Now that Republicans have recaptured the Senate, what, pray tell, will become of those poor, poor conservative pundits?
November 5th was a banner day for GOP lawmakers, understandably anxious to resume implementation of their party's policy agenda after that frustrating interregnum during which their legislative hands were all but tied. For the men and women who write books geared toward conservative readers, however, Election Day must have been fraught with mixed emotions.
Answered prayers, in this case, mean a profound shift in their readership's perception of itself. No longer can they seriously consider themselves an endangered species, threatened by liberal politicians and their nefarious handmaidens: academia, the news media, the Federal judiciary, tree-huggers, predatory homosexuals, feminazis and fellow travelers.
With Republicans now controlling the presidency, both chambers of Congress and a majority of the nation's statehouses, how will the frothing Ann Coulter continue to persuade her audience that America is under attack from a new red menace? What sort of gasoline will fuel Sean Hannity's righteous fire in the absence of an obstructionist, Tom Daschle-led Senate? Whither Bill O'Reilly?
A paradox of the American conservative movement is that it generates much of its ideological momentum not from glorious triumph, but from noble defeat. Its candidates like to win, but secretly its intellectuals love to lose. Why? Winners gloat and grow fat with complacency. Losers regroup, whisper, strategize and, above all, imagine.
More significantly, with loss--especially bitter loss, like the kind Bob Dole suffered in 1996 at the hand of a publicly-disgraced-but-still-unbeatable Bill Clinton--comes indignation. And indignation sells tickets.
The Republican "big tent" got a hell of a lot bigger during the Clinton administration, an expansion which can be partially attributed to the efforts of conservative writers who knew just how to exploit the romance of political victimization. America, they suggested, had somehow become Vichy France, and it was the moral duty of her ragtag patriots to rise up valiantly and resist occupation by those liberal invaders.
Two new books by leading right-wing thinkers--serious ones, unlike Coulter, Hannity or O'Reilly--nimbly uphold the conservative tradition of bemoaning the culture of victimization, while borrowing some of its most effective gambits at the same time. One of them is by a former anti-P.C. provocateur turned policy wonk; the other comes from from a shell-shocked veteran of the bloody Washington, D.C. trenches.
Though neither book is especially profound, neither can automatically be dismissed. In both, individuals whose private histories and ethnic backgrounds might seem to defy our stereotypes about who should and shouldn't be a conservative trace their rightward political and intellectual journeys. At the same time, they manage to avoid addressing several of the pesky underlying questions that keep worrisome liberals from happily jettisoning their convictions and jumping over the ideological fence.
Dinesh D'Souza became a chattering-class celebrity a little over a decade ago with the publication of Illiberal Education, a book that cast America's universities as radical indoctrination centers where Marxist professors brainwashed wave after wave of God-fearing, corn-fed freshmen into the cult of moral relativism. Even though he was barely out of school himself--a Dartmouth man, and an editor of the right-wing Dartmouth Review, a journal of opinion for the Animal House crowd--D'Souza was already expert in positioning conservatism as a kind of philosophical reflex, the only appropriate response to a value system under attack.
That most American undergraduates were (and continue to be) motivated by social and parental pressure far more than by the ideologies of their professors did not dissuade him. Nor did the fact that a simple verbal poll of students would have almost certainly shown them to reflect the full spectrum of political thought, from hard left to hard right, with most of them falling right in the middle.
For all of its cynical alarmism, Illiberal Education did at least expose the insidious phenomenon known as political correctness, that embarrassing attempt by college administrators, professors and students to redress the historic oppression of marginalized groups by curbing free speech and stifling debate on campus. A dozen years and many books later, D'Souza has now written a primer for incoming freshmen who feel vulnerable to the insidious pull of leftist polemic.
Letters to a Young Conservative takes the form of an epistolary exchange, a la Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet or C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Each chapter is formulated as a response to a curious young man, Chris, whose nascent conservative ideology is being regularly tested by the forces of liberalism and relativism infecting his university. The fruit of their correspondence is this handy little apologia to which beleaguered proto-conservatives can turn when the going gets tough in class, in the dorm, in the library or wherever they happen to feel threatened. Stuff it in your backpack and go!
Faced with a smoothly articulate gay-marriage proponent? Simply flip to Chapter 23, and watch your adversary slink away to his den of iniquity when you show him how the official sanction of same-sex unions would inevitably lead us down the slippery slope toward legally recognized polygamy, incest and bestiality. Having trouble with that egg-headed sociology professor who stubbornly refuses to accept that young black males are disproportionately likely to be violent sexual predators? Go ahead and quote D'Souza directly on this thorny issue. In Chapter 21 he explains the paradox of low academic performance and high self-esteem among black males by suggesting that "self-esteem in these students is generated by factors unrelated to studies, such as the ability to beat up other students or a high estimation of one's sexual prowess" (emphasis added).
Maybe it's that feminist in your biology class who's giving you grief. Why not put her in her place by citing Chapter 12? This is where, after debunking the myth of a genuine earnings discrepancy between men and women in the workforce, D'Souza informs us that "there is another factor that could help to explain why, at the most advanced levels of academic and economic performance, men tend to do better than women. This factor is intelligence."
Of course I'm taking these quotes and ideas out of context, highlighting some of D'Souza's more inflammatory statements and isolating them to make him appear much less reasonable, and much more frightening, than he truly is. That's the way this game is played: Illiberal Education wouldn't have sold a single copy had it acknowledged that most college students were natural political centrists who cared more about Bartles & Jaymes than Marx & Engels. And like that book, Letters to a Young Conservative needs to comically overstate the cancerous liberal threat in order to justify its protocol for fighting it.
By positing political life in America as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, D'Souza's book--like so many of its companions on the conservative bookshelf--skirts the questions that underlie liberal dissent. Why seriously explore complicated issues like pay inequity, institutional racism, lingering homophobia or environmental degradation by rapacious multinationals when you can preempt the entire discussion by painting those who ask troubling questions as buffoons--or better yet, traitors?
Like Dinesh D'Souza, Linda Chavez doesn't fit the stereotypical conservative profile. He's an Indian from Bombay, she's a Latina from working-class Albuquerque. Outside of the Beltway, most people who know the name at all remember her as President Bush's first choice to be his labor secretary. Her nomination was scuttled after it was revealed that she had temporarily housed and given money to a woman she knew to be an illegal immigrant.
There was something seedy about the way liberals pounced on the red meat of Chavez's failure to disclose to the Bush screeners what was, by almost all accounts, an act of selfless charity. But her enemies -- mainly labor leaders, educators and Hispanic activists who saw her as a cultural traitor -- relished the chance to shoot down one of Bush's appointees in the immediate aftermath of the torturous 2000 election. Linda Chavez died for Florida's sins.
Chavez began her political life as a liberal supporter of affirmative action and labor unions. For many years she sat at the right hand of Albert Shanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the most hated organizations in the sizeable conservative demonology.
Unlike D'Souza, however, Chavez arrived at her conservatism not from dorm-room bull sessions arguing Burke versus Rousseau, but through a long and formal process of disillusionment with the policies of the left. If D'Souza seems smug, Chavez seems melancholy. Her memoir lacks the snarky certitude of D'Souza's tract; she doesn't assign to liberals faulty motives, just faulty methodologies.
Actually, though she has titled her book An Unlikely Conservative, there's nothing that unusual about Linda Chavez's transformation. It's the classic Neoconservative odyssey made by former leftists like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and even Ronald Reagan. As she experiences firsthand affirmative action's "tyranny of low expectations," witnesses the blithe ineptitude of Federal bureaucrats and battles the supporters of bilingual education who see the English-only curriculum as a racist tool, her assumptions are challenged and she's forced to reconcile her liberal beliefs with the evidence before her.
Ultimately she can't. So she switches sides. And that's pretty much Linda Chavez's story in a nutshell. While decrying quotas and affirmative action as matters of public policy, she eventually makes her way up Washington's power ladder as a beneficiary of informal political quotas. At last she latches onto the Reagan administration as a staunch opponent of racial preferences, one whose ethnicity indemnifies her from charges of racism--though not, as she discovers, from charges of opportunism or even self-loathing.
In the end, Linda Chavez is neither a crass opportunist nor a self-hating Latina. She's just someone whose crisis of faith happened to dovetail perfectly with the Republican party's plans to reinvent itself as the party of inclusiveness. She and Dinesh D'Souza are the future of a conservative movement that recognizes the diminishing utility of having only rich white men represent it in the marketplace of ideas. (Prediction: George W. Bush will nominate the first Hispanic justice to the United States Supreme Court. You heard it here first.)
Whether their philosophies have merit is debatable. But there's no question that in the ongoing fight to win American hearts and minds, tomorrow's right-wing warriors are going to look a lot more like D'Souza and Chavez, and a lot less like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.