Friday, October 10, 2008

The Fall (and Eventual Rise) of the Conservative Intellectual

(via Memeorandum)

For all the problems libertarians should and do have with David Brooks (who is as unlibertarian a conservative as they come), the fact is that he is a gifted writer who makes a sincere attempt at intellectual honesty capable of getting well beyond standard political talking points. His column yesterday is typical of that intellectual honesty and, I think, describes one of the GOP's central problems right now to a "T." It's tough to pick one quote that does the whole piece justice, but this quote fairly well sums up his point:

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads. Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts. What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.

As a result, says Brooks, the GOP has completely alienated the educated classes through a form of class warfare at the same time as its economic policy views have alienated large segments of the working class. In a thoughtful response that thoroughly supplements Brooks' piece, publius at ObsidianWings writes that the real problem that has pushed intellectuals away is the GOP's "nasty embrace of social views that [intellectuals] find stupid and repellent."

I think they're both right. But more importantly, I think they both put in perspective not only how the coalition of the Right is withering away, but also (perhaps inadvertently) provide some useful insight into how the coalition of the Right will be restructured in the aftermath of this election. What little intellectual infrastructure the GOP had was a combination of Burkean conservatives like Buckley or Kirk, libertarianish economists, and neoconservative intellectuals. Of course, coastal intellectuals don't translate into votes in the Southeast and Middle America - former Dem strongholds that didn't start moving to the GOP until the 60s. And so entered the rise of religious-based conservatism, which was - at least initially - relatively compatible with the GOP intellectual elite on the leading issues of the time. Of course, issues change, and eventually that compatibility began to crack, a topic on which I've written extensively before. Since the (inherently anti-intellectual) religious-based conservatism most easily translated into votes, it was only natural that appeals to it would become increasingly central to any electoral strategy. But as the GOP philosophy became less coherent, the party was forced to turn to something that would allow religious conservatives to ignore the incompatibility while still maintaining enough of their other positions to keep the other philosophical strains in the fold: fear (and yes, the Dems are no less willing to deploy fear as an electoral strategy when it suits their purposes - they just deploy it on different issues). The problem, however, was that there are a lot of unintended consequences when you deploy fear as an electoral strategy - most notably, as publius says, the religious conservatives (and really movement conservatives as a whole) became the brooms from the Sorcerer's Apprentice. The increasingly heated rhetoric coming from these stoked flames inevitably took on a hateful and anti-intellectual tone, causing conservatives of the more Burkean and neo-conservative variety, including Brooks himself, to become increasingly lukewarm in their support of the GOP. The more libertarian intellectuals have increasingly left the GOP coalition entirely.

However, that is not to say that GOP intellectualism is permanently dead, replaced by a purely theocratic vision of the world. Neo-conservatives and Burkeans have largely remained within the fold even as they have been less vocal in their partisanship. Their problem with the party, I suspect, is more a problem with tactics than philosophy - neo-conservatism as a philosophy plays particularly well with others, and Burkean conservatives largely agree with many of the prescriptions of the more theorcratically-inclined, if not their tactics and rhetoric. Instead, these intellectuals have begun to push for something akin to a new type of "movement conservatism" that more properly reflects the current makeup of the GOP coalition and can help the party's standing with the working class.

With libertarians leaving the party in droves, the remaining GOP opinion-makers are increasingly free to abandon free market rhetoric; put another way, they have become smaller and thus have to please fewer groups. The result? National Greatness Conservatism and so-called Sam's Club Republicans, two worldviews that are 1. intellectually honest; 2. capable of appealing to the GOP base; 3. capable of eventually bringing in groups not currently in the GOP coalition; 4. are currently quite compatible with each other; and 5. are completely incompatible with any version of libertarianism.

In many ways, the reason I was unsurprised by - and correctly predicted - the success of McCain and Huckabee in the primaries was that they each represented one of these (coherent) worldviews, allowing them to appear "authentic" and "sincere," traits that are required to get votes from thoughtful voters. Romney, who tried to represent each leg of the Coalition's so-called "stool," including libertarians, came across as insincere and robotic and, as a result, completely untrustworthy. But Romney was always going to garner a lot of support from the GOP "base" because his worldview was identical to theirs, defined not by a coherent philosophy but rather by the GOP's Frankenstein's Monster philosophy that was simply a bizarre mish-mosh of various strains of conservatism, libertarianism, and religion.*

So, if McCain actually does represent a coherent philosophy that is capable of both keeping the GOP coalition mostly intact and appealing to other groups, why is he getting beaten so badly by Obama? Several reasons: 1. The fundamentals in this election are really, really bad for any Republican; 2. Although he has largely succeeded in keeping movement conservatives in the fold, this has come at a price of having to sound an awful lot like Romney at times, not to mention doubling-down on fear tactics; 3. New political movements take time to gain steam, especially when they are taking the place of a movement that has fallen into disrepute; 4. He made a really bad choice on his running mate.

All of this is to say that I think Brooks' column (and publius' response) correctly diagnoses what has happened to the GOP. But it is also to say that the GOP's decline is not a death - it will rise again, with the once-dominant ideology of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley subsumed within the ideology of not only Bill Kristol, but also people like Ross Douthat and Brooks himself. Despite publius' hopes, Sarah Palin - who represents the increasingly small segment of Romney-style movement conservatism - will not stay long in the GOP spotlight, at least not in a position of honor. Instead, I think we can expect a GOP in which Mike Huckabee becomes the party sage, delivering the final blow to the last vestiges of libertarianism in the GOP while at the same time stealing ever-more working class (and more importantly, populist-leaning) votes from the Dems. Naturally, this will also make the Dems increasingly less hostile to libertarianism as they trade their least libertarian supporters for libertarianish former Republicans.

*I have written before how adherence to such a "pu-pu platter" philosophy is the inevitable result of becoming overly loyal to a political party, whose policy positions are inherently the result of tradeoffs and logrolling amongst member coalition groups.

UPDATE: More on Brooks' column from Schwenkler, who thinks the current state of the party stems largely from a combination of bad ideas and bad candidates. For the reasons I lay out both above and in the comments to John's post, I respectfully disagree with this explanation without disagreeing that the GOP's main Presidential candidates were astoundingly bad. I just think it was no twist of fate that left the GOP with astoundingly bad candidates like Romney and Giuliani.