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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.

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Hoover's impassioned words to his party in 1936 did nothing to sway the voters, who reelected Roosevelt in one of the greatest landslides of the century, then went on to elect him again and yet again. Nor did conservatives themselves heed his plea for intellectual rigor.

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In the decades following, conservatism more often than not put its faith in the masses and their intuitive good sense, arguing that the elite was out of touch with the real America.

Conservative anticommunism in the cold-war era was a popular – and populist – movement, sometimes degenerating into feverish McCarthyism. The Moral Majority and its successors on the Christian right were populist, too: high on righteous indignation, low on intellect. They asserted the superiority of ordinary God-fearing citizens and argued that a sinister elite of "secular humanists" threatened the nation.

The conservative movement confronted internal contradictions even as President Ronald Reagan brought it to power in 1980. Libertarians, traditionalists, elitists, and populists had little in common other than their dislike of liberals and their fear of communism. It took skillful leadership, and the artful writing of men like William F. Buckley Jr. and Irving Kristol to keep the factions cooperating.

Once the Soviet Empire collapsed about 1990, the movement lost the cement that had been holding it together. The conservative factions, disagreeing on basic questions of philosophy and policy, bickered through the 1990s and into the next millennium.

Neoconservatives won the struggle for influence within the administration of President George W. Bush, especially over foreign policy. But the wars for Middle Eastern democracy they had planned didn't turn out quite as intended, and their star also waned.

Movement without a leader

Now the conservative movement, and the Republican Party to which it belongs, have come to a crossroads. Much in need of counsel, they recently lost their best guides with the deaths of both Buckley and Kristol. On the landscape of the right today there is, for the moment, no charismatic political leader and no agreed-upon intellectual guru.

As they face the future, conservatives need to contemplate the blend of good and bad news confronting them. The good news is that the United States, which has enjoyed extraordinary political stability under the Constitution for more than two centuries, is a very conservative place, latently ready and willing to support them.

Conservative history offers a rich array of former leaders and thinkers, from whose insights this generation can draw. Without losing sight of the need for electoral strength, the movement can recover some of the intellectual dignity that it sacrificed in the McCain-Palin campaign.

The bad news takes us back to the 1930s. Hoover gradually recovered his reputation (Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both esteemed him highly), but as a figure in electoral politics he was finished. From the 1930s until the late '70s the Democrats seemed to be the party of ideas, putting the Republicans at a disadvantage from which they recovered only slowly.

If they want to take back the White House and Congress, Republicans should move quickly to reclaim their leadership on ideas. In the long run, intellectual power and political success go together.

Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon family professor of history at Emory University and author of “The Conservatives: Ideas & Personalities Throughout American History.