The Closing of the Conservative Mind

If you’re unclear what’s wrong with conservatism these days, I urge you to check out the tragicomic dustup accidentally provoked last week by my colleague Jerry Taylor at National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow recount of the fracas, but happily a convenient compendium of the relevant links is provided here. Go read the whole thing; you’ll be entertained, that’s for sure. For present purposes, suffice it to say that Jerry made two basic points: (1) talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not popular outside the conservative movement; and (2) the two have a habit of making “dodgy” arguments even when their positions are sound. He might have added that the sky is blue and A comes before Z. For his effrontery Jerry was verbally beaten to a pulp by his fellow Cornerites.

The whole thing seems like an updated version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, except this time the crowd turns on the truth-telling kid and gives him the Rodney King treatment. And that response to Jerry’s innocent and obvious points captures the essence of what has gone wrong with the conservative movement. That the flagship publication of the movement will brook no criticism of demagogic blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity says it all:  A movement founded on the premise that “ideas have consequences” has suffered a calamitous decline in intellectual standards.

Richard Posner agrees. In a recent blog post, he offered this withering assessment of the state of the conservative mind:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of managment and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.

I don’t endorse every detail of Posner’s bill of indictment, but the broad thrust is correct. Movement conservatism has regressed to something like the days before National Review was founded – back when Lionel Trilling could say that conservatism consisted of nothing but “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” And as Jerry’s trip to the woodshed demonstrates, those gestures can be very irritable indeed! Conservatism today has degenerated into a species of especially unattractive populism, pandering to the pro-torture-and-wiretapping, anti-gay-and-Mexican prejudices of a dwindling, increasingly sectarian, increasingly regional “base.”

Some who sympathize with libertarian and free-market causes are cheered by the anti-government rhetoric and Tea Party theatrics now increasingly in evidence on the right. Perhaps, they think, the old Goldwater-Reagan conservatism is making a comeback. Sorry, but I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, I worry that good free-market ideas are going to get tainted by association with an increasingly brutish identity politics for angry white guys and the women who love them.

In order to make gains for the cause of limited government, we need to convince smart people that we are right. We need to win the battle of ideas in the intellectual realm by making better arguments than our opponents, and we need to educate the public so that it is less susceptible over time to “rational irrationality.” None of this can be accomplished by consorting with and apologizing for merchants of intellectual junk food, or by making common cause with some of the ugliest cultural attitudes in contemporary America. Greater economic freedom will not come with pitchforks and torches; it will come, as it has in the past, by reshaping the elite consensus.