It’s hard for a lot of people, particularly on the right, to recognize that the conservative movement’s problems are mostly problems of success. But the Republican party’s problems are much more recognizable as the problems of failure, including the failure to recognize the limits of that movement’s success.
American conservatism began as a kind of intellectual hobbyists’ group with little hope of changing the broader society. Albert Jay Nock, the cape-wearing libertarian intellectual — he called himself a “philosophical anarchist” — who inspired a very young William F. Buckley Jr., argued that political change was impossible because the masses were rubes, goons, fools, or sheep, victims of the eternal tendency of the powerful to exploit the powerless.
Buckley, who rightly admired Nock for many things, rightly disagreed on this point. Buckley trusted the people more than the intellectuals. Moreover, as Buckley’s friend Richard Weaver said, “ideas have consequences,” and, consequently, it is possible to rally the public to your cause.
It took time. In an age when conservative books make millions, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it once was to get a right-of-center book published. Henry L. Regnery, the founder of the publishing house that bears his name, started his venture to break the wall of groupthink censorship surrounding the publishing industry. With a few exceptions, Regnery was the only game in town for decades.
That’s hardly the case anymore. While there’s a higher bar for conservative authors at mainstream publishers (which remain overwhelmingly liberal), profit tends to trump ideology.
And publishing is a lagging indicator. In cable news, think tanks, talk radio, and, of course, the Internet, conservatives have at least rough parity with, and often superiority to, liberals. It’s only in the legacy institutions — newspapers, the broadcast networks, and most especially academia and Hollywood — that conservatism is still largely frozen out. Nonetheless, conservatism is a mass-market enterprise these days, for good and for ill.
The good is obvious. The ill is less understood. For starters, the movement has an unhealthy share of hucksters eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal with little concern for the real political success that can come only with persuading the unconverted.
A conservative journalist or activist can now make a decent living while never once bothering to persuade a liberal. Telling people only what they want to hear has become a vocation. Worse, it’s possible to be a rank-and-file conservative without once being exposed to a good liberal argument. Many liberals lived in such an ideological cocoon for decades, which is one reason conservatives won so many arguments early on. Having the right emulate that echo chamber helps no one.
Ironically, the institution in which conservatives had their greatest success is the one most besieged by conservatives today: the Republican party. To listen to many grassroots conservatives, the GOP establishment is a cabal of weak-kneed sellouts who regularly light votive candles to a poster of liberal Republican icon Nelson Rockefeller.
This is not only not true, it’s a destructive myth. The Rockefeller Republicans were purged from the GOP decades ago. Their high-water mark was in 1960, when the Goldwater insurgency was temporarily crushed. Richard Nixon agreed to run on a platform all but dictated by Rockefeller and to tap Rockefeller’s minion Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate. When the forebears of today’s tea partiers threatened to stay home or bolt the party in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater proclaimed, “Let’s grow up, conservatives!”
It’s still good advice. It’s not that the GOP isn’t conservative enough, it’s that it isn’t tactically smart or persuasive enough to move the rest of the nation in a more conservative direction. Moreover, thanks in part to the myth that all that stands between conservatives and total victory is a philosophically pure GOP, party leaders suffer from a debilitating lack of trust — some of it well earned — from the rank and file.
But politics is about persuasion, and a party consumed by the need to prove its purity to its base is going to have a very hard time proving anything else to the rest of the country.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.