November 8, 2008
The Perils of 'Populist Chic'
What the rise of Sarah Palin and populism means for the conservative intellectual tradition.
By MARK LILLA
Finita la commedia. Many things ended on Tuesday evening when Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, and depending on how you voted you are either celebrating or mourning this weekend. But no matter what our political affiliations, we should all -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- be toasting the return of Governor Sarah Palin to Juneau, Alaska.
The Palin farce is already the stuff of legend. For a generation at least it is sure to keep presidential historians and late-night comedians in gainful employment, which is no small thing. But it would be a pity if laughter drowned out serious reflection about this bizarre episode. As Jane Mayer reported recently in the New Yorker ("The Insiders," Oct. 27, 2008), John McCain's choice was not a fluke, or a senior moment, or an act of desperation. It was the result of a long campaign by influential conservative intellectuals to find a young, populist leader to whom they might hitch their wagons in the future.
And not just any intellectuals. It was the editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, magazines that present themselves as heirs to the sophisticated conservatism of William F. Buckley and the bookish seriousness of the New York neoconservatives. After the campaign for Sarah Palin, those intellectual traditions may now be pronounced officially dead.
What a strange turn of events. For the past 40 years American conservatism has been politically ascendant, in no small part because it was also intellectually ascendant. In 1955 sociologist Daniel Bell could publish a collection of essays on "The New American Right" that treated it as a deeply anti-intellectual force, a view echoed a few years later in Richard Hofstadter's influential "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" (1963).
But over the next decade and a half all that changed. Magazines like the Public Interest and Commentary became required reading for anyone seriously concerned about domestic and foreign affairs; conservative research institutes sprang up in Washington and on college campuses, giving a fresh perspective on public policy. Buckley, Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Peter Berger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz -- agree or disagree with their views, these were people one had to take seriously.
Coming of age politically in the grim '70s, when liberalism seemed utterly exhausted, I still remember the thrill of coming upon their writings for the first time. I discovered the Public Interest the same week that Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and its pages offered shelter from the storm -- from the mobs on the street, the radical posing of my professors and fellow students, the cluelessness of limousine liberals, the whole mad circus of post-'60s politics. Conservative politics mattered less to me than the sober comportment of conservative intellectuals at that time; I admired their maturity and seriousness, their historical perspective, their sense of proportion. In a country susceptible to political hucksters and demagogues, they studied the passions of democratic life without succumbing to them. They were unapologetic elites, but elites who loved democracy and wanted to help it.
So what happened? How, 30 years later, could younger conservative intellectuals promote a candidate like Sarah Palin, whose ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against? It's a sad tale that began in the '80s, when leading conservatives frustrated with the left-leaning press and university establishment began to speak of an "adversary culture of intellectuals." It was a phrase borrowed from the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, who used it to describe the disquiet at the heart of liberal societies. Now the idea was taken up and distorted by angry conservatives who saw adversaries everywhere and decided to cast their lot with "ordinary Americans" whom they hardly knew. In 1976 Irving Kristol publicly worried that "populist paranoia" was "subverting the very institutions and authorities that the democratic republic laboriously creates for the purpose of orderly self-government." But by the mid-'80s, he was telling readers of this newspaper that the "common sense" of ordinary Americans on matters like crime and education had been betrayed by "our disoriented elites," which is why "so many people -- and I include myself among them -- who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism."
The die was cast. Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders' intellectual virtues -- indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities; in fact, one of the masterminds of the Palin nomination was once a Harvard professor. But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.
Back in the '70s, conservative intellectuals loved to talk about "radical chic," the well-known tendency of educated, often wealthy liberals to project their political fantasies onto brutal revolutionaries and street thugs, and romanticize their "struggles." But "populist chic" is just the inversion of "radical chic," and is no less absurd, comical or ominous. Traditional conservatives were always suspicious of populism, and they were right to be. They saw elites as a fact of political life, even of democratic life. What matters in democracy is that those elites acquire their positions through talent and experience, and that they be educated to serve the public good. But it also matters that they own up to their elite status and defend the need for elites. They must be friends of democracy while protecting it, and themselves, from the leveling and vulgarization all democracy tends toward.
Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives' "disdain for liberal intellectuals" had slipped into "disdain for the educated class as a whole," and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters. I couldn't care less about the future of the Republican Party, but I do care about the quality of political thinking and judgment in the country as a whole. There was a time when conservative intellectuals raised the level of American public debate and helped to keep it sober. Those days are gone. As for political judgment, the promotion of Sarah Palin as a possible world leader speaks for itself. The Republican Party and the political right will survive, but the conservative intellectual tradition is already dead. And all of us, even liberals like myself, are poorer for it.
Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University and a former editor of the Public Interest.