Examining the new conservative schism

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Marco Rubio waves to attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on February 18, 2010 in Washington, DC. Rubio is a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida.

In the old days, we had RINO’s and establishment “Rockefeller Republicans” to hate. It was a simpler time. But as George Will recently noted — establishment Republicans “died at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964 when Goldwater was nominated against their frenzied wishes.”

And so, a new internecine battle has emerged. A few years ago, the term “establishment conservative” might have been considered an oxymoron. Today, it is bandied about cavalierly.

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter or political blogs lately, you know there is a growing disconnect between a large group of grassroots conservatives and a smaller, yet prominent, cadre of so-called establishment conservatives (or what I call “cosmopolitan conservatives.”)

Depending on how you see things, this dichotomy can also be framed as anti-intellectual tea party “hobbits” versus Burkean Buckleyites — or as salt of the earth “country class” conservatives versus “ruling class” establishment elites. Many of the most bitter political disagreements taking place on Twitter these days can fundamentally trace their roots to this division.

So how did this modern schism arise?

The most common creation myth goes like this: a). Conservative moves to Washington, b). conservative starts hanging out with liberals at cocktail parties, and c). conservative slowly adopts more liberal positions in order to fit in. (Interestingly, progressives have their own version of the “cocktail party circuit” trope, whereby a good liberal comes to DC, only to be co-opted and corrupted by the moderate forces within the Democratic Party…)

The problem is that cosmopolitan conservatives aren’t exclusively denizens of Washington, DC, moreover, the positions they typically espouse aren’t necessarily more liberal — in fact, they are often more conservative (they tend to be grounded in conservative philosophy, as opposed to dogmatic adherence to talk show host-driven talking points. As Joseph Sobran said of himself, they favor “a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that was preoccupied with immediate political issues”).

Of course, the creation myth isn’t always a myth, either; there is little doubt that good people are sometimes seduced by the corrupting forces of Washington, DC. We have all seen conservatives who compromised on beliefs they once professed; I suspect that, to a lesser degree, this is also a liberal lament. There are, of course, apostates (I won’t name names) — but that is not the phenomenon this post seeks to examine.

Regardless, focusing on this particular creation myth assumes the responsibility for the schism lies solely on the side of the cosmopolitan conservatives. In fact, the positions staked out and defended vociferously by the grassroots “tea party” set are often not arrived at organically. Most grassroots conservatives — whether they realize it consciously, or not — are taking their cues from another set of opinion leaders (typically talk radio or cable TV hosts).

This phenomenon is called a “cascade.” It essentially means that most people reach a consensus without ever fully understanding the issues. In a way, this is logical. We all do it. Nobody can be an expert on everything, and so, at some point even the most highly educated people defer to the “experts” they trust.

The 19th-century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, explained it nicely, when he wrote:

… so-called universal opinion is the opinion of two or three persons; and we should be persuaded of this if we could see the way in which it really arises.

We should find that it is two or three persons who, in the first instance, accepted it, or advanced and maintained it; and of whom people were so good as to believe that they had thoroughly tested it. Then a few other persons, persuaded beforehand that the first were men of the requisite capacity, also accepted the opinion. These, again, were trusted by many others, whose laziness suggested to them that it was better to believe at once, than to go through the troublesome task of testing the matter for themselves. Thus the number of these lazy and credulous adherents grew from day to day; for the opinion had no sooner obtained a fair measure of support than its further supporters attributed this to the fact that the opinion could only have obtained it by the cogency of its arguments. The remainder were then compelled to grant what was universally granted, so as not to pass for unruly persons who resisted opinions which every one accepted, or pert fellows who thought themselves cleverer than any one else.

When opinion reaches this stage, adhesion becomes a duty; and henceforward the few who are capable of forming a judgment hold their peace.

(Emphasis mine.)

As John Tierney has noted, something can be true and still be a cascade, so this is not a value judgment. But the important thing to realize is that most of the people advocating a given position don’t fully understand it. They are just taking their cues from someone else. And once something becomes a consensus opinion, even those who might otherwise disagree are often intimidated or silenced.

I suspect this is at the heart of many of the most bitter political fights taking place between grassroots conservatives and cosmopolitan conservatives today. Spend some time on Twitter and it becomes obvious that there are some (not all) grassroots conservatives who blindly adhere to whatever a handful of politicians, cable news pundits, and talk radio hosts, say — and punish those who dare object.

This, as Schopenhauer might say, is their “duty.”

To the victim or even the casual observer, this is both infuriating and predictable.

This, of course, is not to say that the cosmopolitan conservatives always get it right — or that grassroots conservatives always lack introspection. Indeed, the “best and brightest” got us into Vietnam. But this is to say that the elites sometimes do get it right — and that the masses we collectively lionize are not always on the side of the angels.

Matt K. Lewis