William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review was the intellectual bastion of Catholic-leaning conservatism in America, filled with well-written prose, a love of literature, and a critical take on G.O.P. politics. Today’s publication is pretty pale by comparison. It reminds one of the inside score-settling of the Bolsheviks, especially in the period after Fanya Kaplan shot Lenin and the Red Terror was let loose. A number of bloggers, notably Andrew Sullivan, have been following the intellectual disintegration with detached amusement or dismay, but I’m convinced there is no better narrator of it than David Frum, who demonstrates again why he was consistently recognized as the best stylist of the NRO crew—before he parted company with them:
How wonderful to return to a free country, I thought as I stepped off the plane from Beijing at Washington Dulles. No more censorship, no more official lies, no more kowtowing to high officials who gained power by their mindless repetition of party dogma… Then alas I opened my browser and read the dump-on-Manzi comments on NRO’s The Corner. Manzi had deviated from the One Correct Way of Mark Levin Thought, and all his former colleagues had been summoned together to Denounce and Struggle Against Him. Not one stood up to be counted in Manzi’s defense, not even colleagues whom Manzi might have had reason to regard as close personal friends. (Take a second to notice whose bylines are missing from yesterday’s discussions.) What makes this episode all the more remarkable is that Manzi is actually a member of NR’s board of trustees – i.e., somebody who might claim a little more scope to speak his mind. But even for trustees, there are limits, and Manzi crossed them.
The Levin–Manzi controversy highlights one of the right’s current unacknowledged problems: a group of charlatan radio hosts have hijacked the banner of conservatism in America. They have garnered unquestioning support from publications like National Review. Frum was among the first on the right to recognize this:
Reading through the comments in the [National Review Online] Corner, there’s no mistaking who’s in charge, who’s subservient. Two Corner contributors complained about Manzi’s “tone.” Levin is the most vituperative radio host this side of Mike Savage – but imagine anyone at The Corner complaining about Levin’s tone! Conservatism has always had both elite and popular wings, and in the past they worked together productively. Fred Schwarz drew tens of thousands to his Christian Anti-Communist Crusade in the early 1960s, at the same time as Milton Friedman was publishing Capitalism and Freedom; F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty; and Edward Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Nobody however demanded that Milton Friedman hail Schwarz’s pamphlets as serious contributions to conservative thought, in the way that the Cornerites demand that Manzi kiss Levin’s ring. It’s different now, to conservatism’s present shame and future detriment.
Good analysis. I would just add to this that Hayek tracked developments in popular conservatism in America, especially the right-wing reaction against Eisenhower, and was horrified by them. It’s why he wrote Why I am Not a Conservative. And indeed, anyone struggling to find much connection between Hayek’s thought and what is proclaimed as conservatism today at National Review would probably give up in frustration. In America today, the Eisenhower Republicans are called Democrats. And the Republicans are the people who gave Eisenhower hell from the right–when they weren’t too busy worrying about fluoridated water and the invasion of the body snatchers.