Friday, January 16, 2009

The populism of Reagan; the populism of Palin

In a thoroughly engaging essay for the New York Times, Ross Douthat explains the relationship between William Buckley, Jr. and Ronald Reagan, and while doing so, touches on the current battle within the conservative movement between "intellectuals" and populists.

His conclusion is less obvious than either the David Brookses of the GOP or, conversely, the's of the party would argue, striking a tricky, but attractively-winning balance accommodating both aspects of political thought.

This is the principle 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.

“They mocked Reagan, didn’t they?” goes the line, as though being mocked alone were a qualification for high office. This way lies ruin. You can’t build a successful politics on self-conscious intellectualism (or pseudo-­intellectualism) alone, as the Democrats discovered over many painful election cycles.... But you can’t build a successful politics on anti-­intellectualism, either, as conservatives learned in 2008 — and may have to learn again and again in years to come.