The Rightward Turn

In the late 1950s and early 1960s William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and other prominent conservative intellectuals pulled off a kind of Velvet Revolution. By means of a series of thoughtful and thought-provoking publications and other media appearances they managed to separate mainstream conservatism from the far-right kooks such as the John Birch Society, Fr. Coughlin, and others who represented the know-nothing, knee-jerk fringe. The effect of this little coup was salutary, because it resulted in a period of nearly thirty years during which the conservative voice carried moral weight in the public square.

Of course, the culture at large was rather different in those days. The PBS television network had room for such middle-brow intellectual fare as Buckley's Firing Line, Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and there were only two or three "major" conservative publications, National Review and The American Spectator being the ones with the largest circulation. Our culture has since, shall we say, "moved on".

I first began to notice the change quite some time ago--back when Buckley retired from editing National Review, in fact. Slowly but surely the writing in that forum grew less interesting and far from intellectually stimulating. But other publications arrived to fill its place, or so I thought: I began reading the Weekly Standard, and found that it sometimes rose to level of the National Review of the late 60s and early 70s. At about the same time, Rush Limbaugh was growing in popularity with radio audiences across the country, and for a little while he even had a television show.

Today, as I look through the sources of "conservative thought" available on the Internet, TV, and radio, I find that the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Andrew Breitbard make the John Birch Society look like Plato's Academy by comparison. The capacity to communicate the conservative stance by means of intellectual disquisition and rational argumentation has vanished, only to be replaced by the same sort of shrill, knee-jerk bigotry that characterizes so much of the left. While it is true that even Glenn Beck will, on occasion, say something that I find congenial, one must sadly note that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and as any reader of Plato's Theaetetus will know (hence, none of the current "conservative" pundits), getting something right once in a while is not a sufficient condition for knowledge or even intelligence.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of them being that (a) genuine conservative values will stand less of a chance of making any headway in the public square and (b) our culture, as a whole, is now "slouching towards Gomorrah" at twice the rate it was when this sort of behavior was largely confined to the left. Among these reasons, however, the genuine conservative must surely include the painful irony of a movement in which the noble and the good, construed as the end of man, are at the heart of what it means to be a member of that movement, winds up pillorying itself by stooping to the very tactics of its opposition in an appeal to the vulgar prejudices and bigotries of populism.

Nothing is new under the sun, of course, and while one may lament the present state of things, one comforts oneself with the thought that we have been here before and somehow managed to survive. The history of political discourse in the United States, contrary to the current wisdom, has not suddenly arrived at an unprecedented nadir, but has rather always been characterized by the sort of stuff that one might find flowing forth from the Cloaca Maxima. It is only our short institutional memory that prompts us to characterize our own situation as the End Time. But as new media and new cultural trends multiply ever more quickly with the aid of modern technology, it begins to seem as though the likelihood of another Velvet Revolution in conservative thought is very small, and that, perhaps, is to be lamented even more than the present situation.

Comments

Pauli said…
I listen to a Salem Radio Network station that Beck isn't even on, and at least two of the commentators there have been rightly critical of Sarah Palin more than once. The "capacity to communicate the conservative stance by means of intellectual disquisition" is alive and well on shows hosted by Michael Medved and Bill Bennett and the others there.

Beck and Breitbart are sensationalists and really can't be used to paint the entire conservative field in anti-intellectual tones. I rarely see either making the front page of RCP, whereas Thomas Sowell, Jonah Goldberg and other articulate writers appear there often. Sites like American Thinker--regularly mentioned by Rush--brim with interesting articles by many up-and-coming conservative pundits. This stuff isn't buried somewhere. I think you are being selective and dismissive bemoaning several flashy personalities who have gained some prominence at the moment.
Scott Carson said…
Well I certainly did not mean to give the impression that I don't think that there are any conservative intellectuals any more. The problem is rather the one you put your finger on in your last sentence: the thoughtful and intelligent ones, however many of them there may be, and regardless of what sorts of forums they find themselves getting a voice in, are not the ones who are shaping the debate in the public square, as was much more clearly the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

Having said that, however, I would also add that my own experience even of the thoughtful conservatives has been that they do not take the time to present the conservative case with anything like the rigor that the Old Guard used to do. I like Sowell very much, and Bill Bennett is actually an acquaintance of mine with whom I have had some interesting conversations. But neither of them really puts the pedal to the metal when it comes to critical engagement with issues (though Sowell certainly does a better job than most). While I would agree that Jonah Goldberg--and many others like him that I could name--is certainly "articulate", being articulate is, while certainly something of a nice luxury these days, nevertheless not a sufficient condition for erudition or critical thinking.

And quite frankly, you don't help your case any by giving Michael Medved as a possible counter-example, at least not in my opinion. He's a fellow at the Discovery Institute. Like Rush Limbaugh, he's sort of a poster child for a kind of misleadingly articulate spokesman for conservatism. Bill Bennett is, I think, a much better example of someone with real intelligence behind his articulateness; it is perhaps a function of the forums in which he appears that doesn't always have the opportunity to work through his ideas more carefully.
Pauli said…
I would argue that all these people are smart. You have to be to carve out your own market. They possess a different type of intelligence than a university professor, more practical, less bookish.
Khodges said…
Anybody can list examples of intelligent, more or less intellectually honest conservative commentators (I would not include Goldberg in the latter group). More telling to me is the lack of public prominence and influence these voices have, as compared to William Buckley and conservative commentators of the past.

Does today's GOP care what George Will says?
Steve said…
Dr. Carson,
I would be interested in hearing your opinion of "the new atlantis"...assuming you're still out there somewhere.
Scott Carson said…
Steve

I'm still here! By "new atlantis" do you mean the novel by Francis Bacon, or the journal published by the Witherspoon Institute?
Steve said…
Sorry. The journal...
Steve said…
hmmm, not sure if my last post is hung up in moderation, but I meant the journal.
Scott Carson said…
I haven't had the opportunity to read around in there all that much, but the few items I have looked at seemed pretty good to me. I haven't recognized many of the names of the writers, but they seem quite good in some ways.

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