Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute and National Review, who I have always thought was a solid, quality conservative writer and whose new book The Age Of Reagan is said to be one of the definitive works on that glorious American era, has put out a piece in the Washington Post which is worthy of comment.
Sadly, it’s not worthy of agreement; at least not in large measure.
The title of Hayward’s column asks whether conservatism is brain-dead, which might have resulted from the gleeful opportunism of the Post’s editorial staff and not the writer. Nevertheless, Hayward’s thesis is that since the majority of the heat generated from the Right is coming from talk radio and other entertainment-media figures, there is an “imbalance” within the movement because conservative academics aren’t driving it on a more intellectual level.
Hayward doesn’t exactly disparage the pop-culture conservatives, but while he mentions that in the past the intellectual and populist wings of the Right have peacefully coexisted, and happily so, he laments that there are no apparent titans of the movement in the ivory towers like William F. Buckley, Irving Kristol or Milton Friedman. “We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites,” he cries.
Hayward goes further:
The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin’s “Culture of Corruption,” Glenn Beck’s new “Arguing with Idiots” and all of Ann Coulter’s well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov’s dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams’s dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, potboilers.
Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” George Gilder’s “Wealth and Poverty,” Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times,” Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground” and “The Bell Curve,” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man.” There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don’t sell. (I have my own entry in the list: a two-volume political history titled “The Age of Reagan.” But I never expected the books to sell well; at 750 pages each, you can hurt yourself picking them up.)
About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism,” which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work, even though I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work. Had Goldberg called the book “Aspects of Illiberal Policymaking: 1914 to the Present,” it might have been received differently by its critics. And sold about 200 copies.
Certainly I can agree with Hayward on Liberal Fascism; it is without question one of the most important works of conservative literature in the past 30 years. But he neglects to give due credit to Mark Levin, whose Liberty And Tyranny is a brilliant work owed a tremendous debt by conservatives of all stripes. In a post in National Review Online’s The Corner blog today, Hayward mentions, and attempts to explain, the omission:
The omission of Levin from my piece is conspicuous, but was a combination of deliberation and space limitations. Mark is a special case, and I could have chosen him instead of Glenn Beck for my approving case study at the end, but I decided to go with Beck because he’s in everyone’s cross-hairs at the moment, and also because I don’t think Mark needs to learn anything from me. I think Liberty and Tyranny is an excellent book, exactly the kind of book we need that explains in a serious way how liberalism has unraveled the Constitution thread-by-thread.
But, would Liberty and Tyranny have sold over 1 million copies if the author were merely Mark Levin of the Landmark Legal Foundation rather than Mark Levin the national talk radio host? Doubtful I think.
Again, many of Hayward’s points are fair ones to make. And he doesn’t seem to be disparaging the talk radio/Fox News conservative circuit in the main, though some barbs are thrown (particularly at Sean Hannity, who is on occasion less intellectual in his orientation than he should be given his influence).
What is a little disturbing, however, is why it’s necessary to take apart the conservative movement and set its proponents against each other in this way. As Hayward himself says, the movement needs a broad spectrum of voices in order to reach a maximum number of people, and one of the most memorable of Ronald Reagan’s pronouncements about fellow travelers was his 11th Commandment – namely, thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republicans. This piece certainly seems to have at least scraped the edge of the 11th Commandment, if not actually having broken its skin.
The fact is, while Hayward’s stomping grounds at National Review still provide a sensational outlet for conservative intellectuals to generate strong work, there is hardly the difference between NRO and, say, the message Limbaugh puts out on a daily basis Hayward seems to be trumpeting. In fact, if you listen to Rush on a daily basis you’ll find that he draws a great deal of material from NRO, and The American Spectator, and Levin, and from lots of other conservative intellectual sources to include think tanks like the Heritate Foundation and the Cato Institute. Limbaugh certainly doesn’t ignore the intellectual side of the conservative movement; his message is remarkably similar to that of William F. Buckley even if he differs with Buckley as to style.
Similarly, while a listener to Levin’s show might find it to be often abrasive and quirky in a way one wouldn’t expect from someone of his accomplishments both professional and academic outside of the talk-radio milieu, the content of his show and certainly that of his books rivals that of the think tanks.
Beck is likely the source of Hayward’s piece more than anyone else; he echoes my criticism of the rising-star host’s sometimes off-putting style, but notes that there is real power in his message and a mother lode of intellectual ground to be gained in Beck’s investigations of what Hayward calls “liberalism’s patrimony,” which as Goldberg’s excellent book describes at length is an extraordinarily dubious one. Beck, informed by Liberal Fascism and other great conservative intellectual works like Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man and R.J. Pestritto’s Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, has done the necessary work of re-examining where modern left-wing thought comes from and is exposing the fact that very little of what the Obamas, Pelosis and Reids of the world are attempting to foist on our country differs greatly from other, ultimately horrifying, statist movements in the past piled upon their populations. Hayward sees the great value in this line of inquiry.
But here comes this haymaker:
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.
Hayward is off the rails badly with that statement. The idea that there isn’t firepower in conservative writings on the policy issues which confront America is ludicrous, frankly. Hayward’s own NRO has a half-dozen excellent policy suggestions on a bad day, and that’s true of most other major conservative sites. The criticism he attempts to offer is nothing more than a defeatism gained from too much exposure to the Left.
And as Hayward is immersed in the Beltway community of ideas, it’s not a surprise he sees things as they are. That community is dominated by the Left and has been for the better part of a century, if not longer. It’s no secret that conservatives have lost the battle in America’s intellectual institutions – legacy media, culture, academia – and so those of the Right who remain are faced with a choice between intellectual dhimmitude like that accepted by the likes of Peggy Noonan or David Brooks, or being targeted as a dunce by those who dominate that scene.
But the intellectual community in Washington, New York, Hollywood or on campus is a pitifully small, if not insignificant, slice of American political or ideological life. He, and others styling themselves as the conservative elite, need to understand this. They also need to understand that the intellectual life of the movement is no longer confined to elite academia or the pages of well-respected tony publications; with the blogosphere and YouTube and the advent of entrepreneurial journalists like Michelle Malkin or Andrew Breitbart we are seeing that good work may come from virtually anywhere; it is no longer necessary that conservative commentators carry sheepskins from Yale. Limbaugh and Beck are as educated as any Ivy League professor of political science, but their base of knowledge comes from independent study of issues and philosophies and not the stilted leftist indoctrination of so many of our elite universities.
Hayward also seems to decry the loss of those giants like Friedman, Buckley and Kristol, all of which have come recently and all of whom are greatly missed. He is without a doubt correct in noting the contributions of those titans and lamenting their absence in so troubling a time. But the great conservative minds of the 20th Century stood on the shoulders of titans who came before; men like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu and the American founding fathers – and those great minds in turn drew deeply from sources which had come from long before. The conservative intellectual patrimony dates to the ancient Greeks and Romans and the very beginnings of Western civilization. It also comes from millenia of experience in the human condition and a recognition that giving fallible human beings power over their fellow man and asking those humans to successfully manage vast and complex systems will in turn lead to abuse and failure on a grand scale.
The truths conservatives have to offer do not require grandiose new explanations or brilliant bells and whistles. Conservatism is timeless and practical; in that sense it will never compete with the scientific utopianism of the statist left in an academic setting. Conservatism is basic and it is common sense. The intellectual elites thrive on the constant seeking of a new avant-garde; how is that to be found in tried-and-true principles like individual freedom, fiscal sanity and military strength? It’s no challenge to defend those ideas. In an academic setting it’s far more interesting and rewarding to concoct theories to disparage those notions, particularly when the bomb-throwers who seek the ivory tower as a refuge seldom have to put their “innovative” theories to the test in actual governance. The Obama administration has brought a host of the academic left into power, and we are seeing an epic failure which has been tried on repeated occasions in the past; it will be quite some time before the experiment is tried again.
The point is that while it would be a welcome development for conservatism to rise in Hollywood, academia or the media, it isn’t necessary for that to be the case for the movement to regain American governance. But if the light of classical liberal thought as evidenced in the conservative movement is to be kept alive by Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Chuck Norris, so be it – it does require, though, that the elite, intellectual side of the conservative movement take a back seat and let those in the movement who have found a way to actually connect with the American people and articulate the movement’s principles with force and verve to control the agenda.
And in fact a “populist” conservatism is in all likelihood a truer conservatism. At base, this is an ideology centered on the liberty of the individual. It is hardly a surprise that the loss of “elite” conservatives like Buckley, Friedman and Kristol is so mourned and that those figures go unreplaced; it is difficult in the extreme to find someone who can combine a commonsense philosophy with a style those in the elites admire. Their world is one where multiculturalism and Gay and Lesbian Studies can be taken seriously; is it really necessary to placate them in order to govern a country?