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The Dilemma of the Conservative Thinker

October 29, 2016

Conservatism is an idea. The articulation and defense of that idea requires a core of competent thinkers and writers. Modern American conservatism was built largely on the intellectual labors of three men: Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Frederick Hayek. These men’s ideas were translated for ordinary people by William F. Buckley, primarily in the pages of the National Review. Buckley really deserves the credit for the conservative juggernaut that eventually brought Ronald Reagan into the presidency.

To do that, however, Buckley faced two significant problems. One was the quirky libertarianism of Ayn Rand. The other was the even quirkier conspiricism of the John Birch Society. Before Buckley could build a positive conservatism, he first had to erect barriers against these two faux-conservative alternative. Erect those barriers he did. He effectively read both Rand and the Birchers out of the American Conservative Movement.

Still, much of conservatism was build on populist impulses. Buckley lived to see a day when these impulses were again unleashed, first by talk radio and then by internet journalism. The effect is that many conservatives today have scant acquaintance with conservative ideas. Theirs is not a conservatism of thoughtful commitments, but of resentments and vendettas.

That is the situation that Ross Douthat has in mind. He believes that the thinkers have no one to blame but themselves. He recently editorialized on “What the Right’s Intellectuals Did Wrong.” He opined,

What the intellectuals did not see clearly enough was that Fox News and talk radio and the internet had made right-wing populism more powerful, relative to conservatism’s small elite, than it had been during the Nixon or Reagan eras, without necessarily making it more serious or sober than its Bircher-era antecedents.

After what we’ve seen this year, it’s hard to argue with him.

 

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