Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Friday, October 2, 2009

Wither Conservatism?

There has been plenty of self-laudatory hand-wringing among both conservatives and liberals (yeah, I'm looking at YOU Rod Dreher!) about what a reprehensible group of mouth-breathers we have leading the modern conservative movement. These types generally spend much of their time decrying folks like Rush or Glenn Beck, without spending much time actually listening to them, and even less time listening to or talking about the Dennis Prager/Hugh Hewitt/Bill Bennett types that occupy the airwaves alongside them. Much of what they say is overwrought and under-thought, but it isn't without merit. A party needs intellectual guidance, and it needs a Bill Buckley to chase out the Birchers every so often. One of the things that has distinguished modern conservatism from the left is our rejection of the "no enemies to the left" philosophy of the other side. Every time Obama is called a "facist", reasonable conservatives should die a little bit inside.

On the other hand, there are conservatives who want to imagine that there is no problem at all within the modern conservative movement. No matter how often Glenn Beck says something transparently silly or Michael Savage does a Howard Dean impression, they can't be criticized because they're on the team. They say conservatives don't need to attract the center at all. We need to kick out the RINO's (i.e. anyone who doesn't agree precisely on every point with your particular brand of conservatism) and double down on Sarah Palin. This attitude is no more healthy than the first.

Obviously, a reasonable middle ground is needed between these two poles. I think Steven Hayward strikes a good balance in this piece. He discusses how the movement has always been balanced between its thinkers and doers, the philosophers and politicos. Right now, the balance appears to be heavy on the politicos, many of whom are...less thoughtful than one might hope. Some more good thoughts appear in the piece by John Derbyshire that Hayward links to in his article. Derb goes in for a little more hand-wringing than I'd like, but that's John Derbyshire. If he didn't believe we are all doomed, what would be the point in getting out of bed each day?

There is plenty of thoughtful, middlebrow conservatism out there. The symphony-conducting, happiness-extolling, honey-blogging Dennis Prager is my favorite example. But, for whatever reason, they're a much harder sell than the mud-throwers. This is true on both sides of the political spectrum. After all, Al Franken has his own Senate seat while Alan Colmes still needs ID when he uses his library card. I think a lot of it probably has to do with a 24/7 campaign cycle that leaves little time for reflection between "vital" battles. So support your local thinkers, not just the local doers. Maybe restoring the balance is possible. Or maybe Derb is right. Maybe We Are Doomed.