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Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America.

Michael Lind is the enfant terrible of that famille terrible, the American right. Accordingly, he has been much denounced by its standard-bearers for having the bad taste to point out that the archdeacons of morality are, in fact, nudists. His new polemic will bring conniptions to his former colleagues at National Review, the Heritage Foundation, and The National Interest, often for good reasons, but it's not totally successful despite its worthy purpose.

Lind offers a political analysis of the ascent of conservatism and a critique of some of its most stirring ideas, basted together with enough personal testimony to warrant that he was right to exit. The more substantial portions of Up From Conservatism are argumentative. Lind's first task is to demonstrate that so-called conservatism is riding high politically by default, because there is a missing position in American politics. If we map economic and social views from liberal to conservative along two axes, there should be four possible positions. Combine social and economic liberalism and you get left-liberalism, which is mired in identity politics and offers next to nothing for the white working class. Combine social liberalism and economic conservatism and you get the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton. Combine economic and social conservatism and you get the conservatism that reigns in the Republican Party. Combine economic liberalism and social conservatism and you get--next to nothing: no vigorous movement or institution, no force in the existing parties. Lind calls this missing position "national liberalism," identifying it with the New Deal, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson, and basing it on the (largely white) working class. Absent a progressive nationalist alternative, he says, conservatives have cornered the political debate.

But how lower-case liberalism collapsed in the United States is a more tangled story than Lind adequately explains. The fault, as he finds it, is in the "overclass," his popularization of Gunnar Myrdal's catchy coinage referring to the managerial and professional types who control both major parties and all other institutions of substance. The grip of the overclass--and not globalization or technological change--explains why the obscene inequality prevailing in America is uncontested. However socially liberal, the overclass doesn't wish to tax itself. "Left-liberalism, neoliberalism, and conservatism are all compatible, in one way or another, with either the social views or the economic interests of the overclass," Lind writes. "But national liberalism, with its mixture of social conservatism and economic liberalism, represents a direct threat to overclass social views (which tend to be liberal) and overclass economic interests (which are promoted by neoliberal and conservative policies)."

There's something to this, but how much? The overclass is looser and baggier than he suggests, and not quite as monstrous. Who knows how many in its ranks could be mobilized toward principled liberalism if political leaders set out to do so? There's a bit of the populist simple-mindedness here that Lind elsewhere deplores for having wrecked national liberalism.

In the second part of his book, Lind makes a compelling case that much of what passes for conservative thought is worthless. The right owes its policy-influencing clout not so much to impressive research or crystalline reasoning as to the deep pockets of its sponsors--The Wall Street Journal and the foundation/think tank complex of the John M. Olin Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, all of which have invested mightily in the careers of such sloppy writers as Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza, with many happy returns. For some 15 years of what passes for political discourse in America, they have bought their way to the top of the agenda.

Lind indicts the intellectual right for trafficking in fraud, whether supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve in the 1980s, or school vouchers in the 1990s. His critique is trenchant and largely deserved. Such gatekeepers of the right as Irving Kristol and Robert Bartley blithely promote their flat-earth ideas with breathtaking intellectual dishonesty, and no amount of tu quoque can smear it away. For example, in Losing Ground, Charles Murray declared that welfare corrupts the (disproportionately black) poor, only to follow this best-selling success with a book arguing that the fault lay in their nature, not their nurture at all. But who, besides Joe Conason in The New York Observer, paused to notice the incompatibility?

Lind also notes the contribution of his recent employer, The New Republic, to sloppy thinking with its publication of Elizabeth McCaughey's trash-job on the Clinton health plan. The same periodical flashed the go-signal that The Bell Curve was worthy of serious consideration by treating it to a cover story. The heirs of Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann were proposing that we debate the genes of blacks rather than the causes of deindustrialization.

Crackpot thinking with an apocalyptic edge--"populist," in Lind's term--looms large on the right. "We should not be surprised that the grandchildren of free-silverites should become enamored of supply-side economics in the 1980s and the flat tax in the 1990s, nor that they should be easily persuaded that American life would be much better if only public education and federal welfare were utterly annihilated," he writes. In the realm of decline and fall, there is no more lurid tub-thumper than the Reverend Pat Robertson, who, in The New World Order, as Lind revealed, had cribbed from anti-Semitic wackos the argument that a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy has been rigging the course of American history for two centuries. If this wasn't bad enough, what did conservative respectables do when Lind told us what was in Robertson's pages? They clucked, they hemmed and hawed, and "moved on" to put the "problem" proverbially behind them. If left-wing extremists enjoyed exposure comparable to Robertson's at any museum, university, or newspaper you could name, right-wing intellectuals would be denouncing them as "thought police" and their fellow travelers as hypocrites and cowards.

Lind recounts that he broke with his long-time patron William F. Buckley Jr., and the rest of the conservative movement, after watching him partner up with Robertson on a "Firing Line" debate. The neoconservatives caved in to the far right, and they did it, Lind says, for votes. They have gone where their reliable cadres are--the South and the Christian Coalition--though conservatives may be risking their 1994 conquest in the process.

The curious thing about Lind's book, however, is how little credence it gives to conservative impulses in the American populace itself. At one point, he treats the culture war as a stratagem, be Lee Atwater via Richard Nixon; at another, he treats it as a consequence of the Southern ascendancy in American politics. In Lind's view, in other words, conservatism, or something that calls itself by that name, has prevailed from on high and down South.

He is dead right to call attention to "the southernization of the nation" and of the Republican Party in particular, with Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Trent Lott of Mississippi leading the two houses of Congress, not to mention Bill Clinton of Arkansas as president and Al Gore of Tennessee as vice president. Otherwise, however, Lind's account of American politics is largely devoid of Americans--especially the Americans he rightly considers abandoned by politics.

Finally, Up From Conservatism is partly a memoirist's account of how and when the scales fell from his eyes: how, for example, Lind realized that Buckley was willing to play ball with Robertson after Lind had exposed Robertson's book as a heap of recycled conspiracy theories. But the brief narrative segments are not very thorough and not well-integrated with the major argumentative portions. It seems that Lind thought he owed his readers an account of how he discarded his illusions, but his rendering cursory. And the melodrama of these accounts verges on propaganda. The young man on the fast track is given to fast tracts. He repeats himself, and there are too many slogans. He is given to blunt statement, frequently overstatement: "American conservatism is dead"; "Today the right is defined by Robertson, Buchanan, and the militia movement." The book at times turns into a sequence of shouts from a man who knows exactly what he thinks, rather than a reasoned consideration of alternative explanations.

In the end, however, Lind performs a great service with his expose, and his anger is largely warranted. That the right has achieved such undeserved intellectual respectability is a scandal. Lind is a welcome whistle-blower. And in the process, he helps his readers understand how little genuine conservatism--how little concern for the preservation of a moral way of life--there is in America.
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Author:Gitlin, Todd
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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