The Deep Roots of Conservative Victimhood
Last week, Newt Gingrich reinvigorated his presidential campaign with a fiery appeal to conservative victimhood. Questions about his past infidelities, Gingrich explained, reflected the liberal media’s efforts to destroy the conservative movement. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he thundered. Cue the multiple standing ovations from the rapt audience of South Carolina conservatives. Never mind the fact that Gingrich had helped build his career by denouncing Bill Clinton’s commitment to “family values” while he himself engaged in extra-marital affairs. For those in this audience, all that mattered was that they had found a politician willing to voice their grievances against the all-powerful liberal establishment.
The right-wing populism that Gingrich so effectively marshaled at last week’s debate is often contrasted with a more reasonable brand of conservative thinking that supposedly flourished in a past golden age. In this declension narrative, touted by Mark Lilla in his controversial review of Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, a sophisticated conservative intellectual tradition has recently descended into the swamplands of populist demagoguery. As Lilla explains, “Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites.”
The problem with this view, as others have pointed out, is that American conservatives have been bashing the “liberal elite” now for going on six decades. It’s part of their DNA. William Buckley Jr., the most influential intellectual in the postwar conservative movement, might have rejected the conspiracy theorists at the John Birch Society, but he also supported massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a book defending Senator McCarthy, and praised the fascist government in Franco’s Spain. While he could be witty and charming, Buckley was also merciless in attacking a liberal elite that he believed had come to dominate (and enervate) American society since the New Deal.
In fact, Buckley launched his career in 1951 with a book that claims liberals had used “academic freedom” as a tool to monopolize higher education and suppress conservative thought. During a period in which over 100 professors lost their jobs because of the Second Red Scare, Buckley asserts that conservatives were academia’s true victims. In God and Man at Yale he also calls for the elimination of peer review and tenure in favor of a system that would allow those who pay for colleges and universities—typically parents and alumni—to determine their ideological content: “For in the last analysis, academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.” Universities needed to be run by the people who paid for them, not a band of unaccountable academics. It’s hard to imagine a critique more populist in character.
To be fair, right-wing appeals to populism explain why conservative intellectuals helped inspire a mass movement rather than a club for disenchanted, antediluvian curmudgeons. Still it’s worth remembering that intellectuals such as Buckley gained fame and notoriety by providing learned support for causes such as McCarthyism, Massive Resistance, and the firing of liberal faculty at Ivy League Universities. They provide a blueprint for today’s Newt Gingrichs, not an antidote.