One of the most debated articles in the conservative interwebs over the last week was an article written by Steven F. Hayward for the Washington Post this past Sunday. Mr. Hayward is a research scholar for the conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute. His article questioned if the conservative movement has gone brain dead – citing different examples from the current breed of conservative “leaders” compared to their forefathers. Party elites, intellects, contributors, “regular folk” populists and grass roots have been debating the merits of this column. Personally, I find this essay interesting but not necessarily correct in its assessment of the current state of conservatism.
The crux of Mr. Hayward’s argument is that the conservative movement that was popularized before and during the Reagan administration has been “dumbed down” and “drowned out” by the shouting of the current populist movement. In some ways, I agree with him. While I value the opposition presented in some of the arguments against current policies it shouldnt be the meat of the argument. In my opinion, to properly oppose, you need to present valuable alternatives. That is where the party intellectuals need to come in and provide ideas. During the heyday of the Reagan years, it was the presentation of alternative ideas that led to most success the Republican Party has ever seen. Mr. Hayward says:
During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.
Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.
Later in the article, Mr. Hayward speaks directly to how our current media cycle is essentially brain-washing who we consider party leaders. It makes sense when you consider how for months the debate was if Rush Limbaugh was the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Is it true? No. But it is sensible to see those with the largest media presence are regarded as larger influences than some more intellectual hosts.
It’s tempting to blame all this on the new media landscape. The populist conservative blockbusters of today have one thing in common: Most are written by media figures, either radio or TV hosts, or people who, like Coulter and Malkin, get lots of TV exposure. The built-in marketing advantage is obvious. The left thinks talk radio and Fox News are insidious forces, which shows that they are effective. (Just ask Van Jones and ACORN.) But some on the right think talk radio, especially, has dumbed down the movement, that there is plenty of sloganeering but not much thought, that the blend of entertainment and politics is too outre. John Derbyshire, author of a forthcoming book about conservatism’s future, “We are Doomed,” calls our present condition “Happy Meal Conservatism, cheap, childish and familiar.”
The blend of entertainment and politics is not unique to the right (exhibit No. 1 on the left: “The Daily Show”). And it is perfectly possible to conduct talk radio at a high level of seriousness, and several talkers do well at matching the quality of their shows to their intellectual pedigree. Consider Hugh Hewitt (Michigan Law School), Michael Medved (Yale Law School), William Bennett (Harvard Law and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas) — all three of these brainiacs have popular shows on the Salem Radio Network.
With others — Michael Savage and “Mancow” come to mind — the charge of dumbing down is much more accurate. Rush Limbaugh adheres to Winston Churchill’s adage that you should grin when you fight, and in any case his keen sense of satire makes him deserving of comparison to Will Rogers, who, by the way, was a critic of progressivism. Others among the right’s leading talkers, such as Sean Hannity, seem unremittingly angry and too reflexively partisan on behalf of the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement (they are not the same thing).
After being complimentary to the evolution of Glenn Beck and the populist movement – exceedingly so, in my own opinion – Mr. Hayward hits on what I think conservatives need to focus on as they frame their debates for the next election cycles. If you want to know where to go, you first must understand where you’ve been. And the ideals of conservatism have long been laid; they just need to be re-inforced with our current political landscape in mind.
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.”
Mr. Hayward’s article raised the emotions from differing factions within the party. I see this as a good thing; while it may at times be heated, the best way to move the conservative movement forward is by opening the frank dialogue to how best incorporate all ideas. Ill finish this post with the ideas of Jon Henke at The Next Right. I believe he has the right idea on how to best improve and rebuild the party for the next decade.
The rebuilding and renewal of the Right will start soon. This will be very important. The Right and the Republican Party are at an inflection point, and there are many directions things can go. The destiny of the Right and the Republican Party will be determined in large part by the decisions you make in the days, weeks and months ahead.
- Some of you will say “we have learned our lesson“, and then try to pass off cosmetic changes as Reform. You are the problem.
- Some of you will say “Republicans need to fight/hold Democrats accountable“, as if it is sufficient to be against Democrats. The pendulum may eventually swing back to you, but you won’t know what to do with it.
- Some of you will say “Republicans need to carry our message to the American people“, as if the problem is that Republicans haven’t been saying “tax cuts and limited government” loudly enough. The problem is not the inability to communicate; the problem is that you have no idea how to actually deliver on those ideas.
- Others will say “Republicans need to be more principled“, as if the problem is a mere lack of personal courage and principle by Republicans. Even the best people can’t limit government if there is not an effective strategy for implementation – for getting “from here to there”. You don’t need better people. You need a better strategy.
The problem is not Republican politicians, although many Republicans politicians are a problem. The problem is not with the basic ideals of limited government and personal freedom, either. The problem is a movement that plays small-ball and cedes responsibility for infrastructure to business interests, leadership that rewards those who make friends rather than waves, an entrenched Party and Movement support system that mostly supports itself, an echo chamber that has rotted our intellect, a grassroots that is ill-equipped to shape the Republican Party, and a Republican Party that has replaced strategy with tactics, substance with marketing.