Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mark Lilla on the decline of Intellectual Conservatism

Honestly, I'm going to have to start paying Ed Brayton a finder's fee for hunting down good articles for me to read.

Over at the WSJ, Mr' Lilla has an excellent article on the fall of intellectual conservatism and the GOP. Worth a read. He describes the fall, as many have in recent months, as culminating with the selection of Sarah Palin as the VP nominee. His argument is that a re-emergent populism and the demonizing of intellectual prowess resulted in the low-brow conservative echo chamber which now controls the right's campaign machine:
So what happened? How, 30 years later, could younger conservative intellectuals promote a candidate like Sarah Palin, whose ignorance, provincialism and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against? It's a sad tale that began in the '80s, when leading conservatives frustrated with the left-leaning press and university establishment began to speak of an "adversary culture of intellectuals." It was a phrase borrowed from the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, who used it to describe the disquiet at the heart of liberal societies. Now the idea was taken up and distorted by angry conservatives who saw adversaries everywhere and decided to cast their lot with "ordinary Americans" whom they hardly knew. In 1976 Irving Kristol publicly worried that "populist paranoia" was "subverting the very institutions and authorities that the democratic republic laboriously creates for the purpose of orderly self-government." But by the mid-'80s, he was telling readers of this newspaper that the "common sense" of ordinary Americans on matters like crime and education had been betrayed by "our disoriented elites," which is why "so many people -- and I include myself among them -- who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism."

The die was cast. Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders' intellectual virtues -- indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities; in fact, one of the masterminds of the Palin nomination was once a Harvard professor. But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.
This basically encompasses all of the grave missteps of the right over the last 2+ decades. The withdrawal from open fora and retreat to the rhetorical cocoon of talk radio and conservative think-tanks/web sites, the glorification of intellectual mediocrity and the offhanded dismissal of educated classes, the proffering of academia as inherently antithetical to conservative causes.

This sort of thing is now being openly said all over the media. Amazing how things can change in just a few weeks. Question is, will conservatives do anything to correct it?

If this woman is a source of their ideas, I'm thinking no.

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