It was the otherwise estimable John Stuart Mill who observed that “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives,” and the taunt has stuck. However wrong-headed and unfair, the slur has been a source of comfort to the left and annoyance to the right for generations.
So when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently invoked the old libel, his comment was designed to get under the skin of conservatives.
“We have to stop being the stupid party; it’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It’s time for us to articulate our plans and our visions for America in real terms. It’s no secret we’ve had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with bizarre and offensive comments. I’m here to say we’ve had enough of that.”
Unfortunately, this was too obvious to be controversial. The GOP had squandered opportunities to win Senate seats in Indiana and Missouri after candidates made inept comments about rape (and in the case of Missouri’s Todd Akin, refused to pull out of the race). Just two years earlier, two other Senate seats and their six-year terms were sacrificed on the altar of ideological purity: in Delaware, where Christine O’Donnell declared, “I am not a witch,” and in Nevada, where Sharron Angle lost an almost unlosable race against the doddering incumbent Harry Reid after she took too many trips to Crazytown.
But Jindal was wrong. The problem that dogs conservatives is not stupidity; it is crackpotism.
Inside the bubble
Crackpotism is not incompatible with intelligence and it is not a matter of ideology alone. Crackpots, whose views are fiercely held as a matter of conviction, may be educated and credentialed. As they will often earnestly point out, their views are supported and reinforced by unique research and logic — the sort that flourish in the hothouse environment of the Internet.
Within their own bubble, the crackpots’ ideas can seem plausible and insightful. Supporters praise one another for daring to embrace overlooked truths.
But ideas that win plaudits and huzzahs within the ideological bubble often turn out to be disqualifying for the general electorate. When crackpots venture out of the bubble, their notions are often exposed as eccentric and daft.
Worst of all: They make it harder for the substantive and thoughtful conservative critiques of these issues to break through the media clutter. Of course the left has its own cadre of oddities, but the playing field is not a level one. Because the stupidity and extremism of the right remains its operating assumption, the mainstream media are more than eager to let the wacky displace and overshadow the sensible. Unfortunately, this is compounded by an understandable tendency amongst battered and besieged conservatives to launch embarrassing defenses of inappropriate candidates.
So perhaps the time has come to review the history of excommunication in the conservative movement.
In the early 1960s, conservatives faced a daunting challenge. Liberalism was the regnant ideology, and the GOP establishment was ideologically tepid and lifeless. But even as conservative ideas began to gain traction at the grass roots level, the right faced a problem on its fringes. At the time, William F. Buckley, the founder and editor of National Reviewmagazine, was the intellectual leader of the right in exile.
It fell to Buckley to deal with the rise of the John Birch Society. The anti-communist group was growing, and its profile and influence posed a challenge to the right. The head of the group was one Robert Welch, who claimed that former president Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy,” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist Party.”
Welch’s “influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild,” Buckley later wrote. The conservative editor regarded Welch’s claims as “paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”
Conservative icon Russell Kirk was even blunter. He thought Welch was “loony and should be put away.”
But the Birchers were a force to be reckoned with and posed a real problem for soon-to-be presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, whose uphill battle against the GOP establishment would be hindered by any lingering associations with the Birchers.
Kirk saw a broader problem for conservatives. By making outlandish claims that Eisenhower had been a secret agent of the communists, Welch “was a great weight on the back of responsible conservative political thinking.”
So the decision was made to take on the Birchers directly. Perhaps only Buckley, with his impeccable conservative, anti-communist credentials, could have gotten away with it.
In February 1962, National Review published a lengthy dissection of Welch’s bizarre theories and concluded, “his distortions disqualified him from effective services as an anti-communist leader.”
“The fact of the matter is [our long analysis concluded] that Mr. Welch, by what Russell Kirk has called ‘an excess of zeal, intemperance and imprudence,’ promotes a split in the conservative movement — by asking for the tacit support of men who cannot in good conscience give it, who, moreover, feel that to give it is to damage our chances of success.
‘Cry wolf often enough,’ Mr. Kirk wrote to Mr. Welch, ‘and everyone takes you for an imbecile or a knave, when after all there are wolves in this world.’ If we are to win the war against communism, we have no less a task before us than to change national policy.
Nothing is clearer than that Mr. Welch is not succeeding in doing anything of the sort. Mr. Welch, for all his good intentions, threatens to divert militant conservative action to irrelevance and ineffectuality.”
The story of Buckley’s excommunication of the Birchers has been resurrected in recent months and misused by critics on the left, who suggest that the GOP should similarly purge the Tea Party. But this misses the point almost altogether. Buckley’s excommunication of the Birchers was not a repudiation of anti-communism, nor was it an attempt to bolster the GOP establishment or make the GOP a less conservative party. (At the time it was Goldwater who was the “anti-establishment gadfly.”)
In fact it was precisely the opposite: Buckley understood that conservatism would never be viable as long as it was associated in the public mind with crackpotism.
Goldwater, who grasped the larger challenge to the movement, took the opportunity to distance himself from Welch. “We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner,” Goldwater wrote.
Ultimately this was not enough to save Goldwater, who later declared: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The line won cheers in the convention hall, but cemented the public’s suspicion that he was embracing or at least flirting with the kind of “extremism” practiced by the Birchers. It was a suspicion enthusiastically fed by much of the political media.
But as Buckley later observed, “The wound we… delivered to the John Birch Society proved fatal over time. Barry Goldwater did not win the presidency, but he clarified the proper place of anti-communism on the right, with bright prospects to follow.”
His point: the purge of the Birchers paved the way for the robust anti-communism of Ronald Reagan.
Shut up about rape
But an obvious question nags. If Buckley had launched his excommunication in the current political environment, would he have been labeled an ACINO (anti-communist in name only)?
There are now far more outlets for the voluble defense of crackpotism and denunciations of their critics. Talk radio — and this pains me to admit it — too often succumbs to the temptation to defend candidates who are in the process of immolating themselves.
This was, unfortunately, illustrated in the Senate races of Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Akin’s bizarre notions about “legitimate rape” provided unnecessary fuel to the left’s claim that the GOP was waging a “war on women.” Mourdock’s comment that pregnancy from rape was “something that God intended” simply made things worse.
Both Akin and Mourdock were widely criticized by other Republicans, but both had enough support to remain in the race and go down to defeat. In 2012, the GOP ended up losing Senate seats in an election in which it was expected to gain several seats and perhaps even take control of the upper chamber.
Two years earlier, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell became a punch line, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle squandered a chance to unseat the eminently beatable Harry Reid. As unfair as much of the criticism was — and much of it was quite unfair — Angle made it easy to characterize her as ridiculous with her position on the fluoridation of water and support for Church of Scientology-run Criminon drug treatment programs.
Then there was Michele Bachmann, who briefly led the pack of GOP presidential contenders until she shared her Internet-gleaned wisdom about the dangers of a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV). Her unsubstantiated claim that the vaccine was linked to mental retardation reinforced the narrative that Republicans were hostile to science.
By and large, Wisconsin conservatives have been free of such temptations and blunders. But earlier this year, we learned that nine members of the Legislature had told a fringe Tea Party group that they supported legislation that would allow police to arrest federal officials who tried to implement Obamacare in Wisconsin.
Reported the Journal Sentinel: “Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) is one of the nine from Wisconsin who told the Campaign for Liberty he would back legislation to declare Obamacare illegal and allow police to arrest federal officials who take steps to implement it in Wisconsin.”
Suffice it to say that his position is, to quote our own Bob Uecker, “juuuust a bit outside....”
Many of the same conservatives also endorsed “legislation that would allow TSA agents to be charged with sexual assault if they use invasive ‘pat-down procedures.’”
That is not, unfortunately a misprint or even a misunderstanding. The legislators also went 19th century by embracing the principle of “nullification,” an idea that has enjoyed pretty much complete obscurity since the Civil War. (The idea, repeatedly rejected by the courts, is that states can nullify federal laws they deem unconstitutional.)
The problem here, of course, is that it is one thing to oppose the implementation of Obamacare state exchanges and quite another thing to begin channeling your inner John C. Calhoun and embrace the rhetoric of the 1830s. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a less effective way to make the case for opposition to an overweening federal government than to adopt positions that fit every caricature of the retrograde right that the left/media could ever imagine. As if this were not bad enough, there was also some buzz about secession, despite the fact that we fought a war over that, which, as you might recall, ended badly for the advocates.
Conservatives need to be aware of the optics. And here, they could hardly have been worse.
Unfortunately for the cause of educational reform, Don Pridemore, who would go on to be the only conservative challenger to incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers in this spring’s election, was one of the nine legislators to embrace the eccentric agenda. Not surprisingly, he lost that election.
My sense is that the vast majority of principled conservatives share the dismay over the parade of bizarre effusions that have sunk so many opportunities, but that many are reluctant to speak out or are cowed by the fear that they will be flamed by the defenders. For example, after I pointed out on Facebook the unwisdom of talking about secession, one commenter flamed back:
“You call yourself a conservative, Charlie Sykes? It’s ‘conservatives’ like yourself who have allowed this country to grow to the extreme sizes that it is and allowed government to run amok. We are just trying to clean up your mess.
“Your brand of conservatism is the crackpotism and extremism.”
So genuine conservatism now means embracing the Confederacy? Whatever.
The road ahead
So what must be done? First we have to define what the problem is and what it is not.
Conservatism does not have a problem of intelligence. Compare any passing remarks of Paul Ryan’s on the country’s fiscal crisis to Nancy Pelosi’s deepest thought; weigh the intellectual heft of Charles Krauthammer against the left’s Ed Schultz on any given day.
Nor is the problem the Tea Party.
The failures of O’Donnell, Angle, et al., need to be juxtaposed with the successes of candidates like Florida’s Marco Rubio, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Utah’s Mike Lee, Texas’ Ted Cruz, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and newly minted senator Tim Scott, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson.
Smart can win. Weird almost always loses.
And that brings us back to crackpotism and the challenge that William F. Buckley faced in
Last year’s flame-outs are a cautionary tale about the high price of zaniness and a reminder that conservatives have a special obligation to be prudent or at least careful in their use of language. As Buckley recognized in deciding to speak out against the fringes, the credibility of the right sometimes depends on the right’s willingness to engage in quality control.
That’s still a good lesson. The right’s critique of social democratic policies is not strengthened by calling Obama a communist or questioning his birth certificate; nor does it help the fight against the regulatory over-reach of the government to indulge in conspiracy theories about black helicopters.
Going forward, the problems are both substantive and tactical.
On substance, conservatives win when they sound like the party of common sense. They lose when they get trapped in their own ideological bubbles. Some of the loudest voices on the right seem to think that only the most strident and consciously offensive formulations should be regarded as “genuine conservatism.”
But conservatives can be anti-elitist without being anti-intellectual or worse, anti-intelligent.
On tactics, conservatives need to know that they won’t win by being reckless. Victory is seldom achieved by impaling oneself on the spears of a superior enemy. In fact, the enemy actually likes it. When your opponent has a larger army and bigger guns and controls the high ground, direct frontal assault is probably not the smartest strategy. Gallipoli and Pickett’s Charge are not, after all, considered models of military brilliance.
This was the burden of Paul Ryan’s speech at the National Review summit over the winter, when he laid out the case for “prudence” in the age of the Obama ascendancy. Ryan told his fellow conservatives they couldn’t allow themselves to get “rattled.”
“We won’t play the villain in his morality plays. If we play into [Obama’s] hands, we will betray the voters who supported us — and the country we mean to serve,” Ryan said. “We can’t let that happen. We have to be smart. We have to show prudence.”
Invoking “prudence,” of course is not without risk for Ryan. It’s is hardly a leg-tingling clarion call to rally the conservative ranks for the fight ahead. Many activists are understandably skeptical of the term, because prudence can easily morph into timidity and even the surrender of principle.
And it is easily mocked: Recall Dana Carvey’s classic spoof of the first President Bush: “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”
So what did Ryan mean?
He defined prudence as “good judgment in the art of governing,” quoting Lincoln who called it “one of the cardinal virtues.”
“We have to find the good in every situation — and choose the best means to achieve it. We have to make decisions anchored in reality — and take responsibility for the consequences.”
Ryan argued that conservatives need to be both intelligent and modest in their goals. They could mitigate the worst of Obamaism and advance good alternatives when possible. But they could not expect to sweep their opponents before them or win historic victories.
The mandate for conservatives then is this: Limit the damage. Isolate the crackpots. Articulate your principles forcefully, but be smart about it. Do no harm. Win when you can, wait when you have to. And no more talk about rape, nullification, birth certificates, Kwanzaa or secession. Ever.
Charles J. Sykes is the editor of Wisconsin Interest. He is the author of seven books and hosts a daily radio show on AM-620 WTMJ in Milwaukee. His new project is RightWisconsin.com, a distribution channel for conservative ideas and discussion.