Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Implosion of the American Conservative Mind

David Brooks has stirred a lot of discussion with his column lamenting Sarah Palin's candidacy for vice-president as the "conservative" pick ("The Class War Before Palin," New York Times, October 10, 2008).

He looks back to the conservative movement that Bill Buckley started, and that liberated American conservatism from the lunatic fringe. "Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals."

Lately, it has become increasingly an anti-intellectual, populist movement. "What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole."

Here is Sarah Palin trying not to let on to Katie Couric that she has never read a newspaper or serious opinion magazine in her life, i.e. that politically she receives no intellectual input in any form. Warning: this is painful to watch.

Brooks does not mention it, but the takeover of academia by the New Left has played an important role in this anti-intellectual conservative reaction. In the 1970s, university departments welcomed into their ranks the graduating Ph.D.s who were formed academically in the intellectual and political upheavals of the 1960s. These established academics understood that this generation of scholars represented a school of thought that would take its place in the larger conversation. Once in, however, the New Left shut everyone else out. That has produced the leftward skew of colleges and universities that we suffer today. As the New Left sees it, academia is not a conversation, but a revolution. It's not the power of ideas. It's just power. As a result, Brooks can say, "The smartest young Americans are now educated in an overwhelmingly liberal environment." So Republicans have been positioning themselves not only against pointy-headed northeastern liberals and Marxists, but against the life of the mind and the finer strains of human culture generally.

Recently, other professions have been abandoning the GOP too. Brooks cites some arresting figures. "The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community."

I wonder how much of this stems from the party's embrace of stupid populism, how much of it is a widespread reaction to the current president's utter failure to lead in his second term (the surge in Iraq notwithstanding), and how much is traceable to the party's association with Evangelical Christians, especially under this Evangelical president. If it is in any way the latter, how much is attributable to the scandal of the cross, how much to what Mark Noll calls "the scandal of the Evangelical mind" (read the book here), and how much to the Evangelical tin ear for how they appear to people outside their subculture. (How can people who are so expert at contextualizing their evangelism be so inept at presenting themselves politically in the public square?)

These reflections on the new Republican anti-intellectualism come a couple of weeks after an equally provocative column on the role of prudence, and the experience it requires, in political leadership, especially the presidency ("Why Experience Matters," New York Times, Sept. 16, 2008). I recommend it to all of my students as a glimpse into the issue.

Prudence, says Brooks, is "the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation. It is the ability to absorb the vast flow of information and still discern the essential current of events — the things that go together and the things that will never go together. It is the ability to engage in complex deliberations and feel which arguments have the most weight." Prudence stands in contrast to both ideology and mere textbook learning which are doctrinaire and inflexible.

Of course, it requires intelligence of some sort, but it is not a calculation so much as it is a mental grasp or the right course of action, an intuiting of the answer. But that prudent judgment must be informed, and so it is impossible without experience, both personal and vicarious, by reading history. "The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what hasn’t."

This experience is especially important in the executive branch. Though a president may avail himself of many counselors, responsibility for executive decisions, unlike in Congress, is concentrated in one man. His most consequential decisions, moreover, pertain to international affairs and war, where events are the most unpredictable and the cost of mistaken judgment is most catastrophic.

Some conservatives have been calling Brooks an "elitist." Does that simply charge him with wanting to be governed by wisdom and with recognizing that most people are not wise? We live in a democratic country. We look to ordinary people without distinction for the selection of our leaders. But we do not select our leaders by lot. We elect those whom we think are most wise in public affairs. "Democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared" ("Why Experience Matters"). We elect what we hope is an elite. Sarah Palin offers herself not as someone who is wise, but as someone who is ordinary, someone who is just like me. That is at best how the House of Representatives was intended to function, if that. But the genius of the American Founding is far more than that. We expect liberals to forget that. Conservatives should know better.

Footnote: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is has been doing marvelous work cultivating a high and thoughtful regard for the Founding on college campuses. Along with ISI, Liberty Fund has been in the forefront of disseminating classic literature on "the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals." Further resources for cultivating an active, conservative mind...

Acton Institute - to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) - to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare.

The Claremont Institute - to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.

Ethics and Public Policy Center - to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues.

Heritage Foundation - to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

Institute on Religion and Public Life - to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.
Harold adds:

I feel compelled to point out a couple of things. David Brooks would be on the fringes of any gathering sponsored by any of the six sterling conservative groups listed above, and probably considers all of them within the orbit, or near it, of the conservative philistinism he is so worried about. Who would the members of any of these groups meet an address by with more interest and enthusiasm--Sarah Palin or David Brooks?

Second, Ronald Reagan--the humble-origins conservative that actually did stand athwart history, was no intellectual in the David Brooks style, but rather a member of Jefferson's "natural aristocracy" of talent and intelligence that occasionally bubbles up from below. Sarah Palin may need to catch up on her reading, and the populist strain--partly forced on her by the geniuses in the McCain campaign--is obscuring the essentially wholesome conservative inclinations and intuitions that have caught the attention of the base looking for the next Reagan. Is Sarah Palin a Ronald Reagan? Probably not, but then again, no one is. But I'll stand with Bill Buckley and declare categorically that I would rather be ruled by the first 2000 names in any phone book than the faculty of any college, the editorial board of any newspaper, or the curation staff of any museum. Taste and intelligence are fine qualities--but they don't trump character, humility, common sense--and a connectedness with the vastness of middle America.

In a rare divergence, my sense of this is at variance with my friend, the good Dr Innes. From my perch in deepest, darkest New Jersey, Brooks looks like a Bourgeois Bohemian in taste and temperament, the house republican at the liberal plantation there in NYC. His conservative instincts have been enervated.

1 comment:

Soliver said...

But she's not un-intelligent!!