Friday, October 10, 2008

Brooks on the Decline of the Republican Party

I never have been, and never could be, a fan of the Republican Party. However, I have become very sympathetic to elements of a classic conservatism that one finds, say, in Edmund Burke. I've been pressed there by a sense of the need to submit to Catholicity. Where I continue to demur concerns whether a catholic conservatism--which prizes the importance of tradition, character formation, and a sort communitarianism that trumps individualism--has any relevance or hope of viability in the federal politics of a pluralist nation-state (I think not). On top of that, the nationalist Republican version of conservatism has persistently (and paradoxically) tried to wed such a Burkean disposition to a trenchant liberalism when it comes to markets and consumption (what's more liberal than laissez-faire economics?). Hence my fundamental cynicism about partisan politics.

However, my ambivalence about the Republican party doesn't mean I don't lament its further demise in its most recent cynical incarnation. A Republican party that could nominate Sarah Palin has pretty much proved John Stuart Mill's aphorism correct when he described Conservatives as "necessarily the stupidest Party." David Brooks laments the same in today's column in which he chronicles the demise of a party which has sold its electoral soul to the wide swaths of anti-intellectualism that are alive and well in this country, fostered and fueled by the inanities of talk radio and cable news networks. As he notes:
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn’t believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.

Driven by a need to engage elite opinion, conservatives tried to build an intellectual counterestablishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind.

Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working through them. He was rooted in the Midwest, but he also loved Hollywood. And for a time, it seemed the Republican Party would be a broad coalition — small-town values with coastal reach.

In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

The federal electoral game has come down to a tribalism. The presidential debates have amounted to little more than another opportunity for the candidates to preach to their respective choirs. And thus campaigns come down to little more than a bet on who has the bigger choir, and who can motivate their choir to come out and vote. Since the elite choir that the Republican party really serves is so small, they had to look for a cagey way to find another choir. Their bet--embodied in Palin--is that there is a massive, perhaps largely quiet, choir composed of Joe Sixpacks in the middle of the country--a choir whose anthem is a long disdain for complexity and "learning."

But that's not "conservatism." It is a wanton disdain for the wisdom of the past that has spiraled into a reverie of ignorance cloaked as "common sense." That such people get a vote is exactly why conservatism has always had an uneasy relationship with democracy.