Conservatism at Wits' End

In 1992, in the Bushy twilight of the Reagan era, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. published The Conservative Crack-Up. Now, in the twilight of the Republican Congress (which has lasted so much longer than its noontide), this rather gloomy book is as topical as ever.

All of us who look to the conservative movement as a corrective to the madness of the twentieth century will be interested in the "inside story" on that movement's later stages, by one of its major luminaries of the past generation; and it will be rewarding, if not comforting. All of us who read and enjoyed Mr. Tyrrell's earlier books would look forward to this one on the basis of that experience; unfortunately, it will be disappointing.

The wit, the vigor, the mordantly incisive clarity of Public Nuisances and The Liberal Crack-Up are all gone. Turning from the fight against the Left to examine his fellow conservatives has apparently taken all the spirit out of him. This leaves a rambling, turgid book that is itself a sad example of its own topic.

Despite its title, only the last few chapters actually deal with "the conservative crack-up" as such: the rest is an impressionistic political memoir, ranging from the creation of Mr. Tyrrell's American Spectator in response to the destructive antics of the New Left, through the rise of the conservative movement to power in 1980, to a long and fervent defense of the Reagan Administration. The main theme running through this account, and into his diagnosis of conservatism's present ills, is the recurrent influx of ex-liberals into the conservative movement. He prides himself on his part in winning over the "neoconservatives," and spends an inordinate number of pages on the passing fad of "neoliberalism."

Conservatism has cracked up because its political victories were not accompanied by intellectual victories. The Left continues, almost undisturbed, to occupy every single center of cultural life in this country (the mass media, the universities and public schools, the mainstream churches, etc.), and from these centers they pour out what Mr. Tyrrell calls the "Kultursmog," the incessant, omnipresent propagation of their party line. They have managed to create, in a free country, the conditions of totalitarianism -- not by coercion from above, but by subversion from within. Because this Gleichschaltung is not backed up (yet) by a Gestapo and concentration camps, their power is not complete: but it is comprehensive. Far from challenging the Left's ideological hegemony, conservatism has not even held its own ground.

Mr. Tyrrell believes, all too plausibly, that this mismatch is due to the very nature of the conservative temperament. Preferring the private realm to the public, conservatives are ill-suited for standing up and moving out into the political arena. Wanting only to be left alone, they are ill-suited to ramming ideological projects down their compatriots' throats. Being grounded in habit and custom, they are ill-suited to expressing their often inarticulate beliefs. This is where, in his view, the ex-liberals come in: They bring their background of ideological activism over to the Right, infusing it with new vigor.

The problem with this theory is its implicit confession that conservatism, left to itself, is hopeless. Given that last point about the conservative temperament, this may very well be true. One cannot win a war of ideas, any more than any other war, if one disarms oneself at the outset. Bad ideas can only be fought with better ones -- or at least different ones. And ideas can be handled only by those who take them seriously -- as conservatives, by and large, do not.

Even Mr. Tyrrell, as he bemoans conservatism's intellectual deficiencies, implicitly regards "ideas" as if they were tools, to be used for a certain purpose; or as a kind of clothing that can be adjusted to fit, or changed with the fashions. Indeed, this ex-athlete -- who sneers at "eggheads," seeks intellectual distinction by rummaging through the fattest dictionary he could find for words like "obnubilate" and "agelastic," and blandly refers to one of the most important Christian conservative literary figures of the 20th century as "someone by the name of Tolkien" -- rather gives one pause. Here is a conservative intellectual giving substance to the image of America as the land of the Philistines and the home of the Babbitts, where (as he quotes John Steinbeck) literacy is "prima facie evidence of treason."

When Whittaker Chambers turned renegade from Communism, he insisted on calling himself a "man of the Right," never a "conservative." His point was that a revolutionary age calls for counter-revolutionaries, and conservatives are not really suited to answer the call. I am afraid that he was right, and that he was also right in thinking that he left the winning side for the losing side.

2000 by Karl Jahn

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