Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises….
It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right.
Let me first of all say that I only agree with John Derbyshire occasionally, but this is unequivocally one of those times. The passage above is taken from his recent article at The American Conservative, and it’s not really a surprising piece given Derbyshire’s long-professed elitism, but the invective is well worth the read, nonetheless. It also speaks a great deal to the discussion we’ve been having about “talking-points conservatism” and the realignment of the Right into what is rather regrettably little more than talk-radio populism, with a dash of unrealistic Reagan worship thrown into the mix. Mark had termed this “talk radio dogmatism” but I think the populism label applies just as well. Derbyshire’s “Happy Meal conservatism” may say it even better.
The talk radio shows do appear to be at the vanguard of the movement, with Rush front and center, and the Little Rush’s like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity yapping at his heels. Perhaps this is an effective strategy, to rail against the “others” and rally the mob to your cause. But, then again, the pundits themselves seem so mercurial, so opportunistic in their ideology, one has to wonder whether the cause is at the heart of things, or whether all this “lowbrow” talk radio is really just a matter of self-aggrandizement. In other words, it certainly pays to go this route, as Limbaugh’s ratings show. It’s hard to walk away from such success, even if it is wrong-headed.
I’ve always been wary of populism. I see a fairly direct lineage between the rise of populism in the United States and the gradual strengthening of the Executive Branch, stretching all the way back to Jackson, our first “President of the People” and a man who took great care to strengthen his office, and sidestep the “middle men” in Congress. Like some modern evangelical preacher, Jackson wanted to do away with the trappings of organizational restraint and speak directly to the masses – to be their vessel, checks and balances be damned.
Every war President since has had some populist appeal, while at the same time strengthening the Executive. The populism of George W. Bush manifested itself not so much out of some extraordinary appeal to the man himself, but rather more symbolically, as a part of the larger movement. Despite increasingly low popularity, the policies of the Bush administration never really lost their momentum, largely thanks to the choir of talk radio and other lowbrow conservative voices who pushed these policies regardless of the President’s popularity.
But populism is now coming around to take its toll on the Right, and regardless of current levels of denial, the piper will be paid eventually. An Executive branch with more power than ever before is now occupied by a Democrat, and no viable opposition remains in Congress. At this point, the conservative movement would do well to face the fact that it was they who helped bring this about. It was their reliance on populism and appeals to the lowest common denominator that helped Bush to usurp ever more power, and then pass it on to his successor. It was their inability to critique their own leadership that turned the Right into an echo chamber rather than an effective political force.
Derbyshire rightly critiques the tone and sportsmanship of the Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck axis. But what the Right really needs right now is introspection. A middlebrow conservative media presence could help with that, but how will such a middlebrow ever compete in an age of conservative populism? They’ve woken the beast, that mob we were introduced to at Sarah Palin rallies. They’ve given over unprecedented power to their opponents – and one can only suppose that, should the GOP somehow retake the White House, the power of the Presidency will only continue to grow. Certainly the mouthpieces of the movement do not truck in introspection. Certainly they won’t learn from their mistakes if their strategy is to constantly shift blame, point fingers, and shout.
Power for its own sake has become the dominant ideology of the Right, and the talking points merely fuel for the fire. While true conservatism might dictate a scaling back of the Executive branch, and an end to American expansionism in foreign policy, this is not the vision of the future one will ever take from Rush Limbaugh. Limited government is a fun thing to say when out of power, but as soon as the GOP takes the reigns again, the limits will cease. It’s far easier and far more appealing to our populist sensibilities to take pot shots at the opposition, to make like Pontius Pilot and wash our hands of the blood of this disaster; and far more difficult to look inward and ask, as Derbyshire does, “Why have we allowed carny barkers to run away with the Right?”