your own biases and predilections as well as your opponents before coming to any conclusions. Any other approach is shallow sophistry, knee jerk emotionalism which has become the hallmark of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, and Sean Hannity’s of the right.
David Frum says something important about this that Horowitz doesn’t address:
It is true that I have criticized some famous conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and now Glenn Beck, just as I have previously criticized right-wing opponents of the war on terror like Pat Buchanan and Lew Rockwell. But my “crusade” as David Horowitz calls is not a crusade to criticize. It is a crusade to repair and modernize a very troubled conservative movement.
I agree with David’s implied point that a thriving conservative movement needs a variety of talents: politicians and academics, thinkers and activists, intellectuals and popularizers.
Both have their appropriate roles. But it seems to me that latterly the conservative intellectuals have not properly fulfilled theirs.
And the result is that the conservative intellectual movement has become subservient to the political entertainment complex – with seriously negative consequences for conservative political success. It’s very sobering to compare how much conservatives got done in the 12 years before the creation of Fox News in 1996 with how little they have achieved in the 13 years since. And the problem has only intensified since the election of 2008, with the conservative entertainment complex helping to trap conservatives in a cycle of shrillness, rage, and paranoia that radically off-putting to the centrist voters who will choose the next president and Congress.
We are still a center-right country - but with the emphasis on “center.” People may be of a mind to reject Obamacare but are in no mood to embrace the extremely ideological conservatism that posits the left as minions of Satan and that anything Obama does is not only wrong, but inimical to freedom. It justifies opposing him and the left using the most outrageously exaggerated rhetoric that, if you really believe it, marks you as a paranoid, or more often, uninformed and illogical.
It’s not just a question of “manners,” although keeping debate within the boundaries of respect for others is necessary in a democracy. It is a question of detaching rank emotionalism from reason; it’s rejecting argument by demonization and substituting logic; it’s not employing paranoid exaggeration when realistic descriptions of what the president and the left are trying to do is easily done.
In each case, the former marks one as an unthinking, shrill, unbalanced ideologue who think Americans must be frightened into agreeing with them; the latter, someone who believes that Americans are persuadable without the histrionics employed by cotton candy conservatives on talk radio and elsewhere.
One face of conservatism is off putting to the majority; the other, indicative of a movement that takes itself seriously and doesn’t listen to clowns, and deliberate provocateurs who care more about ratings and ad money than whether conservative ideas triumph. If Rush Limbaugh actually believes that his hysterical view of liberals and Obama (as well as his shallow understanding of conservatism) contributes to conservatism’s popularity and the perception that our ideas should win out over those of the left, he is only kidding himself.
His audience, while huge by radio standards, is still relatively small compared to the number of voters at large. And considering his unpopularity outside of the right, he can’t possibly believe that his rants do anything except resonate with an audience that already agrees with him. The same holds true for the other pop conservatives who, while fulfilling a vital role of “popularizing” conservatism, nevertheless end up being a net minus for the right because of their antics and extraordinarily skewed version of reality.
I am not interested in purging the popularizers. I am interested in reducing their influence - as I am interested in reducing the influence on policy in the GOP by the religious right - and the perception that their methods and views reflect a majority of those of us on the right.
If so, it will be a long road to hoe for reformists who will continue to wander in the wilderness created by the scorched earth conservatives whose excessive ideology poisons the well of ideas from which so little has been drawn in recent years.