Populist Chic

Mark Lilla writing in today’s Wall Street Journal:

“How, 30 years later, could younger conservative intellectuals promote a candidate like Sarah Palin, whose ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against? . . . There was a time when conservative intellectuals raised the level of American public debate and helped to keep it sober. Those days are gone. As for political judgment, the promotion of Sarah Palin as a possible world leader speaks for itself. The Republican Party and the political right will survive, but the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead. And all of us, even liberals like myself, are poorer for it.”

And David Brooks writing in last month’s New York Times:

“What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.”

And the thing is, once we elevate ill-educated logorrhea to a virtuous endeavor — to wit Ann Coulter, to wit Sean Hannity, to wit practically everyone writing at WorldNetDaily — we can’t very well get them to go away. After you induce otherwise thoughtful, God-fearing people to tell themselves they are protecting Western civilization by tuning in to the likes of Michael Savage (oh, the irony in that pseudonym), you can’t very well get them to turn back to NPR. You just can’t put stupid back in its box. So while I’m inclined to think that Lilla is being overly pessimistic about the future of conservative thoughtfulness, I don’t see a path out of its current narcolepsy. Do you?


  1. RIchard

    If we could capture the essence of loving our neighbors as ourselves and effectively relate that to the value of limited government, equal opportunity, and individual responsibility the path might become more visible.

  2. Joshua L

    Lilla is correct, but his critique of Palin applies equally to Bush. It’s a stretch to claim that Palin in one fell swoop brought about the destruction of a previously burgeoning conservative intellectual tradition within the GOP. The identification of conservatism exclusively with a political party or with talk radio shills has been just as fatal as (and probably led to) the championing of a Palin, McCain, or Bush.

    One solution is for chic conservatives to stop substituting mantras and pugnacity for critical thought and reasonable argumentation. Recovering a historical perspective would help too. Especially the realization that history didn’t begin with Reagan or Lincoln.

    How you get people to actually think this way (or think at all) is another story. I’m afraid it requires a patience which I do not possess.

  3. Mrs. Edwards

    This brings to my mind Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” (1995). Although Noll writes about the decline of intellectualism in evangelicalism, it is tangentially related, I would think, to what we are seeing in Conservatism. You’re right about Hannity (although Hannity isn’t evangelical) and Coulter, but I don’t truly think that Conservatives have the monopoly on this. There are plenty of Democrat voters who think very shallowly politically. I think the difference is found in our university system which is over-run with homogeneous liberal thinking. Conservatives either endure the university system and then enter the workforce or convert to liberal thinking while there. I find it astounding that suddenly (?) Democrats seem to own intellectualism. I suppose I reveal my bias, but I find Conservatism to have stronger intellectual foundations.

    Palin is not the problem; she’s just the result. We are not raising up Americans to think deeply about much of anything, and politicians of all people encourage a lack of thinking. (Case in point: “How can you be against Obama’s tax plan when it will benefit you?” A thinking reply: “Just because I benefit doesn’t mean it is a worthy plan.”) Now we are beginning to reap what we’ve sown.

    Another Wichita-area homeschooler,
    Mrs. Edwards

  4. RockThrowingPeasant

    I think a distinction needs to be made. There is and always has been a difference between the conservative intellectuals and conservative politicians. In some respects, the liberal intellectual and the liberal politician can share the same form.

    Conservatism seems to need to sell itself as actions over theories. Conservatism has to sell small government as effective and lower taxes as prosperous. You can only do that from executive positions. Conservatism doesn’t promise government programs to take away the cares of the world, so it makes it a harder sell to the average voter. The principles must be demonstrated in order to attract the votes to not accept the panaceas offered from competing ideologies.

    Now, George Bush was a conservative in the loosest of terms. He expanded government and did some mind-blowing expansion in the wrong direction with education. More money has not shown a proportional increase in student success, yet the checkbook was opened up like few times prior. He expanded government in many other ways that rankle the conservative base. When people claim he’s hard Right, I chuckle and ask for ways in which his presidency was different than JFK’s (including Bobby Kennedy’s wire-tapping of MLK, Jr).

    The conservative intellectual movement will still continue with the cast of thousands, each with their role to play. Newt Gingrich, Victor Davis Hanson, George Will, Bernard Lewis, writers at National Review, Human Events, Weekly Standard, the Manhattan Institute, Ashbrook, American Enterprise Institute, and more locally (in Pennsylvania), the Commonwealth Institute. I don’t always agree with the policies and directions some writers, magazines, or think tanks go, but the movement is alive.

    It’s transferring the intellectual concepts to politicians. Politicians run sausage factories and that bothers the people who lay out their perfect models only to see it compromised in the democratic process.

    Regarding Palin, I find the sneering a little much. I’m reminded of Elliot Templeton. An American who loves America well enough, if it weren’t for all those dang Americans in it. I watched her in the gubernatorial debate, available on CSPAN. She was anything but folksy. It was a good roundtable debate that really showed the depth governors need to understand a state and run it properly. So, seeing her on the national stage with the folksiness – I am not sure how much of that was campaign packaging. She’s brighter than the media drummed. I think many are comfortable with the media portraying the Republican candidate as 1) dumb or 2) out of touch. That’s pretty much been the script sold to America for the last 20-30 years and it’s not likely to change. I didn’t get as torqued about the Couric interview because I thought some of the questions were just odd. Gibson’s botching of the Bush Doctrine got little attention, though he seemed to think he had it right.

    I think the Republican Party needs to be better identified. For the past eight years, there’s little to distinguish between the two parties. This led me to de-register. If they come back in ’12 with a revitalized platform free of the “Democrat Lite” stuff, it will go a long way to setting the stage for the next 20 years of post-Bush Republicanism. Palin, Jindal, Toomey, Pawlenty, and to lesser degrees Romney and Barbour can help remake the image of the party and may be good salesmen (which is really what politicians are) for the intellectual principles of conservatism.

  5. Rick


    Nicely done… I’d call your comments a bit of a skewering… but then, I guess I’m not qualified enough intellectually to come to that conclusion…

    I hope you don’t mind if I ‘borrow’ from your words at my place.

    Again… nicely done.

  6. RockThrowingPeasant

    It wasn’t my intention to skewer anybody. I just think that the “holier than thou” problem can manifest itself in other areas, such as politics and academia.

    Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder because I attended three colleges before finishing. I went to Penn State when I was 18, enlisted in the Army, got out and went to a community college for a year, then finished at Indiana (PA). On paper, it looks erratic and IUP doesn’t have the prestige of Harvard. However, in my years at IUP, I only had one class that wasn’t taught by a Ph.D. and that was a theatre class. I didn’t even have TAs or grad students take over a class for a professor.

    When I see people looking down their noses at others regarding education status and how they talk, it just bugs me. We’ve all seen or met people who are eloquent, but had the brainpan of a howler monkey. I want to see results.

    I guess I’m saying that I appreciate what I’ve learned since G-d entered my life. Understand that imperfection and sin doesn’t mean something amazing can be beneath the surface (as in how He chose and stuck with sinners throughout the OT and NT), to be wary of the Establishment’s judgments and “wisdom,” and to treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated. If I had a string of bad days (or interviews), I would appreciate someone who is willing to search for the good in me and to give me another shot.

  7. Rick

    Fair enough RTP… I’d love to know if you have your own blog… and if not, might you be interested in guest blogging at my place…

    Please e-mail me if interested…

    And Tony, apologies for hijacking this post… I think I’m done here.

  8. RockThrowingPeasant

    I had a blog a few years ago. I never kept it updated, mainly because I was doing more commenting in other places than orignal content. It died the death of inconsistant theme mixed with neglect.

    Somewhat germane to this topic, I did do a brief study on the idea of “anti-intellectualism” before it ended.


    Regarding guest-blogging, I’ll think about it. Maybe if there’s a niche that fits the theme of the blog that is unfilled.

    My email: theairborneagle@yahoo.com

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