Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Ponnuru on Limbaugh, Reformers and Traditional Conservatism

Ramesh Ponnuru writes the most measured and sensible piece I’ve yet seen on the whole ridiculous dust-up within conservative circles over Rush Limbaugh. So many of the tragic and self-destructive problems on our side of the aisle (the other side suffers from this also but that is their problem and it’s not in my interest to point it out to them) seem to stem from frustration born of the inability to persuade. And yet there is no acceptable alternative to persuasion and also no shortcut to it. It’s fair to say that perfect persuasion almost never happens and it’s also fair to say that there is no formula for persuasion that works in all cases. One really cannot make another person’s mind exactly as his own or change it exactly as he would have it change. And yet, for all our talk about the stupidity of Utopian notions, isn’t there just a bit of Utopian frustration bubbling under the surface of this . . . what to call it? I’m tempted to call it a contest having to do with what goes on at a urinal. But, as I said, Ramesh Ponnuru is measured and sensible and, because he says all of this with more class than I have said it, he’s either less irritated than I am or he’s a better master of his irritation. Whatever the cause of it, it is well done. Do read it.   

Discussions - 15 Comments

Julie, when many on the other side just plain aren't listening to what we've got to say, and aren't interested in anything we've got to offer, it's awfully hard to "persuade" 'em of much anything.

This is going to take decades of hard work. And it isn't going to be made any easier when we've guys like Frum desirious of jettisoning morally informed positions from the party platform.

Conservatives like Limbaugh hold to their beliefs with absolute certainty, a certainty so absolute that there is no intellectually honest reflection about whether or not those truths really are true or those values really are valuable. A certainty so absolute that engagement with others reduces only to persuading them of that truth. And frustration from holding to such certainty and seeing the other only as ignorant with regard to those certainties. Such 'true believer' absolutism is present among liberals as well, but it shows itself most often among evangelicals and capitalists, and of course every day it was on display in the Bush administration.

Conservatives like Limbaugh hold to their beliefs with absolute certainty

Now liberals such as ren would never do anything like that. In fact I'm trying to think of the last time I saw ren make any sort of ststement with an air of certainty The poor guy is just so wishy-washy.

Such 'true believer' absolutism is present among liberals as well

No! I can't think of hardly a one.

The Ponnuru piece was ok, apart from this whole "reformer" and "tradionalist" thing. I expect Rush would say he's trying to reform the party as well. God knows it hasn't been conservative in a long time. Some of the reformers are traditionalists.

Fair enough point, John. I thought the reformer/traditionalist dichotomy was a bit cumbersome as well.

Ever try to convince someone of an uncertainty?

"Standing Athwart History Shouting 'Maybe...'"


Ponnuru's column is almost the only intelligent commentary I've seen on the Limbaugh flap. It should be shared far and wide among conservatives.

The electorate looked us dead in the eye and said they don't want to hear from us again.

It's going to take years of patience, and it's likely to be many a year before the electorate gives us time of day.

The only way we'll even gain a hearing, and that only after much time has passed, is by being firm, unbelievably firm in our convictions. Our will must be adamant.

We're in the political wilderness. Let's not kid ourselves. We blundered, ------------- we blundered badly. We allowed Bush to define the party; we allowed his communicative incompetence to continue year after year after year. And by the time the party began to realize the extent of the blunder, ----- it was too late, for the electorate had already tuned us out. During the most recent campaign, the only thing we got from the electorate was a cold look of aversion, or worse, a smirk for all our efforts.

That last campaign was a public humilation. We have got to be mindful of that.

There's no guarantee we'll ever possess once again the political power we enjoyed in the wake of Reagan. It's a brutal thing to know that before you lies years and years of long-suffering patience, with little more than hope for encouragement. And what's more, the knowledge that what you hope for may never come to pass.

We're left with no other option but being principled, patient, and ever watchful for a mistake on the part of the Democrats.

"My friends. Here at the EIB network, with one arm tied behind my back, I'll take down liberals with my greatness."

"My friends. Even though John McCain borrowed my trope, I'm your real friend even though I hate McCain. Here at the EIB network I'm the greatest."

"My friends. All I ever do is talk about myself, and how much I think liberals and Democrats suck, but ain't I intresting even with one arm tied behind my back?"

"My friends. I love my country. I am the only one who stands up. So you need to listen to me. That's why I have a radio show. With one arm tied behind my back I can prove that radio is more important than presidents, congressmen, judges--and of course journalists. Listen up all you screwheads, pimps, drug addicts, loafers--[like Travis Bickle] I'm the real rain on the radio with one arm tied behind my back."

"My friends. Here at the EIB network, we love the excellence of my beautiful speech. It is excellent because I say so, and it has the 'founding fathers' at my back. While I may not know the difference between the Declaraction of Independence and the Constitution, I speak for the people my friends."

."My friends. Critics may call me all kinds of names with their Ivy Leage degrees where they learned Feminazi ideology to warp their perspective on the Real America (kudos Glenn Beck). I'm another Charles Coughlin, but even better I've been on the radio for nearly twenty years. Such success is a sure sign of my brilliance. The new Weberian twist on the signs of election have been redefined by Warhol, and I've had much more that fisteen minutes.

"My friends. Stupid Harvard types may have the elite, but I have the masses--with one arm tied behind my back."

"My friends. I'm for individual liberty. Buy my boooks. Sign up for my newsletter (snailmail or email) for a limited price. I love my country so much that I will present the most vacuous version of its traditions in order that it fits in with your stupidity and all at a low cost. My friends. Thank God I'm not Harvard."

"My friends. I want you all to be as rich as I am at EIB. If this means not placing limits on choice because liberty means that there can be no limits placed on what I want to do, then so be it. I have one hand tied behind my back at the EIB network. That is called excellence--nay virtue."

"My friends. No need to think. Just follow me as a dittohead."

That is funny, John, but Limbaugh, despite his flaws, really does speak to people who listen to him and like him, despite those flaws. I know people who have declared themselves conservatives because of Limbaugh. It is not that they were converted by him as much as he articulated their own values in a way they could hear and understand and he made them know that they were conservative. I don't know if that is brilliance, but it is pretty amazing, whatever it is. I don't think his listeners would follow him, especially given his bombast and frequent lapses into self-serving reflection, if it were just a matter of following him without thought. I say his personal flaws do not make that easy.

When it comes down to an absolute choice, the world loves an arrogant and outrageous SOB--particularly when he is funny and loves the world back. People who are jealous or who take life way too seriously tend not to understand why--but it is so despite their protests. The world does not value (and perhaps this is to their detriment but, then again, perhaps not) an urbane, high-toned, dry-witted intellectual who seems to sneer at their ignorance. Some people do (because they imagine that they are exempt from the sneers and thus "chosen"), but not the world. Perhaps the world is jealous of this man's intellectual capacities . . . or, perhaps the world senses (as a dog might sense) a kind of danger about such a person. A dog is not usually wrong when he senses danger.

Thus, the critique of Limbaugh that begins and ends with irritation over his "arrogance" has never impressed me. We love that kind of arrogance except when we have nothing in our own lives that can occasion it (even if only in a very small way). Look at the popular culture, for example. Simon Cowell, Chef Gordon Ramsey, House . . . shall I go on? To say that Limbaugh's arrogance is preventing people from becoming conservative is almost as funny as his show . . . but still, not quite!

John #9 may think he's a lot smarter than Rush Limbaugh, but he seems unaware that other people on this thread are already posting under the name "John". And it hardly takes a lot of smarts to notice that.

I think that Dan is too pessimistic about the chances for conservatism in the next four years or so (I also thought he was too optimistic regarding McCain's chances in the election). I don't think the public either rejected conservatism or embraced liberalism in the last election. There was a discredited Republican administration. It was an economy driven election where the Republican candidate was clearly confused by and disinterested in economic issues.

That doesn't mean that simply going to a politics of tax cutting and government cutting is in and of itself the way back. It is alot more complicated than that. Dan is right that this is the time to stick to our principles, but then again its always that time when you think about it. But sticking by your principles doesn't tell you which issues to emphasize at a particular moment. Reagan emphasized tax cutting over reforming welfare in the early 1980s. Conservatives in the mid 90s emphasized welfare reform over tax cutting. That doesn't make one or the other less principled or conservative , its just that the situations the principles were applied to were different.

And even when we might agree on what issues to prioritize, there might be good faith disagreements over what policies are both best and prudentially possible. Conservatives who wanted to reform welfare disagreed about benefit cuts vs. work requirements as the best strategy to reform welfare. Conservatives are facing similar questions today about which taxes to cut and by how much, or about how much stress to place on healthcare reform and what are the best ways to reform healthcare. The main problem is that these diagreements are being personalized with insults about waistlines and who wants to go to which party.

There is a problem with the "reformer" vs "traditionalist" division. I've heard Limbaugh (on his radio show) criticise Douthat, Brooks, Frum and Kristol at the same time. In one sense they do all have disagreements with Limbaugh, but not all the same diagreement. Douthat (who I'm glad to see at the NYT)is much closer to Limbaugh than to Frum on the social issues for instance. On the other hand Brooks' attack on Limbaugh in the NYT was totally pointless and personal in the context of of Brooks' criticism of Obama's stimulus bill. It was also graceless since the Obama stimulus was much closer to what Limbaugh would have predicted than what Brooks would have predicted. It also says something about the unhealthy state of the current debate that the categories of "traditionalist" and "refromer" were popularized by Brooks.

In practice rather than in theory, the differences between the reformers as defined by a Doouthat, and traditionalists as defined by Limbaugh aren't big enough to justify the venom this debate has generated. If any conservative politician is a policy driven reformist who kept trying to find creative market driven solutions to contemporary problems (the ideal "reformist" conservative in other words) its Bobby Jindal. And Rush Limbaugh seems to like him well enough.

I would like all the "Johns" . . . (no offense intended . . .) to start using initials, please. I can't tell you apart so I guess I'm hardly a genius and, as far as that goes, it's ok by me. Geniuses are overrated.

Mrs. Ponzi in #11 is not impressed by critical references to Limbaugh's arrogance. She loves that arrogance. Indeed, she also pronounces that the world does so. Since Mrs. Ponzi loves that arrogance, of course it must follow that the world loves it too. And Mrs. Ponzi speaks for the world. It all makes sense now, and I was just too jealous to see it before.

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