The conservative intellectual tradition has been something of a hot topic among the academic/public intellectual sphere over the last few years. The rapid rise of the Tea Party three years ago (and its just as quick absorption into the Republican Party) jarred many Americans, who were probably stunned by the amount of vitriolic dislike that many average people had against Barack Obama the President. This led to a period of renewed interest in modern day conservative ideas, to the extent that respected scholars of intellectual history like Mark Lilla would actually spend time writing about and deciphering the meaning of Glenn Beck.
Then, last year Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, published The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin – a book that has stirred a fair amount of debate and controversy. Robin, who blogs/tweets on conservatism regularly at his website, essentially argues that there is a common tendency to defend hierarchy that is present throughout the conservative tradition, thereby linking diverse conservative figures across time and intellectual affiliation. Not only that, but conservatism has also been quite adept at morphing its own ideas and adapting to the socio-historical context of its times in order to successfully perpetuate these ideas of natural hierarchy, whether of one form or another. Responses have ranged across the spectrum. Lilla disliked it, calling Robin an “uber-lumper” who “set an example to avoid.” A little while later, Alex Gourevitch of McMaster University provided a rebuttal to Lilla that was praised on the left, and has just published his own review of the book.
Over at his Deliberately Considered blog, Jeffrey Goldfarb, professor of sociology at The New School, has devoted some energy to finding conservative intellectuals with whom to engage. The whole series of posts needs to be read through on its own, but eventually the intellectual archdeacon of paleoconservatism Paul Gottfried obliged to weigh in, calling the Republican Party a “corrupting influence on the right” and comparing the true Right to the Christian kingdoms of Spain in the middle ages that hung on and bided their time until they were once again powerful enough to push the Moors out of Europe. If there’s one thing conservatism never lacked, its poetic imagination.
Finally, continuing this theme of renewed interest in conservatism Russell Jacoby has published a scathing review of David Gelernter’s America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) – a book that, according to Jacoby’s review, can essentially be judged by its title. But I care less about Gelernter’s argument than a more important point raised by Jacoby: that while the tide of popular opinion on the whole tends to run conservative in America, the day of The Conservative Intellectual has passed. After all, it was only months ago that we were exposed daily to the figure of Newt Gingrich as the intellectual/academic of the Republican nominees. Some liberals even lamented the passing of William Buckley Jr. as the last figure of an era when public voices of conservatism were not just ideologues, but individuals genuinely interested in ideas and a form of sophisticated discourse that is nearly impossible to find in American politics today.
At the same time, Jacoby points out that today’s conservatives are convinced of the notion that the Left won the war of Ideas in the ’60s, and so fixate on intellectuals as the group to blame for this turn of events. As he writes, “Confronted by social upheavals, conservative intellectuals tend to blame other intellectuals—socialist, liberal, secular—as the cause. They perceive political unrest as rooted in fallacious ideas advanced by misguided thinkers and indict the educational system for inculcating subversion.” The outcome is dialectically ironic: Conservatives’ focus on preserving high culture against the leveling effects of the masses leads them to emphasize ideas as the principal factor in this change and the terrain on which the battle has been fought; yet the longer the battle goes on, the more do ideas devolve into simple sloganeering and a general paucity of discourse.
Fittingly, Jacoby’s conclusion is grim:
What’s happened to intellectual life on the right? Conservatives may be succumbing to their default position. Most of the candidates for this year’s Republican presidential nomination denied the veracity of evolution; and, according to various polls, Republicans increasingly distrust science. As the world becomes more threatening, many people seek simple answers, and many Americans conclude that an elite—from which they are excluded—must be the source of the ills. They turn on intellectuals, professors, and presumably the specialized knowledge those experts trade in. Instead of resisting that tendency, conservative intellectuals such as Gelernter encourage it. In their flight from elitism, they end up in a populist swamp peopled by autodidacts and fundamentalists. They become cheerleaders for a world without intellectuals, hastening a future in which they themselves will be irrelevant.
If Jacoby’s (and to some extent, Gottfried’s) logic is followed, the disappearance of the conservative intellectual has had at least something to do with the pressure felt by the right in the era of mass electoral politics to reach voters by simplifying political problems and appealing to existing popular biases. Whereas American liberalism throughout the last century has consistently appealed to a progressive, technocratic rationale promoting social values like expertise, science, and education, American conservatives have had to reconcile the Jacksonian/Bryanist appeal to folksy wisdom and common sense with the strand of elitist republicanism that has survived, with some variation, from the Federalists to the Eisenhower Republicans to the neoconservatives. In the experience of the last decade, the skepticism of the American public to elites of any kind – whether liberal college professors, neoconservative geostrategists, or Wall Street financiers – has led to a kind of populist moment that the Republican Party has more successfully incorporated into its political program (the Mitt Romney Presidential candidacy notwithstanding). In this kind of political climate, much like Jacoby points out, the conservative intellectual has been made redundant in a public role, for now. Whether this remains a fact behind closed doors and if it will stay this way, I don’t know.