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Palin's populist book tour won't help GOP

Instead of going rogue, Republicans should cultivate leadership in ideas and solutions.

By Patrick N. Allitt / November 16, 2009


When Sarah Palin's book "Going Rogue" hits stores today, it will increase the tension between elitism and populism that's marked American conservatism from the beginning.

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Today, the Republican Party, led by Ms. Palin and Mike Huckabee, is unabashedly folksy. Their brand of populism – reaching out to ordinary voters by rejecting the values and intellect of the so-called establishment – may help sell books and draw high television ratings, but it won't rebuild a party that is still reeling from last year's severe defeat.

If conservatives want to abbreviate their exile in the political wilderness, they should move quickly to reassert their claim to intellectual leadership. Long-run political success requires developing ideas that make America secure and prosperous. And that takes a party in tune with its head more than its heart.

Conservatism's elitist roots

Throughout much of American history, conservative-minded politicians like President John Adams and Sen. Daniel Webster were openly elitist.

In their view, government was the preserve of the virtuous, intelligent, and educated minority, who must refuse to pander to the whims of the electorate. Conservatism meant the preservation of a complex and fragile civilization, which had to be protected from the rabble. Demagogues like President Andrew Jackson, who invited everyone to his inauguration, turning it into a drunken rout, jeopardized the republic.

President Herbert Hoover shared this view.

He had come into office in 1929 as one of the most loved and admired of all Americans. He was the great humanitarian hero of World War I and had enjoyed almost a decade of success as secretary of Commerce.

Then he was blamed for the Great Depression, which began less than a year after his election. Homeless men called their shantytowns "Hoovervilles."

Hoover was no laissez-faire conservative. He took several aggressive measures to combat the nation's worst-ever economic crisis. But by 1932, voters thought the man with the high starched-collar shirt was out of touch, electing instead one of America's most populist presidents: Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's New Deal horrified Hoover as a departure from America's traditions of citizen independence and limited government. He feared that FDR might be an American counterpart of the dictators then coming to dominate Europe: Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. Like today's Republicans, he dreaded too much federal power, too much federal spending, and too great a national debt.

On the other hand, he had never been a moss-backed conservative, and he knew that merely turning the clock back would never work. In a speech to the GOP convention in 1936, he reminded his fellow Republicans that "betterment for the common man must be inspired by the human heart" but that it could "only be achieved by the intellect."

As Republicans considered policy alternatives to the New Deal, they must build "from the materials of scientific research" by painstakingly "sifting truth from the collection of fact and experience." Ideas, not impulses, he believed, should characterize the Republican recovery.