What’s Wrong With the Right?

One day in 1980, New York’s history-minded Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sat in his wood-paneled study reading the Op-Ed page of a major newspaper. Suddenly he smacked the floor with his cane like Lionel Barrymore, shook his head and growled, “Of a sudden, the Republican Party is the party of ideas.”

At least that’s how I imagine it. Anyway, it was 1980, he did say the Republican Party had become the party of ideas. and he was right. He was also surprised, understandably. A party that had spent decades hanging on through low budget liberalism was finally changing. prompted by forces its establishment had not ignited and could not control.

From the West came the broad, grass-roots antitax movement signaled by passage of California’s Proposition 13. From the East came new writers with new assumptions, who argued for change in the journals of New York and Washington. The two forces converged to produce something fresh: a modern conservatism that could govern.

At the center was Ronald Reagan, who kept in one piece a naturally divided movement—social conservatives who would ban abortion, libertarians who would legalize cocaine—first by giving its members a winner when they hadn’t expected to have a winner in their lifetimes. Mr. Reagan’s interests were widely and openly conservative. He had come to his beliefs at a time when the right’s tenets were clear: budgets should be balanced; put a Federal agency in charge or the Sahara and it would run out of sand. But he was receptive to new thinking and generous toward all strains of conservatism because in a way he believed In them all. His respect for other conservatives spread as if by contagion. For a decade the people he brought to Washington functioned pretty well as one big fractious family.

And then … the crash. Not of the economy but Dr Communism, which brought down more than the Berlin wall. For if Mr. Reagan held modem conservatism together, two pillars kept it aloft. The first was unambiguous and effective opposition to the evil of Communism. The second was a promise that Republicans would make government smaller, less expensive, less intrusive. The first pillar fell last summer, on roughly the day The New York Times ran the headline “Gorbachev Quits as Party Head; Ends Communism’s 744Year Reign.” The second pillar began to wobble when the Bush Administration, in 1990, rescinded “Read my lips.”

The end of imperial Communism made the movement start to float apart; the end of “Read my lips” made it mean. And thus the current impasse, in which conservatives hut”1 thunderbolts at one another. William F. Buckley Jr., an architect of the movement and one of its authentic heroes, is castigated as a narrow-minded excluder; he, in turn, eases into a pair of tuxedo slippers to tap out editorials damaging the Presidential campaign or the most rightward of the serious candidates in the 1992 race. Pat Buchanan.

It is not an easy time to be a conservative.

A decade ago, while Pat Moynihan was turning into Lionel Barrymore, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., a columnist and the editor of the conservative journal The American Spectator, was writing a book called “The Liberal Crack-Up,” which traced with originality and verve the decline of liberal thinking through liberal behavior. Now he has written a book abut the right. “The Conservative Crack-Up” is part memoir, part essay, and it has some useful; things to say about Conservatives and their current predicament.

“The politics of the left and right are bereft,” Mr. Tyrrell says. “The liberals have not had new ideas since the last ice age . . . Conservatives have coherent ideas, but they have very few gifted pols. The conservatives relish for politics is only sporadic and almost wholly dependent on their perception that some zany reformer has become a threat to their home sweet home.”

Mr. Tyrrell notes that one of the reasons conservatives didn’t make some of the gains that they could have was that by the time they won power in 1980 many of their leaders, from their new President to the editor of their most important journal (Mr. Buckley of National Review) to the godfather of the freshest troops (Irving Krystal of the neoconservatives) were near or at retirement age. For them the victory of 1980 was less a hungry beginning than a satisfying end.

But this book is best when Mr. Tyrrell speaks of the distance, the utter disconnection, between the nation’s establishment—the press, academia, the arts—and its people. He accurately observes that “conservatives have become accustomed to being underdogs in the cultural wars,” that in the 1970’s the conservative movement was the least celebrated of movements, receiving “nothing comparable to the publicity attending the antiwar movement, the youth movement or the gruesome feminist movement. And yet only the conservative movement was to attract enough support from the country to capture the White House.”

The elites did more than ignore a movement. The “smokestack industries of American culture”—universities, policy institutes and the news media—have polluted the intellectual environment with their “incessant politicizing.” The result, in Mr. Tyrrell’s view, is a national blandness, a new conformity: “America’s Kultursmog has eliminated most forms of intellectual individualism with alarming thoroughness. There was a time when American culture was teeming with diversity and even with heresy. But over the last few decades the atmosphere of American culture has grown stale as the arts, ethics and every product of intellect has been tainted with the political vaporings of the New Age.”

*   *   *

Mr. Tyrrell is amusing and pointed when he rails about what is wrong with the left. When he writes about the right, however, things get uncomfortable. Much of the history he tells is old and has been told, often better, elsewhere. Some of Mr. Tyrrell’s complains seem tired. When he laments his and other conservatives’ exclusion from the tables of the news media titans, one simple wonders why he resents the absence of a dying establishment. Young writers in their 20’s and 30’s, hazed, shaved and barked at in the politically correct boot camps of the Ivy League, continue to rise, rebel and turn right. And they are the future.

There is less Menckenish irreverence in this book than mere rudeness towards safe targets. The score-settling ratio is high. Mr. Tyrrell calls Gary Mills a backstabber and Hilton Kramer bilious; he suggests that George Will is an explosive figure motivated by malice. Often the book seems less an examination of a crack-up than an example of it.

Sometimes it is hard to read, hampered by an odd tone, a kind of dispirited puckishness. And sometimes it’s just heavy going. Some conservative writers like Mr. Tyrrell affect a kind of big word style (predisposed to rodomontades, Mr. Tyrrell tends to compose feuilietons about the day’s perturbations). In part I think because they all grew up in a time when liberals had intellectual hegemony, one of the first things you had to prove as a conservative was that you weren’t stupid. But I’m not sure conservatives have to prove that any more.

Ultimately, this book is frustrating because it does not maintain a level of seriousness about what is behind the name-calling on the right—an inability so far to reach agreement on what conservatives should stand for and fight for in the new world. Should the right try, heroically, to return to the fight for smaller, less expensive government, or should it aim at increasing revenues that would allow us to get the books aright and fund what Pat Buchanan has called Jack Kemp’s big rock candy mountain? Mr. Tyreell does not address this and other questions with depth.

There are, in 1992, many kinds of conservatives. Concorde conservatives crisscrossing the Atlantic to check on this election and that caucus, cultural conservatives, bristling supply-siders, spiky libertarians and others, all rent by 12 years of intramural fighting, conflicting ambitions and snubs. A dozen years of leadership will leave you tired; a dozen years away from the grass roots, when you used to be the grass roots, might leave you disoriented. It would be amazing if they weren’t fighting, and weren’t mean.

One wishes Mr. Tyrrell’s magazine and other journals of the right would be not an army but a battlefield, not a combatant but a site on which combat occurs, each of the many sides contending, gaining and losing terrain, until the best side wins. We might all sit down, breathe deep, take heart and busy ourselves with pillar building. As for those fractious, angry Washington conservatives who would rather, this year, hurl thunderbolts, perhaps they need a rest. If they don’t come together soon, they will get it.