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October 4, 2009 [LINK / comment]

Are conservatives "brain dead"?

In the Outlook section of today's Washington Post, Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute* scrutinizes the contemporary Conservative Movement: "Is Conservatism Brain Dead?" (The title made me think of the 2005 Terri Schiavo tragedy, and the misguided congressional intervention therein.) Money quote:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and '70s to its success in Ronald Reagan's era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We've traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

Exactamundo! In one sense, Hayward's argument is so obvious that it almost doesn't need stating. The problem is that many people on the Right side remain utterly and blissfully ignorant of the dead-end path we are currently on; they are "whistling in the dark." Many have been cheered that "Obamacare" is momentarily stalled, which is good news indeed, but they seem to think that the "tea party" movement heralds the incipient rebirth of Reaganism, even though none of that movement's leaders have articulated a coherent concrete ideology or policy platform. Meanwhile, the "birthers" who remain fixated on President Obama's place of birth make us all look silly. Hayward rightly acknowledges that even some of the more "colorful" voices on the Right (e.g., Glenn Beck) sometimes do raise very good arguments, in between their rants. He makes the point I have often advanced, that the absence of serious alternative ideas and policies severely undermines conservatism's potential appeal to mainstream Americans. In this age of attention-deficit New Media, as he says, it will be a huge challenge to carry out the vital task of enlightening the public.

Gratuitous self-serving remark: I have often longed wistfully (see March 14 or September 17 -- second item in both cases) that intellectuals such as George Will or David Brooks would get more respect from Republicans, but these days, anyone with a graduate degree is suspected of being a "RINO." (!) Such a state of affairs would have been deeply distressing to William F. Buckley Jr., who died just last year.

For the record, I referred to the Republican Party as "intellectually comatose" way back in December 2005, referring in particular to the failure to deal with the pressing issue of illegal immigration. (For me, that's pretty sharp language.) I wrote that back when I thought that open, constructive dialogue within the Republican Party was still possible. I learned otherwise in 2007 and 2008.

On a related note, two new books on contemporary politics just arrived from a couple days ago, and I have been eagerly devouring them. They provide much food for thought, and therefore, blogging. Stay tuned!

* For you folks in Rio Linda, AEI is a conservative public policy organization.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 04 Oct 2009, 11: 30 PM

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