Palin's populist book tour won't help GOP

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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