Irving Kristol’s Death Highlights Growth of Anti-Intellectualism in Conservative Movement

The recent death of Irving Kristol has led many conservatives who are trying to fight the lunacy which has taken control of the conservative movement,  such as Andrew Sullivan, to note how the conservative movement has deteriorated. Sullivan refers to Bruce Bartlett:

Commentary is now just a highbrow version of National Review, which is just a glossy version of Human Events, which has become a slightly less hysterical version of nutty websites like WorldNetDaily. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard, founded by Kristol’s son Bill, just parrot the Republican Party line of the day.

The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism today is even greater than it was when Irving Kristol founded The Public Interest in 1965. What passes for a conservative movement these days wears its anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor. But as Kristol correctly understood, right-wing populism has no future and fundamental changes in the direction of government policy must be based on serious research and analysis that is grounded on hard data; that is to say, reality.

This leads back to the question of whether right wing craziness is something old or something new. Human Events might be even nuttier today as it echos WordNetDaily, but I recall it containing a lot of right wing nuttiness when reading it thirty years ago. Still, there were signs of actual thought in the conservative movement in the past which are becoming harder and harder to find today (other than from those conservatives who have rejected the movement and share my view of it).

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  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    The main problem with the ‘classic era’ of conservative intellectualism was that it was guilty of the impractical idolization of theory that conservatives have always accused liberals of practicing. William F. Buckley Jr, Irving Kristol, George Will, Whittaker Chambers and the other ‘classic’ right wing intellectuals were intelligent people applying logic to their view of reality. The problem was that their logic was the logic of the Greek philosophers and Medeival Scholastics who believed that a system of logic could answer all scientif questions without actual experimentation. No one today doubts that Aristotle was brilliant, but the dialectic alone does not guarantee factual correctness, it only guarantees logical consistency.
    Conservatives (particularly libertarian conservatives) practice rationalism without the proper respect for empiricism. They believe that knowing the good and logically reasoning how a question relates to the good answers the question without active experimentation. When ‘classic’ conservatives did remember to employ empiricism, they nearly always took startlingly ‘liberal’ positions.
    The perfect example, of course, is Barry Goldwater’s support for the legalization of drugs and support for gay rights decades before such ideas became popular in the mainstream.

  2. 2
    John, Greenwich says:

    I’ve just re-read Hofstadter’s Anti Intellectualism in American Life. The last time I read this book was around 40 years ago not long after it was published in 1964. And guess what….absolutely nothing has changed, if anything things have got worse. It’s quite uncanny just how perfectly the book’s central thesis fits today’s circumstances. The major difference of course it that the know nothings are actually in control of the GOP due to the activities of among others Kristol and his offspring. It’s hard to tell what the ultimate consequences of this will be for the GOP but not good I suspect.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:


    I think the same anti-intellectualism has been around for a long time. I’ve also seen many of the characteristics of the present right in the past. As you say, the major difference is that the worst segments of the right are now in control of the GOP, and we hear so few other voices from the right. In the past, at least the Republicans did have a more moderate and even liberal wing. The conservatives have moved much further to the right and have adopted many of the views of the religious right. Even by his later years, Barry Goldwater called himself a liberal in protest over the domination of the religious right over the GOP, and things have gotten far worse.

  4. 4
    Brian says:

    The anti-intellectualism of these neo-conservatives From Kristol to Beck then check #p2 #tcot

  5. 5
    Brian (Beachbum) says:

    The anti-intellectualism of these neo-conservatives From Kristol to Beck then check #p2 #tcot

  6. 6
    steve says:

    It strikes me that anti-intellectualism and an anti-empirical bias is not the exclusive property of the right. Somewhere along the way positivism and empiricism have been morphed into one and the same thing by theorists on the left. I note that in the social movements authenticity rather than expertise counts for more when master narratives are discredited. Populism has its left and right flanks-railing about big business or big government sounds about the same without a scientific class analysis or political economy. It seems to me that postmodernism- is as Jameson says- the logic of late capitalism as we all head willy nilly toward ecological catastrophe as seen on you tube. Decay and disintegration are holistic with affect on all institutions, including the would-be alternative, in my humble opinion.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    Anti-intellectualism is certainly not exclusive to the right, but it has become the dominant view on the right.

  8. 8
    Eclectic Radical says:

    ‘Populism has its left and right flanks-railing about big business or big government sounds about the same without a scientific class analysis or political economy.’
    Populism is fundamentally anti-intellectual regardless of its left or right bias, this is true… this is not because of a deliberate anti-intellectual bias (though that bias often exists) as much as because populism taps into the feelings and resentments of ‘ordinary people’ suspicious of ‘elitism.’ So much of the rhetoric and activism of populism is rooted in basic social rage rather than clear thought. I agree with left wing populist attacks on big business, but I base my views on ecomomic, political, and sociological theory rather than anger alone. Not that I would deny a great deal of things make me very angry.
    I think the defining quality on the right, however, is a disdain for the idea that knowledge (or certain kinds of knowledge) can be learned. They believe in revealed wisdom rather than judgment, learning, or experience. Those intellectuals on the right who do exercise nuanced thought are either accorded the status of prophets and their words that of revelation, or they are belittled and driven out for contradicting the true revelation… all based on the existing store of traditionally accepted wisdom.
    This accordance of knowledge to the status of ‘mystical revelation’ is why anti-intellectualism is so rife on the right. The truth must be revealed to the initiate from a higher power; be that power God directly (as Sarah Palin frequently claims) or an initiate of higher status… say, Glenn Beck.

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