“Brain-dead Conservatives:” Whose side are you on, the populists or the elitists?

If some commentators had their way, the conservative movement would toss out the raucous “tea party” people and remake itself as a gaggle of eggheads. We would be fools to do so. Here’s why:

An army in the ancient world needed foot-soldiers, charioteers and archers. A football team today needs an offense, a defense and special teams. Leave out one element, and the entire enterprise usually founders. (Yeah, we’re talkin’ to you, Redskins.) And a political movement needs:

  • Intellectuals, who develop ideas and apply old ideas to new circumstances (Edmund Burke, Adam Smith)
  • Activists, who explain ideas to the public and rally people around those ideas (Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine), and
  • Politicians, who put those ideas into practice in government (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson).

The divisions between the categories are not absolute. In the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman straddled the line between intellectuals and activists, and Ronald Reagan the line between activists and politicians. Nevertheless, conservatism, like any political movement, is most successful when it is strong in all three aspects.

In the years immediately after the defeat of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Buckley became the public face of the conservative movement — or, at least, the face that the liberal media considered respectable.

Buckley was witty, an Ivy Leaguer and a man of a great intellect, and he had close friendships with prominent figures among the liberal elite. In an era when conservatism was thought by many people to be finished as a political movement, Buckley, with his magazine, his newspaper column and his TV show, kept the conservative flame alive — almost single-handedly, it seemed at times.

Buckley’s prominence was rooted in his talent, of course, but it was also rooted in the fact that other elements of conservatism were weak. Yes, there were tens of thousands of conservative activists out there, but they were poorly organized and were always playing catch-up to the liberals.

As for conservative officeholders, consider this: When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976, his endorsers included only two governors and only two U.S. Senators.

Commentators who pine for the intellectual-dominated conservative movement of the good ol’ days are yearning for an illusion. Looking back, the movement of the late ’60s and much of the ’70s seems to have been dominated by Buckley, his colleagues at National Review magazine and other intellectuals like Nobel Prize winners F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. But that’s because the movement was so weak in other areas.

In recent years, the conservative movement was largely dismantled by George W. Bush, who managed to discredit conservatism while, to a great extent, practicing liberalism. Now President Barack Obama is working feverishly to rebuild the conservative movement. His decision to govern from the Far Left, rather than from the left-of-center as he promised, has energized a new generation of activists.

Among the millions of new conservative activists inspired by Obama, some are uncouth, and a few say or write things that are wrongheaded or that bring embarrassment to the token Republicans who get invited to cocktail parties in Manhattan or Georgetown.

As time passes — as the new activists gain experience and as they learn more about politics and about conservatism — they will become more effective and more in tune with the movement’s intellectual foundation.

Some commentators seem to believe that, because the new generation of conservative activists is populist, it is anti-intellectual. That’s based on a misunderstanding of populism.

Populism is the belief that the people should rule themselves. It is the opposite of elitism (or progressivism), which holds that society should be ruled by a credentialed elite — by those who come from the right families or went to Ivy League schools or who have big money or political influence. As Thomas Jefferson noted:

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

“In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak and write, they will declare themselves. Call them … by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still, and pursue the same object.”

The battle-lines in American politics today are drawn between liberals, the would-be aristocrats who would control every aspect of our lives, and conservatives, who represent the interests and values of most Americans and who believe that people should be free. In that conflict, intellectuals and non-intellectuals will be among those picking up their pitchforks.

Richard A. Viguerie is a founder of the modern conservative movement. Steven J. Allen, JD, PhD, is a journalist and policy analyst, and the creator of the satirical comic strip “The Gentleman from Lickskillet.”

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