Conservativism Political Philosophy Politics

The Downfall of the Conservative Intellectual

Mark Lilla described the downfall of the conservative intellectual movement in last week’s Wall Street Journal, describing how conservative intellectuals in the 1960s had originally and self-consciously understood themselves to be elites, trying to educate the public, as the public overwhelming supported liberal politicians. Lilla describes the changes as the sons and daughters of these thinkers took over the institutions of the conservative movement from The Weekly Standard to The National Review, just as conservative politicians began to win elections. This generation – Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Rich Lowry, and the rest was different:

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.

Today there are a few conservative movement intellectuals left – George Will for one. One could make a case for David Brooks and David Frum. Most of the rest are party hacks – or intellectuals who happen to be conservative, rather than members of the conservative movement and it’s institutions.

This isn’t a healthy result for a two party system.

One reply on “The Downfall of the Conservative Intellectual”

This critique seems hollow to me (no surprise there I’m sure). My understanding regarding the success of American ‘liberal politicians’ in the post-WWII era is this: That liberals succeeded in convincing Americans that a liberal government was needed to prevent a postwar regression into another Great Depression.

To say that conservative thinkers now resort to the economic leadership of plumbers is a rather ridiculous straw man argument. The brilliance of the Regan era was this: that after decades of liberal experimentation, accompanied by attendant ivy league endorsement, and much academic self congratulation, simple supply side economics could pull a nation out of recession and motivate people to better themselves. In the legal marketplace of ideas, some liberal academics and leaders succeeded in implementing important changes, but many others were just writing story books about “Herculean” judges (Ronald Dworkin) and dreamy yet impotent essays about a “Fin De Siecle” (Duncan Kennedy).

I think sometimes some liberals need to be reminded of conservatives’ quite useful natural impulse to temper unwarranted exuberance in academic discourse, which exists among academics as it does in all walks of life. And I think that this role seems like “counter-intellectualism” to the very people who are guilty of contributing to the derogatory, conjectural sense of the word “academic.”

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