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With his LA Times op-ed “From Neocons to Crazy-Cons,” Former National Review literary editor David Klinghoffer becomes the latest conservative silverback to join the ranks of today’s critics of populism on the right. “Once,” reads his subhead, “the conservative movement was about finding meaning in private life and public service. But it has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism.” Bye bye Bill Buckleys of the world, hello Glenn Becks. It’s a popular narrative nowadays. Suitably enough, Jonah pushes back in the LA Times. “These men,” he writes of Buckley, Kristol, Nisbet, Neuhaus, and company, “are my heroes, too, and their influence was staggering.”
But those who pine for the good old days fail to grasp that the good old days were, in the ways that matter, often quite bad. The heyday of the “institution builders” was a low-water mark for conservatism’s political success. (That’s why they built institutions!) Conservatism hardly lacks for top-flight intellectuals these days, but the intellectuals aren’t the avant-garde anymore. Thanks to their success at building institutions and spreading ideas, the battle has been joined. And now is not the time to wax nostalgic for the planning sessions.
Jonah’s reminder that the right’s intellectual lions actually deigned to have a practical political project is more than helpful: it’s needful. Yet there’s a danger that he and Klinghoffer — and, more broadly, the loose camps they each represent — will wind up talking past each other. To be sure, yesterday’s deep thought and institution-building created the preconditions for today’s popular political activity. And we all know that popular political activity, even (or especially) in America, makes plenty of room for demagogues, hucksters, opportunists, and careerists. The question is whether a fresh crop of erudite heroes, very unlike the technocratic eggheads who set the agenda for the left, would be of any help in pressing what Jonah calls “the battle” that’s been joined.
Few on the right would respond in the negative. But for a number of those like Klinghoffer who answer yes, a suspicion is growing that new intellectual heavyweights are not only helpful to partisan conservatism today but essential. The trouble is simple: these mental mandarins are nowhere to be found on the right. Or the left. Or somewhere in the middle, or off in some unclassifiable corner of our political map. No wonder their influence is nil. Jonah would likely insist that this is nothing, necessarily, for anyone to be ashamed of. True; it’s entirely possible that one or two or two dozen will burst or creep onto the scene over the next, say, ten years. Really, there are too many names to watch to name. The issue, now, isn’t nostalgia versus populism. The kind of public theorists who dominated the American right in its contemporary infancy aren’t available to lead conservative politics. Why waste any time crying out for them, or crying over their absence? Ask, rather, what kinds of smart people are most needful today. Some of them, I imagine, will be better suited to calling and running plays on the ground. Others will remain pretty high up in pretty narrow towers. And a third kind of genius will do the most good explaining precisely what kind of intellectual leadership conservatives require most today.Published in