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Last week in GOP triage punditry

October 5, 2009 | 11:51 am

It's not clear what precipitated this convergence, but the opinion pages of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post all devoted space last weekend to op-eds ruminating on contemporary conservatism. For those who missed this odd confluence of punditry, here's a quick wrap-up.

In the LA Times last Friday, Ted Kennedy biographer Neal Gabler wrote that the conservative movement's ideological rigidity of late bears all the trappings of religion. An excerpt:

Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief.

I don't mean "religious belief" literally. This transformation is less a function of the alliance between Protestant evangelicals, their fellow travelers and the right (though that alliance has had its effect) than it is a function of a belief in one's own rightness so unshakable that it is not subject to political caveats. In short, what we have in America today is a political fundamentalism, with all the characteristics of religious fundamentalism and very few of the characteristics of politics. ...

The tea-baggers who hate President Obama with a fervor that is beyond politics; the fear-mongers who warn that Obama is another Hitler or Stalin; the wannabe storm troopers who brandish their guns and warn darkly of the president's demise; the cable and talk-radio blowhards who make a living out of demonizing Obama and tarring liberals as America-haters -- these people are not just exercising their rights within the political system. They honestly believe that the political system -- a system that elected Obama -- is broken and only can be fixed by substituting their certainty for the uncertainties of American politics.

Read responses to Gabler's piece here and here.

Also on Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that voters don't share with media and GOP elites the obsession over fringe-radio archetypes such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Although Brooks' piece explicitly targets GOP brass for giving too much weight to shock-jocks, I read his piece as a veiled defense of the common conservative voter. An excerpt:

Along comes New Hampshire and McCain wins! Republican voters have not heeded their masters in the media. Before long, South Carolina looms as the crucial point of the race. The contest is effectively between Romney and McCain. The talk jocks are now in spittle-flecked furor. Day after day, whole programs are dedicated to hurling abuse at McCain and everybody ever associated with him. The jocks are threatening to unleash their angry millions.

Yet the imaginary armies do not materialize. McCain wins the South Carolina primary and goes on to win the nomination. The talk jocks can’t even deliver the conservative voters who show up at Republican primaries. They can’t even deliver South Carolina! ...

So the myth returns. Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don’t exist.

Last up is conservative scholar Stephen F. Hayward, whose Op-Ed article in the Washington Post on Sunday seems to be an amalgam of the ideas expressed by Gabler and Brooks. Hayward writes that the conservative movement benefits from the provocative populists in its ranks, but in the past the Hannity- and Limbaugh-types were counterbalanced by such serious conservative intellectuals as Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. Today, that balance tilts decisively toward the populists and needs an intellectual counterweight. He finds hope in (wait for it) Glenn Beck. An excerpt from Hayward:

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption," Glenn Beck's new "Arguing with Idiots" and all of Ann Coulter's well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov's dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams's dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, potboilers.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman's "Free to Choose," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," Paul Johnson's "Modern Times," Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Charles Murray's "Losing Ground" and "The Bell Curve," and Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man." There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don't sell. (I have my own entry in the list: a two-volume political history titled "The Age of Reagan." But I never expected the books to sell well; at 750 pages each, you can hurt yourself picking them up.) ...

The case of Glenn Beck, Time magazine's "Mad Man," is more interesting. His on-air weepiness is unmanly, his flirtation with conspiracy theories a debilitating dead-end, and his judgments sometimes loopy (McCain worse than Obama?) or just plain counterproductive (such as his convoluted charge that Obama is a racist). Yet Beck's distinctiveness and his potential contribution to conservatism can be summed up with one name: R.J. Pestritto.

Pestritto is a young political scientist at Hillsdale College in Michigan whom Beck has had on his TV show several times, once for the entire hour discussing Woodrow Wilson and progressivism. He is among a handful of young conservative scholars, several of whom Beck has also featured, engaged in serious academic work critiquing the intellectual pedigree of modern liberalism. Their writing is often dense and difficult, but Beck not only reads it, he assigns it to his staff. "Beck asks me questions about Hegel, based on what he's read in my books," Pestritto told me. Pestritto is the kind of guest Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity would never think of booking.

Which view comes closest to yours: The politics-as-religion analysis offered by Gabler, or Brooks' claim that Republican shock-jocks receive too much attention from GOP and media brass? Can Glenn Beck save the Republican Party? Or is the conservative movement on the right track? Post your comments below.

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