Friday, October 10, 2008

American Conservatism and Anti-Intellectualism: A Response to David Brooks

You might forgive David Brooks for thinking that the history of American conservatism started with William F. Buckley. In today's column, he begins,
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn’t believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.
Yes, he qualifies his history with the bland modifier "modern." But the point is, for David Brooks, there is no other conservatism, because, at least in America, there is no intellectual conservatism until Buckley. For David Brooks, conservatism is only vital when it is intellectual—though if you pushed him on what "intellectual" means, I'm not sure he'd have a very solid answer, maybe something like "based on ideas." But if he were self-perceptive, he'd recognize that it means "led by people like me, who write and think, and don't govern."

Which is really the key difference between National Review-brand conservatism and Palin-brand conservatism, not, as Brooks thinks, between an original, pure-hearted conservatism that "disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but... did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind" and a latter-day post-lapsarian conservatism that threw the intellectual baby out with the liberal bathwater. But the difference isn't temporal—isn't a before and after.

The real story is this, and it's tragic how little of it Brooks or any of his compatriots understand is this:

National Review and these "life of the mind" Burkean conservatives—Kirk, Hart, Brooks, even Buckley—never really ran the Republican Party, and they never really built its governing policy. They were court philosophers, maybe used to attract young conservatives who took the ideas these men generated as the real soul of the Republican Party, but who could be turned into regular old political operatives after awhile. That Brooks reads Reagan's presidency in this fashion: "Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working through them" is hilarious, but at the same time very sad, because Brooks wasn't the only person duped by Reagan's supposed warmth toward intellectuals. In a way we all were, liberal and conservative alike, because I think very few people saw how little restraint there was within Republican governance, how utterly reckless its most basic policies were. We allowed ourselves to think that Burke or Hayek or someone had at least something to do with what Republicans intended for the country.

But there has never been a real whisper of Burke or even Hayek in the Republican Party's actual day-to-day operation or in the policies of the Republican presidents in the period Brooks refers to as "modern conservatism." There was never a fall from intellectual grace, when the Republican Party started demonizing the very notion of thinking. The people who wanted to make thinking central to the Republican Party simply never succeeded.

You can say, I suppose, that Barry Goldwater proves me wrong—that at one bright shining moment, intellectual conservatism did control the party. But it seems to me that Goldwater's candidacy never really represented control of the Republican Party. Intellectual conservatives like to look at Goldwater's epic failure in 1964 created the ashes from which a resurgent conservatism rose, and they assume that the conservatism that did triumph in 1968 was made up of those ashes, or at least incorporated those ashes. I think that's completely incorrect—Nixon did not, in any way, fulfill the promise(s) intellectual conservatives saw in Goldwater. And neither did Reagan or Bush I or II.

I think we need to question severely the assumptions that have led us (liberals/progressives) to respond to contemporary conservatism as an ideology, with arguments and theories. There are, of course, "conservative" arguments and theories and philosophies, but I think they bear the same relation to the phenomenon of conservative governance as "nationalist" philosophies and arguments and theories do to the phenomenon of nationalism. To quote Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, "nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which - as well as against which - it came into being."

I can't speak too well to the dynamics or the character of conservatism pre-WWII. However, in the introduction of The Liberal Imagination (1950), Lionel Trilling wrote, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." Supposedly, Buckley and his camp changed that permanently. But looking around at conservatism as it actually exists today, you either have to say that their reign was very brief or that it never occurred. For David Brooks, at least the former preserves some pride.

More: Andrew Sullivan is going through this too, and I feel a lot worse for him than for Brooks, mostly because Brooks's version of the decline and fall of the Republican Party is mostly about how people stopped listening to him. Sullivan simply isn't self-centered like that.
What Rove never realized is that many of us fought hard for intellectual and moral respect for conservatism in college and grad school, only to have our efforts turned into a joke by the crassness of the Party Of Rove. There were only a few self-described conservatives at Harvard when I was there, and I spent a great deal of time losing friends, breaking up dinners, offending professors because I was a) right of center and b) obviously academically serious. And now I'm supposed to defend Sarah Palin? As vice-president? I mean: seriously?
I'm not sure Rove never realized that—it's more likely that "Rove" (meaning basically all top-level Republican strategists since Nixon's '68 campaign) never cared.

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