Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The Republican Elitists
a.k.a. Babar Conservatives. Alors!
REMEMBER "POST-CIVILIZATION"? Well, this is interesting. David Brooks of the New York Times has published today an amazingly candid summary of the elitist Republican argument against Sarah Palin. It begins:
The narrow question is this: Is Sarah Palin qualified to be vice president? Most conservatives say yes, on the grounds that something that feels so good could not possibly be wrong. But a few commentators, like George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Frum and Ross Douthat demur, suggesting in different ways that she is unready.
The issue starts with an evaluation of Palin, but does not end there. This argument also is over what qualities the country needs in a leader and what are the ultimate sources of wisdom.
There was a time when conservatives did not argue about this. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.
Harrumph. For the moment I'll defer making the point that in his intro he's asserting what is at best a half-truth and give you the key points of his highbrow argument, which he gets to after an interval of belittling the legitimacy and effectiveness of the more recent tradition of so-called populist conservatism.
In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation's founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin.
I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn't just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.
And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in his first term, it made Bush inept at governance. It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence.
What is prudence? It 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.
How is prudence acquired? Through experience. 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.
He goes on, of course, to point out that George W. Bush and Sarah Palin don't possess these attainments, and he is therefore able to conclude:
The idea that "the people" will take on and destroy "the establishment" is a utopian fantasy that corrupted the left before it corrupted the right. Surely the response to the current crisis of authority is not to throw away standards of experience and prudence, but to select leaders who have those qualities but not the smug condescension that has so marked the reaction to the Palin nomination in the first place.
I'm grateful for such directness. As grateful as I am amused by his expressed discomfort about "the smug condescension" of others to the Palin nomination.
The only problem with his argument is that it's wrong in almost every particular. It bespeaks a peculiarly parochial point of view that is frankly out of touch with the roots of post-FDR political conservatism and with the broad swath of the American people who support it.
Before I explain this further, I think it's important to take a closer look at the people Brooks cited as subscribing to his own views of Palin. They have more in common than you'd think, enough, in fact, to constitute their own little demographic. David Brooks is a Canadian-American educated at the University of Chicago. Charles Krauthammer was born in New York to French parents and received his undergraduate education at McGill University in Canada before going on to Oxford and then the Harvard Medical School. George Will also took a degree at Oxford before finishing up at Princeton. David Frum was born in Canada and took his degrees at Yale and Harvard. Ross Douthat is the baby of the bunch, a 2002 graduate of Harvard. Geez. Travel. Internationalism. Universities where 700 SATs are just the starting point. The post-imperialist sophistication of Canada and the U.K. Windsor collars and cufflinks. Cool.
No, I'm not arguing that they're unqualified to comment. They're smart, accomplished men (though one of them can hardly be considered to have the "experience" required to pass judgment on a woman almost 20 years his senior, n'est-ce pas?). It's just that when they step forward to tell the rest of us what it means to be an American conservative, I can't help wondering if what they really are is Tories. You know, the colonial elite who understood that the American Revolution was misbegotten and doomed to disaster because it lacked "standards of prudence and experience," meaning that it was much much better to trust the King. A lot of the Tories were so convinced of their connection to "ultimate sources of wisdom" that they fled the American colonies for the more civilized provinces of Canada. And were never heard from again. Until lately, that is.
I apologize for mocking them, but I also think they deserve it. The hyper-intellectual brand of American conservatism in the twentieth century has always seemed to me to be taking more credit than they ever earned for the Reagan Revolution. Think of it as National Review Disease, or the Buckley Bullshit. Just the other day, Brooks devoted a column to trashing the Goldwater conservatism which found the political legs to run down the defeatist moderate Republicanism Brooks and Douthat in particular now seem to be peddling as the best chance for a negotiated peace settlement with the socialist left. (Sorry, I can't really pretend to have any respect for Douthat. He's just an ambitious, self-important pup for now, unlike the others on this list.) The Tory conservatives continue to think twentieth century conservatism began with Buckley. It didn't. It began with a lot of hard-working Americans whose traditional middle-class values were violently offended by the gross egalitarian excesses of FDR, a president they despised as deeply as today's cartoon leftists hate George W. Bush.
What Buckley brought to the table was not the first expression of disbelief in the rightness of a continuously expanding federal government, but the charm of a Talleyrand. He could not reverse the political currents in which he moved, but he could ride them to personal success and even acclaim. He could debate John Kenneth Galbraith and company without becoming physically ill. He could separate his political convictions from the life and death stakes they represented to those who never took tea with the confiscatory, communist-appeasing elites. He therefore succeeded in creating a conservative voice that was permitted to coexist with the overwhelmingly dominant liberal intellectual hierarchy which ruled both houses of congress and the government's purse strings for a span of 48 years, less one brief hiccup in the moderate Eisenhower administration. Buckley was, in short, a gadfly. The barbarian admitted to polite society on the strength of his many elite credentials -- learning, wealth, travel, gracious civility, and (consequently) harmlessness.
But the real conservative movement in this country was never a function of the elites. It came from the west, from Goldwater and Reagan. Its whole ascendancy was fueled by a new kind of populism, the common voices of the competent -- those who knew they were doing the real work and creating all the wealth that government wanted to take and redistribute to those who demanded it most plaintively. That's a huge difference from the old-style populism Brooks is trying to lump conservatives into, the Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan (or John Edwards) variety that appeals to those who believe they are helpless victims of a power structure so entrenched they never have a chance to get out from under without a dispenser of booty focused exclusively on them. The populism of the conservative movement that took the White House and congress from the Democrats in 1980 had one simple message "Get government off our backs so we can live our own lives and make our own decisions."
And this is a kind of populism the intellectual and social elites of the Tory class can never comprehend. It's not their fault particularly, but it skews their perceptions in fatal ways. Their lives have been too much governed by the process of getting good grades. In the social, academic, and organizational milieus in which they move, opportunity is achieved by the approval of others in a hierarchy. Talent is not immaterial but it's never a direct shortcut. In the world of writing, talking, and thinking, there is no such thing as the better mousetrap. However privileged they seem, the real power elites are always company men, mentored and tested for obedience and the key social graces before they can be accorded real responsibility or power. They learn how far and how hard they can push against the establishment, which forever afterwards governs their sense of what is possible.
That's why there's nothing in their experience to justify the meteoric rise of a Sarah Palin or for that matter a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama. If these folks had been running the smoke-filled rooms in 1976, they would have sided with Gerald Ford against Ronald Reagan without a second thought. Prudence. Experience. The most you can expect is crumbs from the table of the Dems and an occasional nod of respect. To earn even this, you must cultivate the measured endorsements of the gray eminences the Tories respect so much more than ordinary people. The fact is, they're as infatuated by the Dem political class as the New Deal coalition of common folk they look down on as much as they look down on rank-and-file Republicans from Texas and, yup, Alaska.
But they're wrong about most of what they assume to be bedrock wisdom. In the America they've never been a part of, inexperienced talents like Bill Gates come out of nowhere and take down invulnerable gray giants like IBM. Ronald Reagan comes from Eureka College and Hollywood to win the Cold War, slash taxes, and restore American pride. George W. Bush comes from Texas, not Andover, and does a better job in his first term than in his second hurling back the menace of al qaeda and Islamic hatred, despite a timid European consensus ruled by the prudence and experience that can't even detect a knife poised at its own throat.
Of course, experience has its value and its place. But this is a remarkably stupid statement:
"The idea that “the people” will take on and destroy “the establishment” is a utopian fantasy..."
Reforming the establishment is not the same thing as destroying the establishment. It just looks like destruction to tea-sippers who admire the Medici more than Samuel Adams or Andrew Jackson. The saddest part of their ignorance is that it's clear they've never lived in a world of profit and loss, where accountability can be determined in stark terms and where sometimes the greatest, most productive changes can be effected by those who enter a staid bureaucracy with fresh eyes and see clearly, without the camouflage of convenient jargon or the grievous half measures and failures perpetrated in the name of prudent experience. American history is full of Sarah Palins. Many of our greatest moments have been achieved by raw talent and decency backed by unexpected courage.
And there's another essential ingredient of any political calculus that has a chance at doing something more than mitigating compromise with the leaden status quo; it's called winning. If you can't win the opportunity, it doesn't matter how much experience you have. You won't get the chance. That's one part of the equation Buckley never had to worry about. He was able to rely for that on the troglodyte populists who eventually enabled him to take credit for a generation of change he never felt the need for as deeply as my father and grandfather did.
Success has many fathers. I don't object to Buckley's claims of paternity with regard to conservatism as much as I do to those of the David Brookses and Ross Douthats who would have us employ the tactics of Neville Chamberlain to restore the polite defeatism of the Rockefeller Republicans. And I damn well hate the snotty, superior tone these small-minded men use to make their case for reduced expectations and incrementally lessened socialism as the apogee of American conservative aspirations.
To hell with the National Review and the Weekly Standard if they insist that our own candidates have to be able to sing Nessun Dorma to Charlie Gibson's satisfaction. He's never sung it to my satisfaction. And if he looked down his nose at me, I'd probably break it on the spot.
Some of us really don't give a rat's ass about what the ghost of Eric Severeid might think.
UPDATE 9/22/08: An interesting illustrative snippet from today's Corner at NRO.