Conservative Malaise?

Julie Ponzi

October 1, 2009

Not since Jimmah’ donned the sweater has there been so much apparent anguish over a made-for-TV crisis of confidence. Now, it would be putting it much too strongly to say that I think this question of the “de-intellectualization” of the conservative movement is much ado about nothing. It would be putting it too strongly to suggest that I think all worries about excessive populism on our side are nothing more than intellectual snobbery and foppishness masquerading as genuine concern about the truth of the matter. It’s not only that. There is real and legitimate concern for the direction of the movement—most especially because it does not appear (at least for the moment) to be moving anywhere. It does not seem to be dynamic or persuasive … at least not to groups not already inclined to be persuaded. So it is perfectly natural and certainly healthy to ask questions about why we seem to be up against a wall.

But it is still fair to say that a good bit of this existential questioning is less a crisis and more a bit of preening self-indulgent, narcissistic and, dare I say, cowardly exhibitionism? (And no, a cowardly exhibitionist is not an oxymoron.) In addition to some precious and sentimental nostalgia about conservatism’s so-called “Glory Days” (you know, back when there were only three or four national publications with a conservative bent), I’d also add that there’s an unseemly amount of whining coming from some quarters in the conservative intellectual class about not getting the “recognition” that they deserve, especially when it comes to cash. Well, duh!? It seems rarely to occur to many a would-be philosophic soul that he ought to be content when he’s not offered a cocktail laced with hemlock. And when he’s lucky enough to be at all gainfully employed in the “occupation” of public philosophizing, perhaps he should content himself with the possibility that one of his more marketable students might popularize a few of his ideas and, thereby, score for himself some of the lucre, fame, and “recognition” this teacher thinks that he, himself, deserves. Perhaps that famous student might also throw the teacher a bone of thanks. But then, perhaps not. No matter. If and when those thanks are offered, a good number in this bunch will not be satisfied… they will find some fault in the work of their proteges and continue their lament about the stupidity of the world. Philosophers like that will never rule—however much the world needs their wisdom. Reagan was no philosopher, maybe. But he waxed philosophic when he noted that it was amazing how much one can accomplish when he’s not concerned about who gets the credit.

In that spirit, I find very little with which to quibble today in this fine post from Jonah Goldberg—though I’d heap even more praise on Steve Hayward’s measured and thoughtful piece in last Friday’s Washington Post. I’d also note that Steve was very clever to give the thing the title he gave it … and that Peter Schramm is right to note that the Huffington Post was not clever enough to read beyond it (much less into it). No Straussians there, I guess, but you’d think they’d find a few to hire if for no other reason than translation purposes. But … let it go. (See also Jonah’s USA Today column on Glenn Beck and I will repeat my admonition not to miss the podcast with Steve Hayward over at Infinite Monkeys.)

It seems to me, however, that apart from the most obviously annoying aspects of this complaint about the “crassness” of the conservative movement (which I admit strikes me mainly out of a sentiment of disgust with its lack of charity for ordinary well-meaning people doing the best they can with limited political leadership and busy lives that are not—gasp!—dedicated to the study of politics) there also seems to be an amazing amount of missing the point. Which is funny, considering that so much of the criticism stems from a concern for a supposed lack of reflection on the Right.

If conservatism has hit a wall or if it has maxed out as a movement and is incapable of persuading anyone other than the masses it’s already garnered to itself, is the fault with the natural inclinations of sentiment that lead so many to conservatism or, rather, is the fault with some aspect of its argument that remains unpersuasive (or unknown) to the yet unpersuaded? The sense of so many people that conservatism had been taking it in the shorts until talk radio (and a host of other popularizers) came around and made it cool to be conservative again is not simply wrong. Tired as the argument may be, it is true that conservatives have long been in the minority in the media, in the arts, in the corridors of most leading universities and even in the classrooms of the minor league ones (to say nothing of the elementary and secondary education systems). People were not simply wrong to suggest that “if only” conservatism could “get its message out there” the support would follow. Political movements, after all, are not (or, rather, ought not to be) fraternities or sports teams that pride themselves on their exclusivity. Conservatism certainly did need a PR campaign of sorts. And beginning in the early to mid-1990s, it began to get one. It was built, and they did come—at least they came to listen or to watch and even, sometimes, to read. The lament now seems to be that those who came did not, in that listening and watching, learn properly to play the game from watching the commercial.

For there are some people who have a way of turning up their noses at PR campaigns. This stuff is beneath them, don’tcha know? It’s rather vulgar and tasteless… and, besides, it’s short on subtlety and substance. Yeah, it is. And so… what’s your point? It brought conservatism an audience. This is where the intellectuals are supposed to enter, stage right. And to their credit, many did. In the twenty plus years I’ve been at this stuff, I don’t recall a time before now when I’d meet with as many folks in day-to-day ordinary life who could rattle off names that I recognize from what I had previously considered to be only scholarly or obscure reading. I don’t recall a time when my unwillingness to purchase cable television seemed to put me at a disadvantage in recounting arguments from leading thinkers when accosted by my parents or their friends or people I run into at my kids’ school or in the grocery store. I don’t recall them ever suggesting that I go get a book or check out an article in a conservative journal before the advent of FOX News. But now it happens with a regularity that I ought to find humbling… that is, I would, if I weren’t already so humble.

So why are the priests in the temple now complaining that the masses now have the printing press and are learning to read? My suggestion to them is to learn to offer a coherent political argument and then learn to make a persuasive political case for it. Yes, this is difficult work—much harder than communing with your peers. It’s wonderful that you’ve enjoyed your years in the intellectual wilderness and that you’ve made good use of your time at the monastery communing your intellectual equals. But now you are called upon to edify the huddled masses… show us. Where’s the beef?

The beef or, rather, my beef with too many conservative intellectuals is that a good number of them seem to lack an understanding of the nature of the thing they seek to combat. What is today’s liberalism? While they obsess and fret about liberalism’s or (more accurately) progressivism’s victories, not enough of them are asking the obvious questions they ought to be asking about why progressivism is still fighting the battles that it began more than 70 years ago. After 70 plus years, why hasn’t progressivism been as utterly successful in transforming American politics and the American character as they seek to be? Why does every success of progressivism come wrapped up with in a paper that looks, amazingly, like our very own Constitution? Why are so many Americans still inclined to be conservatives (in the American rather than in the British sense of the term)? And why, given all of that, does conservatism seem to have such a rebellious sort of energy to it these days?

Jonah hints at it when he suggests that this is a “moment” (though only a “moment”) for conservatives to gird their loins and shout “NO!” That’s true, though incomplete. It’s not just that we like to oppose change for opposition’s sake. And it’s not just that we’re in a re-grouping mode after the defeats of the last election and the stunning audacity of the White House’s current occupant. It’s that the nature of the changes proposed is decidedly contrary to SOMETHING. Hmmm… what could that be? What is it that conservatives, in their bones and in their hearts (if not always so clearly in their heads) want to conserve?

I will leave it on this note: if conservatism these days looks a little rebellious, a little loud and a little uncouth, it ought to be remembered that the Constitution and laws our intellectuals love to revere came after the Revolution. That is to say, only after the principle of government with the consent of the governed was secured could we move on to a rational debate about the best ways of securing it in perpetuity. I don’t suggest that we need the equivalent of a revolution before we can get on with more rational political discourse at this time. We’ve already had our revolution and, God willing, I pray we never need another one. We’ve already put into place an instrument designed to preserve the principles of that Revolution. For more than 230 years, it has done that job with an amazing amount of efficiency; even in spite of the head-on efforts of three-generations of progressives. But the Constitution, though not “living” as the Progressives would have it, is neither a dead nor mechanical thing. It will not work in perpetuity without a citizenry firmly dedicated to the principles that caused us to create it. We do not need another revolution, but we do have to rescue the principle of government by consent (and all that it implies) before we can expect to see a turning down of the political volume. As long as that principle is under assault by a significant portion of the political class, Americans will do what Americans have always done best. We are an ornery people at heart. It takes ornery people to do something so audacious as to declare that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights. It takes an ornery people to imagine that self-government is a possibility in a world that is much more familiar with despotism.

Yes, we’ll need reflection and choice to shepherd us through this rescue mission. But we’re also going to need to rally the troops around the right ideas before we can begin, in earnest, to rein them in.

Julie Ponzi, a graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program, is a former professor of American Politics and, now, a stay-at-home mom. She is also an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a regular contributor to the Ashbrook Center’s blog, No Left Turns.