Brain Dead Conservatism

If all the Republicans can offer is “no” to Democratic ideas, why listen to them?

In The Washington Post, Steven Hayward lays out his argument that conservatism has become a brain-dead movement:

Consider the “tea party” phenomenon. Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. Meanwhile, the “birthers” have become the “grassy knollers” of the right; their obsession with Obama’s origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama’s putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn’t have found it 18 months ago?)

The bestselling conservative books these days tend to be redmeat 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.

Is the media to blame? Hayward continues:

It’s tempting to blame all this on the new media landscape. The populist conservative blockbusters of today have one thing in common: Most are written by media figures, either radio or TV hosts, or people who, like Coulter and Malkin, get lots of TV exposure. The built-in marketing advantage is obvious. The left thinks talk radio and Fox News are insidious forces, which shows that they are effective. (Just ask Van Jones and ACORN.) But some on the right think talk radio, especially, has dumbed down the movement, that there is plenty of sloganeering but not much thought, that the blend of entertainment and politics is too outre. John Derbyshire, author of a forthcoming book about conservatism’s future, We are Doomed, calls our present condition “Happy Meal Conservatism, cheap, childish and familiar.”

The blend of entertainment and politics is not unique to the right (exhibit No. 1 on the left: The Daily Show). And it is perfectly possible to conduct talk radio at a high level of seriousness, and several talkers do well at matching the quality of their shows to their intellectual pedigree. Consider Hugh Hewitt (Michigan Law School), Michael Medved (Yale Law School), William Bennett (Harvard Law and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas) — all three of these brainiacs have popular shows on the Salem Radio Network.

With others — Michael Savage and “Mancow” come to mind — the charge of dumbing down is much more accurate. Rush Limbaugh adheres to Winston Churchill’s adage that you should grin when you fight, and in any case his keen sense of satire makes him deserving of comparison to Will Rogers, who, by the way, was a critic of progressivism. Others among the right’s leading talkers, such as Sean Hannity, seem unremittingly angry and too reflexively partisan on behalf of the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement (they are not the same thing).

I take issue here with the charge against Stewart’s The Daily Show. Stewart has done an excellent job combining comedy and information, without acting like an idiot. Stewart manages to present his news and opinion with his wit, all while showing his intelligence and ability to understand the news. I don’t quite understand Mr Haywards aversion to combining news with comedy — Stewart’s ability to do so has shown that a quality news program can be humorous.

Overall, though, I have to agree with Hayward’s assessment of the right as becoming brain-dead. Too much, the right-wing media supports the ideas of the radicals on their side (birthers, teabaggers, etc.), or resorts to cheap personal attacks (Chicago Olympics bid), or even blow a racist dog-whistle, as we saw throughout the campaign this past year.

All of this seems to be a result of something deeper though: the right doesn’t have any ideas to fix anything. All that they have to offer now is, “no, I don’t want that.” How should we fix health care? We shouldn’t have a public option, they say. What then should we do?

The Republicans have become the party of “no” — the downfall, really, of conservatism. The adhearance to the status quo, not wanting to change anything when things obviously need fixing. The desire to go back to an imagined “good old days,” or “golden age” that never really existed.

Some would say that it is the job of the opposition party to attempt to stop what is happening in the majority party. I agree. But when it comes right down to it, it’s infinitely better to oppose ideas with ideas, rather than oppose ideas with the word “no.”

“No” is childish, petty, and not a substitute for policy. When all someone has to offer is a “no” to a viable, workable idea, why bother listening to them? Why bother paying attention to someone who has no alternatives, only denials?

This is the root cause of brain-dead conservatism: the lack of ideas, of alternative options, and only offering a five year-old “No, I don’t want that.”

One comment

  1. It’s sad to see the GOP deteriorate into something of a purely populist, social conservative movement that seems to have deserted its entire libertarian following as well as conservative business. With it, the party seems to have lost interest in individualism and the free market economy. All it can, apparently, do to rally support is declare the Democrats “socialists” and march against anything they try to do.

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