Re: Perlstein

by Steven F. Hayward

Having been on the road the last two days I am late to the thread about Rick Perlstein’s remarks to the Princeton conference on conservatism (where I was the dual keynote speaker along with David Brooks), but I can’t let this pass. Perlstein, a delightful fellow in person, affects a fascination and respect for conservatives and conservatism, but he seems to relish playing the bad boy role when he appears at conservative conferences. His argument seems to boil down to this proposition: examples of bad behavior by conservatives in power suggests an intrinsic hypocrisy in the conservative movement. In the discussion period I challenged him sharply on two points: first, whether he could establish an organic link between conservative ideas and the instances of bad behavior that he cited, or whether bad behavior wasn’t endemic to politics since at least Alcibiades. (Couldn’t I, I said, compile an inventory just as long of bad behavior by liberals in power? In other words, isn’t he really just vindicating Acton, and therefore saying very little of signficance about the character of conservative ideas?) Second, I challenged him on his entirely typical use of the “southern strategy” charge against the GOP, arguing that if he was going to play that card he ought at least to acknowledge which party invented it in the first place and note instances such as Jimmy Carter’s blatant racial appeals as late as Carter’s governor’s race in 1970 (Perlstein nodded in agreement at this), and moreover that the pattern of GOP ascendence in the South (i.e., winning first in the border states and winning last in the deep south where racial sentiment was strongest–the case Gerard Alexander made so superbly in the Claremont Review a while back) suggested that the story of the political realignment in the south had more to do with broader cultural issues, such as Democratic hostility or indifference to religion. In reply, Perlstein merely repeated himself rather than grapple with my arguments. Perhaps others who were there will care to weigh in with their perceptions. To repeat, I like Perlstein, but I wonder whether he feels the need to protect his left flank when he is slumming it with us, or whether his own ideological partisanship gets the better of him sometimes.

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