Jon Henke points to Steven Hayward’s op-ed “Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?” which makes some very salient points. Chiefly:

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin’s “Culture of Corruption,” Glenn Beck’s new “Arguing with Idiots” and all of Ann Coulter’s well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov’s dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams’s dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, potboilers.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” George Gilder’s “Wealth and Poverty,” Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times,” Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground” and “The Bell Curve,” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man.” There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don’t sell. (I have my own entry in the list: a two-volume political history titled “The Age of Reagan.” But I never expected the books to sell well; at 750 pages each, you can hurt yourself picking them up.)

But, therein lies the crux of the problem for conservatism; people don’t want intellectualism (or at the very least they do not appear to want intellectualism). The modern conservative movement, led by the likes of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, wants to be spoon-fed right-wing talking-points like so many tiny jars of Gerber baby food. If people would be willing to pick up a 750-page book by a conservative intellectual once in a while, our political discourse might sound a bit different right now. I would venture a guess that there would be a lot less ‘socialist!’, ‘fascist!’ and ‘racist!’ invectives being thrown around, no?

Though I will admit that the ‘more Buckley less O’Reilly’ comparison is a bit off for my tastes. I feel that (with my recent warm-fuzzy feelings for him — if you can call it that) Bill O’Reilly is not nearly as divisive and, frankly, offensive as Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity.

Oh, and for the record, this is not a problem that is exclusive to conservatism. The Keith Olbermanns and Ed Schultzs of the world aren’t as bad as their conservative counterparts, but they are not necessarily helping the progressive movement either. This is a knife that does indeed cut both ways.

Photo: Jan Lukas/Little, Brown

  • Rob

    KO and ES are not as bad by an order of magnitude. So I don’t think the knife does cut both ways.

  • superdestroyer

    The reason that the intellectual conservatives have to credibility is the eight years of the Bush Administration. Given eight years to implement any conservative proposals, the Bush Administration passed NCLB, Sarbanes-Oxley, an expansion of medicare, and created the Department of Homeland Security.

    Why should any vote pay attention to intellectual conservatives when they behave in such a non-conservative manner and seem totally uninterested in implementing conservative policy. Even the so-called conservative Republican governors are growing their state’s budget at a much faster rate than inflation and population growth would make necessary.

  • Bill Buckley was a savant. O’Reilly is a pundit-no comparison !!

  • Jimmy the Dhimmi

    The reason that the intellectual conservatives have to credibility is the eight years of the Bush Administration

    Nah, I think its because people watch T.V. and surf the web more than they read books. Thomas Sowell and Chuck Krauthammer have books, but they don’t have their own half-informitive, half-entertainment hour on cable T.V.

    Similarly, who is the bastion of modern progressive thought? Is there even one? or is it just hollywood celebrities and liberal counterparts like Olbermann and Matthews on Cable news? How about nut-jobs like Chomsky and Zinn, do they count?

    As long as politics is merged with entertainment, and it approaches the public in soundbites because government beurocracy is too complicated and boring to understand, this is how the public will approach politics.

  • the Word

    Chomsky and Zinn are IMO like Buckley. They are well-read, Usually know far more than their detractors, but come to a different conclusion than you do Dhimmi.

    Paul Krugman might be on the list. I’d like to count Fareed

    I find Krauthammer to be utterly predictable and not very deep btw.

  • Joker

    I think the issue might be more a problem of focus. The Republican Party and the American Conservative moment in general seems to lack a genuine tone and focus. They seem to lack a strong leader or plan, to say nothing of the issue that the party doesn’t seem to have anything to use as a centering point. Liberals can argue for certain programs or new initiatives, Conservatives seem to be eager to simultaneously reduce government resources to help but also want to peer into everyones private lives.

    The issue might just be that right now they are defining themselves as reactionaries, similar to how the democrats attempted to use the ‘We aren’t Bush’ as their way of advancing.

  • Even the so-called conservative Republican governors are growing their state’s budget at a much faster rate than inflation and population growth would make necessary.

    This came up in the ’06 Michigan Governor’s race, where Conservatives claimed Granholm was administering a growing state budget. This was technically true, but missed several salient points.

    1) Bush loved block grants. When the Feds make a block grant to a state the entire grant technically becomes part of the state budget. In other words Conservatives were blaming Granholm for implementing Conservative ideas.

    2) States pay a lot of health care expenses. Medicaid, state employees health plans, etc. are not free. And, like all health spending, they’ve been going up at ridiculous rates. In Michigan we also have something called “revenue-sharing,” which means the state gives tax money to municipalities who turn around and spend it on health care for the police.

    It was particularly dishonest for them to say this in Michigan because the GOP controlled both houses of the Legislature since the mid-90s, and Michigan’s GOP has always been fanatical about taxes. Granholm didn’t raise a tax until 2007, and I guarantee you the economy was not increasing state revenue during that time.

    As for intellectual liberals,
    Jimmy there are thousands of them. If there were no intellectual liberals there would be no liberal professors for you-all to rail against. Juan Cole, Henry Louis Gates, and Paul Krugman immediately spring to mind. Other liberal commentators have equally impeccable academic credentials. For example Barbara Ehrenreich has a PhD in cellular biology.

    Still more liberal commentators don’t have these pieces of paper showing they are intellectuals, but still manage to include deep thought in their analysis of what happens. Nate Silver of, and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post both do that.

    On the right I’ve seen some intellectuals. They’re mostly economists. This may be because so many anon-intellectual, or even anti-intellectual, right wingers get airtime. There’s got to be somebody

    Then there are psuedo-intellectuals like George F. Will. Will looks intellectual, but tends to be completely destroyed on some very basic fact every few months. Such as that time he claimed the New Deal made the Depression worse.

  • Mark-NC

    Republicans are the “party of ME”. As in, meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee first, and to hell with you!

    So, they want to ram religion down your throat – as long as it is THEIR religion. They want a tax cut – don’t care about the deficit or anybody but meeeeee. They want to stop spending money – unless it’s something THEY want like a good war. They want bipartisanship – unless it means that THEY are the ones that have to give something up – screw that!

  • First, please note that most of the titles listed to suggest some sort of golden era for conservative thought were routinely excoriated by liberals and much of the mainstream media. Not sure what that means, but it’s worth noting. If the story then was that these terrible books didn’t deserve to be taken seriously, why elevate their stature in retrospect? Just to make current titles look worse? Whatever.

    It’s a waste of time to draw any serious conclusions from what is marketed and sold. Because that’s primarily about selling books, not about debate or deep thought. And selling books, especially non-fiction, is about identifying a target demographic, and delivering what that market wants, Why in the world would anyone be surprised that the best-selling political books comprise preaching to a choir? I mean, really.

    What conservatives want right now under current circumstances is simple solace, and that’s what they are getting. It’s not about what conservatives think, it’s about how they feel.

    That’s the stage conservatives are at in the swinging of the political pendulum. Slightly revised notions will be popularized later. When they do, they’ll likely be ridiculed, not recognized as say an advancement over Beck. The thought and likely the books are there right now, or being written. But they are not being marketed and heavily sold because the audience is not at a stage where they want deep rethinking. (Which by the way will lead to 95% reaffirmation, which will vex and astonish liberals when it’s not dismissed by the public as no more than a re-hash). But make no mistake, the heavyweights will weigh in in time for the 2012 election. I wish folks here would remember that I said this when it happens. But when it does, they’ ll be too busy excoriating and dismissing, just like they did with the last cycle.

    But, therein lies the crux of the problem for conservatism; people don’t want intellectualism (or at the very least they do not appear to want intellectualism).

    Actually, that’s the crux of the problem for ALL serious thought about complex modern issues. It’s comical to imply that this is any sort of especially challenging problem for conservatism. Progressives right now are busy patting themselves on the back for incipient healthcare reform and environmental reform. So I guess that maybe they they are suffering from the delusion that the folks on their side are not enamored of slogans, buzzwords, oversimplifications, and assurances that the other side is evil and wrong. Bush lied. People died. Right everybody? Sums everything up with no need to say anymore, right?

    I’m all for “yes we can” optimism. If it’s tempered by realism. I have serious concerns when this optimism manifests as some sort of delusion that yes we can make whatever changes we want regardless of our ability to pay for them.

    When it comes to deep thought about complex modern issues, what both asides really need is a lot more stuff that goes “if we make change x, we’ll experience positive effects a, b, and c, _and_ negative effects p, q, and r. How shall be choose?

    But it aint happening. Right now, progressives are eagerly anticipating the delivery of long-wished-for ponies and rainbows, while conservatives are mostly wondering how progressives stopped the delivery of their ponies and rainbows. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

  • George Mauer

    Don’t usually agree with Kranky or Dhimmy but good points. Not that this perceived shallowness of thought is necessarily a non-issue, but it hasn’t been an issue long enough for me to decide that it is real.

    It’s fun getting all indignant though…

    I do disagree with the Chomsky and Zinn comment. Those guys can only be placed in the same boat as Beck and Malkin on the criteria of tone, not when considering anything deeper.

  • blackoutyears

    When did Allan Bloom start being taken seriously? The Closing of the American Mind. Ugh. And I agree with the Krauthammer comment. If this is the best we get from the Right we really are in trouble. Utterly partisan and predictable with the added drawback of being a poor writer, even by the snake’s belly standards of newspaper columnists.