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Tilting at Windmills

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October 4, 2009

INTELLECTUAL BANKRUPTCY.... Noting the passing of Irving Kristol, Slate's Jacob Weisberg argued yesterday that the era of "intellectually serious conservatism" has also died.

Weisberg's pitch is simple but persuasive: Republicans have given up on being the "party of ideas," have no plausible alternatives to major policy challenges, and don't take policy matters seriously at all. Conservatives, Weisberg said, have "devolved" so far, "ostensibly intelligent people [are] cheering on Sarah Palin." With the rise of neoconservatives, the right's focus shifted to political power, and away from interest in policy.

Now, Weisberg holds Irving Kristol's work in much higher regard than I do -- which is to say, Weisberg finds value in Kristol's efforts and I don't -- but the larger point is compelling. The political right of the 21st century is obviously and shamelessly intellectually bankrupt.

It's a concern Steven F. Hayward, a conservative writer at the American Enterprise Institute, also touched on today. Whereas the conservative movement used to strike a balance between "the intellectuals" and "the activists," the right's thinkers are now "retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas."

Consider the "tea party" phenomenon. Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. Meanwhile, the "birthers" have become the "grassy knollers" of the right; their obsession with Obama's origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama's putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn't have found it 18 months ago?)

Hayward laments the fact that Malkin and Coulter sell best-selling "red-meat titles," but the "intellectual works" are "conspicuously missing."

Which is not to say Hayward is despondent. He believes Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism" is an intellectual text, and he believes Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, and William Bennett are "brainiacs" with "popular" talk shows. Hayward is also impressed with Glenn Beck's reading habits and choice of authors and guests. Beck, Hayward argued, has demonstrated an "interest in serious analysis of liberalism's patrimony."

Where Hayward finds hope, in other words, is with Jonah Goldberg, Hugh Hewitt, and Glenn Beck. Seriously.

If this isn't proof of the right's intellectual collapse, nothing is.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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"If this isn't proof of the right's intellectual collapse, nothing is."

Perfectly stated!

Posted by: Mark-NC on October 4, 2009 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

I had just finished reading Hayward's opinions in the WaPo and was still reeling from its vacuousness when I read your posting. I quite agree about the death of conservative thinking. Hayward just proved it!

Posted by: wilson46201 on October 4, 2009 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

If you haven't already, you should look at Glenn Beck's "Destined to Repeat" show from April 13, 2009 with authors Pestritto, Goldberg, Schlaes, etc. It is a model of half-baked theories and utter incoherence about the progressive movement and its supposed inherent fascism. If this is the best the conservatives can come up with, they are (hopefully) dead.

Posted by: Anne Mendenhall on October 4, 2009 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

Weisberg makes good points. But Hayward is being silly.

There are examples of fact-based conservative thinkers, but Hayward is letting his personal views color his shout-outs. Perhaps he knows these people and feels pressured to cite them.

Interesting thinkers on the right include David Frum, Virginia Postrel, and Daniel Larison. In general, The Next Right seems to host some interesting things. Also consider Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. But few of these people are currently welcome in right-wing circles.

Posted by: Sam W on October 4, 2009 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Republicans in their behavior resemble the Southerners in the pre-Civil War years, 1830 to 1860. Read William Miller's Arguing About Slavery to see the similarities.

Posted by: Colin on October 4, 2009 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

So Goldfarter's book is the new rich vein of conservative thought, eh?

Ergo, the American conservatives, here at the beginning of the era of cannibal capitalism, have to turn history into one of those "if the south had won the civil war" or "if the germans had won..." type massive, metastasizing revisionist screeds comme fantasy novels. jonah's book is something harvard's lampoon people would put together. it is certainly a vacation form scholarship.

There is no better book in the time and space continuum that so eloquently symbolizes the insanity of the conservative movement in this country as the god damn piece of shit that jonah goldberg has excreted over a long long period of his extended adolescence...

intellectual? jonah goldberg? he must first learn how to read. and one must read his book with gloves on.

Posted by: neill on October 4, 2009 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

If we were a nation of intellectuals, this would be a serious blow for the conservatives, but as a nation of the proudly ignorant, there is hope.

Posted by: qwerty on October 4, 2009 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

Not even a nice try. It may go over well in this echo chamber but it proves that the intellectual bankruptcy exists here at this site, on the left and with the likes of Steve Benen.

Posted by: berlins on October 4, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

It's hard to come up with ideas when you're ignoring reality all the time.

Case in point: insistence by GOPers that we have the "best healthcare system in the world".

Posted by: leo on October 4, 2009 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Hayward also doesn't seem to know the difference between laudatory and laudable, which is not impressive intellectually either.

Posted by: Adam on October 4, 2009 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Benen,

What's the deal with deleting comments that respectfully disagree with you? Are you really that thin-skinned?

Posted by: W.C. Varones on October 4, 2009 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

The right has always been intellectually bankrupt: Reagan and Gingrich were always an "emperor's new clothes" phenomenon, and there have always been people calling them on it. However, the problem is as Qwerty notes: logic and veracity just don't matter to many Americans as much as instincts, comforting rationalizations, and prejudgments. The nation often will not hear what it does not want to hear, and it doesn't even have to work hard at that when the mainstream media doesn't want to tell them about it in the first place.

Posted by: N,Wells on October 4, 2009 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

I would not say "intellectually bankrupt" myself, for it falsely implies "intellectually rich" for US liberalism. That pat on the back is a stretch.

I think the right is in a defensive mode, trying to keep what their post-1968 gains. Therefore, it is not a time of intellectualism for them --rather, it is time of fierce defensiveness. A good offense is the best defense, etc.

In any case, don't underestimate them just to make yourself feel good.

Posted by: Bob M on October 4, 2009 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

One thing I've never seen touched upon regarding the egregiously awful book that Goldberg wrote is that it shits upon the Greatest Generation. One of his many falses theses is that Roosevelt was ideologically in step with fascism, though he fails to prove his thesis (because there is no truth to it). He's basically saying, amongst other falsehoods, that the America that existed in the 1930s & 1940s was the polar opposite of what it actually was. Anyone whose fathers or grandfathers fought in WWI, or anyone whose families lived in America during that time doing their part, should be outraged at his sloppy, flaccid and wrong-headed thinking. (He's actually pretty much wrong straight through the book but the WWII-era stuff seems to be his major "idea.")

Goldberg is sort of a non-intellectual version of David Irving: a revisionist who cherry-picks bits of historical fact and ignores anything that doesn't fit his pre-conceived notions. He posits, over and over, that fascism has its origins on the left, and apparently didn't bother to read (or chose to ignore) the volumes of proofs to the contrary. Goebbels, the propaganda minister of Nazi Germany, wrote voluminous diaries and practically every entry devolved into a paean to the virtues of the far-right government of National Socialism. He hated FDR and Democracy. His speeches & public writings are full of the same.

Goldberg's intellectually vacant book ignores all of it.

I'd write it off as a joke, except that credulous people who are too stupid to know any better treat it as real history. It is not. It's straight pablum of stupidity. And it's not even well-written.

Posted by: zhak on October 4, 2009 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Proofread, I should:

Anyone whose fathers or grandfathers fought in WWI ...

... should read WWII.

Posted by: zhak on October 4, 2009 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

"...the right's focus shifted to political power, and away from interest in policy."

The error is in interpreting this as a choice rather than a response. Once upon a time, power was got by asserting policies. Today, that is no longer necessary or even effective. What *is* effective is tribal Manichaeanism. Consider how that has come about and you'll be on to something. (Hint: it wasn't top-down; nothing in politics ever is.)

The only thing politicians (or propaganda machines) can do is pander. They cannot originate anything. The only possible distinction among them is who they are pandering to. Never look at the storyteller; always look at the audience.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on October 4, 2009 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

In related news, professional sports are a seething mass of steroid abusers, but not to worry: Redemption will come in the pure old-school athletes in the WWE.

Posted by: slappy magoo on October 4, 2009 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK
"Though authentic and laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics."

It's sad that his big example of conservative intellectualism is the bogus economic theory that decimated the tax base, ruined our infrastructure, and drove California to collapse. When you reduce tax revenue but insist on still having things like roads, schools, and fire departments, eventually something's gotta give. Unfortunately, it's not the "philosophy" of tax revolt that has given out -- it's our roads, schools, and fire departments, and no one is intellectually honest enough to admit that we're in this situation because of the tax revolt of the past 30 years.

Conservatives convinced themselves that the Magic Infrastructure Fairy would wave her wand and build everything we need without tax dollars, and they still think that, if they clap loud enough, eventually she's going to show up.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on October 4, 2009 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

N,Wells, Bob M, zhak, Frank Wilhoit, slappy magoo, and Mnemosyne:

Merci beaucoup!

Posted by: neill on October 4, 2009 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

I was leaving Costco yesterday and saw a woman in her 40's with a copy of a Glen Beck Book . I was tempted to ask here what compelled her to buy it and if she thought that Mr. Beck provided any reasoned ideas to support his views. I then thought better of it figuring that if she bought the book , its already too late. Unquestioning minds will be the downfall of this society. The poison that is Fox News seems to have successfully dumbed down a whole generation of Americans, to the point where they will listen to and buy a book by Glen Beck with absolutely no questions crossing their vacuous minds . Intellectual collapse? It has gone far beyond that Idiocracy: the reality show

Posted by: johnr on October 4, 2009 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

@neill: There is no better book in the time and space continuum that so eloquently symbolizes the insanity of the conservative movement in this country as the god damn piece of shit that jonah goldberg has excreted over a long long period of his extended adolescence

Sure. But it's a turd that has never before been excreted with such detail or such care.

Posted by: Domage on October 4, 2009 at 11:48 AM | PERMALINK

It's hard to come up with ideas when you're ignoring reality all the time. - leo

Spot on. When ideology trumps reality, you're screwed. There may be instant gratification in the hallelujah of reality-detached ideology, but reality has this nasty habit of biting you in the ass.

And once your sore behind doesn't allow you to occupy a normal seat any more, you're relegated to the standing room space in the back. Your only chance to return to the front and enjoy the show up close is if you can persuade the management of the house to get rid of all the seats. And that, in essence, is the proposal the Republicans have for the American people.

Posted by: SRW1 on October 4, 2009 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

Hayward also doesn't seem to know the difference between laudatory and laudable, which is not impressive intellectually either.

Exactly. I had no idea what Hayward meant there until I figured out he was using the wrong word. A classic pratfall.

Posted by: RSA on October 4, 2009 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK
....[the] concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics."

That would be this concrete ideology, in J.K. Galbraith's immortal formulation: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

I remember when simple force majeure was sufficient justification for selfishness, no moral philosophy required. Modern conservatism is either engaged in over-egging the pudding, or has gone all weak and timid.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on October 4, 2009 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatism is by its nature resistant to change. W F Buckley was not an intellectual; he merely adopted what many shallow thinkers see as the mannerisms of the intellectual -- the breezy style and the pompous vocabulary. Defending segregation by virtue of the natural superiority of Caucasians is not intellectually honest, it's not even intellectual -- it's just bullshit packaged in pretentiousness. Buckley's intellect was mediocre -- it outshone that of other right-wing thinkers like Jonah Goldberg and Charles Murray -- but it is mediocre when measured by the standards of the reality-based world.
Right-wingers equate owning a copy of a book with having read it.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on October 4, 2009 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

"The Republican Party is the party of new ideas."

Republican Party new ideas:
1) Invade Mesopotamia
2) Tax the poor to benefit the rich

Neither is new.

Posted by: mars on October 4, 2009 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sick of the Republicans being called the "party of ideas." Anyone who calls them the party of ideas has to name at least two ideas they had that wasn't hogwash.
And I'll even spot you one: cap-and-trade.
I note, however, that they no longer embrace that idea.

Posted by: RZ on October 4, 2009 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatism and its policy prescriptions had a six year test and failed. Tax cuts for the richest; massive deregulation of corporate interests; underfunding of federal regulators; unilateral guns without butter diplomacy; preemtive war all got a full trial with Bush/Cheney, a Republican congress and Supreme Court.

The closest ananlog is Communism. An ideology that has had several opportunities to prove its value, and failed

Posted by: Winknandanod on October 4, 2009 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

The political right of the 21st century is obviously and shamelessly intellectually bankrupt.

The con men have moved on. Only the shills are left behind.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on October 4, 2009 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

> Hayward laments the fact that Malkin and Coulter
> "intellectual works" are "conspicuously missing."

Conveniently eliding Levin's "Liberty and Tyranny", which is vastly outselling the other books.

Typical deceit. Just typical.

Posted by: am on October 4, 2009 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Colorado gop says they're taking a different tack. They'll be talking issues, not values. Their focus, they say will be the economy.

Posted by: CDW on October 4, 2009 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

"intellectually serious conservatism"

That's a trifecta oxymoron! You betcha.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on October 4, 2009 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Heyward's charge that Progressivism is tainted by Weird German Thinkers like Hegel ignores the fact that today's progressives, and the early 20th century progressives, are completely different animals (really today's progressivism is a branding term).

And even if we say today's progressives are infected by Weird German Thinkers who believe in Progress, his party is even more influenced by said theoretical wackery, only their Progress consists of defeating anything that the "reality based community" (or "liberals", as they term it) says we need.

Check out Sam Tanenhaus's talk, particularly when he says that the philosophes of today's conservative movement were ex-Marxists:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCWO-LSszZI

James Burnham, Irving Kristol--today's conservatism was brought to you by Weird German Thought. It's just Weird German Thought in the service of denying reality instead of adapting to it.

Posted by: JJ on October 4, 2009 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

At an Americans for Prosperity event ('summit') yesterday - I saw it on C-SPAN -, Larry Kudlow delivered himself of the opinion that the right still retains the intellectual high-ground because of...supply-side economics.

If the Republicans win an election, there are 2 possibilities: either they'll actually enact the inane agenda they've promoted while out of power, or they won't. If they do, then they really are as dim as they act, & God help us all. If they don't, the story gets more complicated.

Posted by: K on October 4, 2009 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Not bad piece on Irving Kristol as philosophe of modern conservatism (there's quite a few important details missing, but it's still pretty good).

Posted by: JJ on October 4, 2009 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

JJ: James Burnham, Irving Kristol--today's conservatism was brought to you by Weird German Thought. It's just Weird German Thought in the service of denying reality instead of adapting to it

Yours was perhaps the best, most thoughtful and informed comment on this blog today, and this bit was particularly pithy.

Posted by: trex on October 4, 2009 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

I wasn't aware that there were any intellectuals on the right, they always seem so clouded with dogma and juvenile beliefs.

But I've always had this problem since I am a firm believer that 99% of humanity is dumber than I am :-)

Seriously though, the key to being an intellectual is to demonstrate the ability to use one's braincells versus acting from the gut.

The world is billions of years old, to believe (or say) otherwise is absolutely ridiculous.

To think all liberals are socialists and commies is very juvenile.

The right ain't intellectually bankrupt, they never had any intelligence to begin with, just "pontificatory" full-of-themselves bigotry.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on October 4, 2009 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

This makes a similar point, and is very scary:
"Politics as religion in America"
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-gabler2-2009oct02,0,7817347.story
I think though, we shouldn't accept defeatism about it.

Posted by: N e i l B on October 4, 2009 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK

***
But I've always had this problem since I am a firm believer that 99% of humanity is dumber than I am :-)

Seriously though, the key to being an intellectual is to demonstrate the ability to use one's braincells versus acting from the gut. ***

Indeed, very true -- especially the 99% thing.

But if by chance you were dropped off in some back country, say 70-80 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, you'd be dead (along with your emoticon) by Wednesday morning.

Posted by: tao9 on October 4, 2009 at 9:52 PM | PERMALINK

"intellectually serious conservatism"

Since when is Irving Kristol a conservative? "Neoconservative" is a sarcastic term equivalent to non-conservative--Israel loyalists who moved to the Republican party because of its hawkishness.

Posted by: LindaRe on October 5, 2009 at 1:05 AM | PERMALINK

Um, "laudatory"? Does he mean "laudable"?

Even their "intellectuals" are illiterate.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on October 5, 2009 at 5:26 AM | PERMALINK

Conservatives and the GOP have created an alternative reality and an a vituperative, nativist ideology to support it.

In the conservative alternative reality rational thought is subordinated to God's will, individuals no longer have inalienable rights, polar ice caps aren't melting, public funding for health care is Hitlerian, all common endeavors are socialistic, tax cuts for the rich cause economic growth, unilateral military invasions cause peace, torture creates intelligence, automatic weapons at public meetings promote the free expression of ideas and international opinion doesn't matter.

What passes for Republican intellectual discourse these days is a weird, paranoid set of disjointed ideas tied together by nothing but air, anger and a sense of entitlement. At the end of the day an ideology has to coherently explain reality. Republican ideology, much like the the old Communist ideology, explains nothing except that people desperately seeking power can be cruel.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on October 5, 2009 at 5:54 AM | PERMALINK

According to Sam Tenenhaus' "The Death of Conservatism", Kristol was himself part of the wrecking crew, elevating pure ideology over pragmatism and engagement.

Posted by: bob h on October 5, 2009 at 6:04 AM | PERMALINK


"One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat them is with better policy ideas." - Rush Limbaugh at CPAC 2/28/09


Posted by: mr. irony on October 5, 2009 at 7:21 AM | PERMALINK

The far right's collection of ideas has so far proven to have the shelf life of a bag of donuts. How can one be forward thinking and yet retroactively skewed? Perhaps they should call themselves the Cautiously Optomistics?

Posted by: johnnymags on October 5, 2009 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: Nara on February 17, 2010 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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