We can take it from some pieces posting by David Frum and Andrew Sullivan that conservatives are in deep trouble if Rush Limbaugh is their leading intellectual light. But dissing Rush as a thinker is all too easy. The difficult question is which conservatives deserve to be called the breakthrough thinkers that the man from talk radio clearly is not.
One reader of Sullivan's blog nominates some candidates. "What attracted me to conservatism as a young person in the early 1980s," this person writes, "was its challenge to engage and understand some real thinkers - Hayek, von Mises, Kirk, Buckley, Friedman, Chambers. You didn't have to be an intellectual, but you needed to understand them. Reagan did. Now, instead of intellectuals, we have clowns like Joe the Plumber and Limbaugh getting all the attention." Sullivan adds his own candidates: "Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Amalryk, Hayek, Lewis, Bernard Levin, and eventually, as I grew old enough to understand them, Oakeshott and Strauss."
I certainly have no problem with Orwell, although he was, after all, a socialist. Strauss and Oakeshott clearly ought to be in the conservative canon of great thinkers, even if the former's views did not always translate into wise public policies by his self-proclaimed followers, and the latter's sense caution led him to distrust big ideas as well as big plans. But the others? If this is the best conservatives can come up, there's a problem somewhere.
No need for me to comment again on Kirk; I wrote a long piece about him for TNR some time ago. Von Mises is a second-rate Hayek, as if two Austrians saying by and large the same thing were better than one. Hayek's Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944, treated Nazism not primarily as a question of race hatred but as the logical extension of socialism and claimed that those who disagree with his analysis "work at the same time for ideas whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny," thereby anticipating the thesis of Liberal Fascism. Milton Friedman certainly contributed to a revolution in economic thinking but his political views were as predictable as they come. Buckley was a terrific journalist and lively entertainer. Bernard Levin, for whatever reason, will be best remembered for not marrying Arianna Huffington, with whom he was romantically involved for nine years. Bernard Lewis managed to get the only subject he studied, Islam, wrong, at least in Iraq (where it mattered). Sam Tanenhaus is persuasive that we ought to take Chambers seriously, but whether he was a great thinker is surely open to question. I'll take a pass on the Russians.
I can certainly understand why conservatism in the age of Wurzelbacher would want to look back to better days. This country has had its share: Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John C. Calhoun, Orestes Brownson, T. S. Eliot. Along with Garry Wills, I've long had a fascination with Yale's Wilmoore Kendall. The Southern Agrarians who wrote I'll Take My Stand produced a book still worth reading, despite its implicit racism. I don't particularly like the ideas of any of them. But I would be the first to acknowledge that they all had ideas.
I wonder why these people are so rarely cited when conservatives name their all-stars. It may be the libertarian impulse, which leans toward free-marketers rather than conservative communitarians. Or it could just be that conservatives, like so many other Americans, are too present-minded to reach back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In either case, however, searching for yesterday's conservatives tells us something about today's. As an intellectual movement conservatism is weak because it has a hard time remembering what it wants to conserve.