Reviving The Right's Intellectual Foundations

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 7, 2009

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.

  • G4DSD3N

    Who gets to decide who is and isn't a “serious intellectual figure?” You? Henke? Ruffini? All three? And how do you suppose the vast swath of middle/rural American voters who consider themselves conservatives are going to receive this renewed “Buckleyite elite conservatism,” the elites that embody it, and those who have decided without them who said elites should and shouldn't be (particularly when these selectors and their chosen elite will very likely know as much about middle/rural American cares and concerns as your garden-variety coastal liberal, i.e., nothing)?

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    The determination of who is a “serious intellectual figure” is one that would be decided via a consensus on the Right. As for the “vast swath of middle/rural American voters who consider themselves conservatives,” they have nothing to fear from a movement that seeks to ensure that the Right is where all the smart, and intellectually interesting/relevant action is.

  • CSBadeaux

    Whom did Reagan excise?

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    The Birchers. To be sure, Buckley did more in this regard, but it was probably more part of Buckley's job description to do so.

  • http://twitter.com/ECMIM ECM

    Yes, I guess it's too bad that the vast swath of those people that actually consider Sarah Palin leadership material are going to be disappointed because the 'elite' have decided that she isn't.

    To Pejman: do you realize how laughable stuff like this comes across? You guys want to construct an ivory-walled conservative tower and also want to decide who gets to man it, your comment on 'consensus' being ridiculous on its face. (If “consensus” meant anything to you, you'd acknowledge that Mrs. Palin is more of a leader than all of the self-style conservative elites put together and, god, how it must eat you up inside!)

    The fact is, there is nobody on the right with the intellectual firepower or gravitas of a Buckely or a Reagan, period, despite that many of you surely believe you are (though you'd never be so foolish as to say it out loud) and deciding that you're going to purge people that you think are too knuckle-dragging for your pointy-headed tastes when we need every last person is not only arrogant in the extreme, but counter-productive. (This isn't a case of purging loons like the John Birchers, etc., and your insinuation that it is–and it is since you decided to drag Buckley into this–is sickening and makes your 'argument', such as it is, all the more feeble.)

  • CSBadeaux

    No, he cast out Welch, not the Society as a whole. (Second page from the one you quoted.) Reagan was an addition-by-addition kind of guy.

    You're conflating two things: Political imperatives and ideological arguments. Reagan didn't cast out. Buckley did.

    I add that the Birthers are weird and not merely being paranoid, but also wasting energy that could and should go elsewhere; that WND is at best a comedy site; and that I lose no skin from my nose in this. But having Jon Henke and the rest of the kids over at The Next Right leading the charge to reformat the Right, especially when they're trying addition by subtraction, should make us all nervous.

    Blind chickens sometimes find corn. That doesn't mean you want them to lead you through a mine field.

  • G4DSD3N

    Who decides who is and isn't “on the Right” and how do they decide, i.e., what's the rubric? Who decides when consensus has been reached and how do they decide?

    Also, the vast swath of middle/rural Americans who consider themselves conservatives have nothing to fear from a movement that insists upon (unelected) elites and elitism? All due respect, but the very nature of our (assuming we're all on the same side here) ideology demands, at the very least, skepticism and a healthy, rational fear of exactly those sorts of things.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    If I could speak for a consensus on the Right, I would have done so by now, but really, your questions are strange. Ideological movements lurch back and forth until they reach some kind of happy medium, or what they perceive to be a happy medium. The members of the movement decide what the rubric is; it isn't for one person or three to decide. All I can do is voice my opinions, which I have. As for “the vast swath of middle/rural Americans who consider themselves conservatives,” they benefited from the stringent and rigorous intellectual leadership provided by the likes of Buckley and Reagan, and I imagine that they would do so again, if rigorous intellectual leadership worthy of the times was provided.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    I think it is more than the “elites” who have decided that Sarah Palin isn't leadership material.

    I don't know how to respond to the rest of your “argument,” since it is less argument and more rage. I don't want to create “an ivory-walled conservative tower,” but I understand if you feel that you need to construct strawman arguments and attribute them to me, rather than responding to what I actually wrote. Nothing about Palin “eats me up inside” either; I mentioned that the demonization of her was tremendously unfair, but also that she is not a serious intellectual leader. Sorry if you disagree, but I have seen no Palinesque oeuvre that would disabuse me of my notion. Your commentary on Palin seems more replete of fandom than anything else.

    Your last paragraph descends into silliness. I do not, alas, possess the power to purge (oh, that I did!), so I don't know why you seem so alarmed that I will conduct a purge. Throwing around epithets like “pointy-headed” must seem like an insult to you, but I am happy to be called as much (you ought to note that I have glasses as well, which surely enhances my pointy-headed, “ivory-towered” reputation). As for “drag[ging] Buckley into this,” Buckley did what was right for his time, and I think we can and should draw inspiration from it. If you find my writings “sickening” merely because I mentioned what Buckley did, then the back button is your friend.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    When I see Reagan state that “where members of the [John Birch] Society inject themselves into political activity and seek to subvert a political party to the purposes and goals of their organization, then they should be thrown out,” I interpret that as at least being an effort to cast out a society. I recognize that there were people who believed that Reagan did not repudiate the Society, but I don't buy their arguments. As mentioned before, I believe that Buckley certainly did more to cast out, and I agree with you that Reagan was an addition-by-addition kind of guy, which I think helped lead to his stance against the Birchers. I certainly think that it led to Buckley's stance against the Birchers; he got a lot more people into the conservative movement by casting the Birchers out.

  • CSBadeaux

    Well:

    Q: What stand do you take regarding the Klu Klux Klan, the Birch Society, the Rockwell Nazi Group?

    A: Well now that's, that's sort of a fishing question – it's got a hook in it. First of all, here are three organizations listed, two of which are on the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations, and one of which is not, and one of which, whether we agree or disagree with it, it has been ruled it evidently has no record of subversion, and therefore they have even declined at the national level to investigate it.

    I overwhelmingly repudiate all organizations that are on that subversive list. I think that they have been put there after due consideration. I repudiate all organizations like the Klan and the Nazi Group, who are based on the idea that some of our citizens should be denied their constitutional rights because of their race or religion. I think that bigotry and racial discrimination and prejudice, and religious prejudice, is a kind of evil sickness and I think that the right thinking people of this country should be dedicated to making sure that those who practice discrimination walk alone.

    On the Birch Society, this is the hook. I'm not a member, have no intention of joining, never have been a member, not going to ask their support. The governor has worked very hard at trying to get me to do something that I believe would be morally wrong. He is trying to get me, as a private citizen, to act as judge and jury and a kind of vigilante, and to blanket in tight and repudiate an entire group of people with whom I'm not acquainted, simply on the basis of disagreement with their expressed positions. And I do disagree with many of them, and I certainly disagree with the remarks of their founder, Robert Welch: I think his statements about President Eisenhower are thoroughly reprehensible. I disagree with regard to the impeachment of Earl Warren. I disagree with regard to a stand favoring the Liberty Amendment. I disagree with these things; but I do not, I did not, when I was opposing the communists in the motion picture industry when they were committing acts of violence and outright trying to take over control of our industry, I did not engage in McCarthyism then, and I'm not going to engage in McBrownism now.

    This is thin gruel, mon ami.

    Look, we owe Buckley thanks for his work. But (1) let's not conflate Reagan with Buckley and (2) let's not imagine that this is anything other than Henke's latest weird tilt at windmills. Next up will likely be the FRC.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    In the event that anyone goes after the FRC, I'll write and say that there is no reason whatsoever to consider them as latter-day Birchers. Also, as mentioned, I am not conflating Buckley with Reagan or Reagan with Buckley. I recognize that Buckley did more to cast out Birchers than Reagan did, and said as much.

  • G4DSD3N

    My questions aren't strange so much as a prompt to get you to think about the nature of ideological movements and “consensus” within them (assuming such a thing is even possible), and how all the terms and conceptions surrounding both are defined (and by whom they are defined). Though, I suppose that's all a bit above and beside the point of this particular post, focused less on theory as it is on immediate practicalities.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    When I see Reagan state that “where members of the [John Birch] Society inject themselves into political activity and seek to subvert a political party to the purposes and goals of their organization, then they should be thrown out,” I interpret that as at least being an effort to cast out a society. I recognize that there were people who believed that Reagan did not repudiate the Society, but I don't buy their arguments. As mentioned before, I believe that Buckley certainly did more to cast out, and I agree with you that Reagan was an addition-by-addition kind of guy, which I think helped lead to his stance against the Birchers. I certainly think that it led to Buckley's stance against the Birchers; he got a lot more people into the conservative movement by casting the Birchers out.

  • CSBadeaux

    Well:

    Q: What stand do you take regarding the Klu Klux Klan, the Birch Society, the Rockwell Nazi Group?

    A: Well now that's, that's sort of a fishing question – it's got a hook in it. First of all, here are three organizations listed, two of which are on the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations, and one of which is not, and one of which, whether we agree or disagree with it, it has been ruled it evidently has no record of subversion, and therefore they have even declined at the national level to investigate it.

    I overwhelmingly repudiate all organizations that are on that subversive list. I think that they have been put there after due consideration. I repudiate all organizations like the Klan and the Nazi Group, who are based on the idea that some of our citizens should be denied their constitutional rights because of their race or religion. I think that bigotry and racial discrimination and prejudice, and religious prejudice, is a kind of evil sickness and I think that the right thinking people of this country should be dedicated to making sure that those who practice discrimination walk alone.

    On the Birch Society, this is the hook. I'm not a member, have no intention of joining, never have been a member, not going to ask their support. The governor has worked very hard at trying to get me to do something that I believe would be morally wrong. He is trying to get me, as a private citizen, to act as judge and jury and a kind of vigilante, and to blanket in tight and repudiate an entire group of people with whom I'm not acquainted, simply on the basis of disagreement with their expressed positions. And I do disagree with many of them, and I certainly disagree with the remarks of their founder, Robert Welch: I think his statements about President Eisenhower are thoroughly reprehensible. I disagree with regard to the impeachment of Earl Warren. I disagree with regard to a stand favoring the Liberty Amendment. I disagree with these things; but I do not, I did not, when I was opposing the communists in the motion picture industry when they were committing acts of violence and outright trying to take over control of our industry, I did not engage in McCarthyism then, and I'm not going to engage in McBrownism now.

    This is thin gruel, mon ami.

    Look, we owe Buckley thanks for his work. But (1) let's not conflate Reagan with Buckley and (2) let's not imagine that this is anything other than Henke's latest weird tilt at windmills. Next up will likely be the FRC.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    In the event that anyone goes after the FRC, I'll write and say that there is no reason whatsoever to consider them as latter-day Birchers. Also, as mentioned, I am not conflating Buckley with Reagan or Reagan with Buckley. I recognize that Buckley did more to cast out Birchers than Reagan did, and said as much.

  • G4DSD3N

    My questions aren't strange so much as a prompt to get you to think about the nature of ideological movements and “consensus” within them (assuming such a thing is even possible), and how all the terms and conceptions surrounding both are defined (and by whom they are defined). Though, I suppose that's all a bit above and beside the point of this particular post, focused less on theory as it is on immediate practicalities.

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