Jon Henke and Patrick Ruffini are doing the Lord’s work by telling fringe groups on the Right that their assistance and fellowship is not wanted by the rest of us. Just as William F. Buckley ensured that the Right would not be captured by groups like the John Birch Society, so should their successors ensure that the megaphone for the Right does not fall into the hands of groups and outlets like WorldNetDaily.
In addition to the fact that these groups “peddle Birther nonsense,” as Ruffini writes, they also work against efforts to make the Right an intellectually vibrant place on the political spectrum. A combination of crank ideologies, conspiracy-mongering, and disdain for ideas and intelligence does not a governing coalition make, and yet, the Birthers and those allied with them are helping to foster just such a culture on the Right. This is a travesty; as Ruffini points out, the Right has benefited mightily from the efforts of people like Buckley and Reagan to both rid the movement of the cranks, and to make the Right a home for great and compelling ideas. Unfortunately, nowadays, many of the leaders of the Right help encourage the very kind of anti-intellectualism Ruffini, Henke, and I inveigh against.
Do we need Ivy League/smart school conservatives and libertarians on the Right? Not exclusively, of course, but it cannot help to have some smart people who know how to hold their own in an argument without resorting to the kind of tired, Joe-the-Plumberesque/Sarah Palinesque bromides that so often offend one’s intelligence and do nothing to expand the Right’s ability to put together a winning electoral coalition that is capable of governing effectively. To be sure, there are a lot of figures on the Right who have been unfairly maligned and trashed by the national media. The Right needs to speak out against that, but it also needs to refrain from necessarily making those figures leaders of a movement simply as a reaction to the unfair trashing that they have received. One can state that Sarah Palin’s name has been dragged through the mud, while at the same time, stating that Sarah Palin should not be considered leadership material as far as the Right is concerned, because she is not a serious intellectual figure. Additionally–and this is closely related–people on the Right who are serious about reviving its electoral fortunes (and its commensurate ability to govern), need to be prepared to grant a serious and respectful hearing to those who call shenanigans on things done on the Right that do not pass the giggle test. “Our critics are our friends, they show us our faults,” as Benjamin Franklin wrote, and when figures on the Right take issue with certain things done in the name of the Right, their arguments should be taken in the friendly vein in which they are likely offered.
Since Patrick Ruffini helped inspire this post, I will quote from the end of his post–his comments encapsulate my position and concerns:
Within my relatively short lifetime, I still remember a time when success and intellectual achievement were more often than not conservative virtues, and I remember WFB looming large in this framework. Recent Democratic gains within the creative and educated classes have eroded this image, creating a media dynamic where intelligence is seen as aligning with the left within the Democratic Party, and the center within the Republican Party.
That is an untenable position for a conservative movement that needs to generate new ideas and groom future leaders who can speak articulately and persuasively to the whole country. (It’s true that Ronald Reagan was not a book learner, but under the theory of multiple intelligences, he more than held his own.) Before conservatism was a viable political movement, it was a viable intellectual movement, and it was those on the center and in the left who were seen as intellectually slovenly.
This is why there is a unique urgency now to cast out the obscurantists and the conspiracy nuts. We don’t have a Buckley anymore. Our intellectual giants have died off and not being replaced. And preventing the lowest common denominator from filling the void is a constant daily struggle.
In a movement and a party that has largely defined itself outside centers of higher learning in recent years (for good or ill) I believe the time is ripe for a return to Buckleyite elite conservatism.
It is indeed. The question is whether we will take advantage of the time.