George Will reviews Rick Perlstein's new book Nixonland in this Sunday's NY Times. In that review, he lumps Perlstein in with Richard Hofstadter, and says that both give the ideas that animated the conservative movement in the US “short shrift”:
Nixon “co-opted the liberals’ populism, channeling it into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticates, the well-born, the ‘best circles.’” By stressing the importance of Nixon’s character in shaping events, and the centrality of resentments in shaping Nixon’s character, Perlstein treads a dead-end path blazed by Hofstadter, who seemed not to understand that condescension is not an argument. Postulating a link between “status anxiety” and a “paranoid style” in American politics — especially conservative politics — Hofstadter dismissed the conservative movement’s positions as mere attitudes that did not merit refutation. Perlstein, too, gives these ideas short shrift.
I haven't read Nixonland yet (though I certainly plan to - Perlstein's book about Barry Goldwater, Before the Storm, was a brilliant chronicle of the conservative insurgency in the Republican party), but the critique in the review is seriously flawed on its face. Will goes on from the passage above to describe a series of liberal failings that made numbers of Americans angry with “elitist” liberal attitudes, which puts a rather large dent in is argument that they didn't matter so much. Then, after this dissertation, Will says:
Having cast the Nixon story as a psychodrama, Perlstein has no need to engage the ideas that were crucial to conservatism’s remarkably idea-driven ascendancy, ideas like the perils of identity politics and the justice of market allocations of wealth and opportunity.
That's very tidy, but aside from being damaged by what precedes it, it ignores the reality that we have now had over 40 years during which conservative tropes have dominated the political discourse (even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton's relatively liberal interludes were dominated by a DLC style of Democratic politics that would have made old guard Republican liberals blanche at its conservatism). In that time, we have had a pretty good chance to give the animating ideas of conservative thought a pretty thorough test drive, and they have been found wanting on a variety of levels.
Taking just the two that Will uses as examples, campaigning on “the perils of identity politics” proved to be a cover for much worse identity politics than those the conservatives warned us about. They have sliced and diced the American electorate for years, making every effort to separate us from one another with “culture wars” over issues that have trivial consequences in people's lives. This strategy has been highly effective, in no small part because it has been accompanied by persistent warnings about the perils of identity politics, warnings that have frozen Democratic operatives in their tracks while their coalition was being dismantled piece by piece.
The same separation between lofty sounding rhetoric and far less lofty practice is true for the second of Will’s examples. “The justice of market allocations of wealth and opportunity” has resulted, over the last few years, in a dramatically widened gap between wealthy Americans and the rest of the population, a gap that has now reached proportions we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age at the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time, those seeking that “justice” have presided over the disintegration of the mixed economy that made the US the most broadly prosperous country in the world for much of that century. They have privatized individual risk while socializing corporate risk, and coddled industrial migrations to other countries while telling American workers they’re on their own.
These two examples integrate with one another in an interesting way that hasn’t gotten anywhere near the amount of play it should in the national debate. Every time the Democrats point out the growing income and wealth inequalities in our country, they are accused of fomenting “class warfare”. The accusation is ridiculous on its face, but it gets accepted regularly, both by those in the media with a fetish for finding “balance” in any issue and by altogether too many Democrats themselves. Accepting such accusations as valid is tantamount to allowing Republicans to wage class warfare unilaterally, and they have been doing so very successfully, as the results establish with no question.
The intellectual underpinnings of conservatism have hardly gotten “short shrift” over the last 40 years. They have been driving our politics for the majority of that time, to the point where those in Washington on both sides of the aisle have been way behind the American people in recognizing that they aren’t working. Conservatives have managed to distract the electorate for years with the identity politics that Will warns us about again, but George Bush and his administration have been so doctrinaire, so extreme, so incompetent, and so corrupt that he has indeed become “a uniter, not a divider”. He has had a free hand to implement the conservative agenda, and has wrecked almost everything he has touched by exercising it.
I’d say (and I think I have a lot of company in saying) that the “shrift” those conservative intellectual principles have gotten has been entirely too long.