Palin, the Base, and the Northeast Corridor Conservatives
The selection of Sarah Palin as Republican vice-presidential candidate has revealed a serious chasm in conservatism, a chasm separating conservative elites – opinion leaders, pundits, spokesmen -- from the vast population of center-right Americans they purport to represent.
If this is the choice of the conservative base, one said “Then we need a new base.” (We’ll leave names out of this for the moment, lest this deteriorate into an “I never liked him anyway” discussion. The problem is systemic, and not limited to a few individuals.) “It’s over,” another insisted of Palin’s candidacy (the later “explanation” for this remark was, shall we say, less than convincing.) The same writer compared Sarah Palin to none other than Dan Quayle, a comparison few would agree with. Other writers picked away at minor shortcomings, shaking their heads over “lack of experience” (this about a politician with more executive experience than the other three candidates combined), and predicting the selection would act as a gift to the Obama campaign. This in the light of one of the most supernovic entries onto the national stage by any politician of the modern era.
Two points are immediately evident: this rhetoric echoed precisely what the liberal media was saying -- and at the same time was diametrically opposed to what the rest of the country had to say.
This is far from the first time such a dichotomy has arisen. Just prior to the surge in Iraq, a number of well-known conservative writers were slickly moving toward the consensus view of the war as an irrecoverable disaster. (Several went so far as to express agreement with the take of the legacy media, which had been consistently undercutting the war effort since before it even began.) There have been no lack of sly attempts to “triangulate” George W. Bush, in apparent preparation for later cries of “I told you so” when the President at last failed. Since Bush has in truth failed at very little, all this maneuvering represents a sad waste of time and energy.
But the Palin response is more shameless than any of these previous examples. It undermined a campaign in progress, it called into question the judgment of the acknowledged Republican leader, and far worse, it occurred during one of the most vicious ideological attacks mounted against any politician in recent memory. Sarah Palin and her family were and remain targeted by leftist interests with the simple goal of destruction. Most of the country has registered serious disapproval. Only three groups have demurred: leftist ideologues, the media, and a certain group of conservatives.
Clearly, a small but influential number of conservatives -- almost exclusively from the New York-Washington axis which we will term the “Northeast Corridor” -- could not comprehend Sarah Palin or what she represents, any more than the liberal-left could. In fact, the liberals can be said to have had a superior grasp of Palin’s impact. They, at least, saw her as a threat.
Northeast Corridor conservatism embodies an elite. It has been an elite since conservatism was first detectable as a distinct strain in the American political landscape. And like most elites, it has slowly become alienated from the people as a whole, to such an extent that it no longer clearly represents their interests. Whenever this occurs, there is eventually (if no attempt at regeneration is made) a swift and transformative upheaval which brings into being a new status quo. It never, to my knowledge, involves getting “a new base”. It almost always involves isolating and negating the old elite, and usually replacing it with a new one drawn from the previous base. In the realm of politics, this process goes under the name of “revolution”. In other fields, it is usually more low-key, though not any less complete.
How did conservatism reach this pass? It didn’t start out this way. However elitist it may have been, conservatism throughout U.S. history has always maintained a firm connection to the common life. American conservatism is the conservatism of the Constitution (a fact lost to leftists, in their eagerness to link the doctrine to fascism, royalism, and reaction in any form), and all that it represents. As such, it possessed a direct line to the heartspring of American political life, much more so than any variety of leftism, which embrace an essentially European sensibility. As long as this connection remained intact, very little could go wrong with the conservative impulse.
With the 20th century things began to drift. The apparent triumph of the leftist ideologies in the wake of the Depression left many conservatives with little choice but to retreat. Albert Jay Nock defined this rump conservatism as the “remnant”, a concept derived from the book of Isaiah. While the masses whored after strange gods, a “saving remnant” would preserve core beliefs for a better day. This became the operative philosophy of a large segment of American conservatism -- retreat from the new and coarse polity, treasure and protect the old verities, and then return them to the people after the corrupt consensus collapsed. (I’ve often wondered how this would have worked out in practice. I could never rid my mind of the picture of groups of Young Republicans in button-downs and khakis showing up at road warrior encampments outside the ruined cities to hand out copies of “Road to Serfdom” and “Up from Liberalism”.)
Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers were the chief public exponents of remnant conservatism, abiding in rural retreats, communicating with small numbers of acolytes, living in what for all practical purposes were alternate universes. Within twenty years all this was thrust aside by the newly invigorated, confrontational conservatism of William F. Buckley. But it still retained (and does to this day) an enormous influence. (...and I’m well aware that Chambers accepted and participated in Buckley’s revolution, which does not change the argument one iota. Without Buckley, Chambers would have been satisfied to remain on his Maryland farm until the commissars showed up to root him out.)
With conservatism isolated from the American conversation, its picture of the country grew distorted, its proscriptions strange. Concentrating on the most negative aspects of American life and insisting on the most dire interpretations, the remnant conservatives painted a picture of an America that didn’t exist, far gone into political and social decadence and tottering simultaneously on the edge of any number of abysses.
But the country kept on meandering along regardless, never quite reaching the point of collapse predicted by the remnant thinkers, and ending a Depression, winning a world war, and standing firm against an aggressive communist ideology at the same time. When a reinvigorated conservatism began retaking the political sphere beginning in the 60s, the remnant school became moot, although its ideas continued exerting pressure in conservative circles.
Chief among these concepts was a deep contempt for American culture in all its aspects, along with those who enjoyed it, which meant the American people as a whole. Instead, the remnant conservatives, and to a large extent most urban conservatives thereafter, remained enamored of the view that European culture was in all ways superior.
This created a distinct paradox, obvious to any objective onlooker. Namely, that the infinitely superior American political culture, based on Constitutional principles, created cultural products that could not compare with those of reactionary, fascistic, bloodyminded Europe. (It need only be mentioned that this attitude matched that of contemporary liberalism in all given particulars.)
This school of thought may have reached its peak in Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” which, while perfectly correct concerning many points -- political correctness and the degradation of campus life -- also contained much that was obnoxious: the Plato fixation, and a seething contempt for American culture that went far beyond criticism in into hyperbolic loathing. (e.g., the comparison of rock music listeners to junkies. As a musician competent in all modern styles, including rock, blues, jazz, and country -- along with classical, Celtic, and even a little Arabic -- I think I have the standing to dispute this. It’s all notes and intervals, is my contention, and it’s all good.)
This kind of thing could be called conservative -- if a return to the attitudes of the late 19th century, a Henry James world in which the educated and well-to-do turn their backs on a vulgar America and go trotting off to Europe -- was all anyone was looking for. (James himself, remember, became a British citizen in his old age.) But of course, the problem is that it is no longer the 19th century, and most of what these people admired in Europe was in fact long dead.
While the Northeast Corridor conservatives were avidly converting conservatism into a coterie, complete with gatekeepers, a private language, in-group behavior codes, and a uniform (blazers and khaki for the males, and for the women... well, let’s move on) American conservatism was changing beneath their feet. Neoconservatives and libertarians broadened both the content and appeal of conservatism, while the Religious Right brought in a powerful and cohesive voting bloc. None of these groups challenged the predominance of the Northeastern conservatives, content to play a useful role in the emerging conservative coalition. But none of them were given a particularly warm welcome either.
At the same time, and perhaps with even more consequence, the center of political conservatism was moving ever west. Through such figures as Goldwater and Reagan, the American West was transformed into the vital center of the conservative impulse. Though the primacy of the East Coast conservatives remained, the status quo could not last. As conservatism absorbed heartland influences, it began changing to a more individualistic, more libertarian, more religious, and more American form. Almost unacknowledged, the division between American western conservatism and the European-influenced northeastern variety became deeper and wider with every year.
And at last (as was inevitable) a candidate appeared who embodied that division, a candidate with no connection to coterie conservatism, a candidate wholly of heartland America, a candidate who was as much a challenge to traditional conservatives as she was to the left.
And so isolated had the Northeast Corridor conservatives become, so deeply embedded in their Jamesian parallel universe (which can best be pictured as kind of a conservative version of the old Steinberg New Yorker cover, with E.35th St. and Allen Jay Lerner’s townhouse looming as the center of the earth while, off on the horizon, we see a dot labeled, “Nascar races”), that they couldn’t recognize her clear conservative stance, couldn’t recognize her personal courage, couldn’t, in the end, be bothered to stand with her when she and her family were victimized by the most repellent political attack of our epoch.
If they won’t recognize that, they won’t recognize anything. Living in a Northeast that is steadily combining aspects of a Third-World state and a suburban mall, they have lost sight of what America actually is. Huge gaps exist in their knowledge of the country. In the same way that liberals view the U.S. a racist, militarist monolith, the Northeast Corridor coterie view it as a cultural wasteland populated by backwoodsmen, halfwits who need to be guided by an enlightened but aloof elite.
That’s what they saw when Sarah Palin stepped before the public. Not a superb example of the 21st-century American woman, knowledgeable, capable, and admirable, but a hick with a roughneck husband and a load of kids. Quite the opposite of what the rest of the country saw, and accepted, and will likely send to Washington this November.
It’s not going to get better for them. The last three waves of American conservatism came out of the West -- Barry Goldwater from Arizona, Ronald Reagan from California, and today Sarah Palin from Alaska. That’s not going to stop. Conservatism as it exists today is a heartland phenomenon, with all the virtues and strengths -- and yes, weaknesses and errors -- of the American heartland. Today it’s the Northeast Corridor conservatives who are the outliers.
The vast American center right has absorbed all the lessons and ideas and has adapted what will work. There’s nothing wrong with this -- it’s the standard evolutionary process followed by any political doctrine, changing as circumstances change, preserving its best self while exploiting its strongest aspects. There have been attempts -- no small number of them -- to preserve doctrines at an arbitrary “high point”. We see them all around us. They’re called “ideologies”. (And didn’t that remark about “getting a new base” oddly echo Bertolt Brecht’s advice to the East German communists to “dissolve the German people and get themselves a new one”? Though Brecht, as was often the case, was being sarcastic.)
The Northeastern urban conservatives must find some way to connect with the rest of the country. If not, they’ll end up much like the “conservatism” expressed by Andrew Sullivan (whose main outlet, it should be noted, is a European paper) – obsessive, strange, and isolated, existing in dream world with no connection or influence to anything else.
We must wish them luck. They have much to offer. But we can’t wait for time to finish working on them. We have too much to do -- an election to win, a world to reform... and don’t forget the occasional snowmobile race, either.