Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NO-BRAINER. George Packer's New Yorker article on the decline of the American conservative movement is okay, but it has two major themes and only sustains one of them.

The successful point, that conservative thinking is now moribund, is simple enough to show, and Stephen Bainbridge does a good job of underlining it by complaining on his blog that conservatives don't need new ideas, that they've been right all along, and that their mystical devotion to a Kirkean "people’s historic continuity of experience" is all that's needed. Next to this kind of fierce certainty, the tinkering of rightwing New Jacks Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat (the latter of whom describes his work to Packer, hilariously, as "a data-driven attempt at political imagination") seems absurdly twee, like trying to advance the Ratzinger Catholic agenda with a better kind of Folk Mass.

The problem is Packer's second point: that citizens are now unreceptive to the traditional conservative approaches. Pat Buchanan describes these to Packer as elemental: "... you can write columns and things like that, but they don't engage the heart. The heart was engaged by law and order. You reached into people -- there was feeling." Covering a rural John McCain campaign stop, Packer focuses on McCain's discomfort with the red-meat politicking the event required of him -- but nonetheless McCain did it, and it seemed to go over.

There's plenty of evidence that the voters are increasingly receptive to Democrats, but as you can see by the early anti-Obama campaigning apparent on the blogs and in the press, sometimes covered here, you can still get a lot of mileage out of calling Democrats elitist and out of touch, and even by tying them to ancient radical menaces like the Black Power movement. An intellectual might consider this approach shopworn, but political battles in this country are not exclusively intellectual events. You don't have to believe that the dead-enders are right to acknowledge that voters may yet be susceptible to their themes.

The main problem is that Packer treats the conservative movement as a serious intellectual force, and thinks its diminution as such will lead inevitably to defeat. Pitchfork Pat may have been trying to throw Packer a clue when he quoted Eric Hoffer to him: "Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket." The conservative heavy thinkers to whom Packer gives much credence may feel as if the world has passed them by, but the racketeers really run the show. As formerly grumbling conservative operatives learn to love McCain and go all-in for the big win, philosophy is the least of their concerns, and their whither-conservatism thumb-suckers become mere padding for pages filled with stories about Obama's Muslim past, inability to bowl, and other such boob-bait. If you think they can't pull it off because their approach lacks intellectual vitality, you may be overthinking the whole thing.

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