Derbyshire and the Happy Meal Conservatives

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?”

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18 thoughts on “Derbyshire and the Happy Meal Conservatives

  1. This is an interesting notion. Currently there is a real obsession with intellect on the Left. They believe that having a clearly articulate and well-educated President and a team of similarly acredited administration officials, not to mention a few Nobel winners as advisers, is the way to go. History may prove them right. Unfortunately this means the GOP defaults to a sort of low brow, intellect-bashing mentality.

    I think what we have to be careful of is proving liberals right by moving ‘small-town’ populism towards ‘anti-intellectual’ populism. Things like pushing for ID in public schools doesn’t help us there.

    A ‘middle-brow’ conservatism is a good idea in that it would put us at a happy medium. We wouldn’t look like the dumb football player who pushes nerds into their lockers….but we would also remind voters that theory doesn’t always trump practical experience. Goldberg refered to the tendency of intellectually-obessesed liberals to ‘pass up a good solution for a brilliant one’. I think we could see a real overreach on the part of the administration but we can’t just occupy the other extreme and wait for it. We need to go back to the Reagan playbook and create an agenda that is common-sense and easy to digest, but grounded in solid reasoning. I also with we did a better job of getting our sides bright thinkers heard. Easier said than done.

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  2. Mike:

    A ‘middle-brow’ conservatism is a good idea in that it would put us at a happy medium. We wouldn’t look like the dumb football player who pushes nerds into their lockers….but we would also remind voters that theory doesn’t always trump practical experience.

    I think that’s exactly right, but I’m not holding my breath. The GOP is reacting to Obama exactly like the dumb jock you describe. There is really very little intellectual honesty coming out of the Right at the moment.

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  3. I’m going to keep this very short because I have expressed my view on populism elsewhere on this site. I will repeat my view that American history does not provide any example of a harmful populist uprising. I just don’t see it.

    E.D. you conflate the undeniable growth of presidential power with populism. I find your case at best unproven. I would say that the growth of presidential powers results more from a weak legislative branch or the legislative branch going along with a president of the same party, a la, Bush during most of his administration.

    I’m not saying your point is wrong, and certainly no one cause can be responsible for presidential powers increasing, but I need concrete examples before I can accept your theory that populism is the culprit.

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  4. How is populism different from mob rule?
    Limbaugh is simply Kylon and his followers the First Democrats….. that massacred the Pythagoreans.
    Ditch the elephant…..the new republican crest is a pitchfork rampant with a torch gules.

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  5. Derbyshire writes:

    “At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly.”

    And that is simply not the case. As anyone who has listened to Right radio, and specifically these shows, the criticism of George W Bush on a whole host of issues (No Child, Prescription Drugs, the deficit/spending, Illegal Immigration, and yes the Iraq War) has been regular, in depth, nuanced, and coherent.

    Either Derbyshire has invented a straw man, or he simply doesn’t listen much to these radio hosts to know what they are actually saying. Either way, this factually incorrect statement pretty much tears the heart out of his larger argument.

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  6. E.D.:


    From, oh, the 1830s or so, to the 1960s or so, the Pap Finn vote was Democratic. For some good while there, the Democratic party WAS the Pap Finn vote.

    Now that vote is Republican.

    The party that wins Pap’s support can hold power for a generation in a coalition, but it cannot do so if the party is dominated by that vote.

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  7. Thanks, that helps.

    I really rather liked the Pap Finn thing. My question was not an attack. Perhaps un-artful, but not an attack.

    I thought this part of the video best.

    Forgive me if I misquote.

    The lad, “If Obama is elected we will have another Russian Revolution in this country.”

    Some women off camera asks, “Are you crazy?”

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  8. Bob:

    I was, in fact, wary of a flame fest erupting on my friend E.DS.’s thread.

    I guess I was referring to following category of American: Proudly uneducated, agrarian in posture if not in geography, oppressed and resentful white proletarian males.

    I should add that I myself am not unsympathetic to some of the Pap Finn voters’ concerns (while intensely resisting others).

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  9. Jack, thanks for the links. I’ll have to remember the “Pap Finn” voter. “Agrarian in posture” is quite well put. This is just a pre- Joe the Plumber voter, basically? “Average Joe” in posture if not in practice? That the GOP coalition has become dominated by Pap Finn politics seems obvious, it’s true, but that it has any inkling how to reverse that (or even that it’s a problem) is less certain….

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  10. E.D.:

    It surely is a problem. From the End of the Civil War to the beginning of the New Deal, The Dems only had two Presidents, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom won with the help of agrarian proletarians (the South mostly) but only in coalition. The many times in between when the Dems were seen to be dominated by that sentiment, they lost. Crushed, frequently.

    The Republicans, then, have to find or construct a countervailing constituency, as the Dems did with Labor and fresh immigrants in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

    I’d say your job is finding new voters rather than new ideas.

    Or wait seventy years for realignment!

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  11. Jack, I am very much unsympathetic to the point of view you shorthand Pap Finn voter. But, and there is always a but, I watched the Pelosi film on YouTube and found it overly nasty, one sided. I’m sure there were McCain voters that supported him for reasons other than guns, God, gays, race. I don’t recall Ms Pelosi interviewing any. I really expected to like the film, I did not.

    I remain totally opposed to the Right in any of its manifestations, particularly the Christian Right. But also the deregulation Cato Institute/CNBC/Wall Street Right, I’m including Clinton here.

    I found your “oppressed and resentful white proletarian males” interesting. It is so very odd how people define the oppressor. Pap and his brothers sees the liberal establishments, main stream media, “Pinheads” as Bill O’Reilly puts it, as the oppressor. Thomas Frank, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” tries to point out that the Republican Party does not favor Pap’s economic interests, but cultural issues trump that fact.

    Oh well, that’s just politics in the time of the Culture Wars.

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