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TYRRELL: After the hangover
Question of the Day
Throughout my new book, “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery,” I posit a series of observations provoked by the liberal media’s pronouncement after the 2008 elections that conservatism is dead. We conservatives have been hearing this claim on a regular basis since modern American conservatism’s birth in the 1950s and even after the Reagan revolution reshaped mainstream American politics according to conservative values.
Calmly, patiently, even avuncularly in “After the Hangover,” I quote the obituaries for conservatism, pausing to note the obvious: The conservative corpse has arisen again. Then I observe something surprising, to wit, the repeated death notices that liberalism has received, beginning with the triumphs of Ronald Reagan. I based these and subsequent observations on solid news accounts, polling data and simple acts of logical deduction. I go on to posit several of my carefully arrived-at theses about contemporary politics, which I hope are at once instructive and amusing. Politics, after all, is often amusing.
My designation “kultursmog” is fundamental to understanding the American political scene and the condition of conservatism. Kultursmog is the befouled condition of our media and our political culture, polluted as they are by liberalism. An awareness of the liberals’ pollution of American culture has been abroad in the land at least since Nov. 13, 1969, when a recent convert to conservatism, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, first raised the issue to a national audience during a speech in Des Moines, Iowa. Interestingly, the speech was written by a Nixon speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, who went on to make quite a mark as a conservative.
As you might expect, liberal media apparatchiks denied everything, but they did begin their self-conscious practice of opening an “opinion page” to writers dissenting from the liberal orthodoxy. The New York Times even invited a speechwriter from the Nixon White House, William Safire, to become a Times columnist. Since then, the kultursmog has remained untreated. Its presence explains another of my theses in “After the Hangover,” the marginalization of conservatives even in time of conservative political preponderance, for instance, during the Reagan 1980s, the Gingrich Congress and the presidency of George W. Bush.
This marginalization is not caused only by the unwelcoming gases of the kultursmog. It is also caused by what I regard as a fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals. Namely the conservative political libido is restrained by comparison to the liberals’ political libido, which is positively inclement. Thus, the conservatives’ political failings are often the product of inaction, while the liberals’ are the product of hyperactivity. The consequence of the kultursmog and of the profound difference between the political libido of the conservative and that of the liberal is that conservatives manifest what anthropologists studying Caribbean society identify as “crab antics.” Crabs at the bottom of a bucket, when the bucket is tipped, pull one another back in the scramble to reach the top. Conservatives pull one another back, too. That might explain why so few high-quality leaders are recognizable among conservative intellectuals and politicians. As I hope I make clear in the book, the conservative leaders are out there.
Lack of leadership in the years ahead does not worry me. Doubtless, leaders will be recognized. I remember Ronald Reagan’s brief campaign in 1968, his more successful campaign in 1976 and his election in 1980. In each election, I did my small bit. Not all conservatives shared my confidence in him. His manifest talents eluded them. Yet, at least during those early years of the conservative movement, we did not have to overcome problems that accumulated during the presidency of George W. Bush; when, as the famous longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer once anticipated, a “great cause” descended into a “business” and then into a “racket.” The Bush years witnessed the arrival of the conservative hustler. Sometimes the hustlers were crooks, such as Jack Abramoff. Other times they were the intellectual opportunists who thought they could advance in the kultursmog by tut-tutting established members of the conservative movement. I have in mind such reformed conservatives as the Davidians, David Brooks and David Frum(p), and the occasional mini-cons, for instance, Tucker Carlson, and now crowned by a Pulitzer for her sempiternal chiding of conservatives, Kathleen Parker. Let us hope for Miss Parker’s sake that she is not found guilty of plagiarism or fabrication as nowadays happens with Pulitzer mannequins.
Fortunately, as has happened every time that conservatism has plateaued and subsided from 1964 on, conservatism recovers and comes back stronger. Meanwhile, liberalism, having episodically given itself over to its raving passions, appalls the average American voter and enjoys ever-briefer periods in office. Today, after nearly a half-century of these oscillations, conservatism is the most popular political designation in the country, outpolling even moderates and outnumbering liberals by a ratio of 2-to-1. If the process continues, as I predict it will, the liberals’ popularity eventually will be on a par with that of the American Prohibition Party. Even nudists will be more numerous, particularly in California.
What is hastening this decline is not only the liberals’ propensity for immoderation but also the kultursmog’s threat from what I have called new media, which is to say, the rising conservative counterculture. Talk radio, cable talk shows, the Internet, the established conservative think tanks and the magazines of the conservative movement are all flourishing and summoning compelling personalities armed with the tried-and-true ideas of the conservative movement. Fox News alone brings in more revenue than the combined revenue of CNN, MSNBC and the evening news broadcasts of what are called “the networks,” ABC, CBS and NBC - all reliable smokestacks for the kultursmog. Time, Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post are likewise financially fragile.
With this shift, it is going to be ever more difficult for the reformed conservatives and the Davidians to exploit the kultursmog and make names for themselves. David Frum(p) has almost completely slipped from sight. To get public attention again, he will have to jump off Washington’s Memorial Bridge. David Brooks already has.
Recall his suicidal interview with the New Republic in the summer of 2009. Attempting to ingratiate himself to the Prophet Obama, he told the New Republic’s interviewer that “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but usually when I talk to senators, while they may know a policy area better than me, they generally don’t know political philosophy better than me. I got the sense that he knew both better than me.” The occasion was Mr. Brooks’ first interview with Mr. Obama, then a senator with a month or so of experience on the job. Mr. Brooks goes on to say, “I remember distinctly an image. We were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant, and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president, and b) he’ll be a very good president.” What would this precious Washington insider have reported to the New Republic if Mr. Obama had been wearing pantyhose?
When Mr. Brooks allowed these observations in August 2009, Mr. Obama was declining in the polls and proceeding from pratfall to pratfall. My guess is his pants were already pretty well wrinkled. Yet Mr. Brooks slobbered on, proclaiming, “My overall view is 95 percent of the decisions [Mr. Obama and his administration] make are good and intelligent. … Obama sees himself as a Burkean. He sees his view of the world as a view that understands complexity and the organic nature of change.” Possibly there was a Burke in the Fabian Society, say Theophilus Smedely Burke. Mr. Brooks cannot be referring to Edmund Burke.
Viewed from the perspective of history, the liberals have been in a long, slow, but apparently unavoidable decline since the 1960s. That is about the time when, for them, history stopped. From their excesses in the early Obama administration, it is clear that they completely missed the 1980s and 1990s. They have become fantasists. They believe all the legends that they have created for themselves in the kultursmog. As one after another is defeated at the polls, it might be difficult to get them to vacate their offices. Special counselors may have to be called in. Some liberal politicos have already availed themselves to sex counselors. I have in mind our 42nd president. Others have employed anger management counselors. After the 2010 congressional elections, there will be many evictions. They must be handled delicately.
America’s political center is now a center shaped by conservatism. With the growth of the conservative counterculture, the prospects are good for conservatism now to do what it should have done in the 1980s and act not merely like a political party, but like a political culture. Finally, the conservatives can stop pulling back one another. They stand poised to create what the New Deal created, a new order. History rarely repeats itself, but it does occasionally approximate itself.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His new book is “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
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