Why Intellectual Conservatism Died

Why Intellectual Conservatism Died

The collapse of intellectual conservatism in America has been as complete as it has been swift. Consider a few contrasts. In 1984, the leading conservative spokesman in the media was George Will; by 1994, it was Rush Limbaugh. The basic concerns of intellectual conservatives in the eighties were foreign policy and economics; by the early nineties they had become dirty pictures and deviant sex. In the early 1980s, the Public Interest was publishing scholarly analyses of public policy, from a moderate conservative point of view; by the early nineties, it was publishing a potted commentary on the sexual practices of the ancient Greeks and Chinese by a California radio talk show host, Dennis Prager. The American Spectator, which in the eighties had striven for respectability by publishing neocon scholars, had by 1994 turned into a semipornographic tabloid of a kind familiar in Britain. Barry Goldwater was a conservative hero in the early eighties; now he is a pariah, considered too far to the left because he supports an end to legal and social discrimination against gay Americans. In the eighties, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus authored a thoughtful monograph on the importance of intermediate institutions; by the nineties, Berger was ranting in Commentary about the persecution of smokers, and Neuhaus (a convert to Catholicism) was publishing articles in his magazine, First Things, denouncing Darwin and defending the theory that today’s animals descend from honeymoon couples aboard Noah’s Ark. In the 1980s, conservatives claimed to be defending the color-blind civil rights idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr.; in 1994, Charles Murray has revived old theories about the innate inferiority of average Latinos and blacks compared to whites in his new book (written with the late Richard Herrnstein), The Bell Curve: “Latino and black immigrants are, at least in the short run, putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence. . . . The shifting ethnic makeup by itself would lower the average American IQ by 0.8 per generation.”