We could be at a unique historical moment for both the Democratic and Republican parties.
On the Democratic side, Obama excepted, almost all of the major political figures were shaped by the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements. They have a sense of moral indignation and fire that’s absent in Obama. His appeal (in addition to his charisma, charm and rhetorical skills) stems largely from his post-1960s outlook. To the older Democrats, change only comes about through hard struggle against unyielding forces; they consider Obama naïve to think otherwise, and arrogant as well because he believes the time has come to move beyond this narrow view of political progress.
Their frustration was clear in a recent discussion with one of Clinton’s biggest supporters, Geraldine Ferraro, in which she lambasted those who take for granted the gains in women’s rights, and fail to realize how hard-fought they were.
It is easy to understand how this core group of Democrats has come to believe that their contributions to social justice are being undervalued. Obama has taken pains to thank them and make clear that he wouldn’t be where he is if not for their efforts; at the same time he is unapologetic in his call for change, which is no doubt directed at them as much as at the GOP.
The change taking place on the Republican side has been more gradual, and took on particular resonance with the passing of William F. Buckley this past week. Buckley was the consummate intellectual elitist, a person whom the modern Republican Party came to loathe; he was the son of a rich oilman, educated with private tutors and in the best New England schools, spoke in a haughty British accent and routinely quoted Shakespeare, was an avid yachter, and to his dying day believed that the right to vote should be restricted to those who passed certain literacy tests.
To his dismay, the conservative movement that he helped created and the Republican Party that he called home took on an increasingly anti-intellectual bent. This anti-intellectualism reached its apex with the presidency of George W. Bush, who is almost proud that he can’t speak proper English and who uses his “ranch” in Texas as a stage set to prove his “heartland” credentials. Similarly, Buckley’s fierce but substantive and respectful debate program, Firing Line, has been replaced by Fox News and the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly; these men are many things, but gentlemen in the Buckley mold is not among them.
Buckley came around to believe that the Iraq War has been a failure and antithetical to true conservative principles; for this he was branded a senile old man and a coward by some of the very people whom he helped elevate to positions of power. This account of a debate between Buckley and Norman Podhoretz (an influential neocon who has never visited the Middle East, but has written books on the region and who claims that Iran must be bombed), is striking. Buckley asks Podhoretz if he’s at all embarrassed that Iraq didn’t have any WMD; to this, without a shred of evidence, Podhoretz claims that all the WMD were shipped to Syria.
If conservatism and the Republican Party are to regain their footing, their leaders would be wise to shed their anti-intellectualism and try to once again become the “party of ideas”. If the past seven plus years have taught us anything, it is this: when ideology and party loyalty come before competence and intellectual merit, the results are disastrous.
(In next week’s piece I will discuss Obama’s potential to actually further many key Democratic values in a way the old guard has been unable to do.)