Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thoughts on conservative style and substance
Tom Smith

My friend Steve Bainbridge has attracted a lot of outraged attention for his lament that conservatives are no longer as old school stylish as WFB was back in the day and for his implication that many currently on the Right are embarrassing.  Some of this comes down to purely personal tastes and preferences but some of it is political in interesting ways, and thus I am moved to share some thoughts on what some are saying has already become a tedious discussion.  Alas this is usually the point at which I enter an argument.

I should disclose that I consider Steve a friend and I'm an admirer of his scholarship, use his book in my class and so on and so forth.  At the risk of diverting any wrath from him to me, which I certainly do not want to do, I think we should acknowledge that he has some points, but then qualify or discount some of them.  Also, I don't want to be putting words into his mouth -- I am working with my interpretation of what I take to be the gist of his general inquietude about current conservative style.

So there is a tradition is this country of a sort of old school, Tory, elitist conservatism and there was a strain of that in Bill Buckley's conservatism that he revived after the War. I think his was an idealized version of it.  He was the son of a wealthy Catholic businessman, more cosmopolitan and intellectual than the crusty old WASP Bonesman conservatism that he seem to affect.  Though, in truth, I think the Buckley style was just an invention of his own, analogous to the partly fictional Old North Country aristocratic Catholic style that Evelyn Waugh invented and affected in Brideshead Revisited.  This is the style of a conscious traditionalism and it is has long been a part of anything you could call conservatism in this country and personally I think a very valuable part.

But, and this is a critical point I think, something new and interesting is happening at the moment in this country, or maybe something not so new, but happening in a new way.  And here one has to be careful not to go all dopey and Noonanesque.  I don't think any of it makes sense except against the background of new communications technologies that are just transforming our society.  Progressive historians love to go on about the transportation and communications revolution of the nineteenth century, but we are really in the middle of a gigantic communications revolution now.  One thing we are seeing is an enormous expansion of the intellectual engagement of ordinary people, many of whom turn out to be not so ordinary, in national politics.  Legacy institutions and affiliations and the prestige and style that go with them mean something but not what they used to.  But it's not all good.  The disruption caused by this revolution creates opportunities for all sorts of people.  Indeed, I think our current president is one who would never have stepped into an office he really is not qualified for except for the fact that we are living through a time of profound disruption in many ways.  And one of the things that means is that many shrill, rude, out of key and downright offensive voices are getting heard that before would have been filtered out by various intermediary institutions.  That's not an unalloyed good.

Just to take one of Steve's points -- I agree with him in a general way that the legacy conservative media of talk radio (if this is what he is saying, otherwise it is just me) has lost a lot of its freshness and has matured into a medium that leaves a lot to be desired as any sort of thought leader or opinion shaper.  I'm reluctant to be specific but I will just say a lot of time, right wing radio talkers just seem to be selling schtick, using conservatism the way some insincere televangelists use religion. And that's to be expected.  If people were angels, we should indeed support progressive government.  It's only in the real world that we need such strict limits on power.

Or take Sarah Palin, who graduated from the University of Idaho, whose alma mater was sung at my father's funeral, so don't neg the U of I around me.  She's not as well educated as Michelle Obama. She's not as well educated as a President or Vice President should be.  But had she gone to Harvard Law her ideas about the constitution would be a lot less sound than they happen to be.  That is what we have come to.  The prestige of such ancient institutions as we have are now used as weapons against the most fundamental principles of our frame of government and really our way of life.  This means we are in a bad way.  It's as if we have to defend ourselves against invaders and for the last 50 years West Point had been teaching that war is wrong and love is all you need. We have just put a former dean of the Harvard Law School on the Supreme Court in the certain knowledge that at the first opportunity she will rule that absolutely nothing in the Constitution prevents the federal government from requiring a person to buy insurance from some private company.  Nothing.  And it was probably the right thing to do because there were many far worse people our president would have been happy to nominate, all of them with resumes to die for.  

One could go on.  So does it embarrass me that talk radio conservatives, some of them some of the time are ranting hucksters selling prostate vitamins or gold or their latest semi-literate screed and rolling over every nuance in sight?  Sure.  Do I wish Sarah Palin could go through a time warp, spend ten years getting finished at say Oxford in 1920, Notre Dame in 1950 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1970?  Sure.  But there are others, too, like Mitch Daniels with his reading list and Chris Christie with his massive gonads.  They are not embarrassing but encouraging.  But the point is, being embarrassed in the least of our problems.  I'm sorry I have to run around in my underwear trying to extinguish my burning house, but my house is on fire.

But at the same time, the embarrassments point to some genuine concerns, just not the most urgent ones perhaps.  Those fighting the progressives, the statists, the current administration, have to be aware of the needs to build new institutions, educate up and comers, and trim old, dead wood.  If somebody has become or is an embarrassment to good, old cause, then that's a problem.  Embarrassment is your good sense and taste trying to tell you something.

Yet it needs to be remembered that embarrassment is also a weapon that the enemies of liberty and our best traditions have used with great effect.  We are supposed to be embarrassed to, for example, believe in God, to think that Queer Theory is a joke, that Derrida is a fraud, that John Donne is a much better poet than Sylvia Plath let alone that ubiquitous African American woman who is always showing up knowing why the caged bird sings, and who writes the most dreadful drivel.  To be embarrassed is to have standards and so much of whatever it is you should call the left these days is about the abandonment of moral standards, in which I include those of taste.  So one can be a little embarrassed about the low points of current conservatism, but one has to consider the alternatives.  


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Tom Smith


"shrill, rude, out of key and downright offensive": sometimes that's just the way truths come packaged. Or bits of truth at any rate (which is about all we ever get anyway). Certainly whenever I poke fun at the risible foundation myths of the USA, some people seem to take offence.

Posted by: dearieme | Aug 4, 2010 2:12:57 AM

Dearieme is right. We can't let snobbery hold up a false perfection as an enemy of the good. It takes all kinds of people to make a successful conservative movement, and a successful country.

There may be a common element in Professor Bainbridge's opposition to the war on terrorism and his opposition to the domestic war on fascism. A genteel pacifism is certainly laudable in most circumstances, but not in times of great danger. He doesn't seem to perceive a danger from nuclear terrorism and he doesn't perceive a danger from domestic fascism. I hope he's right, but I believe that vigilance is the price of liberty.

If we follow Professor Bainbridge's course and he is wrong, the result is catastrophe and potentially the loss of civilization. If we follow Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and are wrong, the result is that we are embarrassed among liberals. Pascal's wager argues for following Limbaugh and Palin.

Posted by: pj | Aug 4, 2010 7:24:13 AM

All your points are well-taken. But I find troubling what is implied by you, Bainbridge, Noonan and others - that the Tea Partiers are an embarrassment. You're buying into the false portrait sold by the media. Tea Party is a mass movement of people who, in most circumstances, are embarrassed to attend mass meetings. The people I see are those who pay taxes, and many have raised families. They are worried about - and focused on - debt, taxes, their children's future, and loss of liberty. They show up because they don't know what else to do - and, for their children's sake, they feel they must do what they can.

Any other so-called conservative issues attributed to the Tea Pary (e.g. abortion, 2d amendment) are attempts to piggy-back on what is driving the crowd. Racism? An outrageous slur. One ignored fact is that women are prominent (dominant?) in the grass-roots, website organizing of the Tea Parties. Yes, any mass meeting will attract an exhibitionist fringe of extremists. You can look for these folks and find them, interview them, and publish pictures. But they are not the Tea Party.

Has the Tea Party movement threatened otherwise-electable RINOs because they have supported big government and more debt? Perhaps, and the case can be made that this is strategically unwise. But look at what just happened in Missouri. The Republicans are the only vehicle to reverse the awful direction of the country, and I submit it is not a bad thing to lose a few offices to the larger point of "you either get it or you don't." This is "embarrassing" only because the elites can't control it. There may never be a true Tea "Party" - it will defy rigid organization. But why is this bad? Politicians should know that there is a very motivated grass roots out there that will do them in if they go to the trough.

Posted by: Greg | Aug 4, 2010 9:39:12 AM

I don't mean to say I find Tea Partiers are embarrassing at all. I even put a Navy Jack with its Dont Tread on Me on my truck. I'm thrilled that the tea partiers are partying. But some of them are an embarrassment. That's inevitable. But the overall message of limited government, constitutional government and so on, I very much endorse.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Aug 4, 2010 10:49:36 AM

Thanks. Fair and constructive criticism.

Posted by: Stephen Bainbridge | Aug 4, 2010 1:05:53 PM

There's no reason to be embarrassed at all at thinking Derrida was a fraud, but thankfully one need not be a conservative to think that! (Just ask Brian Leiter.)

Posted by: Matt Lister | Aug 4, 2010 4:40:41 PM

"Dont Tread on Me" jack? (and I appreciate you omitting the apostrophe, because that is historically accurate). I wish more, especially including the supposedly massively educated and sophisticated elite, knew the provenance of that flag, rather than calling it a racist symbol.

So what is the benefit of being herded about by these supposedly smart, well acclimated in all the correct attitudes, people? The late Buckley, for all his patrician gloss, also famously remarked that he'd rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty.

No, the real reason it's so embarrassing being a conservative is that all of these awful people - you know, the bitter clingers - identify themselves that way. Obama, for his supposed brilliance, erudition, education, and impeccable trouser crease, does not seem at all smarter than Sarah Palin, quite the reverse in fact. So again, what is the real benefit of having these fine credentials aside from your own clique applauds you for them? "Smart" people like Professor Bainbridge (okay, perhaps not fair - like Peggy Noonan then) supported Obama for amazingly stupid and trivial reasons and are now scratching their heads, asking themselves if perhaps they misjudged the chap, as much as they admired the cut of his jib leading up to November 2000.

Posted by: Steve Skubinna | Aug 5, 2010 7:13:48 AM

I suspect there is a fair amount of jealousy involved in Bainbridge's piece. The Establishment Right hasn't shown themselves capable of creating or sustaining anyone's interest but their own in the battle of ideas. They've been babbling to themselves and been the Main Stream Media's pinata for far too long.

Those genteel country-club Republicans that he seems to admire are as much a part of our governing problem as the Left. They've gone along to get along, failed to stand for principled resistance to Federal intrusion, unless it was for their own special interests.

Give me the great unwashed patriots. They may have a few blemishes here and there, and not know which fork to use for the salad, but they are the kind of folks you want watching your back when TSHTF.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Aug 5, 2010 8:38:19 AM

Yes, let's consider the alternatives. One is, you could be a liberal. Gasp. The liberals have Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Who's more embarrassing -- Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin? I think Sarah has a lot to learn, but she is learning it, and she may emerge down the road with a lot more polish than she has now. Nancy is just getting more and more shrill, and she's rammed a lot of bad legislation down our throats, public opinion be damned.

Who's more embarrassing -- Tea Party protesters or peace activists like Cindy Sheen? Take a look at some of the rallies of the left: http://www.zombietime.com/hall_of_shame/
Now you tell me, who's more embarrassing?

Who's more embarrassing -- conservative radio talk show hosts who "seem to be selling some schtick" or mainstream media folks who are (even today) in the tank for Obama, make fun of conservatives, and refuse to investigate serious accusations of racism, major Democratic scandals, the details of major legislation, etc.?

How about Climategate, JournoList, Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters and Blagojevich? How about Obama's $100,00 date in New York City and his bowing to the Saudi king and the Japanese emperor? How about Van Jones' full-blown Marxism and Tim Geitner's tax-evasion issues? How about Keith Olbermann and Joy Behar and Michael Moore? The list could go on and on.

A little self-analysis is fine, but let's remember it is the LEFT that is most embarrassing today.

Posted by: debiesam | Aug 5, 2010 8:41:15 AM

One quibble: your assessment of Palin vs. Obama in terms of education is not accurate. I reference what Angelo Codevilla has written on this point. Bottom line: the Ivy League schools let in people based not on smarts or talent but on willingness to toe ideological lines. In the end, the only thing they are selling is prestige, not a better education.

Posted by: Joshua Chamberlain | Aug 5, 2010 8:44:03 AM

debiesam rules.

It is a mistake to assume Michelle is educated because she attended an Ivy league school. Or her husband for that matter. The low expectations of Affirmative Action creates its first victim in its beneficiary.

Then there is that other form of education, that of the highly mis-educated, who educate the affirmatively educated. That is an art of sorts, but not an education. No doubt it requires a high intelligence to maintain so many delusions. We will give them that or fail in understanding them.

Tocqueville in his day described Americans as the best educated people on earth, where no one was highly educated. There is a connection there. That is obvious even to a highly educated Englishman like dearieme.

Don't be apologizing to the fops for anything anytime. I can find more genuinely good people in my small sphere who possess occasional strange and varied mental or historical cramps, then could be found good or useful people on the faculty of elite colleges. And the disparity is growing.

Posted by: james wilson | Aug 5, 2010 9:23:07 AM

As long as colleges and universities have access to considerable sums of tax money, with no accountability to students and their guardians, they, and the journalists and barristers they produce, will continue to lean leftward. We need to cut this cash flow.

But we haven't cut it yet, and so we have arrived at a point where the thieves are cultured and articulate, and the heroes are uncouth and bourgeois. We still need to honor the heroes, and put them into office when possible.

Posted by: MKS | Aug 5, 2010 10:10:24 AM

Bainbridge writes a lot of good stuff, but this is just silly. In the USA, you have to choose between two sides. Lots of embarassment to go around when each side has millions of people. After all, people are prone to doing embarassing things.

The only thing you can do is choose between two groups knowing that you cannot always be thrilled with everyone in either group. So which group is more embarassing? Reagan, Bush, Dole, W and McCain or Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Algore, Kerry, Obama? I don't think that's a close call.

How about the GOP leaders in the House and Senate vs. the Dem leaders over that same 30 year period? Again, the embarassment meter is redlining to the left.

Or maybe the Tea Party and the NRA vs. Act UP, Peta, NOW, ANSWER, SEIU, Acorn, NAMBLA, and Dykes on Bikes?

Rush vs. Air America? Sean Hannity vs Keith Olbermann? Thomas Sowell vs. Paul Krugman? George Will vs. Maureen Dowd? Charles Krauthammer vs. Dana Milbank? Tony Snow vs. Dan Rather? Britt Hume vs. Katie Couric?

Bob Corker or Chris Dodd? Christie or Blagojevich? Sarah Palin vs. John Edwards (or Joe Biden)? Laura Bush or Hillary?

National Review and the Weekly Standard vs. Journolist? Climate skeptics vs. Michael Mann and the Climategate alarmists? Defense Dept vs EPA and Housing and Human Services?

Sorry, not one of these is even a close call. Frankly, I'd be embarassed if someone had to point this out to me.

Posted by: stan | Aug 5, 2010 11:00:52 AM

Fair point about the importance of not letting snobbishness about schools cause us to look down on people who might not have

But the bad thing about Sarah Palin is not that she went to the University for Idaho, but that she is simply not an intellectually curious or intellectually rigorous person. In terms of intellectual achievement - caring about knowledge and perhaps even scholarship - she's an embarrassment. She may be a good speaker or good leader or be morally right (I don't think she is any of these things but we can disagree), but she demonstrates a complete lack of respect for scholarship and intellectual rigor.

Oh, and to the poster above me, if you think that Katie Couric is "left" you don't understand what left is.

And put Rachel Maddow up against Hannity or O'Reilly please. Please.

Posted by: jt | Aug 5, 2010 11:44:31 AM

Bainbridge's description of why we as conservatives should be embarrassed by Sarah Palin is itself embarrassingly elitist. He writes that we as Republicans ca. 2010 should be embarrassed by the fact that "[a] poorly educated ex-sportwriter who served half of one term of an minor state governorship is prominently featured as a -- if not the -- leading prospect for the GOP's 2012 Presidential nomination."

This sentiment is indistiguishable logically from the following:

We as Republicans ca. 1860 should be embarrassed by the fact that "[a] poorly educated ex-logsplitter who one two-year term in Congress is prominently featured as a -- if not the -- leading prospect for the GOP's 1860 Presidential nomination."

Posted by: PDB | Aug 5, 2010 12:18:42 PM

We are supposed to be embarrassed to, for example, believe in God, to think that Queer Theory is a joke, that Derrida is a fraud, that John Donne is a much better poet than Sylvia Plath let alone that ubiquitous African American woman who is always showing up knowing why the caged bird sings, and who writes the most dreadful drivel.

I don't know anyone who thinks all, or even most, of these things. But I do know a lot of people who put lists like this together without having a clue what Queer Theory is -- they just know it's about queers, so it must be rubbish -- or couldn't explain what Derrida actually has to say, let alone explain what, if anything, is wrong with it. And Maya Angelou actually has a name. Even you probably know it, even if she is only 3/5 of the way toward deserving one.

Posted by: CJColucci | Aug 5, 2010 12:28:34 PM

CJ-- I believe in God, think Queer Theory is a joke, that Derrida is a fraud and that Angelou (whose name eluded me when writing; thanks) is a just dreadful poet. Maybe even more dreadful than she is celebrated, a feat in itself. I'm not embarrassed about thinking any of these things, but I sense I am in some sense supposed to be. So do we disagree or agree? I can't quite tell what your point is. That I have not been exposed to these things I despise? If only it were true! I am under the impression that Queer Theory is the extension to homosexuality of the sort of theoretical arguments made about race in Critical Race Theory, which in turn is the application of Frankfurt School type critical theory to various aspects of race. Is that wrong? I haven't the slightest doubt that extremely interesting stuff could be (and maybe is somewhere) being written about homosexuality in say US society, its relation to institutions such as marriage, and so on. I am confident however that it wont be called "Queer Theory". I suspect bad ideological writing about topics such as homosexuality tends to crowd out better stuff. I actually think things are getting better but we have been through a time of a lot of very rubbishy theoretical production from the left.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Aug 5, 2010 1:02:16 PM

CJColucci's Internet comments routinely are non-substantive garbage, and the one above is no exception. Unable to articulate a cogent point about anything, CJColucci just resorts to name calling. Shorter CJColucci: "Tom Smith think's Maya Angelou is bereft of talent; the only possible reason he could think so is because he's a racist!" Stooping to that sort of baseless ad hominem would embarrass anyone with a micron of class, but not CJColucci.

Posted by: The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Aug 5, 2010 1:46:04 PM

I’m always irritated at writers who are embarrassed by people like Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin because either they didn’t graduate from Yale or spend time on the radio when everyone knows that the real ideas are always expressed in print.

Now I always enjoyed Bill Buckley, but he never won an election. He had a wealthy father who put him though Yale and whose money helped him start a magazine. In other words if I wanted to describe Buckley I could say that he was a wealthy esthete who, as his son will tell you, married to an even wealthier wife and they both cared very much about their social position. They were part of the glitterati and it’s hard to know whose election they aided although everyone on the Right wants to nominate Buckley as the man who single-handedly rescued Conservatism from oblivion. His legacy is son Christopher Buckley whose books are unreadable and whose political judgment is worse.

But I won’t dump on Bill because that’s not being fair to Buckley. He influenced a lot of young people to become conservative. For the most part I agreed with his philosophy.

But having had Saint Bill or even Saint Ronnie, we now want to clone these people. Well, we’re not going to. So, no Mr. Klinghoffer, I’m not looking for another aristocrat with family money to spearhead the Conservative movement, even if they are the people you like to be around. The fact is that despite your embarrassment, Rush Limbaugh is more important to Conservatism right now than anyone else. He is converting more people than Buckley ever did because he has a much broader audience than National Review and NPR. And despite her lack of an Ivy League degree, Sarah Palin has done more to energize Conservatives like my wife than literally anyone in elected office today. To show you just how unfashionable we are we told everyone we knew that we were voting for Sarah Palin and the old guy she was running with.

The people who embarrass me in the conservative movement are not the people at Tea Party rallies with their hand-made signs and their colonial era costumes. They are Country America. They are the unsophisticated middle of the country. That’s how real people act then they’re not part of café society. The people who embarrass me are those who look down on them because they’re hicks from the sticks. The people who embarrass me are the ones who seek the approval of the Ruling Class by telling others how stupid Rush and Palin are. It’s the McCain syndrome; go ahead win the next election without us.

Posted by: Moneyrunner.blogspot.com | Aug 5, 2010 2:43:54 PM

One of the many things that I find perplexing about Professor Bainbridge's critique of modern conservatism is the professor's lament that Rush Limbaugh is nothing like William F. Buckley, Jr.. Buckley himself rather disagreed about Limbaugh's merit. Per a July 6, 2008 New York Times article, "Buckley took Limbaugh seriously, cultivated him, promoted him and saw to it that he connected with the right people." As Jay Nordlinger put it in a March 5, 2009 National Review item, "WFB loved Rush Limbaugh — I know, I was there. And Rush loved him back." I don't disagree with everything Bainbridge has to say on the subject of modern conservatism (though even where I agree I often find the tone and temper of his assessment disagreeable), but some of it -- like the Limbaugh remark -- seems fairly indefensible.

If Rush was good enough for Buckley himself, why not for Bainbridge? My tentative sense is that Bainbridge, like many others, has made a false idol of Buckley. Buckley was a remarkable man, and conservatism owes him a great debt -- but not the sort of hagiographic treatment he generally is accorded on the right. Buckley too had feet of clay. He was sometimes disastrously wrongheaded in ways that, by contemporary sensibilities, are shocking (e.g., his subsequently renounced position on civil rights in the early period of National Review). He was genteel and refined, but this was the same man who called Gore Vidal a "queer" and threatened to knock his block off on on network television too. (In fairness, Vidal might have benefited from a sock in the face, or several, in his youth.) My point is hardly to demonize Buckley, but he was not without his faults, some of which arguably might occasion the very sort of embarrassment that Bainbridge so abhors.

For those interested, the relevant links to the articles I note above are:



For an account of Buckley's feud with Vidal, see:


Posted by: The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Aug 5, 2010 3:51:38 PM

Why would anyone bemoan the absence of someone as uncivilized and cowardly as Buckley? The guy had no problem threatening wimpy guys like Vidal and Chomsky but did he ever call out Hemingway or Mailer?

Posted by: Porky D. | Aug 6, 2010 2:55:24 AM

My understanding is that Hemingway was approximately a quarter century senior to Buckley (b. 1925, I think); in the early 50s, Hemingway apparently was in an accident (or accidents) that affected his health for the remainder of his life and his health seems not to have been great in the years immediately prior at any rate. So, under the circumstances, a title bout would have been fairly unsporting. As for Mailer, your contention is that Buckley wasn't as courageous as a man notorious for almost fatally stabbing his (second) wife? (N.B., According to the ever-reliable Internet, Mailer apparently headbutted Gore Vidal during a taping of the Dick Cavett show; given Mailer, that doesn't seem unbelievable.)

Posted by: The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Aug 6, 2010 7:10:44 AM

I disagree with the specific manner in which Mr. Bainbridge criticized parts of the conservative movement, many of his comments surround an underlying theme that certainly does (IMHO) need to be explored:

While conservatives don't necessarily need to be academic snobs or amateur legal scholars or economics wonks, it would be good to see more of them being able to articulate the "why" of their "what." I think the Tea Party is great, but I get concerned when I speak with some of the folks that I've met and they don't seem to know what to do other than "kick the bums out." I wholeheartedly support this political bum kicking, but without a basic understanding of economics and a decent theory of personal liberty vs. the role of the state, chances are we're just going to replace one set of horrible populist policies with another set of horrible populist policies. This is what happens when people go with "what sounds good."

Personally, I *want* to like Sarah Palin. I think that as public servants go she's shown far more backbone and integrity than most. But while those characteristics are essential, they can only take you so far. I'm a reasonably bright person, but I can't get a handle on what her philosophies are, and her actions seem to be all over the place. I certainly couldn't support her as a presidential candidate, at least at this point. It scares me that people not only willing to do so, but to do so with such unbridled enthusiasm.

Posted by: Evil Red Scandi | Aug 6, 2010 11:30:18 AM

Crosstalk performers try to use funny conversations to make the audience laugh.

Posted by: Jordan Hydro | Aug 6, 2010 11:13:53 PM

I'm always sensitive to by my poor relatives, who lack the class and breeding I have married into. Why people like Palin still wear white after Labor Day. Such is the substance of the proles.

Posted by: Ellie Light | Aug 7, 2010 12:53:01 PM