The Right’s Class War

Illustration by André Carrilho

For a man who has just been, in his eyes, excommunicated from both a magazine and a movement founded by his father half a century ago, Chris Buckley, son of the sainted William F., is doing a creditable job of keeping his upper lip stiff. “I’m still sort of getting my apostate act down,” Buckley says with a chuckle when I phone him a few days after the unpleasantness unfolded. “I’m reading Apostasy for Dummies.” The apostasy in question is, of course, his endorsement of Barack Obama, which provoked such a torrent of outrage and abuse from the right that Buckley felt it only proper to offer to quit his column at National Review—an offer that was taken up, to his great surprise, “rather briskly,” as he puts it. “I guess it shows, be careful to whom you tender your resignation, because they just might accept it!”

Buckley’s good humor does nothing to conceal his melancholy and bewilderment at this turn of events. “I was really quite amazed by the reaction, and I think it shows just how bloody calcified the political discourse has become, and tribalist, and snarling,” he tells me. “I want to say that it’s a tempest in a teapot, but there seems to be something going on here, and maybe this has accidentally tapped into it.”

If the Buckley affair were an isolated incident, such talk would be easy to dismiss as self-flattery—but it isn’t. With the prospect of defeat for John McCain growing more likely every day, the GOP destined to see its numbers reduced in both the House and Senate, and the Republican brand debased to the point of bankruptcy, the conservative intelligentsia is factionalized and feuding, criminating and recriminating, in a way that few of its members can recall in their political lifetimes. Populists attack Establishmentarians. Neocons assail theocons. And virtually everyone has something harsh to say about the party’s standard-bearer. Election Day may still be two weeks away, but already the idea-merchants of the right have formed a circular firing squad.

When the weapons of choice shift from pistols to Uzis after November 4, the ensuing massacre will be for Democrats a source of political opportunity, not to mention endless entertainment. But for Republicans it will be a necessary passage toward either the revival or reinvention of conservatism. Nobody serious on the right doubts that the overhaul is at once required and bound to be arduous—but it may take longer and prove even bloodier than anyone now imagines.

To get a sense of the struggle ahead, a good place to start is with Sarah Palin, who has been the flashpoint for the most severe intra-conservative contretemps so far. In the weeks since her selection as McCain’s running mate, a startling assortment of name-brand pundits on the right—Kathleen Parker, George Will, David Frum, David Brooks—have pronounced themselves displeased with the pick. Brooks went so far as to declaim that Palin “represents a fatal cancer to the Republican Party.” Buckley, for his part, tells me that McCain’s vice-presidential choice was roughly 60 percent of the reason that he decided to endorse Obama. “I will readily confess that I was one of many who swooned the day after the announcement,” he says. “But it’s kind of like dating a supermodel. There comes a moment, unfortunately, where they start talking.”

Yet Palin retains the fierce loyalty of a cadre of more populist, grassrootsy voices in the right-wing punditocracy who have denounced the main-line-conservative criticisms of Palin as the snooty, disloyal, and craven attempts of faux Republicans to curry favor with the ascendant liberal elite. “They … believe as intellectuals,” writes one pro-Palin opinionator, Victor Davis Hanson, “that the similarly astute Obamians may on occasion inspire, or admire them as the like-minded who cultivate the life of the mind—in contrast to the ‘cancer’ Sarah Palin, who, with her husband Todd, could hardly discuss Proust with them or could offer little if any sophisticated table talk other than the proper chokes on shotguns or optimum RPMs on snow-machines.”

Not surprisingly, Sarracuda’s foes on the right dismiss the counter-backlash more or less out of hand. When I ask Frum about the apparent class overtones of the anti-anti-Palin argument, he deems it a mere “rhetorical trope.” What he hears instead is the sound of defeatism. “The people who defend her have already given up any serious thought of Republicans’ wielding governmental power anytime soon,” Frum says. “They have already moved to a position of pure cultural symbolic opposition to a new majority. The people who criticize her do so because we have some hope that we could be in contention in 2012, and there’s some risk that she could be the party’s nominee, and she’d probably lose—and even if by some miracle she won, she’d be a terrible president.”

Brooks, meanwhile, detects a “more visceral” impulse at work. “There are some folks who live by the culture war and die by the culture war,” he tells me. “And if a bunch of East Coast snobs hate Palin, they should like Palin.” But Brooks, like Frum, sees the internecine fight over McCain’s No. 2 as reflecting a deeper set of ideological fissures in the party. “Basically, the people who are down on Palin and the campaign McCain is running think that it’s time to move beyond Reagan and that we’ve got to go off and do something new,” he explains. “A lot of the people who are defending the campaign and Palin think that we got out of touch with Goldwater and Reagan and we’ve gotta get back to that.”

More than any other Republican doctrinal division—between economic and social conservatives, say, or supply-siders and budget-balancers—the split Brooks describes is fundamental to the future of the GOP and the movement that animates it. The debate has been growing more public (and heated) for some time, especially as the functional definition of conservatism was muddied by George W. Bush. And it accelerated with the nomination of McCain, the most heterodox and idiosyncratic presidential nominee the party has boasted in many moons. But its pointedness, urgency, and decibel level are all sure to spike in the wake of a McCain defeat, especially if the GOP base in Congress is decimated, leaving the party with little more than rump status.

“One thing that will certainly happen is a fundamentalist response,” says Frum. “ ‘If only we had been more consistently conservative, none of this would have happened; there’s still a conservative voting majority out there, and Bush alienated them with his too-centrist policies and various deviations from conservative orthodoxy; McCain was obviously unacceptable; and if the voters turned down ham and eggs, it’s because they wanted double ham and double eggs.’ That will be one view. How fast, how dramatically, and what form the alternative will take—that, no, we have a deeper problem—I can’t predict. But it will come.”

There are, in fact, any number of post-Reagan visions floating around among the eggheads of the GOP. Newt Gingrich has been contending for some time that the party needs to abandon its posture as resolutely anti-government; that it needs to adopt a “pro–good government” stance of managerial competence. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, in their recent book Grand New Party, made a case for a blend of social conservatism and populist economics to appeal to what they call “Sam’s Club voters.” And Brooks cites British Tory party leader David Cameron’s focus on civil society, twinned with an acceptance of a larger state so long as it is fully paid for, as offering a promising example. “Supply-siders blew up the old green-eyeshade Republicanism,” he adds, “but I think that in the minority that’s a natural argument for the party to make.”

The problem, as Brooks is well aware, is that the GOP’s traditionalists will not let go of the ghost of Reagan readily, if at all. Though the conservative movement has lost much of its all-in-this-together coherence in recent years, there remains “a lot of groupthink,” as Brooks sees it. “So that if you’re Chris Buckley, you’re seen as a betrayer, and if that mentality sticks around, things will get quite vicious—because that’s sort of pseudo-Stalinism.”

All of which makes it likely that the race for the GOP nomination in 2012 could be an ugly, fratricidal affair. Frum is not alone is fearing that Palin—who, for all her obvious defects, must be the Republican at this moment with the largest, most ardent fan base in the party—will emerge as one of the front-runners the next time around. The former Reagan economic adviser Bruce Bartlett predicts, indeed, that the Republican primaries will turn into a Palin/Gingrich steel-cage death match (from his lips to God’s ears, I say).

But history suggests that the rebuilding of the party, whether that means a rejuvenation of conservatism or its root-and-branch reformation, will take much longer than a single election cycle. Frum points out that it took the Democrats twelve years after the epochal 1980 election to make a substantial break with the party’s past. “And I think there were probably more people in the Democratic Party in 1980 who were willing to rethink the New Deal than there are Republicans in 2008 who are ready to rethink our party’s first principles,” he says. “So I think it’s going to be a very long, very difficult conversation.”

Few people understand better than Buckley just what that might mean. “My dad kicked off conservatism in 1955, Goldwater ran in 1964, and then Reagan was elected sixteen years after that,” he notes. “So the Republicans could be looking pretty good around, oh, 2032!”

You might think that Buckley is kidding here, but you would be wrong. Conservatism, he thinks, is facing nothing less than an existential crisis. The events of recent days may have given him less of a stake in the outcome than before, but still he offers a friendly word of advice for those who care to listen. “The smart ones in the movement should get together right after the election at the Greenbrier or the Homestead, you know, where they typically have these kinds of get-togethers, and have a long dark night of the soul,” he says. “And I’ll tell you what the conference should be called: Conservatism—What the Fuck?”


The Right’s Class War