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Tilting at Windmills

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August 2, 2010

MAKING THE TRANSITION TO 'CRAZY-CONS'.... I suspect I'm not the only one who hopes desperately that there are still some conservatives who see what's become of the right -- the radicalism, the lack of intellectual seriousness, the immaturity -- and shake their heads in disgust. Even if most of these conservatives keep quiet, out of a sense of loyalty and/or fear of reprisals, it would be reassuring to know the discomfort actually exists.

We occasionally receive such hints. Take this piece from David Klinghoffer, for example. Klinghoffer is not a moderate -- he's a former National Review editor, and currently a senior fellow at a conservative think tank. But surveying his conservative brethren, Klinghoffer sees "a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism."

Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions -- like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now. Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, whose news and opinion website, Breitbart.com, is read by millions. In his most recent triumph, Breitbart got a U.S. Department of Agriculture official pushed out of her job after he released a deceptively edited video clip of her supposedly endorsing racism against white people.

What has become of conservatism? [...]

Buckley's National Review, where I was the literary editor through the 1990s, remains as vital and interesting as ever. But more characteristic of conservative leadership are figures on TV, radio and the Internet who make their money by stirring fears and resentments. With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of "neocons" versus "paleocons." Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons.

I can't relate to the admiration of conservatism's forebearers -- Buckley, for example, was an ardent opponent of Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement -- but in the larger sense, Klinghoffer notes that the right at least used to care about ideas. There was a genuine desire to think about policy that has all but disappeared.

Stephen Bainbridge, a conservative professor, can relate to the frustration: "These days ... the most prominent so-called conservatives are increasingly fit only to be cast for the next Dumb and Dumber sequel. They're dumb and crazy." (thanks to reader V.S. for the tip)

Whether the movement may someday rediscover its grown-ups is unclear, but the more those on the right decry the pathetic state of modern conservatism, the more likely we'll see the "crazy-cons" lose some of their influence.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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Unfortunately for conservatism, there's a compelling political logic to the path that leads from 'Do not criticize other conservatives' to 'No enemies to my right.' Democrats are fractious by comparison, but that's the price of non-unanimity.

Posted by: MattF on August 2, 2010 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK


Wake me when these so-called sensible conservatives go on the TeeVee and and rant, rave, and weep a la James Carville about teh crazyness of Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, and Bachmann.

And, they have to do it withuot walking it back or apologizing 2 days later.

Posted by: Winknandanod on August 2, 2010 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

It's interesting that even after Klinghoffer's (accurate) description of the stupidity of modern conservatism, he then goes on to repeat standard, slightly-less-stupid traditional conservative dogma (liberalism equals relativism, liberals don't believe in consequences, evolution states that people are no more than animals, blah blah blah).

To hear Klinghoffer describe it, conservatism exists in a spectrum from the merely stupid to the incredibly stupid. I'm all for less stupidity, but I think that this is setting the bar really, really low.

Posted by: DH Walker on August 2, 2010 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

As with the "epistemic closure" debate, this will rattle around the blogopshere for a couple of days before disappearing. There are several reasons why conservatism has replaced intellectual rigor with noisy tribalism. My favorite is the failure of its own success. 40 years of the Southern Strategy has turned the dog whistle into a one-note symphony. There's ultimately little but fear and resentment on the Right. The right's "idea" people (Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, Gingrich, Coulter, etc.) may be smart hucksters but whispering the N word 24/7 ultimately leads to idiocy.

Posted by: walt on August 2, 2010 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

The right's "idea" people (Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, Gingrich, Coulter, etc.) may be smart hucksters...

That's a huge part of the problem. Conservatives can't seem to tell the difference between actual ideas and just stuff people say to sell books and/or airtime.

The "saying stupid shit to get people riled up" business model is definitely lucrative, but you're exactly right. The long-term effect of this is that a handful of grifters make bank, and all their gullible victims are left with is the afore-mentioned stupid shit. If anyone can be said to have destroyed conservatism, it's exactly the people you mention.

Posted by: DH Walker on August 2, 2010 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

More like the "DeceptaCons...

Posted by: dtevio on August 2, 2010 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

When what you were taught for your lifetime falls apart, and you're all at sea, the last thing you're going to do is embrace the people who were telling you that you were wrong all along.

This division into tribes is a lot like what happened to the New Left in the 1970s under the onslaught of Nixonism. If you study it closely you'll also see this pattern among Republicans of the 1930s, and of the Populist movement.

It should not be a surprise. But since the new assumptions have yet to be validated in any meaningful sense, the grieving is all you see.

Posted by: Dana Blankenhorn on August 2, 2010 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

You are not being fair to Buckley. Yes, he was a racist. However, he changed his mind and admitted his previous position was wrong.

It isn't much different than Robert Bryd. He was also a racist and he also admitted he was wrong.

The point I find amazing is Klinghoffer's comment about the National Review. I used to think that there were level headed conservatives there. You used to be able to read it and see what the other side was thinking. Now, the National Review is little different than the typical right wing garbage that believes that cutting the capital gains tax will cure the common cold.

Posted by: neil wilson on August 2, 2010 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

make that "stevio"

Posted by: stevio on August 2, 2010 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Buckley et al were urbane spokesmen for some of the most backward looking ideas in the post-war era.
Because they expressed them on Park Avenue, martini in hand, did not make them any more enlightened.

Posted by: hornblower on August 2, 2010 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

Let's take up a collection to send Tea Baggers on a package tour of North Korea, so they can see what 'tyranny' actually looks like.

Posted by: cld on August 2, 2010 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

I used to respect conservatives. I disagreed with them on everything, but you could listen to them and try to rations with them, and they with you.
My Uncle is a fairly recent FOX convert, and trying to talk to him is useless. I try, but it's the usual FOX BS.
He was a hard worker, but he and my Aunt bought and sold houses at JUST the right time over the years, and now have some money. They live in a condo complex with a lot of other relatively wealthy seniors. I guess FOX is on in every living room.
I still love him, but I won't argue with him anymore. And Lord knows I've tried.
Meaningless, when confronted with Beckian madness...

Posted by: c u n d gulag on August 2, 2010 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

They'll abandon the crazies once they start to lose elections. Not a moment before. And it could take a few more cycles before this happens - so far they've managed to come up with a blanket excuse for losing in 06 and 08 (Bush wasn't conservative enough!) which could start to have less salience from 2010 onwards.

At heart, conservatism is less a political philosophy than a vehicle for self-styled "conservative" politicians to get and hold power. Witness the remarkable flexibility with which almost any position can be called "conservative" as long as it's a vote-winner (low taxes! balanced budgets! cut entitlements! don't cut Medicare! spread freedom to other countries! isolationism! Romneycare! Anti-Romneycare! etc etc etc). So the telltale sign that conservatives have concluded that racism costs them elections, will be when they suddenly "discover" that respecting equal rights for all is the "real" conservatism. The fact that this hasn't happened yet speaks volumes for the ongoing political effectiveness of racism.

Posted by: Basilisc on August 2, 2010 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

What the? Klinghoffer's description of conservatism: finding the purpose of the cosmos, saving civilization, rejected secularism and materialism, finding meaning in our existence... ummmmmmm, well, really??? Sounds like religion, not politics.

That his book is entitled "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western Civilization" and that he's a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute tells me that he is a (religious and non-science) huckster himself.

Posted by: Hmmmmm on August 2, 2010 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

What we have now is a social conservative Con movement. They know what they reject, and create conspiracy theories about their targets. It's always been there, since the founding of the first colonies. It's just the targets that have changed. Not so worried about the bankers and the Pope now.

What's changed is that there isn't a visible conservative ideological opposition to Nativism. In the 50s and 60s it waited in the wings, publishing and discussing better ideas.

The current movement is headed for one destination: too far. After they drive off the cliff, who'll be there to replace them? I'm afraid it'll be another pudgy idiot bemoaning another conspiracy against white folks.

Posted by: Gene Ha on August 2, 2010 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

Oh please. This is just a typical case of the white shoe vapors because "those people" have actually taken over and are ruining the atmosphere of the country club. The fact that this was EXACTLY what was bound to happen based on policies those white shoe folks embraced most heartily gets conveniently and consistently overlooked. You simply can't keep doing things to undermine the idea people ("intellectual elites") and referees "unelected judges!") of society, as well as tearing at the social fabric as a whole (all those family unfriendly policies that have mom and dad working 3 jobs each, if they can even find a job)without it taking a toll. And now they want to cry because the inmates have taken over the asylum? Only the upper crust would have quite THAT much crust.

As I recall, that whole Dr. Frankenstein meet your monster thing didn't make the Dr. that happy either.

To quote Matt Tabibi, Boo-fucking-hoo you bastards.

Posted by: bluewave on August 2, 2010 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

No, this is just the second half of the Overton Window gambit. You bemoan the craziness and incivility of those who think all queers and atheists should be killed, and praise the moderation of those who think they should merely be tattooed.

Posted by: paul on August 2, 2010 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

@hornblower: Because they expressed them on Park Avenue, martini in hand, did not make them any more enlightened.

Exactly. Oh, when will the conservatives get back to dressing up their narrow-minded barbarism in upper-crust-accented pretty words?

@gulag: See, my problem has always been just what hornblower mentions. I've known conservatives literally my entire life, and while I agree the tenor of their ability to carry on a "discussion" has devolved to the thuggish over the years, the actual substance of their ideology hasn't changed in the least. It's the same simplistic nonsense, whether expressed quietly or verbatim-repeated catchphrases that they hear on the teevee. It's either them coming up with the lies and distortions, or them mindlessly repeating the lies and distortions of people paid to lie and distort.

In the end, it's just quibbling about style. The variance in the substance is very small, no more than 100 milli-stupids.

Posted by: DH Walker on August 2, 2010 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

Klinghoffer immediately issued an apology to Rush Limbaugh.

Posted by: TheDeMBA on August 2, 2010 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

In Chronicles, one of the organs of "thinking" conservatism, the contemptible (if forthright) reactionary Chilton Williamson, Jr. comes right out and says it:

"The Tea Party, whatever its influence at present and no matter what its future may be, probably has less importance as a political agent than as a sign of the times, and perhaps even a bellwether. Something in America has changed since the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama, and the Tea Party is a symptom of that change. The first and most obvious cause is the fact of the United States having elected her first mulatto president since the founding of the Republic more than two centuries ago. The issue is less the President’s blackness than the alien quality his color, fairly or unfairly, gives him. One need not be “racist” to respond to newspaper photographs and film footage of Obama, standing behind a podium bearing the presidential seal, with feelings of simple incredulity. Even George W. Bush, immediately after the election, confessed he had never expected he would live to see a black man in the White House.) For such incredulity, Obama is hardly to blame. He is, however, entirely blamable for his inability, or perhaps his refusal, to foresee the likelihood—indeed, the inevitability—of such a reaction on the part of the white majority population, and therefore for his failure to make account for it.

Posted by: Chet on August 2, 2010 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

@Chet: This is the same vile crap that's driving the resistance to the Islamic center in Manhattan: the notion that the delicate sensibilities of racist morons need to be accommodated and placated.

This is the same sentiment expressed by my grand-mom - she had no problem with black folk, just so long as they "know their place". And she considered hers to be an enlightened viewpoint (which it probably was, relative to some others).

Posted by: DH Walker on August 2, 2010 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

"They'll abandon the crazies once they start to lose elections. "

Here's the thing that bothers me: intelligent conservatives see what's happening and they're not pushing back. 2 or 3 relatively obscure columnists do not a pushback make. Maybe the rest of the Republican party is just caught up in it too, maybe I'm wrong to make a distinction between tea partiers and "intelligent" conservatives in the first place. Maybe the conservative community outside the tea party looks at the tea party and is basically sympathetic with it, at worst has some disagreements about methods. But:

But: What I keep thinking is that the leaders and intelligensia in the Republican party must be looking at the tea party phenomenon and thinking: This will just blow over. This isn't good, but it won't last. We just need to get past this one election, keep our heads down for now, let the benefits of the tea party energy accrue, and then it will dissipate and we'll be able to reassert control. Dick Armey built this tea movement thing, he can steer it. After we win the election it will be like it was before, the DC think tanks will set the priorities and the base will fall in line. The hierarchy will reassert itself.

And maybe this theory is less cynical than the "Republicans are all tea partiers at heart", but it's probably more scary. Because if this is what they think they're wrong wrong wrong. They're already no longer the ones in control, and the tea party mob's power over Republicanism will only increase if an election is won on their backs. And then things for the intelligentsia may get unpleasant in a way they did not expect.

H.P. Lovecraft said this. "I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe."

Posted by: mcc on August 2, 2010 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

Klinghoffer is hardly in any position to criticize anyone about anything. This moron still thinks the National Review is something to "treasure" for its intelligence. Not only that but he works for the Discovery Institute.

Another brain-dead moron reveals himself in public as a brain-dead moron. Move on, nothing to see here.

That the neighborhood advertiser pretending to be the Los Angeles Times would publish this drivel is only due to the influence of the Jewish Nazi moron who publishes it, so other Jewish Nazi morons like Klinghoffer and Jonah the Whale Goldberg can find employment for their illiteracy.

Posted by: TCinLA on August 2, 2010 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

@mcc: Think about it, though - what positions taken by the tea party are all that different from Republicans generally?

Deeply-held racism covered over by the fig-leaf of a few token minorities? Check.

Insistence on pursuing failed economic policies, specifically irresponsible tax cuts in spite of historic lows in tax rates? Check.

Cultural and religious nativism? Check.

Demonization of democratically-elected government that isn't controlled by them? Check.

Honestly - I don't think there's a single policy difference between them, with the possible exception of Birtherism. Rabid conservatives have been calling Democrats Socialists and Commies since I was a kid, so that's nothing new.

Posted by: DH Walker on August 2, 2010 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

See also Bruce Bartlett's recent take-down in an interview with The Economist:


Posted by: MudFunk on August 2, 2010 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK


Chilton Williamson is, indeed, contemptible.

"The first and most obvious cause is the fact of the United States having elected her first mulatto president since the founding of the Republic more than two centuries ago."

"Mulatto?" I haven't seen that term used outside of novels written in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and it was NOT used as a compliment.

"One need not be “racist” to respond to newspaper photographs and film footage of Obama, standing behind a podium bearing the presidential seal, with feelings of simple incredulity."

I also felt a certain amount of incredulity, but it was a joyful incredulity. I somehow doubt that the revolting Chilton felt JOYFUL incredulity.

"For such incredulity, Obama is hardly to blame. He is, however, entirely blamable for his inability, or perhaps his refusal, to foresee the likelihood—indeed, the inevitability—of such a reaction on the part of the white majority population, and therefore for his failure to make account for it."

Wow. Just wow. What in hell does this cretin expect Obama to do? Bleach his skin like the benighted Michael Jackson? Shuffle his feet and call all the white senators and representatives "Massa"?

THIS RACIST REACTION IS NOT OBAMA'S FAULT. The fault lies squarely upon the racists, and it is their responsibility to examine their feelings and to grow up. Including the loathsome Chilton Williamson.

Posted by: Wolfdaughter on August 2, 2010 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a reformed conservative myself who learned a long time ago (I think it was when southern red neck reactionaries led by Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich tried to stage a coup d'etat with their impeachment of Bill Clinton) that the American right was becoming too much like the anti-democratic European right.

This is evident in the American right's enchantment with authoritaraian executive power unchecked by Congress or the courts, the restoration of a permanent ruling hereditary aristocracy in the form of unregulated financial elites who have now been relieved of estate tax burdens, and a re-infatuation with clerical-based political power.

As a result, I too am puzzled by some of the right wing icons mentioned earlier, since I cannot abide the appeal of that thuggish Catholic theocrat, the late Fr. John Richard Neuhaus. If you have ever read him you would know that Neuhaus had perfected a cunning if thoroughly manipulative and dishonest rhetoric that made theocracy seem like democracy.

He also said that the American democratic state should be subordinate in matters of morals and personal behavior to the Vatican through the agency of Popular Rule by a people who have subordinated their own political sovereignty to the sovereignty of God and to God's earthly agent, the Catholic Church. And if you saw the dismissive way Neuhaus treated that liberal nun, Sister Joan Chittiser, on Meet the Press, you'd know he was also a chauvanist and a bully.

These are the sorts of retrograde and reactionary ideas that are making a very strong comeback as anyone who has been paying attention can attest.

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