Conservative "Intellectuals:" Self-Loathing and/or Self-Aggrandizing

Today, I came across two articles that bring squarely to light one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to advancing conservatism today: the insatiable desire by some oft-described “intellectual” conservatives to dissect the supposed problems with the movement, none of which ever seem to involve the use of a mirror.

On National Review Online’s The Corner, I read post by John Derbyshire regarding a cover-story he wrote for The American Conservative entitled “How Radio Wrecks the Right.” Mildly frustrated by someone I normally I find enlightening and entertaining, I then turned to Ramesh Ponnuru’s article on NRO entitled “In Buckley’s Shadow.” While I like Ramesh, my frustration quickly turned to full-fledged aggravation.

To begin with, I consider the conservative movement to be much like the economy in its psychological weakness (recognizing weakness in the fundamentals, of course). Much like Bush, Paulson, Bernanke, Congress et. al. – followed by Obama, Geithner, Congress, et. al. – screamed that the sky was falling and have perpetually talked down the economy, I believe conservatives – particularly those often described as the “intellectuals” of the movement – spend far too much time talking about how off-track the conservative movement is and what supposedly is wrong with said movement.

Now, take Derbyshire’s article entitled “How Radio Wrecks the Right.” Besides coming off as quite arrogant, I think he over-generalizes “conservative talk radio,” and places on them far too much blame for the Republican implosion. I will come back to the arrogance point, later.

It is not possible to lump Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, Ingraham or any others in the same group. They have different styles and focus on different things. Some were more critical of the Bush Administration, some less – and on different topics and different days, ranging from Immigration (which Derbyshire acknowledges) and No Child Left Behind, to Harriet Miers and many other issues. I do wish they had been more consistently critical of massive government expansion, but this generalization is too broad and not completely accurate. But even if they were all just hacks for Republicans (a contention I do not fully accept), so what? Derbyshire attempts, oddly, to blame talk radio for our current state thusly:

“With reasons for gratitude duly noted, are there some downsides to conservative talk radio? Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?

“They surely did.”

The reason for the Republican implosion is not talk radio. It is simply put, gutless Republican leadership – at all levels, from the Bush Administration on down to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where it is by far the worst. Republicans stood for nothing – particularly not freedom or limited government. They tried constantly to divine what Americans wanted to hear instead of leading from principle and firm ideology. They shunned conservative ideals in favor of politically expedient ones. They sent staffers to the corners of rooms to come up with “consensus” solutions and legislation they “could be for.” They (with a very few notable exceptions) were – AND ARE – gutless buffoons, undeserving of the great honor bestowed upon them.

Then, I almost fell out of my chair when, in an article in which he criticizes conservative talk radio for “yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration,” Derbyshire actually quotes Fred Barnes. I like Fred, just as I generally like Derb and Ramesh… but Fred Barnes may well be the worst of all talking-point-reading offenders, parroting the Bush talking points constantly (note, the Harriet Miers episode was particularly egregious).

Now, to the point about arrogance. This brings me to the overlap with Ramesh’s piece – in which are a number of fine thoughts and observations, but which cannot help but come back to the haughty arrogance of “intellectualism,” this time put forth as pragmatism. I will start with this passage from Ramesh:

“When Buckley’s son, the novelist Christopher Buckley, endorsed Barack Obama in the presidential election, many saw it as a dramatic illustration of the conservative soul-searching that has marked the last year. Republican politicians are wondering whether it is any longer possible to appeal both to conservatives and to moderates, or whether conservatism has become an isolated subculture. Right-leaning thinkers are wondering where they went wrong, and whether the conservative movement even wants intellectuals on its side any more.”

First of all… Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Obama means that 1) McCain was not appealing, 2) Buckley is not a conservative, and 3) that I therefore do not worry much about Christopher Buckley’s position on the matter. Now, I assume that some will say this “proves the point.” Nonsense. It is flat out impossible – TOTALLY impossible – to justify a vote for Obama and consider yourself anywhere in the same zipcode of conservatism. Not possible. So why should I spend time “soul-searching” because of something such a person did?

Second, this quote really does come across as somewhere between self-loathing and self-aggrandizing, or both. Ramesh thinks of himself – as do many of the NRO contributors – as one of the “intellectuals” whom he wonders here whether the conservative movement “even wants.” This is, simply put, arrogant. Derbyshire tries to suggest we need “middle brow” conservatism instead of the “low brow” version. I don’t even know what “middle brow” means other than a hat-tip to the word “middle,” which is the intellectuals’ word of the moment (along with moderate, bipartisan, etc…).

Then there is this:

The free-market Catholic Buckley collaborated with Sidney Hook, an atheist and socialist, on anti-Communist projects. The conservatives of today have smaller bridges to build. If Buckley could work with Hook, surely we can make the effort to reach out to environmentally conscious suburbanites and new Hispanic citizens.

Seriously? So WFB worked with someone with whom he disagreed vehemently on certain things to accomplish certain other things on which they agreed. GREAT. That you then make the leap to making the effort to “reach out to environmentally conscious suburbanites and new Hispanic citizens” is absurd. You conflate two totally different situations. I am HAPPY to work with those folks on any item on which we agree or halfway agree – as did WFB and Mr. Hook. If a Hispanic wants to work on anti-abortion issues, anti-drug-trafficking or any other issue on which we agree, GREAT! But that is not the same as “moderating” on the environment or on some supposedly hispanic issue (read: immigration).

This is all a little more than I can take.

I mean, come on… you have a platform… and you have a pen. People either buy your ideas or they do not. Ramesh often produces great ideas – and often not so good ones. That is fine. Derbyshire, also – and everyone else who opines regularly in that forum and others. That is how it goes.

So, then, what is the problem? Go forth and conquer. Make sure that something north of, what… a hundred thousand?… people know who you are and what you believe. Go start a new magazine, website or radio show. Or, increase NR’s readership such that your reach is far greater than it is. Convince the masses that your “intellectual” ideas are the winners – but that the talk radio guys are off base.

But stop already with the circular firing squad whereby you tout nothing but your own status as intellectual cloaked not-so-subtly behind an attack on those whose audience is 10 time the size of your own and whose presence represents one leg of a movement that is possibly only today only a one-legged stool in the first place.

And please stop piling the weight of random ideas rooted in feel-good populism rather than in fundamental principle on top of the wobbly stool… such as “solving traffic jams.”