The first thing to remember is that the use of the term “conservative” (as much as the use of “liberal”) is a political act rather than an act of description. It is meant to assemble a political program that can inspire some large number of people and attract a plurality of the voting public on Election Day. “Conservative” is Bill Buckley and his merry band trying to stitch together a coalition out of sundry Old Rightists, Mad Libertarians, Ex-Communists, Catholic Democrats and (shhh) a few Authoritarians, and more. “Conservative” is also Buckley expelling the John Birchers from the temple, or David Frum doing the same (with less success) to Pat Buchanan. “Conservative” is an exercise in stitching and hemming.
An intellectual doesn’t have to play that particular game. He can think and write about art or anthropology; contemplate Euclid or Euthyphro; or even argue for what he takes to be the truth of politics, rather than seek out political victory. It is easy enough to be one of many sorts of conservative rather than argue about the singular definition of conservatism, or help a unified conservative movement to victory via some scintillating white paper. It’s only those intellectuals who want to define the term “conservative”—the stitchers and hemmers—who can be said to have failed at what they aimed to do.
Have they failed? Well, at what precisely? They’re supposed to have kept the conservative coalition together, but opinions vary as to whether they should have kept King Mob under wraps, or moved more quickly to the positions that King Mob rightly espouses. They’re supposed to have carved out more room for Conservative Ideas in our nation’s Commanding Intellectual Heights—but the Buckley Brigade’s been outgunned in that fight since it began. Or, they should have rejected the Enlightenment tout court, for ’twas John Locke who brewed our current poisons. Or, they should have accepted mo’ modernity, mo’ quickly, so as to take a firmer stand against the tide. Or, they should have been American intellectuals rather than conservative ones, more concerned with people than with ideas. (I feel some sympathy toward that diagnosis myself, but it’s not as if “American” is any less an exercise in stitching and hemming than “conservative” is.) The diagnoses are contradictory, but all agree that the conservative intellectuals did a bad job of things. Some even include themselves among the blunderers when they catalogue conservatism’s wounds.
It’s a fool’s errand, being a political intellectual of any sort—live long enough, and you’re bound to fail. Some sort of charity in judgment is in order. Still, if you choose to play the game, the point is victory. Very charitably, we say to the Kristols and the Brookses and the Levins and the Douthats—and to every lesser intellectual who has ever earned a nickel for putting Conservative Ideas to paper and pixel—Yer a bum!
That was satisfying. And now that we’ve condemned the conservative intellectuals, what next? The guillotine? Five-to-ten working in the trade papers, as penance? A slap on the wrist and a renewed subscription? Perhaps every conservative intellectual should be required to write two op-eds on the failure of the conservative intellectuals, and return one biweekly paycheck to their employers, to acknowledge that they’ve failed to give good value for money.
“The Failure of the Conservative Intellectuals”: Why, that term “failure” is just as much a political act as “conservative.” Someone has to be the sin-eater. Play that game, and you’re nothing but a conservative intellectual yourself, stitching and hemming.
There have been a great many failures, by a great many different sorts of conservative intellectuals. Some are matters of pure intellect, some are matters of political tactics, and some artful fools have failed both ways. (The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you.) We might do well to take a little time to contemplate the multiplicity of the failures—and the multiplicity of intellectuals, the multiplicity of conservatism—before we begin to play tailor again. Let the stuff hang shaggy.
Not forever. The office of a tailor is a worthy one. But for a while.
David Randall is director of communications at the National Association of Scholars.