Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Brain-Dead Conservatism?

"Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?" Steve Hayward asks in the Washington Post. His diagnosis is that the patient is, at least, on the critical list: "The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flat-lining."

The source of the ailment is the unhappy and unbalanced relationship between conservative intellectuals and activists. There used to be, in the golden "Age of Reagan" from 1964 to 1989, a sustainable division of labor between them. The activists relied on the intellectuals for ideas and rhetoric, and the intellectuals were happy for the activists to mobilize voters and constituencies. "Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance," says Hayward, "with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas."

Perhaps, says Hayward, conservative intellectuals are "simply out of interesting ideas," the kind that would provide "compelling alternatives to Obama's economic or foreign policy." Nature abhors a vacuum. If the National Honor Society types have stopped saying illuminating and useful things, the sarcastic kids who jeer from the back of the classroom at Right Wing High will speak up more often, setting a different tone.

Important as it was to conservatism's political strength, the old division of labor between intellectuals and activists will be hard to restore. John Derbyshire laments the absence of "middlebrow conservatism." The lowbrow conservatism of talk radio is "energizing and fun," he says, but routinely caters to "reflex rather than thought." Talk radio reassures down-the-line conservatives that there's no need for them to reassess and modify their old ideas, investigate new ones, or doubt their own intellectual and moral superiority to liberals. What it doesn't do, according to Derbyshire, is "speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly - indeed, conservatively - wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions."

Winning a hearing and votes from that vast and electorally crucial segment is partly a matter of tone. Derbyshire laments that conservatives can't or won't express themselves with the "studied gentility" and "affectless voices" of National Public Radio, relying too often on "bullying bluster" rather than "bringing a sportsman's respect for his opponents to the debate."

Even if a new, pitch-perfect conservatism gets all that right, however, there's still the problem of substance. As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in the current National Review, ""The principal sources of the Left's revival are not difficult to identify: the years of denial that our strategy in Iraq was failing; stagnant wages; Republican corruption; the financial meltdown.... Republicans must... present plausible solutions to voters' concerns about health care, wages, and so forth--particularly if the results of Democratic policies are not unambiguously disastrous."

David Frum makes the same point: "We lost in 2008 in large part because we had not governed successfully over the previous eight years. More than political tactics, more even than media, what matters in politics is results. If national incomes had grown by 1% a year under George Bush instead of stagnating, Al Franken would have lost [Minnesota's Senate election] in a landslide."

Wonky inventiveness will be a necessary condition for discharging this political duty, but not a sufficient one. Conservatives still have to resolve, or at least manage, the tensions within their coalition. In a huge, diverse country with a strong historical and structural bias toward a two-party system, large, strange and tense coalitions will be a permanent problem for both parties. Some of the strains within the liberal coalition were made clear during the 2008 contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (They were voiced memorably by the national president of the machinists' union.)

John Derbyshire outlined one of the fault lines in the conservative coalition six years ago when he discussed 'metropolitan conservatives," an issue he revisits in We Are Doomed. Metro-cons, to take a couple of particulars, believe in evolution and oppose laws outlawing homosexual acts between consenting adults. According to a fair amount of polling data, these positions put the metro-cons to the left of more than 40% of the America population, which means it probably puts them to the left of at least 80% of the people who voted for McCain/Palin. Derbyshire describes the metro-con's anomalous situation concisely: "I dislike modern American liberalism very much, and believe it to be poisonous and destructive; yet I am at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state evangelicals. Setting aside our actual opinions about this, that or the other, I am aware that in the first gathering I am among people with whom I have, at some level, a shared outlook; and in the second gathering, not."

His resolution of this tension in 2003 was unpersuasive. Admitting that it would be "the legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces" who would keep conservatism politically potent Derbyshire says, "God bless them all for keeping America strong, free, and true to her founding principles. If the price to be paid is a sodomy law here, a high-school Creationism class there, well, far as I am concerned, that's a small price indeed."

This doesn't sound like a sufficient basis on which to hold together a political movement. Rather than indulging ideological preoccupations they cannot endorse, conservative intellectuals need to emphasize a posteriori reasoning in their thinking and writing. The best way to make conservatism viable is to focus relentlessly on the tangible, the particular and totally legitimate preoccupations of their fellow-citizens. In a speech at the outset of his New York mayoral campaign in 1965 William Buckley said, "The purpose of politics is to do, to the limited extent it is possible to do anything by government action, something for the people of New York, to whom is owed, by good government, the security of their liberties: to work without harassment, to live without a crushing fiscal overhead, to educate their children with minimum interference from extrinsic distractions, to walk confidently in the streets, and sleep quietly at night. Public action is needed to secure these private ends."

Ronald Reagan employed the same idiom to great effect, such as when he asked Americans, in his debate with Jimmy Carter, "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the store than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was four years ago? Do you feel your security is safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?" One of the reasons those questions helped elect Reagan president was the subtle and powerful way they drew wider and wider circles, starting from private and mundane concerns, then connecting them to ones about the nation's economic vigor and its strength and reputation in the world. The rediscovery of those habits of thought and speech will be necessary to restore the intellectual and political health of American conservatism.

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