What’s the Matter with Conservatism?

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.

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2 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Conservatism?

  1. An interesting reflection on the state of so-called conservative politics. But I can’t help but wonder if there is a deeper disconnect going on here that most scholars aren’t addressing, which is the separation of public education from civic politics. Case in point, your man Gelernter was on Lou Dobbs recently (http://video.foxbusiness.com/v/1708290734001/are-universities-public-schools-dismantling-american-culture/) arguing that it’s the “liberal” education which is destroying America, yet on poll after poll, survey after survey, and year after year, every single indicator suggests that the average American citizen is getting more stupid and less informed about the world around them, while simultaneously asserting a privileged claim to “truth” as they define it.

    I’ve seen this most clearly in the climate politics, where some recent studies have shown that the group with the highest level of denial about climate change are conservative, white males who claim to be the most informed about the science of climate change. So it’s not that they are anti-intellectual, but rather they have pre-defined, within a capitalist, evangelical teleology, what is able to constitute a valid truth claim.

    Although sharing something in common with the general anti-intellectual tradition of conservatives historically, what we are seeing now is, I think, something quite different than conservative anti-intellectualism. Rather, it’s ignorant people claiming they are intelligent, and then attacking those “progressives” or any others making empirical-based arguments against pure ideology. This puts the progressive/left in the odd position of trying to defend “truth” against right while attacks, while also attacking the idea of conservative/right “Truth” claims themselves. The result is a left/progressive movement in the US, and I would argue in much of the world, with no moral foundations (“T” truths), and therefore, no basis for popular support to challenge these trends. And given the amount of power that a small circle of energy, finance and tech elites wield in Washington and London, don’t expect to see any of this change anytime soon. So what’s to be done?

  2. These are fair points, Chris, although I think what you say is also compatible with my argument. The conservative anti-intellectualism I have in mind is a kind of populist skepticism of the wisdom of elites and of the idea that those who enjoy a social status as professionals of one sort or another have greater insights into how the world works. In contrast to this, they put forward the wisdom of the common man, acquired through the social tropes of American Protestant conservative ideology like hard work, frugality, common sense, and just good old fashioned experience. So I think it’s not that they are opposed to the intellect as such, but simply to the notion that those who rely on the intellect as a vocation can know better about how one should live. And like you say, they certainly do rely on a particular kind of Truth claim for this judgment: the validity of Scripture as accessible to every man.

    The problem of progressivism you point to is an important one, and part of what I had in mind when I wrote about the technocratic tendencies of American liberalism. I think the roots of this can be traced back to Progressivism the early twentieth century, and especially to the influence of American pragmatism as a post-foundational, post-metaphysical philosophy. The scope was narrowed from the quest for a perennial Truth to the problem of discovering many truths or solutions, as innumerable as the problems that humanity encounters. But Progressivism also had a large base of public support in those years – I suspect larger than those who today would say they support the idea of a liberal technocracy. So while the lack of moral foundations is part of the story, factors like the pressure of electoral politics and the revolution in media have also played crucial roles in today’s attitudes toward intellectual discourse.

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