In Salon, Michael Lind pushes back against the rise of British historian Niall Ferguson in the U.S., and views him as symptomatic of a decline in right-wing intellects:

Ferguson is the most prominent of a number of British conservative intellectuals and journalists who have found more sympathetic audiences in the U.S. than in their own country, where their enthusiasm for Victorian imperialism and Victorian economics stigmatizes them as cranks. His Old World accent and reactionary politics might not have been sufficient to earn Niall Ferguson his cisatlantic celebrity, were it not for the demise of American intellectual conservatism, chronicled by Sam Tanenhaus and others. The mass extinction of America’s intellectual right at the hands of anti-intellectual Jacksonian populists like the Tea Partyers has created a lack of native conservative thinkers with impressive academic credentials who are willing to dash to a TV studio at a moment’s notice. And in an era when the conservative movement is symbolized by lightweights like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg, rather than William F. Buckley Jr., George Will and Irving Kristol, even Niall Ferguson can be mistaken for an intellectual.

This is conventional wisdom pretty much across the spectrum, and best exemplified by Sam Tanenhaus’ 2009 book, The Death of Conservatism: That there was a “golden age” of American conservative thought that has recently been betrayed by clowns like Beck, Coulter, Levin, Limbaugh, and the shrill partisans who dominate the current National Review. It came up a lot last year, in a widespread debate in the intellectual blogosphere about conservative “epistemic closure.” It may not be completely wrong, but it depends on a rosy, whitewashed view of “golden age” conservatism.

William F. Buckley, Jr. attends the second ina...

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The examples Lind gives of the supposed intellectual heavyweights of days past are exactly what I’m talking about. When I went back and read early issues of National Review from the 50s and 60s during the “epistemic closure” debate, I was surprised. Where I was expecting the powerful intellectual essays of movement myth, I found reactionary screeds that, while perhaps better written than today’s NR, were no more open-minded or less extreme. The shibboleths, the ideological purity–it was all there from the beginning. Ditto for William F. Buckley’s breakthrough first book, God and Man at Yale, which is almost embarrassingly paranoid and Manichean for someone often considered the intellectual father of the American right. I’m not going to argue, certainly not in a blog post, that Buckley wasn’t an intellectual, didn’t have deep thoughts and bright ideas, and wasn’t preferable to Glenn Beck. But remember that the rearview mirror can give a distorted perspective.

Much the same is true for the others. After Irving Kristol’s turn from leftism to neoconservatism, of which he is in turn considered the father, he went pretty far downhill himself. As Noah Millman argues brilliantly in his review of Kristol’s recent posthumous collection, Kristol openly admitted that his neoconservative worldview was more of an emotional orientation—patriotism is good, economic pessimism is bad—than any kind of substantive politics. Kristol’s reflexive American paternalism was certainly preferable to his son’s unabashed affection for imperialism, but it’s hard to see how it’s fundamentally different from the stock political catchphrases and cultural myopia of the Tea Party. It’s ultimately a collection of biases, affinities, and contrarianisms, very light on content.

And George Will? I’ll admit he’s better than most—he was able to admit that the Iraq war was a disaster, and to dismiss the GOP rump candidates so many in the conservative ranks were fantasizing about for next year’s primary. But this is the guy who wrote that liberals love trains because it makes people more “amenable to collectivism,” while conservatives embrace that symbol of American independence known as the automobile. Will often treads in the same black-and-white, God-vs-atheism, us-vs-them cultural hostility that has threaded through the movement all the way back to Buckley, Chambers, et al. And it’s hard to argue he doesn’t still speak for the right, at least as much as Jonah Goldberg and Niall Ferguson do.

This definitely deserves an essay, and someday I’ll write it. But any time you hear someone mourning the death of conservative intellectualism, remember that the more things change on the right, the more they stay the same.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

12 Responses to The Myth of the Right’s Intellectual Decline

  1. Rob says:

    I’m not sure how to respond to this. Granted, William Buckley won’t overshadow Plato with his philosophical prowess, but he was more intellectual than Glenn Beck. And you’re putting Whittaker Chambers in the same category as Limbaugh? Really?

    Meanwhile, where are the Left’s intellectuals these days?

    • The intellectuals of the left include (but are not limited to) Noam Chomsky, Cornell West, bell hooks, Paul Krugman, Benjamin Barber, Frances Fox Piven, Ronald Dworkin. There are a good many dead and perhaps forgotten now (Howard Zinn, John Rawls, Joel Fienberg, Richard Cloward) but most have been very influential in the current political/intellectual landscape. A good deal are activists as well as academics, and though they are as well known as, say Cal Thomas, they are a bit more busy.

  2. Mark Perkins says:

    I’m not going to argue that there’s anything like equivalence between the left and right in America, but, dear Mr. Basset, let’s please not pretend it’s fair to suggest that Beck and Coulter are the right’s version of Chomsky and Krugman. More fair would be, say, Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore. You could even throw in Jon Stewart for the left, which still leaves the left looking a lot better. But, please, let’s not pretend that the loudest screeching morons on Fox News is to the right what a collection of relatively well-known leftist academics is to the left. [Although one could publish a nice Penguin paperback full of the remarkably stupid things Chomsky has said over the years.]

    On top of that, I’m not really sure I buy into this whole partisan-pedigree business, where we split the world into two and decide who gets to claim whom.

    • Well, there is a very clear difference between intellectuals and pundits. I didn’t realize we were using the first term so lightly. I think the article addresses the fact that while there have always been “intellectuals” on either side, the quality of what the right has to produce has waned. Certainly reactionaries like Francis Fukuyama, Satoshi Kanazawa, and the various writers and contributers to the Atlantic and the National Review are poor competition for the people I mentioned, but David Sessions makes the point through other examples that they have always been less… convincing.

      If you want to talk about the shrieking talking heads who dominate day-to-day discourse, sure, there are plenty of liberal commentators (Rachel Maddow, Thomas Friedman Christopher Hitchens, even John Stewart) who are popular – but the important difference between an intellectual and a pundit if they make their living by their audience. This means that John Stewart will always return to fawning over Obama. Hitchens will always be an imperialist. Friedman? He may be a liberal but he’s nowhere near the real left.

      Oh and as far as “claiming” names goes, you have a point. Political ideology is not a one dimensional spectrum. And that has nothing to do with partisanship either. We are talking about authoritarianism vs democracy, collectivism vs individualism, and a great many other “isms.” There are two fairly well agreed upon bodies of ideas, held by the right and the left in this country. While they may be ambiguous, we know it when we see it. And if you knew more about the people I mentioned, you’d see that I can’t “claim” someone whose already aligned themselves with those ideas.

  3. Scott says:

    I guess it’s convenient that the ideas contrary to the ones that David holds are espoused by second-rate thinkers (and have always been so). It’s awesome to be a part of a political philosophy that is only opposed by dumb people. I mean, it’s almost like there’s some inherent bias in his own thinking that David isn’t picking up on.

    I would argue that it’s not only the rearview mirror that gives a distorted perspective, but the mirror in David’s bathroom.

    Part of being a grown-up is understanding that intelligent people can come to differing conclusions and opinions. I appreciated (and even agreed with) David’s post yesterday where he ultimately made coherent arguments against Sarah Palin’s views on Israel, but his continued resorting to base “they’re stupider than we” attacks are boring and immature.

    To counter – what of Charles Krauthammer? Victor Davis Hanson? Thomas Sowell? Even P.J. O’Rourke? Can I not place them up against Ed Schultz or Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow? What of Paul Krugman’s descent from game-changing economist to embarrassing political hack?

    I don’t even think I need to go into the silliness of David complaining that his 2011-era progressive reading of Bill Buckley’s 1951(!) book makes it seem a bit reactionary. I mean, you don’t say! A guy that truly believes that the political right has NEVER contained first rate intellectuals finds a 60 year old book by a twenty-five year old Bill Buckley “reactionary?”

    • Scott, I think this is a pretty uncharitable reading of what I wrote. I never described a single person as a second-rate thinker. My point was simply that the mythologized “golden age” conservatives may not have been leagues better than what the right has now—which is not to say that they’re aren’t some pretty damn smart and worthwile conservatives writing as we speak. (To name a few: Noah Millman, Reihan Salam, Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat.) I very much disagree, for example, with Levin’s opposition to the welfare state, but I find his pieces invariably well argued and persuasive—so much so that I don’t buy that the right doesn’t have any intellectuals OR that Buckley would have made a significantly stronger case. (In fact, if anything, the policy expertise of contemporary right-wingers like Levin is more persuasive than the often abstract, high-minded style of Buckley and Co.)

      Perhaps there are two different discussions here, two ways Lind’s piece is shoddy, that I should have separated more clearly. The first is that it’s unfair to consider Beck/Limbaugh/Etc the right’s current “intellectuals” when the right clearly has real intellectuals on its side (though perhaps less so if we consider how marginalized those intellectuals tend to be). The second, which I made more plainly, is that it’s inaccurate to romanticize the Golden Age of conservative thought, when I’m not sure such a thing existed. Buckley’s NR was reactionary and sometimes outright fucking insane, and so is the current one. But both publish certain authors and certain pieces that are reasonable, persuasive and worthwhile. My point was: I don’t see that all that much has changed.

      • Rob says:

        That’s a fair point, David, but only if you restrict your comparison to Buckley exclusively and specifically and the handful of Republicans pundits who inhabit talk radio and television. Assuming that this comparison is even valid in itself (it’s hard to make a comparison between two historically contingent communicative media that share very little in common: Buckley wrote books and editorials; Beck gives 5-second sound bites and weeps on national television), any further and broader comparisons are fundamentally problematic and break down almost immediately upon scrutiny.

        Furthermore, as noted, you’re still wedded to the completely artificial, simplistic, and restrictive categories of “Right” and “Left” that are even more meaningless in the academic and intellectual domains than in the popular world.

        • Did you even read the comment directly above yours? When I made made a direct comparison, it was between 1950s National Review (the whole thing, not just Buckley) and the 2010s National Review (including all of its best writers, not just cranks like Prager). That’s comparing intellectuals with intellectuals, people who are located in roughly the same sphere then and now. I don’t think Beck and the other clowns have much to do with this conversation, except where Lind brought them up as an (inaccurate, I think) example of the right’s current “thinkers.” I was explaining precisely that he was comparing apples and oranges, not, as you seem to imagine, reiterating that comparison.

          Furthermore, I am not “wedded” to the artificial dichotomy you describe. There are many, many intellectual categories, and “right” and “left” don’t begin to contain them. But we’re talking here about public intellectuals, ideas that influence policy, roughly centered around the two major American political parties. In this limited sphere, the right/left language is almost always used and understood, even as most educated thinkers realize American politics reduces serious thought to crude caricature. By who belongs where, I’m referring to intellectuals close to the center of politics who contribute to parties’ ideas, not every level of thinker out there. If you’d stop trying to demonstrate your superiority and read what’s written, I think that would be pretty obvious.

          In that political sphere, it is far more accurate than usual to talk about someone belonging to the right, because if any sector of the intellectual spectrum has tried to bind itself into an ideological “movement,” where debating movement credentials is a constant obsession, it’s conservatives. In general, the institutions of the political right—its magazines, its institutions, its idea factories, and its politicians, manifest a remarkably homogenous orthodoxy. Of course there are outliers and dissenters and moneyed power-brokers who don’t care much about ideology, but referring to which thinkers “belong to the right” is an activity thoroughly grounded in what actual conservatives, including conservative intellectuals, do all of the time.

          Even in politics, “the right” that Lind refers to is a reductive label, but it’s far less reductive than talking about “the left” in the same way. “The right” was always a minority opposition/reaction to the mainstream, which is not necessarily “left.” It has vastly expanded its political power, but it often shows itself, even and especially in its highest intellectual positions, to have retained the besieged, say-the-mantras-or-you’re-a-traitor mentality of its nascence. You can argue that this is absurd, reductive, and intellectually/categorically amateur, but you’d be arguing with them, not me.

          • Rob says:

            David,

            These clarifications help, and I generally agree with you. Note that you didn’t actually make that nice, narrow (and thus more palatable) analogy between strictly the National Review within two different windows in your original article. Neither did your second comment above, for that matter.

            Meanwhile, I don’t see where I was attempting to demonstrate my “superiority”–in any field of endeavor. I was merely pointing out what I perceive to be serious flaws in your original argument/statements.

  4. Rob says:

    I’ll second Mark Perkins’s comment.

    There are two fundamental flaws with this article/editorial. The first is parsing American political discourse–both popular and especially intellectual–into two “camps” that are largely homogeneous in character and opposed to one another. This is especially ludicrous at the intellectual level: which “Right” are you talking about? The communitarians, the libertarians, the social conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, the classical liberals, the authoritarians, the romantic nationalists, etc.? The same exercise could be employed with the Left.

    The second, as Mark aptly notes, is the absurd equation–of which Nathaneal Basset is more guilty than the author of the editorial–of Beck and Coulter, on the one hand, with Rawls and Chomsky on the other. Aside from the fact that Chomsky in particular is a purveyor of numerous ideas which range from patently objectionable to plainly silly, the Left doesn’t have (or no longer has) a monopoly on intellectuals. For instance, each of the discrete “schools” of “conservative” thought I referenced above boasts its own panoply of intellectual advocates who are not “dumber” than these supposed luminaries of the left.

    Meanwhile, the thrust of my original question was this: it’s one thing to claim that the popular “intellectuals” of the Right are laughable, and it’s unfortunate that many self-described conservatives consider seriously the precepts of Limbaugh before casting a vote. But how many average Democrats review their well-worn editions Rawls’s Theory of Justice before heading off to the polls?

  5. Rob says:

    I should extend my second point from above. My counsel is to make fair, valid comparisons. True: those who shaped the modern popular Right–Buckley, etc.–are not political philosophers of the status of a Plato or even an Edmund Burke. But neither are those who shaped the modern popular left! Indeed, while Rawls has been quite influential in the academy and has engendered his own progeny of academic leftists (of a very boring, procedurally democratic, soul-crushing sort), he had very little to do with what counts as the effective left that operates in daily politics and that goes to the polls every November. Contra Rawls, one might cite Michael Sandel or Alasdair MacIntyre as powerfully influential intellectuals in the academy who have conceivable connections with conservative thought. But a) none of them mean anything to public opinion and b) the sharp, simplistic dichotomy between Right and Left becomes increasingly meaningless when one makes these sorts of comparisons. E.g., certain radical democrats and liberals like Chantal Mouffe and Richard Rorty harbor a deep and abiding affection for Michael Oakeshott.

    Anyway, I’ll stop rambling and simply say this: this editorial and a couple of affirmative comments succeeding it are entirely unfair and irrelevant.

  6. Marie says:

    David,

    If you haven’t already, I’d recommend that you read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll. It deals more with culture and intellect than politics, but it might help crystalize that unwritten essay.

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