“Those Lamenting The Good Old Days Of Conservativism Have Blinders On.”

In his latest column, Jonah Goldberg pounded home a point that some of the intellectuals, wonks, and elitists in the conservative movement really needed to hear:

Conservatives, being conservatives, have a soft spot for the good old days, but this is getting ridiculous. It seems every day another colleague on the right wants to click his ruby red slippers – or Topsiders – and proclaim, “There’s no place like home” – “home” being the days when conservatism was top-heavy with generals but short on troops.

The latest example comes from my old National Review colleague David Klinghoffer in this paper. “Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions – like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now,” Klinghoffer lamented. “Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart.”

…The best conservatives are always dead; the worst are always alive and influential. When Buckley and Kristol, not to mention Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, were alive, they were hated and vilified by the same sorts of people who now claim to miss the old gang. The gold standard of the dead is always a cudgel, used to beat back the living.

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As for the right, there are many competing agendas among those lamenting the populist enthusiasms of the right today. Some seem to want to displace and replace today’s leaders; others are simply beautiful losers in forgotten struggles eager to tear down the winners.

But what undergirds a lot of this is simply nostalgia. A conservative populism is sweeping the land, and although I think it is for the most part justified and beneficial, you cannot expect millions of people to get very angry – deservedly angry – and expect everyone to behave as if it’s an Oxford seminar.

…These men are my heroes too, and their influence was staggering. But those who pine for the good old days fail to grasp that the good old days were, in the ways that matter, often quite bad. The heyday of the “institution builders” was a low-water mark for conservatism’s political success (that’s why they built institutions!). Conservatism hardly lacks for top-flight intellectuals these days, but the intellectuals aren’t the avant-garde anymore. Thanks to their success at building institutions and spreading ideas, the battle has been joined. And now is not the time to wax nostalgic for the planning sessions

That reminds me of a blog comment I once saw that stuck with me. The commenter was lamenting the fact that today, conservatives are talking about Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity instead of William Buckley, Ludwig von Mises, and Barry Goldwater. My initial thought was, “Well, yeah, no wonder nobody’s talking about them — They’re all dead.”

When people talk about basketball, do they talk about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James or Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird? When the topic is music, whose names come up? Lady Gaga and Eminem or Bach and Brahms? If celebrities are what people are discussing, is it Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise who get talked up or Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart? That doesn’t mean that newer is always better than older; it just means that life marches on.

Moreover, the conservative movement is not in the same place it was when most of those people were making names for themselves. These legendary men were pioneers making their way through the political wilderness. Today, conservatism is more comparable to a thriving city with a superhighway running up to it. The movement’s not marginalized anymore, the challenges aren’t the same, and the intellectual machinery behind it isn’t as sparse as it was 40 or 50 years ago. Conservatism is now more about maintaining and expanding a mass movement than building an intellectual framework for that movement to follow.

In other words, Beck, Limbaugh, Ingraham, Coulter, Malkin, Hannity and all the rest are standing on the shoulders of people like Friedman, Goldwater, Buckley, Von Mises, Kirk, and Hayek. Their goal isn’t to reinvent the wheel; it’s to make sure as many people as possible are putting their shoulders to the wheel.

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