April 14th, 2021


No longer a movement, the Right owns the intellectual landscape

Bob Tyrrell

By Bob Tyrrell

Published Jan. 29, 2015

There is a problem with the Internet. Its commentary is too often dominated by pinheads. H.L. Mencken used to complain that only idiots write letters to the editor. That might have been true of his day — the 1920s and 1930s — but in our time writers of letters to the editor of newspapers and even of websites are occasionally quite well-informed and even lucid. But others, I am afraid, are indeed pinheads, sitting in their underwear back home, foaming at the mouth, believing that the whole world is profoundly interested in their every word, until the authorities arrive at their homes to take them away.

Friends have informed me that this is the case with those crybabies who protest that conservative columnists are insufficiently conservative, weak-kneed and fatuous. In the correspondence pages of newspapers and websites they bawl for some extravagant idea about immigration, the Common Core or some other harebrained notion that they in their delusion of grandeur believe is the true conservative position on this or that. A friend suggests that I should remind these fantasticoes of "how far conservatives have come from the early 1950s when the leading exponents of conservatism could all fit quite comfortably into the corner telephone booth of a major city."

That was the expression that was used. Conservatives were so rare that they could be fitted into a very small place. Yet from the 1950s on, intellectual giants such as the economist Milton Friedman, the gentleman of letters Russell Kirk, and the multifaceted prestidigitator of ideas, William F. Buckley Jr., endeavored to gather up more and more conservatives and neoconservatives until the whole mob of them led by Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidential election and thus history metamorphosed. Today, conservatism constitutes the warp and woof of the Republican Party. All that is in doubt is what mix of conservative principles will reside in the White House in 2017. Conservatives already control both house of Congress and the vast majority of state governments.

In fact, one gifted disciple of Bill Buckley, Dan Oliver, writing in the pages of The American Spectator, has observed, "Today, there are so many active conservative intellectuals around, you could squeeze them into all the phone booths in America." He goes on to say, "The 'Conservative Movement' is also over. Conservatives won. Conservatism is now a national intellectual and political force. To speak of conservatism today as a 'movement' belittles it ." I think he is right. Conservatism has blossomed into the major intellectual and political force of our time.

Naturally among conservatives there are those who will stress one policy over another, and one value over another. Yet it is wrong to consider Rand Paul not a conservative because he is critical of national defense surveillance, incarceration of white-collar criminals or of users of proscribed marijuana; or to consider a hawkish foreign policy as not conservative; or to urge that our borders be strengthened and strict immigration laws enforced. All these policies along with others being touted by Republicans — and even some Democrats — are conservative. Just as all the policies and values of President Obama are left-wing and passe.

So I for one shall take Mr. Oliver seriously. Conservatism as a movement is dead, but as a national force it is alive and thriving. It will embrace differences of opinion, but ever since its earliest days, back in the phone booth, it was diverse. The Friedmanites disagreed with the Kirkians, but through the years conservatism grew and it is still growing — probably because all agreed on the importance of personal liberty and opposed the indignity of statism. As for the pinheads who howl to the editors of the land, I say let them howl. They probably are too preoccupied to vote.

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R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator, a political and cultural monthly, which has been published since 1967. He's also the author of several books.