What to read: Two important essays about conservatism, and some good conservative work

by John MacBeath Watkins

It occurs to me sometimes that I spend entirely too many words on politics, perhaps Jamie spends too many on crows, and neither of us it suggesting reading material as much as we should.

Here are a couple things you can read on line, since you are apparently sitting at a computer even as we speak.

We've discussed the decline of conservatism as an intellectual force in this post, so let me suggest some further reading on that topic.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, written by Richard Hofstadter and published by Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, is one of the most important essays written about American politics in my lifetime. The full text is here. If you're wondering why I'm recommending a 1964 essay, try this first few sentences:

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."
Sound familiar?

George Packer takes up the tale a few years later, with Richard Nixon's transformation of the Republican party from the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Trent Lott and Jesse Helms. I recommend his 2008 essay for the New Yorker, The Fall of Conservatism, so often, I've got it bookmarked in my browser. Full text is here.

Packer tells how Nixon spotted a chance to use the human weaknesses described by Hofstadter and the racial animosities involved in the civil rights movement (both as a cause and an effect) to separate the "solid South" from the Democrats.

Appealing to peoples' better angles was not in his skill set, but Nixon had a genius for exploiting hatred, and he saw that he could, by doing that, shear off a huge part of the New Deal coalition. He was ably assisted by Patrick Buchanan. Here's Packer's account of an early meeting to explore the strategy:

"The Southerners were the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one night in the fall of 1966, at the Wade Hampton Hotel, in Columbia, South Carolina. Nixon, who was then a partner in a New York law firm, had travelled there with Buchanan on behalf of Republican congressional candidates. Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, 'burned the paint off the walls.' As they left the hotel, Nixon said, 'This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.'”
These are essays, not blog posts, so they'll take a little time, but they are well worth your time. Perhaps one day there will be blog posts as important, but I know of none so far.

Which is interesting. Even in an age when blogging is perhaps the dominant form of political discourse, the old forms still have power. Long-form essays can say things short blog posts can't, and magazines can support the reporting Packer did to make his essay powerful. Blog posts are ephemeral, rushed, and for the most part, soon forgotten (although I'm quite chuffed by the enduring popularity of some of my posts, such as What Huck Finn Means to Me, and Eugenics: The opposite of Natural Selection, and I'm sure Jamie is happy people keep reading A crow who likes to surprise me.)

It strikes me there's a need for the sort of thing Hofstadter and Packer pulled off in those essays, and I certainly hope there continues to be an economic model for supporting such work.
Now, I ask myself, why do I know of no conservative critiques of liberalism as powerful as these liberal critiques of conservatism? It's quite possible I simply haven't met them. I've certainly seen excellent work in favor of conservative views, and here I'm thinking in particular of Milton Friedman's television series on economics, Free to Choose, which ironically ran on public television. You can find his work here. He certainly showed that conservatism has a great deal to be said in its favor. John Kenneth Galbraith represented the liberal economics on PBS, and paled by comparison.

But conservative critiques of liberalism have, in my humble opinion, lacked the power of Friedman's work in favor of conservative economics. Too often, it's been of the Anne Coulter/Roger Moore type of propaganda, either too preachy or too mean to be intellectually powerful, and too often it relies on misrepresentations of what liberals actually think.

Perhaps it is the baleful shadow of Nixon's genius for exploiting divisions and hatred (which might explain Coulter, but not Moore.) Our political discourse his marred by liberal scolds and out-and-out propagandists like Moore, but a major characteristic of conservative discourse has, for a long time, been to discourage dissent from the party line, which is not good for those intent on writing insightful essays. David Frum was pushed out of the nest for daring to suggest that the Republican strategy on President Obama's healthcare legislation was a failure.

"I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead."

From was recognizably objecting to the paranoid style in American politics (he's Canadian, by the way.) For that, he lost his job at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the better conservative think tanks.

(By the way, while I'm recommending essays you can read on line, the AIE essay on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the role oil and grain played in it is the best thing I've read on the subject. You can find it here.)

Now, I see criticism of President Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders by liberals all the time that is at least as harsh as what Frum said about the conservative strategy on healthcare. Of course, it's harder to violate the Democrats' party line because the Democrats often have no discernible party line, but when they do, there are always some liberal yahoos yelling their lungs out about how this is the wrong strategy or the wrong priority. No one seems to mind.