Ben Bernanke as Greenspanist
History Lessons from the New Deal

American Right Wing Crashed-and-Burned Watch

Former Public Interest editor Mark Lilla is very unhappy with the Republican Party and the "conservative" intellectual movement:

Mark Lilla: The Palin farce is already the stuff of legend.... [But] John McCain's choice was not a fluke, or a senior moment, or an act of desperation. It was the result of a long campaign by influential conservative intellectuals to find a young, populist leader to whom they might hitch their wagons in the future. And not just any intellectuals. It was the editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, magazines that present themselves as heirs to the sophisticated conservatism of William F. Buckley and the bookish seriousness of the New York neoconservatives. After the campaign for Sarah Palin, those intellectual traditions may now be pronounced officially dead....

For the past 40 years American conservatism has been politically ascendant, in no small part because it was also intellectually ascendant.... Magazines like the Public Interest and Commentary became required reading for anyone seriously concerned about domestic and foreign affairs.... I still remember the thrill of coming upon their writings for the first time. I discovered the Public Interest the same week that Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and its pages offered shelter from the storm -- from the mobs on the street, the radical posing of my professors and fellow students, the cluelessness of limousine liberals, the whole mad circus of post-'60s politics. Conservative politics mattered less to me than the sober comportment of conservative intellectuals at that time; I admired their maturity and seriousness, their historical perspective, their sense of proportion....

So what happened? How, 30 years later, could younger conservative intellectuals promote a candidate like Sarah Palin, whose ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against? It's a sad tale that began in the '80s, when leading conservatives frustrated with the left-leaning press and university establishment began to speak of an "adversary culture of intellectuals."... In 1976 Irving Kristol publicly worried that "populist paranoia" was "subverting the very institutions and authorities that the democratic republic laboriously creates for the purpose of orderly self-government." But by the mid-'80s, he was telling readers of this newspaper that the "common sense" of ordinary Americans on matters like crime and education had been betrayed by "our disoriented elites," which is why "so many people -- and I include myself among them -- who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism."

The die was cast. Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders' intellectual virtues.... [T]heir function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages....

Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives' "disdain for liberal intellectuals" had slipped into "disdain for the educated class as a whole," and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters. I couldn't care less about the future of the Republican Party, but I do care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole. There was a time when conservative intellectuals raised the level of American public debate and helped to keep it sober. Those days are gone.... [T]he conservative intellectual tradition is already dead. And all of us, even liberals like myself, are poorer for it.

There seem to me to be a number of things wrong with Mark Lilla's analysis:

The first is the despairing lament for the lost golden age of American conservatism. When was this age, exactly? Was it when National Review was calling for white southerners to engage in terrorism to keep African-Americans from voting in the south? Was it when William F. Buckley was saying that George C. Marshall was part of the conspiracy so immense that had handed China and was working to hand America over to Josef Stalin? Was it when Jeanne Kirkpatrick told the press that the murdered Maryknoll missionaries in El Salvador weren't just Christian missionaries?

The second is Lilla's mischaracterization of conservatism. The early Public Interest was the creation of Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol. The Bell and Glazer tendencies were always worth reading. The Kristol tendency was not. By the time I started reading the Public Interest in the late 1970s, Irving Kristol had pushed Daniel Bell out and had pushed Nathan Glazer to the sidelines. Irving Kristol had decided that the way to deal with the conflict between the first-balance-the-budget Republicans and the first-cut-taxes Republicans was to pretend that cutting taxes was the way to balance the budget--not, you understand, because he believed that it was true but because false claims that it was true were useful for the construction of a permanent Republican majority. And the Public Interest's chief economist was Jude Wanniski. And--as Mark Lilla notes--the exaltation of the people of America who had been "betrayed" by their "educated elites" was in place by the mid-1980s. That was twenty years ago. The Palin phenomenon is not a new one.

The third is Mark Lilla's evasion of the role in all this played by the "neoconservative" disciples of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss. The grandchildren of Leo Strauss pursued a form of intellectual politics that had three planks:

  1. They sought as political front-men "gentlemen" who would not understand their ideas and doctrines but who could both be persuaded to follow their lead in designing policies and could win votes from the electorate--Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin. (George H.W. Bush's and Robert Dole's and Mitt Romney's problem, from their point of view, was that they were too smart.
  2. The neoconservatives routinely lied to the outside world--advocated a false "exoteric teaching" that they thought would have good poitical effects.
  3. The neoconservatives told the truth about what they believed and thought only to themselves--and not always then, for how could you know whether you were really one of those in on the con or one of the marks and suckers (hoi polloi, outer party, et cetera) for whom the point of the con was to make you think that you were in on the con.

Thus I resent Mark Lilla's "shocked! shocked!" Claude Rains moment at the eruption of Sarah Palin, as if this is the act of a "new generation of conservative[s]" who have "none of their elders' virtues." The differences between Sarah Palin and George W. Bush are easily summarized:

  • Sarah Palin is more coherent.
  • Sarah Palin does not have her father's rolodex and social network at her disposal.
  • Sarah Palin has not spent three years being intensively tutored in national political issues by Condi Rice and Larry Lindsey.
  • Sarah Palin is prettier.
  • Sarah Palin is (probably) smarter.
  • Sarah Palin is more confident in her own judgment.

The differences between Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle are similar:

  • Sarah Palin is more coherent.
  • Sarah Palin does not have her father's money at her disposal.
  • Sarah Palin is prettier.
  • Sarah Palin is (probably) smarter.
  • Sarah Palin is more confident in her own judgment.

The differences between Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan--well, remember Mitch Daniels's statements that Ronald Reagan was more out-of-it as far as policy substance was concerned than George W. Bush?

This has been building for quite a while.

There is, however, one difference between the rhetoric of the Irving Kristol generation and the rhetoric of the William Kristol generation. In the Irving Kristol generation it was OK for the "gentlemen" to be hard-working or smart--it wasn't necessary, but it wasn't a disability. For the William Kristol generation there are three legitimate ways to become rich and powerful:

  • You can peddle influence--use your Republican political connections to enrich a company, and take a share--that's OK.
  • You can inherit money--that's OK.
  • You can marry money--that's OK.

But to work hard? To learn stuff? To think hard? That's not OK--that marks you as an "elitist."