A Conservative Worried About Conservatism

Below is an excerpt from a recent post by self-described conservative (and Republican) Patrick Ruffini on a blog named The Next Right, which may be found via the following link:

http://www.thenextright.com/patrick-ruffini/can-we-have-buckley-back

“Over the last few days, Jon Henke has laid out the case for the Right more strongly disavowing outfits like WorldNetDaily that actively peddle Birther nonsense. To the extent the mainstream Right has weighed in, it has been to urge Jon to ignore WND and move on, in the interests avoiding an intra-movement civil war. Some have even tried to subtly distance Jon from the conservative movement, saying his views don’t represent those of most conservatives. Many on the Right have made the calculation that however distasteful their views, a public fight with the Birthers just isn’t worth it.

As a fiscal and social conservative, I happen to think Jon is completely in the right here, both substantively and strategically. Don’t raise the canard that we ought to be attacking Democrats first. Conservatives are entirely within their rights to have public debates over who will publicly represent them, and who will be allowed to affiliate with the conservative movement.

The Birthers are the latest in a long line of paranoid conspiracy believers of the left and right who happen to attach themselves to notions that simply are not true. Descended from the 9/11 Truthers, the LaRouchies, the North American Union buffs, and way back when, the John Birch Society, the Birthers are hardly a new breed in American politics.

Each and every time they have appeared, mainstream conservatives from William F. Buckley to Ronald Reagan have risen to reject these influences — and I expect that will be the case once again here.

But there is another subtext that makes Jon’s appeal more urgent. As a pretty down-the-line conservative, I don’t believe I am alone in noting with disappointment the trivialization,  excessive sloganeering, and pettiness that has overtaken the movement of late. In “The Joe the Plumberization of the GOP,” I argued that conservatives have grown too comfortable with wearing scorn as a badge of honor, content to play sarcastic second fiddle to the dominant culture of academia and Hollywood with second-rate knock-off institutions. A side effect of this has been a tendency to accept conspiracy nuts as a slightly cranky edge case within the broad continuum of conservatism, rather than as a threat to the movement itself.

Those advocating a tough stand against the Birthers like to point to William F. Buckley and the Birchers.

In founding National Review, Buckley made a point of casting out the conspiracy nuts and the cranks of his day because he saw them as a fundamental threat to a conservatism that was just emerging as a political force. In doing so, he was able to define conservatism for a generation.

What is interesting about Buckley (and that is so different today) was his ability to align intellectual firepower and a faster march to the Right. Buckley was a man of class and erudition who happened to be more conservative than virtually all of his peers. That’s the key point. To the extent we think of intellectuals today, we deride them as creatures of the Left. When they are active within conservative circles, they are discarded as to the left of the movement. The archetypical center-right intellectual today is a guy like Ross Douthat, whose ideas (to be fair) are often outside the conservative mainstream. Most of the party’s rising intellectuals are seen as advocating a shift away from social conservative issues, which are still deeply relevant to a critical mass of Americans beyond the two coasts. Back in Buckley’s day, it was possible to get 175-proof conservatism in Ivy League flavoring.

Perhaps the intellectual composition of the conservative (or liberal) movement wasn’t all that different in Buckley’s time, but Buckley provided an ideal — and set a standard — for conservatives to position themselves as scholarly thought leaders within the broader culture that simply no longer exists today — despite numerous conservative academics toiling facelessly in the vineyards. This gave a Buckley the credibility to cast out the movement’s lesser lights, and impose a layer of discernment between fact and fiction inside the movement. In politics, symbols matter. Just like there could only be one Reagan, there could only be one Buckley.

The automatic problem that arises when someone who is not a William F. Buckley (and none of us here pretend to be) is that you’re instantly tagged a RINO for calling out something that is objectively and demonstrably false. The space between fact and fiction is confused as a litmus test between right and left. But what if the WNDers are not the true conservatives in this argument? What if the actual test of conservatism was not how fervently you oppose Obama, or where you went to school, or where you pray, but how firmly your conservatism is rooted in First Principles and not personalities or conspiracy?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“RINO,” as you probably know, refers to Republican In Name Only. I gather Ruffini is suggesting that if you don’t agree with the views of Palin, Beck, O’Reilly, Hannity, birthers, and those apparently terrified by the presence of an African American in the White House, you are considered a RINO.

Ruffini seems to stress the importance of reclaiming an intellectual heritage for conservatism, rather than constantly contrasting conservatism with intellectualism and academia.  He also seems to emphasize principles more than personality, religious affiliation, and geography. I wish he had explicitly added “race” or “ethnicity,” but he didn’t.  He did, however, expressly oppose the “birthers,” may (most?) of whom must be driven in part by racist panic, or at least that’s the linkage that’s almost impossible to avoid.

It is a bit astonishing to me–although it should not be–that, as far as I know, no prominent conservative pundit or politician has figuratively stood up and spoken against birthers, the inappropriateness of bringing guns to rallies at which the president speaks, the labeling of Obama as “socialist” and (not or) “fascist” and “Nazi,” the fear-mongering connected to “death-panels,” the silliness of Hannity and Limbaugh, and the apparent real insanity (at best) of Glenn Beck.

I’ll take the liberty of echoing Ruffini (fairly, I hope):  Ailes, Beck, Cheney,  Coulter, (Larry) Craig, Dobbs, Grassley, Hannity,  Joe the Plumber [who is neither], Limbaugh, Malkin, McCain (who seems to waffle and dither, and whose choice of Palin seemed cynical at best, and more like reckless), O’Reilly, Palin, Savage, Steele, (Chris) Wallace: Are these persons  really whom thoughtful, literate, principled conservatives want as their spokespersons, their figureheads, their brain-trust?

Granted, many Democratic-friendly pundits and Democratic politicians leave much to be desired in the area of principled politics and intellectual firepower. Granted, William F. Buckley wasn’t perfect. But if you’re old enough to remember Firing Line, contrast one of the less carnivalesque episodes of that show (there were many) with Ailes’s network, shows belonging to Beck, Dobbs, Hannity, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Savage, and Wallace, and speeches or comments by Coulter, Grassley, Malkin, Palin, and Steele.  I wish Ruffini well, but I do wonder if conservatism in the U.S. has gone permanently off the rails.  George Will and David Brooks (for example) may not spout all the nonsense, but at the same time, they don’t stand up and denounce.   As much as they may like anything that will defeat Democrats, they need to grow some of Buckley’s spine and disavow conservatives parading in clowns’ clothing and speaking hate fluently.   In my opinion.  Put another way, what percentage of Republicans now share Ruffini’s point of view? But let Ruffini have the last word (reprined from the exerpt above):

“Conservatives are entirely within their rights to have public debates over who will publicly represent them, and who will be allowed to affiliate with the conservative movement.”

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