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Is conservatism dead or just brain-dead?

Over his decades as a columnist, lecturer, TV host and debater, William F. Buckley Jr. lost his cool in public only once — when he threatened to sock Gore Vidal "in your goddamn face" on the third night of their joint appearances on ABC during the ill-fated 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Three nights on a television set with Vidal might drive anyone mad, yet Buckley also tangled with the roughest players on the left, from Jesse Jackson to William Kunstler, with unfailing composure.

But suppose that instead of his formal addresses and his weekly "Firing Line" show on PBS, Buckley had hosted a talk-radio show 15 hours a week for 20 years, or hosted a nightly hour-long cable-news show, sliced into six-minute segments. One can imagine him sniffing: "You can't possibly immanentize the eschaton in six minutes!" But one can also imagine him overexposed, spread thin chasing the issue of the moment and perhaps losing his temper now and then — in short, less the man of style and ideas who inspired two generations of conservative thinkers and more just a populist shock jock with a funny prep-school accent.

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and '70s to its success in Ronald Reagan's era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We've traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter.

President Obama has delivered CPR to the movement with his program of government gigantism, but this resuscitation should not be confused with a return to political or intellectual health. The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flatlining.

Consider the "tea party" phenomenon. Though laudatory, it is unfocused, lacking the connection to a concrete ideology that characterized the tax revolt of the 1970s, which was joined at the hip with insurgent supply-side economics. The obsession of the "birthers" with Obama's origins is reviving frivolous paranoia as the face of conservatism. (Does anyone really think that if evidence existed of Obama's putative foreign birth, Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn't have found it 18 months ago?)

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption," Glenn Beck's "Arguing With Idiots" and all of Ann Coulter's well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov's dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams' dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The best-seller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman's "Free to Choose," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," Paul Johnson's "Modern Times," Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Charles Murray's "Losing Ground" and "The Bell Curve," and Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man." Conservative intellectuals still attempt to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don't sell.

About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism," which argues that modern liberalism has more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work. Had it been called "Aspects of Illiberal Policymaking: 1914 to the Present," it might have been received differently — and sold about 200 copies.

It's hard to say whether conservative intellectuals are simply out of interesting ideas or if the reading public simply finds their ideas boring. This should prompt self-criticism on the right. Conservatism has prospered most when its attacks on liberalism have combined serious alternative ideas with populist enthusiasm. When the ideas are absent, the movement has nothing to offer — except opposition. That doesn't work for long in American politics.

It was not enough just to expose liberalism's weakness; it was also necessary to offer robust alternatives for both foreign and domestic policy, ideas that came to fruition in the Reagan years. Today it is not clear that conservative thinkers have compelling alternatives to Obama's economic or foreign policy; the right is badly divided over the economy, Iran and Afghanistan.

It's tempting to blame the new media landscape. Today's populist conservative blockbusters have one thing in common: Most are written by media figures, either radio or TV hosts, or people who get lots of TV exposure. The built-in marketing advantage is obvious. The left thinks talk radio and Fox News are insidious forces, which shows that they are effective. But some on the right think talk radio has dumbed down the movement, that there is plenty of sloganeering but little thought. John Derbyshire, author of a forthcoming book about conservatism's future, "We Are Doomed," calls our present condition "Happy Meal Conservatism, cheap, childish and familiar."

It is perfectly possible to conduct talk radio at a high level of seriousness, and several talkers do well at matching the quality of their shows to their intellectual pedigree: the Salem Radio Network's Hugh Hewitt (Michigan Law School), Michael Medved (Yale Law School) and William Bennett (Harvard Law, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas).

With others, such as Michael Savage and "Mancow," the charge of dumbing down is much more accurate. Rush Limbaugh adheres to Winston Churchill's adage that you should grin when you fight. Others, such as Sean Hannity, seem unremittingly angry and too reflexively partisan on behalf of the Republican Party rather than the conservative movement.

Glenn Beck, Time magazine's "Mad Man," is more interesting. His on-air weepiness is unmanly, his flirtation with conspiracy theories debilitating, and his judgments sometimes loopy (McCain worse than Obama?) or just plain counterproductive (such as his convoluted charge that Obama is a racist). Yet Beck's potential contribution to conservatism can be summed up with one name: R.J. Pestritto.

Pestritto, a political scientist at Hillsdale College in Michigan who has appeared on Beck's TV show several times, is among a handful of young conservative scholars engaged in serious academic work critiquing the intellectual pedigree of modern liberalism. Their writing is often dense and difficult, but Beck not only reads it; he assigns it to his staff.

Beck may lack Buckley's urbanity, and his show will never be confused with "Firing Line." But he's onto something with his interest in serious analysis of liberalism's patrimony. If more conservative talkers challenged liberalism's bedrock assumptions as Beck does, liberals would have to defend their problematic premises more often.

Conservatives can start by engaging the central argument of the most serious indictment of conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus' new book "The Death of Conservatism." Tanenhaus thinks the problem with conservatism is that it is not properly deferential to liberalism's relentless engine of change — an elegant restatement of G.K. Chesterton's quip that is it is the business of progressives to go on making mistakes and that of conservatives to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. That won't do. A conservative movement that accepted Tanenhaus' prescription would be consigning itself to be the actuary of liberalism.

But Tanenhaus is right to direct our attention to the imbalance between the right's thinkers and doers. The single largest defect of modern conservatism is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left's belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking "markets" and "liberty." Beck is revealing that, despite the daily demands of filling hours of air time, it is possible to engage in some real thought. He just might be helping restore the equilibrium between the elite and populist sides of conservatism.

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