Tuesday, October 6, 2009

'Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?'

The question above was asked by Steven F. Hayward in this Sunday's Washington Post. Heyward is not a liberal attacking conservatism's philosophical and intellectual foundations but, rather, a conservative bemoaning the lack of intellectual heft among the ideological leadership of the movement. The spirit of Mr. Hayward's article is best summed up in this quote from his last paragraph:

The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left's belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking "markets" and "liberty."

This is, in somewhat altered words, the very same indictment leveled against today's conservative writers, television and radio pundits, and political leadership by the left. The right is suffering from a drastic drought of thought and policy. There is, increasingly, far less 'idea' in its 'ideology' than ever before.

I know I'm not alone on the left in wanting to see an intellectually robust conservative movement challenging assumed truths among the liberal establishment. A viable opposition gives Americans freedom of choice and it challenges liberals to deliver on their promises and reevaluate their dogmas. The current state of American politics is a shambles. An intellectually vital liberal movement is weighed down by the accumulated emotional baggage of twelve years of cynicism with GOP control of the House, Senate, White House, or all the above. The GOP has lost all touch with its conservative and its progressive roots. Instead it has become the battleground between a neoconservative movement which combines the worst qualities of conservatives and liberals while neglecting the core philosophical values of both and a twisted populist movement entirely opposed to intellectualism or individual moral freedom.

The problem is that Mr. Hayward's idea of intellectualism starts well enough, but then falls short of the mark. I certainly have a great deal of respect for the late William F. Buckley Jr. and his undeniable intellectual heft, but the examples that Mr. Hayward cites of modern bright spots in the search for new conservative intellectuals fall short.

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.

Citing Jonah Goldberg's work of intellectually dishonest political polemic as the scholarly heir to the work of Buckley, Friedman, or Fukuyama is evidence that Mr. Hayward himself is part of the same conservative intellectual wasteland he bemoans. Goldberg does not propose policy or advance theory, instead he busies himself with the attacking of a fascist strawman given a liberal label so as to avoid having to think for himself. It's not even his strawman, it's one borrowed from Ann Coulter. The fact that Coulter is one of the 'sound bite conservatives' listed as poor substitutes for the great conservative thinkers in Mr. Hayward's own piece casts some doubt on the sound intellectual basis for Goldberg's work.

Hayward also cites Glenn Beck as a sign of hope for the future of conservative intellectualism. Glenn Beck?

So Hayward is correct in his assessment of conservatism's problems but falls short on finding solutions because he himself appears to be part of that problem. "Better than invoking 'markets' and 'liberty'"would appear to mean comparing liberals to fascists by means of intellectual dishonesty. It is worth noting that the 'intellectual work' of his own whose poor sales performance he bemoans is not a work of theory or policy. It is a political history of the Reagan years in two volumes.

The reason for the dearth of intellectualism in the conservative movement is because neither of the two fundamental conservative ideological wellsprings of today are particularly friendly toward intellectualism.

On the one hand we have the neoconservative movement. This movement can best be defined, politically, as 'corporate populism.' In an economic sense, it is fundamentally mercantilist rather than capitalist. The idea is that state sponsorship of business (and the wealthy corporate managerial class that runs business) and the inclusion of business into the governmental circles of economic policy will ensure prosperity. The goal of the neoconservatives is the 'ownership society' advocated by Republicans not too many years ago and could be far better described as a 'management society.' Managerial types find intellectuals useful but are dismissive of real individualism, which they believe undermine corporations and states alike. Intellectuals are just another 'human resource.'

On the other hand is the religious right. For obvious reasons, the religious right is entirely hostile to any intellectualism that contradicts its own dogma. The embrace a nasty 'populist' streak that indicts all dissenters as 'elitist.' Their advocation for 'ordinary Americans' is dubious at best. Their 'populism' is itself elitist. Only those who share their views can claim any legitimacy at all and those who disagree with them are automatically wrong because they disagree. They are rooted entirely in what Ayn Rand called the 'Argument from Faith' and the 'Argument from Tradition.' Religious dogma and 'traditional values' are inherently superior to anything new. Thus anything new or anything that threatens to contradict dogma are automatically evil. Rand's 'Argument from Logic', on which she based the fundamental pinions of libertarian capitalist conservatism as she saw it, is itself suspect because of the threat logic presents to dogma. Anyone arguing from logic or expressing rational basis for why their ideas are better is an 'elitist' who considers themselves better than their opponent. This last is particularly ironic as the fundamental assumption of the religious right is that they are inherently superior by dint of salvation and dissenters are inherently wrong and likely inherently damned.

This 'populist elitism' has become the grass roots of the conservative movement and the base of the Republican Party. Its leaders attempt to assert themselves over the movement as a whole while neoconservatives seek to manipulate the grass roots to their advantage.

So we have a conservative movement with two heads. The first head is fundamentally opposed to what could be properly called 'conservative priniciples' and is instead an authoritarian and utopian ideology of 'management.' The second head nurtures many core conservative principles but is entirely opposed to intellectualism. Both are inherently hostile to individuality, the first being hostile to anything that threatens the corporate body and the latter being hostile to individual moral freedom.

Add this to the inability of theauthor to properly differentiate intellectual vitality from either self-referential politico-historical scholarship or intellectually dishonest polemic and it's hard to see a solution to the problem that Mr. Hayward describes.

Note: Thanks to the blog Delaware Liberal and blogger 'Unstable Isotope' for bringing Mr. Hayward's piece to my attention.


Unadultered Truth said...

I can't say that conservatism is completely dead.. they make the right decision some of the time... not everyone is perfect but the people that we elect to be our "officials" don't always make the right decisions... the reason is such: they are human beings capable of mistakes.
Now as an unaffiliated non-voter I have a biased opinion because the government of my state doesn't allow me to vote because I am a felon; should a felony deprive me of the right to voice my opinion and make me ineligible to voice my opinion on whom I wish to make my decisions for me? Or, am I still the pariah to to society that gave me a debt that I have already paid? I've paid my time with aloneness, abandonment and with various other types of personal freedoms that can never be retained or returned because of a mistake make years ago. But, now that one is free and back in the real world, I'm not viewed as a person as you or another "record-free" individual may be. Is that right or wrong?
Some people feel differently on the matter whether they be donkeys or elephants.
The world is full of mistakes and the people whom make them.
But, should someone always be recognized for the mistakes that they make, or the good that they may have in them or have already accomplished?
It is said that two wrongs don't make a right, but one wrong can definitely erase a right. Simple play on words but its the complete unadulterated truth.

Chris Richards said...

'...should a felony deprive me of the right to voice my opinion and make me ineligible to voice my opinion on whom I wish to make my decisions for me?'

I realize this wasn't the point of your comment, but I can't help but address it. No. A felony should not make you ineligible to voice your opinion on whom you wish to make public decisions. Of course, it doesn't. Nothing is stopping you from /voicing/ your opinion.

Too many states have voting restrictions on convicted felons and that is simply wrong. It's part of a general 'law and order' movement in American culture that is fundamentally hostile to basic human rights.

More on point: I would be very happy to see a vital, energetic conservative intellectual revival. The problem right now, however, is that political conservatism (at least in the United States) is stuck struggling through an intellectual swamp.

My point in specifically singling out this article was to cast a certain amount of light on the author's 'solution' to a problem a lot of people on the right AND left recognize. His definition of genuine 'intellectual' conservative work is NOT political theory or productive policy. It's self-adulating political history (the two-volume set about the Reagan years he mentions writing himself) and intellectually dishonest polemic (Jonah Goldberg's 'Liberal Fascism') that works upon a theme borrowed from a talk radio host.

It's Glenn Beck.

This suddenly puts the rest of his piece into a very different light.