Rebels Without A Cause: Conservatism’s Big Divide

If you have an opinion, there’s probably a brand of conservatism just for you.  If you care most about faith and values, for example, you might consider yourself a social conservative.  Those who worry about preserving the culture are paleo-conservatives, and neo-conservatives consider national security the most pressing issue of our time.

But what if you’re just a conservative?  Unfortunately, thanks to the widening gap between the thinkers and the doers of the movement, this isn’t always easy to define.  The intellectually robust “shared texts” that used to unite conservatives are no longer commonly read. Instead, they have been replaced by books that reinforce natural divisions by carefully marketing to splintered conservative demographics.  As Reagan biographer Steven Hayward wrote :

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat 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…. 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.

Forget Burke, Locke, and Adam Smith – today too many of the conservative movement’s best-sellers are penned by talk show hosts and media personalities whose low-level content would bore the intellectual greats of past decades.  While popular-level works have always and will always be important to any movement, one wonders how long conservative activists will be able to continue their efforts without the support of the high-level intellectuals whose thoughts sparked so many successful campaigns.  Hayward continues,

Of course, it’s hard to say whether conservative intellectuals are simply out of interesting ideas or if the reading public simply finds their ideas boring. Both possibilities (and they are not mutually exclusive) should prompt some self-criticism on the right. Conservatism has prospered most when its attacks on liberalism have combined serious alternative ideas with populist enthusiasm. When the ideas are absent, the movement has nothing to offer — except opposition. That doesn’t work for long in American politics.

The Right can’t rest forever on the backs of the Buckley’s and Blackwell‘s who so successfully matched philosophy and action; if it is to grow and thrive in the coming years young activists must understand and duplicate their mentors’ integration:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

This much-needed balance was not an accident of earlier times, but was rather the result of intentional efforts to keep ideas and actions in an appropriate tension.  As conservative great Morton Blackwell reminded young conservatives over twenty years ago,

“The prideful conservative intellectual who avoids association with less elegant men of action may doom his cause… In our day we need still more conservatives who are first philosophically sound and then technologically proficient and movement oriented.  We must teach young intellectuals that a flattering and seductive talisman which they do not fully understand will not guarantee them success…. Good ideas have desirable consequences only if we act intelligently for them.”

If conservatives of all sorts really want to resurrect the sort of successes they enjoyed in Reagan’s glory days, they must intentionally school themselves in the seminal texts, not merely allow themselves to be marketed to – and divided by – the latest best seller. ‘