25 February 2009

The American Conservative vs Rush Limbaugh

Ever since the presidential election I've expected the idiosyncratic American Conservative magazine to blend back into the Republican mainstream as part of a united opposition to the Obama administration. The "paleo" journal certainly does oppose Obama and the stimulus, but the latest issue shows the editors' determination to retain their own defiant identity. The cover caricatures Rush Limbaugh, along with a less recognizable Sean Hannity, as babies in a stroller below the headline: "How Radio Wrecks the Right." Since Limbaugh remains a de facto spokesman for the Republicans, the Conservative is clearly spoiling for a fight. Since Limbaugh is also seen as a spokesman for conservatism itself, the cover story becomes even more provocative.

The author is John Derbyshire, a contributing editor of National Review, the greybeard of the conservative journals. Writers and editors of that journal have often used the Conservative to go off the rez in order to attack the Bush administration. Derbyshire is no fan of the former President either, and that explains his beef with Limbaugh and other radio talkers.

Taking the conservative project as a whole -- limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad -- has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, [Michael] Savages and [Laura] Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?

They surely did. 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. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to 'build democracy' in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a 'massive success' and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy 'phenomenal.'

Derbyshire's beef is a matter of style as well as substance. He blames the radio talkers for "lowbrow conservatism," which, while it is often "exciting and fun," creates an impression among neutral listeners that "conservatism is always lowbrow." What makes Limbaugh and his ilk lowbrow? Ad hominem arguments, for one thing, but also what Derbyshire calls "Happy Meal conservatism."

"Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right," Derbyshire mourns. He acknowledges, however, that more "genteel" conservatism is often boring. That doesn't absolve conservatives from finding some way to make their arguments more appealing to the unconverted. "We don't know how to speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly -- indeed, conservatively -- wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions," he writes. Limbaugh scares such people away, or simply repels them. Derbyshire would like to see (hear, rather) a conservative equivalent of National Public Radio: ideas presented without hysteria.

Toward the end, however, it becomes obvious that Derbyshire's critique of Republicanism runs deeper yet.

But for all the bullying bluster of conservative talk-show hosts, their essential attitude is one of apology and submission -- the dreary old conservative cringe. Their underlying metaphysic is the same as the liberals': infinite human potential -- Yes, we can! -- if only we get society right....[T]o the Right, [that] means banging on about responsibility, God and tax cuts while deficits balloon....That human beings have limitations and that wise social policy ought to accept that fact -- some problems insoluble, some Children Left Behind -- is as unsayable on 'Hannity' as it is on 'All Things Considered.'

But where does Sean Hannity get that idea? How, if that attitude isn't really conservative, as Derbyshire suggests, did it come to be identified with conservatism? The answer is a name he can't bring himself to put in writing in this article: Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who identified conservatism with an irrepressible "I think I can" optimism designed to convince us that "freedom" made all things possible. Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest are Reagan conservatives, while the Republican party worships more devoutly than ever at Reagan's altar. Reagan's confidence game is an essential part of mainstream "conservative" Republican doctrine, but Derbyshire, this week at least, isn't quite ready to challenge Reagan's legacy head on.

He closes by repeating that "There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism," since "Ideas must be marketed." He warns, however, that "if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity and company." Finally, he asks, "Why have we allowed carny barkers to run away with the Right?"

On this evidence, the battle is still on between the "philosophical" Conservative and "ideological" conservatives on radio and in the Republican party. They can agree on a lot of things, especially when it comes to opposing Obama, but while philosophical conservatives argue that certain things simply can't be done, the ideologues insist that they shouldn't be done. The latter is the more intractable group, while the former might be persuaded by pragmatic considerations to compromise some principles for the common good -- something they seem to believe in more than the ideologues do. They shouldn't be written off just yet, especially when they're so willing to make mischief in Republican circles. I can't imagine that Limbaugh liked that cover, and that's reason enough to applaud the American Conservative this week.


Anonymous said...

Maybe they'll all turn on one another now and the movement will implode.

hobbyfan said...

Didn't Rush stop being relevant some time ago? I keep waiting for him to do one of those Nutri-System commercials.....