The Case for Middlebrow Conservatism

John Derbyshire, of the American Conservative, recently wrote a very provocative essay called, How Radio Wrecks the Right. (H/T to The Volokh Conspiracy) While not completely maligning talk radio, Derbyshire offers a healthy critique of it’s raucous flavor and populist inducing mania. His solution? One which seems much more suited for America, middlebrow conservatism.

Derbyshire, in the first half of his article, is quick to point out the boorish and garish nature of talk radio has devolved conservatism. Many on the right side of intellectualism do not seem to appreciate talk-radio’s, more specifically Rush Limbaugh, brand of marketing, which forms their message into spoofs, irony, and quick-witted insults of the Left. Doing little more than provoking reflexive reaction in listeners rather than thought. Of course, there is the other side of the argument that Limbaugh does know his enemy well and he seems to have an instinctive flare for deciphering the Left’s plans and motivation.

For many years, conservatism stood as the intellectual rebellion against the liberally indoctrinating members of academia and government. Writers such as William F. Buckley and Irvin Kristol lashed out against the rise of the New Left, in the fifties and sixties, with some of the fiercest cerebral onslaughts since Burke in the late 18th century. Buckley is recognized and credited with single-handedly bringing together, conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals under one tent which became known as the National Review.

He encouraged his writers and editorial staff to explain their positions and to debate the issues. This in hopes of influencing conservative policy makers and politicians. Unexpectedly, the National Review gained popularity amongst working class conservatives who appreciated its intellectual, yet satirical nature. They offered, to the American public, cutting edge criticism of liberalism with stalwart evidence of its inadequacies, insightful commentary, and even humor. It made people think as well as smirk, nourishing their intellectual and emotional sides.

Derbyshire, in the last half of his essay , mentions a BBC radio program which he listened to while visiting his native country of England.

One of the few things I used to look forward to on my occasional visits to the mother country was Radio 4, which almost always had something interesting to say on the 90-minute drive from Heathrow to my hometown. One current feature is “America, Empire of Liberty,” a thumbnail history of the U.S. for British listeners. The show’s viewpoint is entirely conventional but pitched just right for a middlebrow radio audience.

Most Americans happily fall into the category of middlebrow, pragmatic enough to know when something is wrong, but dolefully lacking the avenues with which to back their hypothesis up with facts.

Now, providing this path is not incumbent on talk radio and since hype generates ratings, expecting this to happen in the near future would be adolescent.

As Derbyshire points out in his closing, lowbrow conservatism is fun. It is nice to listen or watch someone kick around stuff shirted elitists who would sooner swim in a lake of fire than mix with people whom they are actually fearful of. You know, us God loving, gun totting, illiterate, homosexual hating, racist, xenophobes.

Still it would behoove the conservative movement to seriously think about blending its formidable intellectual prowess with its equally capable marketing giants. A group of populist motivated semi-intellectuals would accomplish more than a thousand Heritage Foundations or Rush Limbaughs could ever dream of by themselves.

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Anonymous said...

I've heard this guy and personally think his point if off. We read the Constitution and live the Constitution. Simple. Dumbing down or up is a misdirecting the point. Keep it simple, because it is. We don't need an NPR type conservative leader. We just need a leader.

Critical Thinker said...


I want to apologize for my late response. However I must respectfully disagree with you. Living by the Constitution is very simple. The only problem is that is putting the cart before the horse. That is a goal that is to be reached and has little to do with the battle to get there.

First, one of the recipes that has allowed the Left so many victories is that most of there major candidates are lawyers. Shysters whom can twist words, mince positions, and sound great doing it. Two prime examples are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They were voted in because of charisma not talent. Arguably, some of Obama's speeches have even sounded conservative in the Burkean sense.

Secondly, Derbyshire did not call for an NPR candidate. All he was asking for was a little revival of some thought coupled with the intense populism among the conservative constituency. I might add the last time this was tried was the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and we all know how that turned out. Reagan wasn't an intellect in the tweed jacket, starched collar, pipe smoking sense. However, he was a highly intelligent and VERY sensible man. Another example would be Theodore Roosevelt, ivy league educated and life schooled in the badlands in North Dakota.

Thirdly, if conservatives aren't schooled on the philosophy we will keep getting candidates who might know how to sound conservative but are just paying lip service. How would anyone know the difference if they don't understand conservatism? Fine recent examples of this are George Herbert Walker Bush and son.

Fourthly, most bloggers are wired by nature, to read conservative magazines, policy publications from leading think tanks, and the writings of conservative thinkers. This is done, usually in the name of research, or just plain being a news and information junkie. Go to any Conservative blog and there is at least one link to the Heritage Foundation or CATO, sometimes more. We take for granted that the average, everyday, hardworking American reads what we do, that is not necessarily the case.

Most get their information from talk radio and television due to time constraints or just plain being whooped from work. So why not add a little material these places put out to the discussion on talk radio or television? Rush has been touting the Heritage Foundation in recent months, take it a step further. Make people think provocatively, would there be any harm in that? Pragmatic masses were the backbone of this great country one upon a time.

As always M, thanks for stopping by and offering up a good dose of debate. Your commentary is always welcomed.


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