11/8/08

The Harder They Fall

In perhaps the smartest post-election article yet, Mark Lilla concerns himself with the failure of intellectual conservatism (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan). For Lilla, Sarah Palin is not, as David Brooks has famously suggested, "a fatal cancer to the Republican party," but rather a symptom of an anti-intellectual ailment that is now in its advanced stages.
...John McCain's choice was not a fluke, or a senior moment, or an act of desperation. It was the result of a long campaign by influential conservative intellectuals to find a young, populist leader to whom they might hitch their wagons in the future.

And not just any intellectuals. It was the editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, magazines that present themselves as heirs to the sophisticated conservatism of William F. Buckley and the bookish seriousness of the New York neoconservatives. After the campaign for Sarah Palin, those intellectual traditions may now be pronounced officially dead.

It's true: the Weekly Standard and National Review have lost credibility. After engineering one of the worst political blunders in recent memory, they jettisoned anyone who dared utter dissent and, perhaps as a result, their evaluation of the election has yet to rise above the level of "the media did it."

Other voices, however, have been much more introspective. While National Review and the Weekly Standard were busy papering over old ideas with new slogans, the internet allowed for a new crop of conservative thinkers to grow up in parallel, and some times in concert, with traditional print sources. I understand why Andrew Sullivan might say, "the reconstruction of conservatism will require a generation's work," but I think that some intellectuals--Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and Sullivan himself, just to name a few--have already done a lot of the heavy lifting.

I actually worry about the opposite problem. Every day, on-line, serious strategy is being seriously debated by a group of talented, young conservatives. I read them not because I agree with them--I don't share Ross Douthat's ideas about abortion or pornography, nor do I like Sullivan's positions on the flat tax or affirmative action--but I appreciate their seriousness, their reasoning and their writing. Where is the rigorous, intelligent discussion, played out in real time over the internet, that is closer to my politics?

When Lilla writes about his early encounters with conservatives, I empathize.
Conservative politics mattered less to me than the sober comportment of conservative intellectuals at that time; I admired their maturity and seriousness, their historical perspective, their sense of proportion. In a country susceptible to political hucksters and demagogues, they studied the passions of democratic life without succumbing to them.
To maintain not only power but the intellectual foundation from which it stems, progressives will need an equally vibrant new crop of public thinkers thinking publicly. Without it, our victory may be short-lived.

1 comment:

Zane said...

I couldn't agree more. With Obama taking office it is imperative that we have progressives engaged publicly. I was struck yesterday by my emotional reaction to Obama as he gave his first news conference. His demeanor has understandably changed. He is no longer our folk hero on Facebook or our buddy sending a text message. He has adopted the gravitas and distance of a leader with a country to run. And yet as he takes office many of us will want to continue believing that he is our pal.

The problem with viewing him as our friend is that when friends mess up we forgive them. We are able to write off egregious errors because we care for them. I worry that without engaged progressive voices who are willing to take exception with Obama's policies and choices, we may be lulled into our own anti-intellectualism born out of idolatry.