Right Wing Nut House



This is the third in a series of 5 articles on the state of intellectual conservatism. Part I can be found here. Part II.

Few speechwriters of the modern era can match the record of Peggy Noonan when it comes to memorable presidential addresses. Teddy Sorenson was of a different era but managed several significant, and remembered speeches for JFK, including Kennedy’s inaugural address which is often considered one of the best. Ray Price and Pat Buchanan added a combative style to presidential addresses (Price was especially good at sticking the knife in). James Fallows penned some good speeches for Carter that were delivered atrociously.

But Noonan was lucky enough to work with a president who was not only a dynamite speaker, but a wordsmith in his own right. Her best efforts with Reagan were collaborative, as Noonan would shoot the Gipper a draft, who would return it with numerous notations and changes. She had a great sense of Reagan’s speaking cadence which was evident in one of the best speeches of the 20th century; Reagan’s D-Day address to the “Boys of Point du Hoc.” Rarely has the moment so gloriously reflected the words uttered by an American president.

But Noonan the political analyst? Most conservatives have dismissed her columns on conservatism as elitist, and not all that conservative to begin with. She has said nice things about Obama. She has said bad things about movement heroes like Rush Limbaugh. She has criticized the inchoate rage of the extreme right.

In short, she has been reasonable, pragmatic, desirous of engaging the opposition, and doesn’t see the president with horns and a tail.

Heresy, that.

Yes, Peggy Noonan is an elitist. Yes, she has misread the pull/push relationship between populists and reformers, ascribing opposition to her brand of conservatism as a nascent anti-intellectualism. She is befuddled about why the base hates her so, considering the fact that she was working for the conservative cause while most of her detractors were still in books, or not even born. This makes her somewhat pathetic in my opinion. She hasn’t much of a clue about the real conversation that is going on right now and this is reflected in her writings.

She is clueless about engaging on the internet. Her website is a simple repository for her numerous articles. She famously devoted an entire column following one of her more clueless articles, bemoaning the loss of civility in internet comments. Why anyone would be surprised in this day and age about the viciousness of anonymous posters is indicative of a kind of quaint, child like innocence about the world that is both attractive and gobsmackingly dense.

But she is still a great writer. And she usually has something to say that is somewhat relevant, although it is usually a hit or miss proposition.

Here’s a definite “miss”
as she comments about the loss of William Safire:

Anyway, everyone there knew we’d suddenly lost one of the great ones, the Elders, and there is lately a sense of a changing of the guard.

Who are the Elders? They set the standards. They hand down the lore. They’re the oldest and wisest. By proceeding through the world each day with dignity and humanity, they show the young what it is that should be emulated. They’re the tribal chieftains. This role has probably existed since caveman days, because people need guidance and encouragement, they need to be heartened by examples of endurance. They need to be inspired.

We are in a generational shift in the media, and new Elders are rising. They’re running the networks and newspapers, they own the Web sites, they anchor the shows. What is their job?

It’s to do what the Elders have always done, but now more than ever.

You know the current media environment. You think I’m about to say, “Boy, what’s said on cable, radio and the Internet now is really harmful and dangerous.” And you’re right, and it is. Some of the ranters don’t have the faintest idea where the line is. “They keep moving the little sucker,” said the William Hurt character, the clueless and unstoppable anchorman, in “Broadcast News.” They’ve been moving the little sucker for 20 years. But it’s getting worse, and those who warn of danger are right.

This is nonsense, obviously coming from someone who is not only clueless about the “generational shift” in the media but its true significance as well. New “elders” aren’t being created. There are no more elders, or youngers, or tweeners. Such designations are irrelevant in a media landscape with literally thousands of outlets, and many thousands of writers who are just as qualified, just as smart, just as talented as Noonan herself or any other “elder” who ever lived, scratching out their opinions, paid and unpaid.

The “elders of which she writes came of age when the Saturday Evening Post was still a viable publication; when Life, Look, and Time Magazine sold tens of millions of copies; when there were perhaps a half dozen newspapers where “elders” sat on high and pontificated to the rest of us; and where there were only three gigantic TV networks.

This is not to say that excellent writing and thinking doesn’t rise to the top of the ziggurat and is recognized, or that there aren’t any writers with influence. But compared to Noonan’s “elders” the effect of today’s media stars is extremely limited. The fact that no one publication can attract millions of Americans to read what they put out is a direct cause of why print media is dying. Even syndicated columnists like Noonan, Will, Krauthammer, Samuelson, or Dowd can only reach a fraction of the readers of those who came before them.

But does Noonan have a point?

A few days ago, I was sent a link to a screed by MSNBC’s left-wing anchorman Ed Schultz, in which he explained opposition to the president’s health-care reform. “The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They’d rather make money off your dead corpse. They kind of like it when that woman has cancer and they don’t have anything for us.” Next, a link to the syndicated show of right-wing radio talker Alex Jones, on the subject of the U.S. military, whose security efforts at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh show them to be agents and lackeys of the New World Order. “They are complete enemies of America. . . . Our military’s been taken over. . . . This is the end of our country.” Later, “They’d love to kill 10,000 Americans,” and, “The republic is falling right now.”

This, increasingly, is the sound of our political conversation.

It is not new to call this kind of thing destructive, though it is. It is a daily agitating barrage that coarsens and inflames. It tears the national fabric. But it could wind up doing worse than that.

Of course she’s right. It is a fact that in order to stand out in this fractured, media multi-verse, the louder and angrier you are, the more you resonate on an emotional level with the audience.

Noonan believes this to be “dangerous.” I’m not sure of that at all. It may be sad. It may be pathetic that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck actually enjoy the respect and admiration of so many - those who think that because they “sound” like they are making sense or they “feel” that what they say is true is indicative of wisdom and logic. An entire subculture of conservatives have grown up believing that strawman arguments, hysterical exaggeration regarding one’s opponents, fear mongering, shallowness, and even hate is a substitute for reason, for thinking.

How can anyone possibly mistake this typical rant from Limbaugh for reasoned, rational, discourse?

The people that run our country now have a much closer proximity and they’re much closer to the world’s tyrants and dictators than they are closer to the people who founded the country. This is not accidental. They have chosen it. This is the ideology that they have chosen. This is what’s best for them. And you’re going to learn this if you stay focused and stay interested and keep learning as you grow older, you’re going to learn this. You’re gonna learn that they’re not innocent idiots. They are dangerous, devious central planners who have designs on everybody’s liberty and freedom. That’s what matters most to them because that’s where they derive their power.

I have to say it because Limbaugh either believes this, or knows his audience too well; he is saying all of this about our fellow Americans; that they are “closer to tyrants” than Thomas Jefferson; that they are “dangerous, devious central planners who have designs on everybody’s liberty and freedom” - as if their motives were to enslave us.

This kind of rant hits all the emotional buttons of Limbaugh’s listeners while eschewing logic and promoting fear. Nearly 20 million people listen to this crap every day and nod their heads in agreement, thinking how “true” this sounds” and how it feels like an intelligent analysis of liberalism.

Now, a visit to just about any liberal website will reveal similar things said about conservatives and conservatism. But the point made by many on the left - that Limbaugh is considered so mainstream and respected that even political leaders cower in fear of his influence with the base - is well taken. When some pissant lefty blog, or the equally invisible Olbermann/Maddow/Schultz trio at MSNBC (which is the nexus of lefty kookery) spout off about conservatives, you don’t find too many Democratic Congressman imitating them (although Alan Grayson sure tries hard, doesn’t he?).

But hey! Beck got Vann Jones fired and Rush arms his dittoheads with talking points that they can take into internet forums and chat rooms to do battle against evil. Surely there is some good that comes out of this, isn’t there?

There are those who have been telling me that conservatism needs these populizers to excite the troops and motivate them to achieve political victory. What kind of “victory” is it worth to lose your mind to gain a majority?

And that, dear readers is the bottom line. This is why it is imperative that intellectual conservatism - or at least a reasonable, hard headed, tough minded approach to political combat - is so far superior to the Limbaugh/Beck/Savage school of slash and burn, take no prisoners conservatism that dominates today.

Public intellectuals like Richard Posner, Yuval Levin, and other, younger thinkers like Conor Friedersdorf and Reihan Salam - whose critiques of liberalism are every bit as devastating as anything Limbaugh et al can conjure up - are whispering in a typhoon of irrationality and bombast. While it may be true as Richard Viguerie and Steven Allen point out in an Examiner op-ed today that conservative intellectuals (”elites” Viguerie calls them) in the past never really enjoyed much cache with movement conservatives, the fact is they were always there to add depth and legitimacy to the national political conversation.

Would that it were so today.


  1. Good points with one caveat…the Democrats do take orders and get talking points from the hate-filled screechings at Daily Kos and Huffington Post.

    Comment by Bruceinsocal — 10/7/2009 @ 12:26 pm

  2. I’d be interested in being directed to a “devastating” critique of liberalism made by the likes of Conor Friedersdorf. The lion’s share of Mr. Friedersdorf’s work appears to be overwritten, pedantic affirmation of his liberal colleagues’ (The Atlantic, The Daily Beast) talking points regarding movement conservatives. To the best of my knowledge, not once has he criticized Andrew Sullivan’s utterly deranged obsession with Sarah Palin’s gynecological history. It also seems to me that the self-selected “intellectual conservatives” seem to spend far more time attempting to read their movement brethren out of the GOP than forming a robust, coherent oppositional philosophy.

    Comment by Pat — 10/7/2009 @ 12:46 pm

  3. Peggy Noonan has lost her focus in recent years and is no longer even remotely the writer she once was, so I’ll dispute your take on her abilities. Thomas Sowell is more to my taste. The man is brilliant and kind at the same time. And then there is Joseph C. Phillips who is down to earth and very clear in his writing.

    As to the somewhat offhand dissing of Sarah Palin - the woman may have a way of confounding even her harshest critics! So far she’s been doing quite well at that! Don’t count her out and don’t believe the liberal meme that she isn’t very bright. I see sparks of genuine brilliance from time to time in that woman’s eyes.

    Comment by Gayle Miller — 10/7/2009 @ 2:17 pm

  4. Once again, the day I see a Limbaugh or Beck sitting with a former Republican president at a GOP convention, as Michael Moore did with Carter at the Democratic Convention, I will find merit in your argument. The day I hear leftists or liberals bemoaning a raving lunatic like Olbermann, I will find merit in your argument (not really the latter, because it will be done for some other motive such as the one below).

    Until then, I will just abscribe such nonsense to “Sullivanization” or “Frum Disease,” the need for a minor player to try to draw attention by attacking major pop culture/entertainment figures.

    What does how the left acts have anything to do with how the right acts? Are you saying because the left doesn’t call out its kooks and loons, it’s ok for irrational, bombastic, loons to be accepted on the right? How idiotic is that? Shouldn’t we reach a little bit higher?

    And the next time you insult my integrity you’re gone.


    Comment by jackson1234 — 10/7/2009 @ 2:21 pm

  5. Rick:

    (a)What does how the left acts have anything to do with how the right acts? (b)Are you saying because the left doesn’t call out its kooks and loons, it’s ok for irrational, bombastic, loons to be accepted on the right? (c)How idiotic is that? (d)Shouldn’t we reach a little bit higher?

    (e)And the next time you insult my integrity you’re gone.

    a. Everything. It actually bolsters Horowitz’ Stockholm Syndrome argument.

    b. “Accepted” vs….you know, ignored as the left does.

    c. It’s called politics, boys and girls.

    d. See “c.”

    e. Noted, therefore I won’t comment on this particular topic any longer.

    Comment by jackson1234 — 10/7/2009 @ 2:43 pm

  6. cache -> cachet

    Comment by elite — 10/7/2009 @ 3:12 pm

  7. ” But the point made by many on the left - that Limbaugh is considered so mainstream and respected that even political leaders cower in fear of his influence with the base - is well taken. When some pissant lefty blog, or the equally invisible Olbermann/Maddow/Schultz trio at MSNBC (which is the nexus of lefty kookery) spout off about conservatives, you don’t find too many Democratic Congressman imitating them (although Alan Grayson sure tries hard, doesn’t he?).”

    Imitate? No. Kiss their asses? Every freakin’ one of them that can fit into the DailyKos Insanity Circus Circus. This included Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2007.

    Do you live in an alternative universe? For someone who has claimed to base his opinions on reason and examination, that isn’t a good place to be drawn so often.

    Comment by obamathered — 10/7/2009 @ 4:13 pm

  8. Rick, You seem more thin-skinned these days. “Conservative Intellectual” is such an insulting moniker, as to be off-putting to most conservative intellectuals (those that read your blog for example). Therefore you should expect some backlash. I believe that jackson1234 was a sample of that backlash. Actually, I’m surprised it has been this tame.

    Comment by JustIce — 10/7/2009 @ 4:14 pm

  9. While I’m no doubt pissing into the wind here, I respectfully take exception to including Maddow in with Schultz and Olbermann.

    Sher is without a doubt a biased leftie . . . but she does some solid research and analysis to back up her bias. Or maybe she just looks moderate(ish) when bookended by the other two.

    Personally, I’d laber her biased-but-honest rather than biased-but-manipulative. I don’t mind a bias as long as it isn’t a replacement for actual reasoned thought — that’s why I come here. I may disagree with her ultimate conclusions, but I’ve yet to see her make up wild accusations out of whole cloth.

    Comment by busboy33 — 10/7/2009 @ 6:15 pm

  10. I was waiting for this: the “LGF=ization” of this blog! Ban a bunch of folks to complete the effort, Richard!

    Your quasi-intellectual “Frummery” has slipped its bounds, evidenced so lucidly by continued idolization of any subject upon which Noonan pontificates. She betrayed movement conservatives for her Washington social circle “seal-of-approval” so long ago its not worth discussing the exact date such a Country-club/Rockefeller/Bush blueblood made her idealogical preferences undeniably clear! The only issue with her writings is whether she indeed harbored ANY true conservative principles to begin with.

    As for you, you will join Charles J. on my list of lost causes and blogs no longer worthy of intellectual consideration.

    Intellectual integrity? I opine there is none to speak of hereabouts….

    Intellectual postering? Aye! There’s the real rub!

    Comment by Earl T — 10/7/2009 @ 8:10 pm

  11. @Earl T:

    Out of curiosity, is the “slipping into a BBC Pirate mockumentary” dialogue supposed to by symbolic, impressive, or is it just another personality breaking out?

    Comment by busboy33 — 10/7/2009 @ 9:32 pm

  12. I vote, just another personality breaking out!

    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 10/7/2009 @ 11:10 pm

  13. Noonan is indeed the elitist. The interesting conflict now is that Conservatives used to be considered the elite party of wealth and privilege. Now that title is firmly in the Democrat’s corner. 14 of the top 25 wealthiest Congressional districts are now in Democrat control. Some, like Jared Polis of the Colorado 2nd (Boulder and most of ski country where only the most wealthy among us can afford to live) are of the fairly hard-left variety.

    So the changing of the guard from Noonan’s intellectual conservatism to emotionally based conservatism - as espoused by Limbaugh and others in the few corners of media where conservatives can survive - is part of the big sweeping change in conservative thought.

    Conservativism gone mainstream is the real issue.


    Comment by MAS1916 — 10/8/2009 @ 7:51 am

  14. Figure out how to deliver data in a useful way that does not financially depend on emotionalism to generate money and this problem largely solves itself. I think that a data driven presentation of the world is going to really help the small government movement, and that these same talkers that are so annoying to many with their over the top heat are going to branch out into exactly this sort of format because it’s extra money and for certain types of discussions better than talk radio or talking heads on TV.

    So how much time would you devote to fixing the problem? I’m working on this.

    Comment by TMLutas — 10/8/2009 @ 8:14 am

  15. Clearly, the majority of Americans agree that Olbermann is a raving lunatic and they don’t watch his show - which has only exacerbated the situation in his roiling little brain where nonsense instead of genuine thought abounds.

    He was a crappy sportscaster and he’s a crappy commenter on the news of the day. He’s just a crappy human being.

    Not that I wish him ill or anything. Just disappearance would suit me! Maybe he could get a job in Upper Volta broadcasting hog futures!

    Comment by Gayle Miller — 10/8/2009 @ 9:04 am

  16. The first post in this series was called “INTELLECTUAL CONSERVATISM ISN’T DEAD: IT’S RESTING”

    Herewith some insightful analysis of where it is napping and some of the consequences of the snooze:


    Comment by Person of Choler — 10/8/2009 @ 11:06 am

  17. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s in upstate New York (and being a naive youth) I wasn’t sure of the difference between a Republican and a conservative. I knew that most officials in upstate were Republican but I could only assume that was because we “weren’t like NYC” which was Democratic. Our governor was Republican (Rocky) but I couldn’t clearly state how his politics were dramatically different from many Democrats. (Same for our long-term Senator, Jacob Javits).

    At the same time I was aware of Bill Buckley’s TV show “Firing line” (hard to find and odd hours) It was hard to watch and he talked funny but I could tell it was “thoughtful stuff”. At about the same time his brother Jim Buckley ran and won a Senate seat as a “Conservative”, and not a Republican. That was my first inkling that there was a difference.

    Later in the 70’s I became aware of Reagan, as someone clearly different than Nixon and “conservative” (whatever that was). Unfortunately he was mainly that actor who narrated “Death Valley Days”. There was little TV punditry (does Eric Severied count?) and no 24 hour news etc. My first votes in presidential campaigns were for Carter and Anderson (couldn’t vote for the Death Valley Days narrator; “Boraxo!”)

    Through the 80’s I grew a family and inevitably became more conservative but still an independent. At that same time I witnessed the growth of TV and radio punditry. I saw those who wanted influence (i.e. Falwell) and those who wanted listenership (i.e. Limbaugh). I generally felt you didn’t watch TV opinion shows for “intellectual stimulation” but more for the “boxing match aspects” of it all (i.e. “Point/Counterpoint”; “Jane you ignorant slut!”)

    And now we have the explosion of blogs and websites. Some thoughtful; some thoughtful AND loud; some just loud!

    Though not a “died in the wool” conservative, I have a conservative-bent (i.e. skeptical of governmental solutions if only for the unintended consequences.) Because the idea of government “doing things” is so pervasive, it is hard to “sell” conservative ideas. It’s much easier to sell “they’re idiots”, “Our side is better!”, etc.

    Intellectuals shouldn’t be judged on the volume of their words or their voices, the number of adjectives and 3+ syllable words they use and certainly not on the number of readers, viewers or listeners they have. Good arguments backed by facts and ideally research data makes for good “intellectuals”. I assume pundits and speechwriters ARE NOT intellectuals; they’re paid for word-smithing. I certainly assume that TV and radio political personalities ARE NOT intellectuals. They’re paid (and paid attention to) based on ratings. I’m pretty sure Bill Buckley’s show always had lousy ratings. A pundit/intellectual who reminds me a bit of Buckley today is Krauthammer. Maybe its the prickly personality. I don’t always agree with him (and at times he seems to speak with the knowledge that he’s on TV and has to “say it quickly and with a few ‘choice’ words”) but I believe he puts “thought” into his opinions. I note that he doesn’t have his own show; who would watch?

    Oh yeah, and I would NEVER ASSUME THAT POLITICIANS ARE INTELLECTUALS. I would hope they have an intellectual foundation to their beliefs but then again I’m not as naive as I was in the 70’s (I mean c’mon, I voted for Jimmy Carter and John Anderson)

    So Peggy Noonan (who I like)yes, its a brave new world out there so DEAL WITH IT!

    Comment by c3 — 10/8/2009 @ 11:48 am

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