This is a reposing of something I wrote in November 2009.
Amidst all the soul-searching and navel gazing by the centre right that accompanied the November elections, a popular strain that has emerged is the lack of intellectualism within our movement. David Brooks wrote that “What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole”, noting how the GOP has “lost the educated class by sins of commission — by telling members of that class to go away”. The normally tame Economist’s Lexington attributed the loss to “the fact that the party lost the battle for brains” with the Republicans “becoming the party of “white-trash pride”. However, such introspection, whilst perhaps useful in addressing the current political concerns of the centre-right movement, has been sadly limited to the practicalities of election campaigns, and I feel fails to address the structural underpinnings that have led us to our current intellectual morass. As such, addressing the failures of lowest common denominator politics treats the symptoms, but not the cause. Instead, we as a movement need to focus our attention on rectifying the tragic consequences of the centre-right’s disengagement with much of the serious academic study that has been undertaken in the last fifty years. It is for this reason that we are not only losing the culture wars, but we have ceded the entire intellectual battleground to our opponents. By retreating from the battle of ideas at its core, we stand the real danger of forfeiting the future to the left, doing little more than fighting a rearguard action.
There can be little doubt that that much of the modern, particularly young, center-right movement has moved significantly beyond a disagreement with the state of the intellectual movement to dismissing intellectualism as a concept – indeed to the point of looking at such pursuits with a degree of contempt. Young conservatives (generally studying business or other vocational pursuits) often openly sneer at those who prefer abstract academic pursuits and theory. One need only look at the continued support for so long of George W. Bush (easily one of the least conservative presidents of the last half century by any benchmark – a social democrat in a cowboy’s hat) by the center-right community; his anti-elitist common appeal gave him undeserved popularity amongst conservatives for most of his administration. He was seen as being ‘in touch’, for intellectual pursuits are largely viewed as out of touch and worthy of some degree of scorn. We no longer distinguish between the insulated and lazy education of the left, with genuine, truth-seeking education.
This is by no means to say that those of us on the center-right forfeited academic study. Far from it. Our think tanks dominate policy matters, and the free trade battle has largely intellectually been won. The fault, however, lies not in the depth of our study, but rather in its breadth. The few of us who move on to academic realms, or at the least study the underpinnings of their beliefs in depth, largely limit themselves to the economy or political sciences. We have failed however to articulate a broader vision. By doing so, I believe, we not only limit, but also doom ourselves in the future. Our movement needs intellectuals, philosophers and theorists just as much as policy wonks and campaign gurus; those that shape mindsets not only policies. Yet they are strangely missing. And they are the ones who – ultimately – change the world.
After all, how can we adequately understand, let alone argue, our views without first grounding them and broadening our base of knowledge? How can we dispute current trends in cultural, feminist or queer theory, with the invariably left wing baggage it brings, without adequately studying and comprehending it? How can we argue our policies without studying concepts such as free will and determinism? Yet in order to do this we need to first understand theories of sociology, psychology, philosophy and (dare I say it) theology. How can we learn from history without first understanding historiography? When we do not even know the basics of historical, let alone current, trends in sociological research, how can we prescribe solutions to societal problems? Rather than capitalizing on some of the opportunities that the postmodernist movement brought in the latter half of the twentieth century, we refused to engage, dismissed it as inherently worthless, and allowed the left to set the agenda. So here we are, attempting to compete on an intellectual framework against ideas we do not fully understand, sending in a team of baseball players to play football [note: this is a shocking analogy. Sorry.]
This is, of course, not a prescription for all conservatives to go out and spend the next 10 years acquiring a complete liberal arts education. It is, however, a recognition of two things. Firstly, there is a distinction between practitioners of politics, and the philosophers who underpin them – and we need both, like a warrior needs both sword and shield. Secondly, as conservatives we need to once again embrace cross-disciplinary intellectual traditions and value the role they play in a free and open society. As such, rather than simply deriding current academic theory, we must learn to engage with it – at its level. In many ways it has been our almost out of hand dismissal of much of the theory of the left that has given it such a foothold. Indeed, if you google feminism, and the first anti-feminist page you come across is the frankly scary Feminism is Evil, it is no wonder that people see no credible opposition to such ideas, and ergo gradually accept them. Students at universities are increasingly turning to the left, not because they are ‘brainwashed’ by biased lectures (more intellectual excuses on our part) but because there is no articulated answer within the system – because there is no-one there to articulate it.
We as a movement have long had a healthy skepticism of the intellectual ‘elites’, and I think for good reason. We have within us a post-Enlightenment natural skepticism to metanarratives. We reject the notion that the ‘smartest’ have the right to foist their views upon society. We believe that being ‘smart’ is not the best criteria to govern. And it is true; by their very nature established intellectuals tend to suffer from the fatal conceit of wishing to impose their vision on society. Yet this is by no means inevitable.
Hayek once wrote that we cannot “remain oblivious to the fact that the most brilliant and successful teachers are today more likely than not to be socialists, while those who hold more conservative political views are as frequently mediocrities.” Yet, rather than dismiss academia as inherently socialist, instead he exhorted us to pursue such careers, recognizing that “We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal”.
It is pure intellectual laziness for us to give up on such pursuits, adopt a defeatist nature, view the academy as unchangeable socialist and throw our hands in the air saying that nothing can be done. That those on the right by nature go on to lucrative careers, whilst those on the left are drawn to academia. Rather, we must reframe our current intellectual state, and encourage a greater valuing of the academic process, and at fighting our battles on a meta level.
In an earlier incarnation of these musings, a left-of centre political activist responded:
“There is little passion in the conservative movements in Australia, and there are not many people who remain in universities to dedicate their lives to thinking about it, and writing about it despite the financial cost. Of course students are more likely to become socialists, because in 3-4 years at university, socialist academics are the only people they meet.
Personally, I could make a sizeable sum of money in my life-time doing what I’m trained to do (web-design/programming). But I’m staying in university for as long as I can because I have a discontent with the way cultural studies is headed, and the way it is focused… And so, hence made, is another potential lefty/liberal/socialist academic, and I will tell my students to be wary of the free-market and that the arts should be funded and that feminism is great because I’ve yet to be convinced otherwise.
So, I suppose my final question would be this: where will you be when I’m doing this?”
There is nothing inherently socialist in striving to improve the world through academia. There is no reason why those on the right should not be as willing to pursue such studies as those on the left. Indeed, we recognize the importance of volunteerism and civil society far more than the left, who seek to destroy it through government control. The problem we face is the lack of what Hayek termed a classical “liberal utopia”; a “truly liberal radicalism” which entrances us in the same way the left has used the romantic allure of socialism. We need to cultivate a sense of passion. We need to make our ideals worth fighting for – at all levels, and simultaneously promote the power of critical thinking and lateral thought.
The Left may well have taken over all things intellectual in their long march through the institutions, but as a movement we should be mature enough to recognize that this was only because we let them.
We on the centre-right need to rapidly mature, address our shortcomings, and realize that the quiet philosophers were always as important to long term victory, as the battlefield generals. To paraphrase Socrates, an unexamined ideology is not worth holding.
Update: I transcend time. Opening line remaining unedited.