Peter Berkowitz once asked me how I made the transition from a fairly radical (if mostly intellectually radical) leftism to a center-right position, rooted in the defense of American democratic sovereignty abroad and a modestly libertarian conservatism at home.
The answer is that sometime during the course of the 80s and 90s, I looked at the left, my friends and confreres in America, and concluded that we were promoting a ‘left authoritarianism’, under the conjoined banner of rights and therapy: which is to say, what certain people think is good for you, promulgated in the essentially unanswerable language of ‘rights talk’.
So the importance of conservatism (leaving aside the usual issues about rational economic policy and national security) is largely that I am anti-New Class. Anti-the elite left ‘helping professions’, who come armed with law and therapy - the power of the prosecutor to make you and your kids better people! The leftwing, feminist hysteria of the 1908s and 90s over child abuse has never ceased to rankle me, and might well count as the thing that drove me out of the left (note to Peter). Waco certainly had an effect. Ever since dropping out of the Mormon church many, many years ago, I’ve never had the faintest sympathy for social conservatism as a set of substantive positions - but I also could not abide the idea of a bunch of creepy social workers (bearing, once again, the therapeutic nostrums of the helping professions but armed with the legal authority of the prosecutor) telling my much more socially conservative Mormon sisters how to run their lives and the lives of their families.
There are many ironies and subtleties to New Class analysis. One is not so subtle, however - it is, in fact, central. The rewriting of New Class doctrine by American neoconservatives that took place during the 1980s and 90s was a huge intellectual mistake (as we at Telos noted at the time, not that anyone was listening). Irving Kristol’s book on American neoconservatism in the 1990s claimed that the New Class divide was between, on the one hand, the intellectuals, the professionals such as lawyers whose livelihoods consisted of navigating the divide (more precisely: holding monopoly access to the divide) between public and private, government professionals in the “helping professions,” media professionals, etc., and, on the other hand, business people.
That proposed division, putting professionals and government bureaucrats on one side, and business people on the other, was flat-out wrong. It was wrong for all the reasons that the late Christopher Lasch pointed out in his final works, particularly The Revolt of the Elites and, for that matter, David Brooks noted in another sort of way in his hilariously on-target Bobos in Paradise. Many business people, many whole categories of business people - people in finance, private equity, all sorts of businesses - are entirely New Class in their cultural and professional and social orientations.
The problem, however, is not with elites, or with the idea of elites, as such. I am not in the least bit ‘anti-elite’, anti-elite as such. I’m not a populist. I’m an intellectual and an elite and a believer in representative democracy. That a society, governed by representative democracy, needs elites is beyond issue. The question is, what kind, and what should their relationship be to those whom they govern?
Palin and Obama cast that issue pretty squarely on the table, and they put it on the table for the next generation in American politics, once the Bidens and McCains have passed from the historical stage. Obama is a classic New Class elitist, by education, outlook, everything. So is his wife. Their professional lives have consisted in - community organizing? please - the elite management of the poor and, of even greater importance today, management of, but also production of, communalist tensions through multiculturalism and identity politics. That’s what the New Class does; that’s what it exists to do. Along with, to be sure, extracting rents for managing social conflicts that it also has much interest in creating.
Palin represents not just another sort of America, but another sort of American elite. Not very elite, in her case, let’s be clear. She is not an intellectual, obviously: so what? It’s overrated, I can tell you. She doesn’t have an Ivy League education, or even a degree from one of the great public universities.
[Footnote: She is above all a cultural product of the Western United States; the land-grant universities and colleges where my father spent all his life. Idaho native and former Clinton domestic policy advisor Bruce Reed, a genuine Democratic centrist who seems, alas, unlikely to have a big place in the New Obama Order, has written the very best thing about why Democrats run a big risk in condescending to her. His article in Slate, ostensibly about Sarah Palin, is one of the most touching essays I’ve read in a long time, because it’s obvious that it is indirectly a love letter from Bruce to his own wife. Very, very cool.]
But Palin obviously is not Fred Flintstone, either - as though Fred Flintstone were chosen by lot from the masses to lead the masses; she has political skills and smarts and a view on large issues that affect many lives. Let’s face it, I don’t think any of my intellectual colleagues in academia or me, for that matter, could get elected governor of anywhere, or dogcatcher, or anything else. We don’t dream of being elected; we dream of being appointed, and when we dream of ‘appointed what?’, it is usually Czar or maybe Grand Inquisitor.
But unlike me or my confreres in the academy, Palin has an organic, extra-political connection to the people she proposes to govern, whether in Alaska or the United States as a whole. Everything about her says, I’m one of you. Not the whole citizen of the planet thing that Obama’s New Class persona uses as a way to elide the question of his relationship to America and Americans, except as Redeemer, but a representative of the people of whom she is indeed representative, but among whom she must be, in virtue of the office she seeks, also an unapologetic elite. The question for contemporary elites is no longer whether they have, but instead whether they believe they actually need, a rootedness in and among the people whose lives they intend so thoroughly to govern. This is the question that Lasch posed ironically in The Revolt of the Elites (playing on Ortega y Gasset’s Revolucion de las Masas). Lasch answered, ‘not any more’; in classic New Class fashion, they aver their expertise instead and say that it is enough.
But the answer, I should hope, is still surely ‘yes’. A representative democracy needs elites who are both elite and expert and even wise, but also rooted in the place and among the people they propose to lead. Palin’s “rootedness” is not at issue. The question for her, instead, is whether she has (lacking the ponderous, yet often pointless credentials of the contemporary elites) that which is genuinely necessary to lead and manage an enormous, modern political economy, as well as a polity out among enemies in a dangerous world. The common man does not. Fred Flintstone does not. Does she?
The modern Democratic party has wobbled, since Woodrow Wilson at least, between its intellectual pretensions and its working class roots, through Dewey, Stevenson, etc., etc.. But it has tipped over today, and not just into elite management, the ‘expert’ management of society that its progressive wing has always proffered, sometimes for good against populist sentiment, but frequently for bad, in all the ways that Jonah Goldberg notes in Liberal Fascism - as a justification for left-authoritarianism. Today, however, it has tipped beyond that into New Class ideology, the seemingly unassailable combination (which is to say, the intellectual cul-de-sac) of therapy-law managing people who are increasingly broken down into identity communities, and whose relationships are then run (we call it ‘community organizing’, among other things) from the top by New Class elites. That’s Barack and Michelle Obama, even if you leave aside all the creepy cultish stuff. The Democrats are the party of the New Class, for as far into the future as I can see today.
For the Republicans, however, the question is still (for the moment) an open one. What remains most open, in the future of politics and ideology for the party, is the way in which it comes to grips with the necessity of elites in a Republic, in a republican form of government, in a representative democracy. It has its New Class temptation, to be sure - its name is Mitt Romney. Conservative New Class analysis, however, because it has mistakenly exempted business people from the category, cannot see Romney for the managerial therapist that in reality he is. For that matter, it cannot see, either, that what passes as evangelical religion in the United States has long since made God into a cipher interpreted by the Twelve Step Program; the God of the evangelicals turns out to be ‘as interpreted’ not by his prophet, but by our therapist.
At the other end, however, without a theory and practice of elites, the temptation to disastrous and, let’s be clear, often evil populism always looms. Obviously this has always been true: this is largely why we have representative republican government, not direct participatory democracy. New and not worked out for Republicans (and conservatives more generally), however, is what this means today, in a world in which New Class experts - free floating not just in the United States but, in a globalized world - propose to run the planet while they float untethered, unrooted, deracinated, unattached, but always highly paid, in the jet stream. What is the theory of elites, what is the theory of popular participation and democratic legitimacy? How to describe the difference (a difference we currently recognize, if only in an intutitive, inchoate, and untheorized way) between the “leadership” of the republic and its citizenry, on the one hand, and the “management” of a mere “economy” and its mere consumers, on the other?
Working out this relationship in a way that can be defended intellectually, but is also accessible politically, is the current intellectual task of conservatism in America. Whether, of course, it knows it or not.
All that said:
I am supposed to be finishing a book chapter on where American conservatism is, or should be, going. For the record, it is not done yet.
In some respects, this was always an odd assignment for me, since I am a johnny-come-lately to conservatism, and am not sure exactly how much applies to me ... social conservative, very far from it; national security conservative, yes, emphatically; libertarian conservative, yes, but not in that crazy Ayn Randian mad, mad way. I suppose that means I fit one classic, if otherwise empty, definition of a ‘neoconservative’ - someone who mostly favors Republicans, but only started doing so since the mid-1990s.
That, by way of autobiography with respect to suggesting ‘where American conservatism ought to be going intellectually. Because, when I think about what actually draws me to conservatism, it starts with a profound distaste for the elite intellectual class of which I am a part.
It is what drew me, for example, to the radical critical journal Telos, to Paul Piccone and Russell Berman: a deep suspicion of what it described as the New Class management-domination of the rest of America, through a therapeutic language that barely concealed an authoritarian agenda.
(It is an authoritarianism premised, as the eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once wrote in a marvelous late 1980s essay in Telos, on the proposition that the “problem” of the poor, and a “problem” of social management since extended to include all the non-rich, anyone who might not share New Class social and political sentiments, is not one of class, at least not in the usual marxist sense, but instead that, in the sense of the market-therapeutic professionals who propose to manage them today, they exhibit the “poverty of flawed consumers”).
You can read New Class ideology pretty much straight up in Clinton’s It Takes a Village, as I pointed out in a review in the TLS in the mid-1990s. I wrote about some of this in a lengthy but - if you’ll forgive me - really quite good review essay of several books on the New Class and the new ‘market professionals’ and why lawyers were so professionally unhappy in the Columbia Law Review in 1996.
So I think.
On the other hand, no one to whom I have ever described this project - even as a book chapter - has ever agreed. They all think it is thin and doesn’t amount to anything other than a political slogan: “leadership.” I therefore call upon the spirits of Telos, including its gazillion ex-editors of every political stripe, and the guiding force of Paul Piccone, may his soul rest in peace, to help me better articulate this. Because I also think that the root intellectual sources for this lie not in American conservatism, but in the Telosian critiqe of the “wholly administered society” from back in the 1970s and 80s.
And yet no one, on the left or right, among my most respected friends, thinks there is much to this, and certainly not as an (“re” - let’s be clear) animating project for American conservatism.
This skepticism has inhibited, I admit, my intellectual confidence in my ideas and has slowed down my writing. But I must admit that the emergence of Obama and, today, Palin, frankly makes me think, once again, that I’m right.