Is The Right Losing Its Mind ?

American Conservatism has changed significantly since the days of William F. Buckley Jr. One former National Review editor says that it's changed for the worse.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, David Klinghoffer, who was a long-time writer at National Review during the final decades of the William F. Buckley era, argues that conservatism has been taken over by the demagogues:

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. Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, whose news and opinion website,, is read by millions. In his most recent triumph, Breitbart got a U.S. Department of Agriculture official pushed out of her job after he released a deceptively edited video clip of her supposedly endorsing racism against white people.

What has become of conservatism? We have reached a point at which nothing could be more important than to stop and recall what brought us here, to the right, in the first place.

Buckley’s National Review, where I was the literary editor through the 1990s, remains as vital and interesting as ever. But more characteristic of conservative leadership are figures on TV, radio and the Internet who make their money by stirring fears and resentments. With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of “neocons” versus “paleocons.” Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons.

Klinghoffer’s criticism does have an air of elitism to it, of course. When William F. Buckley started National Review in 1955, the American Right was essentially non-existent. The Old Right that had resisted, feebly, the entreaties of the New Deal destroyed itself in the early 1940s as it clung to isolationism while the rest of the nation woke up to the dangers of Germany and Japan. There wasn’t really a conservative movement to speak of, leading Buckley to define his magazine’s mission like this:

Let’s face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did NATIONAL REVIEW not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that, of course; if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

NATIONAL REVIEW is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation. Instead of covetously consolidating its premises, the United States seems tormented by its tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic.

Buckley started, or re-started, an intellectual movement that was on life support and, as a result gave birth not only to modern conservatism, but also, to some degree, the modern libertarian movement when members of Buckley’s Young American’s For Freedom split from the group in the early 1970s over the Vietnam War and the draft and went on to form the Libertarian Party and other libertarian-oriented think tanks.

Much has changed since 1955, though. conservatism is no longer in exile as it was back then. It’s a political movement with political leaders that has to appeal to voters. It’s also a propaganda movement led by people like Breitbart, Limbaugh and Beck that is as much concerned with grabbing eyeballs as it is with engaging in political debate, perhaps more at times.Klinghoffer wants conservatism to be the philosophical, spiritual movement it was under Buckley and Russell Kirk. That’s all well and good, but that’s not the kind of movement that’s likely to have much luck changing the world in the long term without changing itself. In some sense, the changes that Klinghoffer laments are an inevitable result of the movement’s success.

Donald Douglas at American Power Blog argues that Klinghoffer’s criticism does little more than help the left, but it can’t be denied that the crazy-cons, as Klinghoffer calls them, do seem to be on the rise, and Rick Moran is worried about them too:

Maybe it’s the heat. Perhaps it’s an al-Qaeda plot that has dumped LSD in public cisterns throughout the country. Or, it could be simple, old fashioned, bat guano crazy wishful thinking.

Whatever it is, the very silly season has arrived on the right and with it, diminishing chances that the American people will drink the same flavor of Kool Ade and join conservatives in giving the Democrats a well-deserved paddling at the polls.

A kind of irrational combination of fear and exuberance has infected the right in recent weeks as the number of vulnerable Democrats grows and the realization that at the very least, the House may fall into their laps takes hold. And if the hysteria was limited to the fringes, one might dismiss it as not worthy of discussion.

Instead, illogical ranting has gone mainstream with a call by former Rep. Tom Tancredo in the Washington Times for the president to be impeached, and now the belief that there may be another American Revolution on the way emanating from the pages of the staid, and usually rational Investors Business Daily.

The probable response of those two media organs would be that these are valid points of view and they are performing a public service by airing them. At least, that’s what the New York Times says when they publish off the wall looniness from liberals.

In truth, they are not valid. They are not rational. They are not sane.

I’ve already written about Tancredo’s comments, but the IBD column is worth taking a look at.  In it, former Ford-Reagan treasury department officials Ernest Christian and Gary Robbins launch into what Moran calls, and I agree is, a wildly exaggerated attack on President Obama’s record in office:

Too many overreaching laws give the president too much discretion to make too many open-ended rules controlling too many aspects of our lives. There’s no end to the harm an out-of-control president can do.

Bill Clinton lowered the culture, moral tone and strength of the nation — and left America vulnerable to attack. When it came, George W. Bush stood up for America, albeit sometimes clumsily.

Barack Obama, however, has pulled off the ultimate switcheroo: He’s diminishing America from within — so far, successfully.

He may soon bankrupt us and replace our big merit-based capitalist economy with a small government-directed one of his own design.

He is undermining our constitutional traditions: The rule of law and our Anglo-Saxon concepts of private property hang in the balance. Obama may be the most “consequential” president ever.

The Wall Street Journal’s steadfast Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote that Barack Obama is “an alien in the White House.”


Obama is building an imperium of public debt and crushing taxes, contrary to George Washington’s wise farewell admonition: “cherish public credit … use it as sparingly as possible … avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt … bear in mind, that towards the payment of debts there must be Revenue, that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not … inconvenient and unpleasant … .”

What Christian and Robbins don’t acknowledge, of course, is that what they’ve accused Obama of are things that could also be said about every President for the past 45 years or more. They’ve all accumulated unchecked Executive power. They’ve all increased the public debt at massive rates. They’ve all increased the role of government in the daily lives of the people. And, yes, they’ve all had wingnuts on the opposite side of the aisle claiming that we were just one step away from martial law and canceled elections.

Yes, Obama is a liberal. Anyone who didn’t know that wasn’t paying attention in 2008 and, as Moran notes, can’t really claim to be surprised or shocked:

Why is anyone surprised at the liberals engineering income redistribution? It’s what they do for a living. Of course, they’re never honest enough to run on such a platform (recall Obama denying as much vociferously and the liberal pile on of Joe the Plumber for asking about it). But electing Democrats to such huge majorities is an open invitation for the government to pick you pocket – in the name of “fairness,” of course.

Indeed, and as I’ve said to many of my friends on the right upset by the latest news from Washington, it was the failures of George W. Bush and the Republicans that made Barack Obama’s election not only possible, but likely. Obama’s mistake, it would appear, is assuming that his election constituted an endorsement of his agenda rather than a rejection of the other guy.

Moran is concerned that rhetoric like this will hurt the GOP at the polls in November. While I don’t know that ranting by a guy like Tom Tancredo or an op-ed at Investors Business Daily are going to have that much of an influence on the electorate. However, as the examples of Sharron Angle and Rand Paul show us, one of the most viable Democratic strategies over the next 90 days may be the argument that “Yea we’re bad, but look at them. They’re crazy.

Will it work ? Maybe not in 2010, but if the right continues down this road then it will be handing Barack Obama back the White House on a silver platter.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2010, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Remember Megan McArdle’s Jane’s Law:  “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane”.

  2. sam says:

    “The devotees of the party out of power are insane”  … The question is, if they regain power, will they regain their sanity?

  3. Tim says:

    And, the alternative? You suggest that it is all better run by Democrats, or elitist Republicans? Okay, oh, who was in charge for the past 40 years? These same people. Is the Tea Party crazy? That’s what you’re really saying without the cajones to come right out with it.

    Crazy is electing the same people to do the same things and expecting a different outcome, or is society today the way you want it? I guess this is just your idea of utopia.

    Okay, you keep it. I’d rather be doing something to change it. I don’t think this is utopia.

  4. john personna says:

    I think David Stockman’s criticism is more worrying:

    (Is Megan trying to live up to that, Dave?)

  5. The crazycons damage America’s standing internationally too. Here in Britain American conservatism is identified with the frothing demagogy of the Becks and Limbaughs. Not that I particularly mind, being a socialist n’all.

  6. steve says:

    Republicans have been nutty for a while. The whole starve the beast thing is one of the dumbest, least successful economic policies ever (see Stockman today or Bartlett almost any day). They started two wars with the idea that they could turn those countries into models for pro-Western democracy, well at least Iraq.  I see little evidence that they will change course when they regain power.
    I subscribed to National Review for about 20 years. It is not, contra Klinghoffer, what it used to be. NRO is atrocious. I actively seek right of center sites that are serious, deal with facts and manage to avoid snark for the most part. They are uncommon.

  7. Eric Florack says:

    <blockquote> Klinghoffer’s criticism does have an air of elitism to it, of course.</blockquote>
    Wherein, lies the biggest clue,a nd I’m amazed it’s one you’ve so totally missed.
    The fact of the matter is, that the republican elite and the mouse screaming leftist democrat party, are alike to the point of not being able to fit water between them.  know, conservatism has not lost its mind, it simply, and finally, is recognizing that those who claimed its leadership were in fact its enemies.  That is, if real conservatism is the goal of the group.
    I will suggest that post FDR the one combination that has never been tried is real conservatives in both houses of Congress and the White House.  Because of the republican elite, what we’ve ended up with is a mixed bag of people calling themselves moderates who are in fact leftists, and the occasional conservative home both the supposedly conservative elite and the democrats go to great lengths to try to discredit.  The result is the situation we find ourselves in now ; nearly bankrupt, and seemingly unable to figure or way out of this national crisis being overseen by Mr. Obama and company.
    For the record, Moran is wrong.  The description of Obama and his record in office is if anything understated.  I suspect and conclude that this will be inarguable in just a few years.

  8. Pete says:

    I agree. It is truly sad to see a country like ours in decline culturally and socially. Our language is diluted by political correctness and lack of respect in the school systems, our respect for institutions like government and business is at all time lows, our sense of self accountability and charity is on the decline, our cynicism and pessimism are on the rise, so why should we be surprised that our discourse, political or otherwise, is filled with invective and deliberate disinformation. The anonymity of the internet gives new meaning to “road rage” where one feels insulated from good behavior while flipping the bird to another driver.
    There is a lot of simmering disenchantment and disillusionment bubbling up to the surface right now and I am afraid it will start approaching boiling point as the economy continues to falter and the ruling class continues its ever expanding control over the majority. Whether you agree with my assertion of the ruling class or not, perception (not necessarily facts) by the non ruling class is a powerful elixir.

  9. Pete says:

    While Stockman deservedly criticizes Republicans, he doesn’t offer a roadmap on how to balance the budget, establish sound money, and legislate fiscally responsibly. He barely mentions the “Independence Day” scenario of our entitlement society. I hope we raise taxes on the rich so it becomes painfully obvious that that is not the solution. You could tax them 100% and it will hardly dent the national liability.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Okay, oh, who was in charge for the past 40 years?

    I give up who was in charge?  Except for 1994-2006 Democrats have held the House for the last 50 some-odd years.  The Senate has bounced back and forth quite a bit over the last 40 years as has the White House.  I gather you think there’s some sort of chain of evidence.

  11. Pete

    While Stockman deservedly criticizes Republicans, he doesn’t offer a roadmap on how to balance the budget, establish sound money, and legislate fiscally responsibly. He barely mentions the “Independence Day” scenario of our entitlement society. I hope we raise taxes on the rich so it becomes painfully obvious that that is not the solution. You could tax them 100% and it will hardly dent the national liability.

    To be fair to Stockman, that’s a lot of subject matter to cover in an op-ed piece in the Sunday Outlook Section of the New York Times. I would presume that would be something he’d cover in his upcoming book.

  12. mannning says:

    It is rather difficult to separate clearly the strategic thinking of the conservative right from the tactical engagement of rightists with the loony leftists on daily issues. There has always been a struggle to rise up to the strategic level when mired in the mundane, and conversely, to descend to the tactical level once again with a valid rightist strategy in mind.

    In my view, what is neded is a reset time where conservatives are forced to articulate their strategic views of whither goest thou once more for all to see, and then to show in some detail where those views lead us in solving our national tactical problems—of which there are many and varied! Once formulated, these views must be promoted in concert by our conservative leaders in great detail down all of the information channels open to us. As it stands, we appear to have too many voices with their own views of what is good for the nation, and no clear message to the voting pubilc.

    So, to me the question is, where is our conservative roadmap for the future of the nation, say ten or 15 years out, and then where is our conservative and tactical action plan for the next few years that clearly leads to that future? We have seemed to be performing a Whack-a-Mole tactical battle against successive major issues without an overriding conservative philosophy and plan of action that counters the spendthrift left and their rush to buy voters. 

  13. Eric Florack says:

    The reason behind tha, mannning is rather simple…. Nobody’s really asking the conservatives.  Instead who they approach is the very elite which have proven that they’re anything but conservative.

  14. ponce says:

    Back when the Democrats had controlled Congress for 40 years, just about everything the Republicans “thinkers” said about them was true.
    Twelve years of Republican rule showed us that, given the chance, the Republicans were no better than the Democrats.

  15. reid says:

    This “Obama is a liberal” and “liberals engineering income redistribution” stuff seems wildly overstated.  Isn’t Obama suggesting tiny increases in the tax rates for the richest folks?  It makes it sound as if he’s proposing a 90% rate for everyone making over $100K.  Ridiculous.  Overall, Obama is barely left of the traditional center of the political spectrum.

  16. mannning says:

    Eric, do I sense a bit of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism in your response?  It would seem so to me, because many of the so-called or self-named conservative elites appear to have slid to the left somewhat, or at least to the center (and not looking out for the roadkill!). This is true, I believe, for the more socially oriented conservatives rather than fiscal conservatives, because they are seemingly swayed by Libertarian ideals and an atheistic approach to life.

    Yet, I still say that conservatives must come together en masse to construct a long and short range view of what they want for the nation. Perhaps, however, the conservative leadership should use intellectual elites rather sparingly in advisory roles, in favor of putting more practical personages that know what must be done in lead positions.

  17. Schooner says:

    Well one thing that Buckley and Breitbart have in common is that both had a pretty low view of Black people. Buckley changed that view and in fact became a fairly serious civil rights advocate.
    I don’t see that in Breitbart’s future. Based on evidence to date he has neither the honesty nor intellect to grow.

  18. 12trod2 says:

    It’s nice to come back to this site after a year or so.  I like its conservatism but I grew tired of James’ fundamental blandness after a while. James has two types of posts that just exhausted me: 1) X is good and bad, zzz… and 2) ‘politics ain’t beanbag.’
    It just reached the point where I knew what he was going to say before I clicked the Memeorandum link, even though I liked his reasonable authorial tone.  I’ve RSS’d Doug’s entries and look forward to a blogger who has a stronger viewpoint that still is conservative and grounded in sanity, not hyperbole. (I like the other bloggers on this site, too.)

  19. MNPundit says:

    Change the world in the longterm? Re-read the Buckley quote. You stand athwart history and scream stop. Conservatism is not about changing the world, it is about preserving the world as it is.
    Now I am a hardcore liberal but I see the value in that. I believe many changes are for the better including the decline in religiousity, the acceptance of minorities and greater redistributions. But I recognize that the pace of chance is deeply problematic on personal and economic levels for people. In fact, not all people can keep up with the changing pace of the world today. We are just biologically not built for that. Some people can deal with it, others need more time. That’s the duty I’ve always seen conservatives to have, to give those people who need time to adjust that time. To slow the pace of change so that we can forge ahead together.
    In essence I see conservatism as slow spots on the road of progress that keep us from collapsing in chaos. I am not a conservative, I prefer increasing change, but I recognize the value of what actual conservatives do. It is a shame that actual conservatives do not exist in the republican party of the United States.

  20. mannning says:

    Speaking for one conservative, I can enumerate perhaps 30 or 40 changes in government organization, practices and laws that I believe should be effected right now. 
    The changes touted by liberals are in the direction of laissez faire social policies and redistribution of wealth (regardless of merit), together with some form of socialist government to control the distribution of our wealth. The needs factory is now in full swing fed by creative minds that have no fiscal sense.

    The changes that I advocate are in the opposite direction, by and large, in order to strengthen our constitutional government, right-size it, to eliminate the bloat that has accumulated over the past 50 years, and to institute fiscal sanity into our governance instead of the spendthrift and insane approach in current vogue. We must shut down the extra-Constitutional “needs factory” for sure.

    There would be transition problems with this, of course, and that must be taken into account; however, we either master the financial situation or we go broke real soon now, which means weaning ourselves from progressive ideas and legislation that have no sound fiscal basis, nor any basis whatsoever in our Constitution, including the “General Welfare” clause, which has been misused and bent to extra purposes for decades.

    There are so many other problem areas that I would run out of word count to try to do them justice here, all of which are changes, just not changes in a progressive’s direction.
    To name a few: The UN involvement, election funding, earmarks, entitlements, defense procurement, Fannie Mae and the like, the Federal Reserve System, and quite a few of the 1,177 government agencies, bureaus, boards, committees and the like that need revetting and most likely downsizing or eliminating.

  21. mannning says:

    There is an idea current that the Constitution is outdated. That is pure malarky. Properly interpreted and maintained the Constitution is good for a few more centuries. Certainly it needs some clarification, for instance, such as in the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding the 2nd Amendment, which have clarified some major aspects of the Amendment. All to the good. But more needs to be done, such as to strengthen the takings clause in favor of the owner rather than the government and developers. There should be a resurgence of States Rights as well, to place problems nearer to their source and immediate governance:think abortion, which has no basis in the Constitution (it may also not have a basis in State Constitutions either, but so be it). And it goes on and on…

  22. Tom Perkins says:

    “Maybe not in 2010, but if the right continues down this road then it will be handing Barack Obama back the White House on a silver platter.”
    Which road is that?  I went to mat for GWB in 2004, traveling about four hundred miles at my own expense–when I was not upper middle class–to help him in OH, because the other guy was Kerry, and he was far worse than GWB.  In 2008, I supported McCain wholeheartedly–until he went to Washington to push TARP instead of to kill it.  After that I could barely pull the lever for him, even though the other guy was Obama.
    Illegal immigrants should be promptly deported when discovered, and every arrest should result in a verification of legal identity, including residency and nationality.  There are no serious arguments to be made against it, just arguments which favor a certain class of people over the interest of the general citizenry.
    “Conservatism is not about changing the world, it is about preserving the world as it is.”
    Conservatism here is about changing the world!  It is about sending mouldered branches crashing down, and pruning some scarce grown, and favoring others–but to to do it being informed by history while always recognizing pure theory cannot design government’s proper course.  What is conservative in America is the American Revolution and it’s get, Buckley’s royalist Burke be damned.
    And when he was wrong in spades, the same for Buckley.