Over the last few days, Jon Henke has laid out the case for the Right more strongly disavowing outfits like WorldNetDaily that actively peddle Birther nonsense. To the extent the mainstream Right has weighed in, it has been to urge Jon to ignore WND and move on, in the interests avoiding an intra-movement civil war. Some have even tried to subtly distance Jon from the conservative movement, saying his views don't represent those of most conservatives. Many on the Right have made the calculation that however distasteful their views, a public fight with the Birthers just isn't worth it.
As a fiscal and social conservative, I happen to think Jon is completely in the right here, both substantively and strategically. Don't raise the canard that we ought to be attacking Democrats first. Conservatives are entirely within their rights to have public debates over who will publicly represent them, and who will be allowed to affiliate with the conservative movement.
The Birthers are the latest in a long line of paranoid conspiracy believers of the left and right who happen to attach themselves to notions that simply are not true. Descended from the 9/11 Truthers, the LaRouchies, the North American Union buffs, and way back when, the John Birch Society, the Birthers are hardly a new breed in American politics.
Each and every time they have appeared, mainstream conservatives from William F. Buckley to Ronald Reagan have risen to reject these influences -- and I expect that will be the case once again here.
But there is another subtext that makes Jon's appeal more urgent. As a pretty down-the-line conservative, I don't believe I am alone in noting with disappointment the trivialization, excessive sloganeering, and pettiness that has overtaken the movement of late. In "The Joe the Plumberization of the GOP," I argued that conservatives have grown too comfortable with wearing scorn as a badge of honor, content to play sarcastic second fiddle to the dominant culture of academia and Hollywood with second-rate knock-off institutions. A side effect of this has been a tendency to accept conspiracy nuts as a slightly cranky edge case within the broad continuum of conservatism, rather than as a threat to the movement itself.
Those advocating a tough stand against the Birthers like to point to William F. Buckley and the Birchers.
In founding National Review, Buckley made a point of casting out the conspiracy nuts and the cranks of his day because he saw them as a fundamental threat to a conservatism that was just emerging as a political force. In doing so, he was able to define conservatism for a generation.
What is interesting about Buckley (and that is so different today) was his ability to align intellectual firepower and a faster march to the Right. Buckley was a man of class and erudition who happened to be more conservative than virtually all of his peers. That's the key point. To the extent we think of intellectuals today, we deride them as creatures of the Left. When they are active within conservative circles, they are discarded as to the left of the movement. The archetypical center-right intellectual today is a guy like Ross Douthat, whose ideas (to be fair) are often outside the conservative mainstream. Most of the party's rising intellectuals are seen as advocating a shift away from social conservative issues, which are still deeply relevant to a critical mass of Americans beyond the two coasts. Back in Buckley's day, it was possible to get 175-proof conservatism in Ivy League flavoring.
Perhaps the intellectual composition of the conservative (or liberal) movement wasn't all that different in Buckley's time, but Buckley provided an ideal -- and set a standard -- for conservatives to position themselves as scholarly thought leaders within the broader culture that simply no longer exists today -- despite numerous conservative academics toiling facelessly in the vineyards. This gave a Buckley the credibility to cast out the movement's lesser lights, and impose a layer of discernment between fact and fiction inside the movement. In politics, symbols matter. Just like there could only be one Reagan, there could only be one Buckley.
The automatic problem that arises when someone who is not a William F. Buckley (and none of us here pretend to be) is that you're instantly tagged a RINO for calling out something that is objectively and demonstrably false. The space between fact and fiction is confused as a litmus test between right and left. But what if the WNDers are not the true conservatives in this argument? What if the actual test of conservatism was not how fervently you oppose Obama, or where you went to school, or where you pray, but how firmly your conservatism is rooted in First Principles and not personalities or conspiracy?
Within my relatively short lifetime, I still remember a time when success and intellectual achievement were more often than not conservative virtues, and I remember WFB looming large in this framework. Recent Democratic gains within the creative and educated classes have eroded this image, creating a media dynamic where intelligence is seen as aligning with the left within the Democratic Party, and the center within the Republican Party.
That is an untenable position for a conservative movement that needs to generate new ideas and groom future leaders who can speak articulately and persuasively to the whole country. (It's true that Ronald Reagan was not a book learner, but under the theory of multiple intelligences, he more than held his own.) Before conservatism was a viable political movement, it was a viable intellectual movement, and it was those on the center and in the left who were seen as intellectually slovenly.
This is why there is a unique urgency now to cast out the obscurantists and the conspiracy nuts. We don't have a Buckley anymore. Our intellectual giants have died off and not being replaced. And preventing the lowest common denominator from filling the void is a constant daily struggle.
In a movement and a party that has largely defined itself outside centers of higher learning in recent years (for good or ill) I believe the time is ripe for a return to Buckleyite elite conservatism.