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The Death of Intellectual Conservatism

After a crushing electoral defeat, conservatives are dashing further to the right. Such a direction leaves the movement intellectually bankrupt.

Is Sarah Palin the future of conservative intellectualism? (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/FILE)

There’s no doubt that the conservative movement has taken a serious beating over the last couple of election cycles. Through ballots and opinion polls, Americans have thoroughly repudiated President Bush—once a hero of the conservative movement with post-9/11 high poll numbers, and now one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. Although Proposition 8 passed in the most recent election, the overwhelming tide across the country has been moving in favor of marriage equality, and same-sex marriage is now legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Massachusetts also decriminalized marijuana in the most recent election, and on the national level, progressive healthcare reform might finally be within reach.

This all sounds like amazing news to progressives, but to many conservatives, it’s a dystopian nightmare. A period of introspection usually follows a smackdown as bad as the one conservatives experienced this election season, and introspection can be healthy for a movement. It gives the movement’s intellectuals some time to regroup, try and figure out where they went wrong, and tinker with the formula. Maybe in four to eight years, conservatism will rebound, fresh-faced and filled with exciting new ideas.

Or maybe not. After all, it’s unclear where, exactly, those new ideas would come from. The conservative establishment doesn’t take challenges to its orthodoxy lightly, and internal debate tends to be squashed where it should be encouraged. Just look at the case of the National Review, which recently pushed out Christopher Buckley (son of conservative movement grandfather William F. Buckley, Jr.) and David Frum; the former for endorsing Obama in The Daily Beast, and the latter for having the temerity to suggest that Sarah Palin was an “irresponsible” choice for the bottom of the Republican ticket.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh castigated so-called “moderate Republicans” who didn’t adhere unerringly to the party line, and the folks at RedState launched Operation Leper, a concerted effort to freeze out of the Republican establishment any McCain staffers who criticized Palin.

What’s particularly disturbing about this witch hunt is that it’s not exactly clear what the true believers are fighting for anymore. For all their wailing about Obama’s shockingly middle-of-the-road brand of “socialism,” the same movement whose party is behind the massive Wall Street bailout can’t claim to be diametrically opposed to socialism anymore. Nor can the party of neoconservatives make any plausible claim to the conservative foreign policy tradition.

So that leaves the movement with personalities, mostly, and a vague, put-upon sense of being more “American” than their ascendant foes. In a strange way, this modern strain of conservatism is almost like a carnival funhouse version of the strategy Richard Nixon used to win two presidential elections, as outlined in Rick Perlstein’s landmark history of the culture wars, Nixonland. Nixon manipulated the class resentment, fear of change, and latent racism of large swaths of the electorate in order to turn them out to the polls; in the campaigns, clearly enunciated policy lost out to identity politics, and Nixon won by presenting a single narrative that was more about the evils he stood against than any positive changes that he hoped to enact himself.

The years 1968 and 1972 left scars on the American political landscape that have yet to heal. But up until the 2008 election, the Nixon electoral strategy was just that: an electoral strategy. Then came the vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin, a singularly peculiar moment in the history of American democracy, for here was a woman who seemed to be all about identity politics. It was as if a team of scientists had assembled a Nixon CampaignBot but left out any of the programming designed for actual governing.

Naturally, the people considered (or who consider themselves, at least) the foremost intellectuals of the conservative movement embraced her candidacy with open arms. Bill Kristol even aggressively lobbied the McCain campaign on her behalf. Of course, shouldn’t be particularly surprising, given the strange criteria for being considered a prominent conservative intellectual. Genuinely intelligent moderate dissidents such as Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat are on the fringes; to see who the leadeing conservatives are, just look at the names appearing on the National Review’s “Whither Conservatism” Panel. Yes, there was thoughtful conservative David Brooks, but the other panelists included: Liberal Fascism author Jonah Goldberg, supporter of the Sarah Palin gives me a boner theory Rich Lowry, and wild-eyed conspiracy theorist Andy McCarthy.

Still, the most frightening name on the panel is surely the aforementioned Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard founder and New York Times columnist who’s so smirkingly disingenuous that he makes Shakespeare’s Iago look like a paragon of moral rectitude. Kristol has been and continues to be one of Palin’s foremost cheerleaders, and was a founder of the Project for a New American Century, which promoted unprecedented military expansion and bloody incursions into the Middle East before it was cool.

It was striking to see David Brooks on the list of panelists, given that the list of co-panelists itself seems to confirm his harshest criticisms of the conservative movement: that it currently has “no coherent belief system, [and] no leaders.” If Goldberg, Lowry, McCarthy, and Kristol are all the faces of the modern conservative intellectual movement, then said movement is in very deep trouble.

But if their ideas gain any traction in the coming years, we might be the ones who are in even deeper trouble. There’s a growing consensus among the far right that conservatives need to become more conservative, not less, and that McCain’s problem in the last election was that he was too moderate. Right-wing darlings such as Tony Perkins and the powerful house member Mike Pence are arguing for a rightward lurch. Meanwhile, the Project for a New American, which spent the Bush years slumbering thousands of leagues beneath the sea, seems poised to once again rise from its watery tomb and rain terror down upon the mortal world.

Fortunately, even if this run towards the fringes does dominate the conservative movement over the next few years, it is extremely unlikely to make much of an impact on actual policy. The last election saw the voters deliver a harsh repudiation to the modern right wing, and any further movement away from the center is unlikely to be looked upon fondly by the electorate. The dominance of Palin-ism will most likely mean more defeats at the voting booth.

But that doesn’t mean that liberals should cheer on the other side’s craziness. A healthy, functioning democracy needs a healthy, functioning opposition party to hold the party in power accountable. Whatever the short-term partisan gains from letting the conservatives destroy themselves from within, our country would be a hell of a lot better off with fewer Goldbergs.

Ned Resnikoff is a student at NYU and a regular blogger at Pushback.

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