Give up, conservatives. You're not lost in the woods, you're dead and stinking up the place.
From the beginning of Ross Douthat's recent essay on conservative intellectuals, it's clear he intends to blame their followers for the leaders' incompetency and greed.
Every political movement in a democracy is shaped like a pyramid — elite actors on the top, the masses underneath. But the pyramid that is modern American conservatism has always been misshapen, with a wide, squat base that tapers far too quickly at its peak.The purpose of electing representatives is to have representation in government, not provide jobs for the lesser sons and daughters of the rich. Over here in reality, the conservative elite have used the money, time and votes of their followers to set up their children with a cushy, rose-strewn path from, say, The House At Pooh Corner Preschool for Privileged Tykes to the most expensive prep schools they can afford, to an Ivy League school and on to clerk for a Judge, work for a Senator, intern at Wall Street, join a publishing house, or write for The Atlantic. Ross Douthat is complaining about being shut out of the meritocracy from his airy little nest at The New York Times, for Chrissake.
The broad base is right-wing populism, in all its post-World War II varietals: Orange County Cold Warriors, “Silent Majority” hard hats, Southern evangelicals, Reagan Democrats, the Tea Party, the Trumpistas. The too-small peak is the right’s intellectual cadres, its philosophers and legal theorists and foreign policy hands and wonks. The peak is small because conservatives have always had a relatively weak presence within what James Burnham, one of modern conservatism’s intellectual godfathers, called the “managerial class” — the largely liberal meritocrats who staff our legal establishment, our bureaucracy, our culture industries, our universities. Whether as provincial critics of this class or dissidents within it, conservative intellectuals have long depended on populism to win the power that the managerial elite’s liberal tilt would otherwise deny them.The purpose of academia is to gain knowledge and pass it on to our young. Bureaucracies exist to run the business of governing, the entertainment industry exists to make money, and the legal establishment exists to create, maintain, and enforce a code of law. None of these organizations owe conservatives a living. If these organizations are meritocracies, moreover, then the cream will rise and the dregs will fall. The same conservative philosophies that glorify individual achievement and success through hard work and discipline should make whining for more power, money, and jobs a humiliating task. Sadly, however, Douthat is forced to admit that competence has a liberal bias.
Since, as Douthat admits, the conservative elite don't have enough brain or artistic power to succeed in lucrative and/or prestigious profession, they must depend on their base's power to get jobs. But once again, an impediment stands in their way. After yanking around, lying to, and ignoring their followers, the followers no longer trust their elite. They insist on trying to elect people who hire their own types, not Douthat and his conservative brethren.
Sometimes this interdependency has worked out well. At its peaks of political success, the conservative intelligentsia has channeled and directed populism, responding to grass-roots passions without being ruled by them.By channeled and directed he means inflamed and unleashed. By not being ruled he means fooling the rubes.
But now, in the age of Donald Trump, the populists have seemingly decided that they can get along just fine without any elite direction whatsoever.The conservative elite really shouldn't have told their followers that all the elite are too liberal and they should get rid of them in favor of people who will refuse to cooperate with anyone so the government will shut down and their taxes will be eliminated.
“This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual,” writes Matthew Continetti, the editor of The Washington Free Beacon, in a long essay tracing how the highbrow conservatism of Burnham and William F. Buckley sought to work with and through the anti-establishment impulses of the Middle American right. “After years of aligning with, trying to explain, sympathizing with the causes and occasionally ignoring the worst aspects of populism, he finds that populism has exiled him from his political home.”The elite honored the wretched poor with their notice, tried to hammer the facts of life through their thick skulls, pretended to care about their poverty and conspiracies, and held their noses at the racist, sexist, fascist stench of the poor. In return, CNN hired Trump supporters, not libertarians and god-humpers.
And, Continetti adds, “what makes this crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.”
The only word amiss in this analysis is “may.” The crisis described in Continetti’s essay was not created by the conservative intelligentsia alone. But three signal failures of that intelligentsia clearly contributed to the right’s disastrous rendezvous with Trumpism.From here, Douthat goes on to describe how the conservative party's superstitions, prejudices and greed ruined the party for the next generation.
Just kidding. He blames the poors.
The first failure was a failure of governance and wisdom, under George W. Bush and in the years that followed. Had there been weapons of mass destruction under Iraqi soil and a successful occupation, or had Bush and his advisers chosen a more prudent post-Sept. 11 course, the trust that right-wing populists placed in their elites might not have frayed so quickly. If those same conservative intellectuals had shown more policy imagination over all, if they hadn’t assumed that the solutions of 1980 could simply be recycled a generation later, the right’s blue-collar voters might not have drifted toward a man who spoke, however crudely, to their more immediate anxieties.They are elite conservatives. They are philosophically opposed to changing with circumstances, learning from mistakes, or rationally analyzing data. They always have and always will choose whatever activity will benefit them the most, and only seek to maintain the status quo because these are the circumstances under which they became wealthy and successful. The elite look upon their followers as pawns on a chessboard, to be moved at the will and whim of the elite for their personal benefit, and demand that they stay silent and unmoving the rest of the time.
The second failure was a failure of recognition and self-critique, in which the right’s best minds deceived themselves about (or made excuses for) the toxic tendencies of populism, which were manifest in various hysterias long before Sean Hannity swooned for Donald Trump. What the intellectuals did not see clearly enough was that Fox News and talk radio and the internet had made right-wing populism more powerful, relative to conservatism’s small elite, than it had been during the Nixon or Reagan eras, without necessarily making it more serious or sober than its Bircher-era antecedents.The Reagan-era solutions included removing the Fairness Doctrine. This set up what followed: the development of a rabble-rousing, lying media organization that created, reinforced, and demanded hysterical reactions from its listeners. Conservative intellectuals worked hand-in-glove with the conservative media empires. The followers are now so paranoid that they will only trust people who they already know can't be trusted. Douthat is such a poor Christian and such a weak man that he can't confess guilt or accept responsibility.
Some conservatives told themselves that Fox and Drudge and Breitbart were just the evolving right-of-center alternative to the liberal mainstream media, when in reality they were more fact-averse and irresponsible. Others (myself included) told ourselves that this irresponsibility could be mitigated by effective statesmanship, when in reality political conservatism’s leaders — including high-minded figures like Paul Ryan — turned out to have no strategy save self-preservation.Trump revealed that the intelligentsia were occupying themselves with meaningless busy work while the base cared about nothing but winning a contest. We already know that the politicians were occupied with lining their pockets, preserving their power, and groping any young person who came within range of their hands.
Both of these errors were linked to the most important failure of the right’s intellectuals: The failure to translate the power accrued through their alliance with populists into a revolution within the managerial class — one that would have ultimately made conservatism less dependent on the vagaries and venom of populism, made the right-leaning intelligentsia less of a wobbly peak and more of a sturdy spire.I'll let my twitter speak for this paragraph.
Ross Douthat has determined that best way to cure the Republican Party is to co-opt the power of their voters to ignore their voters. pic.twitter.com/ttVs7hLf6A— Susan of Hell (@SusanofTexas) October 26, 2016
Partial revolutions there were. Free-market ideas were absorbed into the managerial consensus after the stagflation of the 1970s. The fall of Communism lent a retrospective luster to Reaganism within the foreign policy establishment. There was even a period in the 1990s — and again, briefly, after Sept. 11 — when a soft sort of social conservatism seemed to be making headway among Atlantic-reading, center-left mandarins.Douthat wrote for The Atlantic but of course he's referring to everyone else, not himself. McArdle also loves to snidely call liberal elites mandarins. Mandarins are a meritocratic but aristocratic bureaucracy class, which is exactly what Douthat is trying to increase. Calling liberals mandarins does nothing but make conservatives look racist; conservatives are Real Americans, liberals are foreign and not-us.
But the same Bush-era failures that alienated right-wing populists from their own intelligentsia also discredited conservative ideas within the broader elite. And then the progress of sexual individualism and the energy of a renascent left has pulled that elite further left across the last eight years.Conservatives were wrong all the time, but what really pulled us all left was individuals thinking they could decided when they would or would not have sex. They forget that only celibate white older males can tell women when they can and can't have sex.
So it is that today, three generations after Buckley and Burnham, the academy and the mass media are arguably more hostile to conservative ideas than ever, and the courts and the bureaucracy are trending in a similar direction. Reflecting on this harsh reality has confirmed some conservatives in their belief that the managerial order is inherently left wing, and that the goal of a conservative politics should be to sweep the managerial class away entirely. This is part of the appeal of Trump to a small cohort within the right’s intelligentsia, who imagine that his strongman approach can unweave the administrative state and strip the overclass of all its powers.If you didn't want them to think they could do that, you shouldn't have told them that it could be done.
This idea strikes me as fatuous and fantastical at once. But is there an alternative? Continetti’s essay hints at one: to make intellectual conservatism a more elite-focused project, to seek “a conservative tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition.”Why should they start now when they've never done this before? Douthat is either a bold liar or he is so self-flattering that he actually believes his lies.
This path seems considerably more appealing (and more republican) than the dream of a Trump-led Thermidor. But is it any more plausible? To begin anew, at such steep disadvantages, what amounts to missionary work? Or, as another alternative, conservative elites might simply try to build a more intellectually serious populism out of the Trumpian wreckage and wait for a less toxic backlash against liberal overreach to ride back into power. But can the populist right actually be de-Hannitized, de-Trumpified, rendered 100 percent Breitbart-free? Or would building on populism once again just repeat the process that led conservatism to its present end?No, no, not a chance, no, and yes.
History does not stand still; crises do not last forever. Eventually a path for conservative intellectuals will open. But for now we find ourselves in a dark wood, with the straight way lost.They are Over The Garden Wall, in the autumnal land of the dead, dancing around a fertility god, and pretending they are still alive.
Megan McArdle was deeply inspired by this Douthat post, and we will examine her