When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

17 January 2009

He wasn’t a model populist *because* liberal intellectuals disdained him

From the beginning of [William F. Buckley's] career, he seemed to grasp that any successful right-of-center politics in America would be populist, or it wouldn’t be at all. In post-New Deal America, with the welfare state firmly entrenched and the governing class squarely in the statist corner, conservatism’s obvious constituency was middle-class and put-upon, and its obvious purpose was to defend its constituents’ folkways and pocketbooks against sophisticates and social engineers. The establishment was solidly liberal, so the right needed to be anti-establishment; the alternative was the sidelines, or the fever swamps. The previous generation of conservative thinkers had chosen alienation, resentment, paranoia. Buckley chose populism — and with it, relevance.

The results could be ugly, especially in the movement’s early going: the vocal support for McCarthy, the National Review editorials expressing sympathy for segregationists. But they didn’t have to be. This is the principle [sic] lesson of the Buckley-Reagan relationship, as it played out across three decades — that populism doesn’t have to be stupid or bigoted, and intellectuals who wed themselves to populist figures don’t have to look like fools in the process. The two tempers can coexist and profit from their points of tension. Intellectualism can stand up to populism when necessary, as Buckley did in his late-’70s debate with Reagan over the Panama Canal, in which the Gipper came equipped with the Fox News-ready slogan “we bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours.” And populism can intuit its way to conclusions that intellectuals may not reach — as Reagan did, to Buckley’s initial dismay, in his second-term negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.

In this sense, the modern right’s current bout of Reagan nostalgia isn’t misplaced. It’s just that conservatives seem confused about what they should be nostalgic for. Reagan was a model populist because he was a smart populist, and because the liberals who disdained him looked like fools in the end. But he wasn’t a model populist because liberal intellectuals disdained him, which is what apologists for Bush’s apparent incuriosity or Palin’s tongue-tied interviews have sometimes tried to claim.
Essay - When Buckley met Reagan - Ross Douthat writing at the New York Times

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