Since Barack Obama was elected president, many have claimed that the tone of national discourse has become distinctly soured. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party conceives Obama as a modern day messiah, while the far right of the Republican Party sees him as the new Hitler. Over the summer, Tea Party protests and raucous town hall meetings seemed to exemplify the tone of the health care debate. Unfortunately, much of this extremism has originated from the right, leading liberal pundits to show Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh as the new “leaders” of the Republican Party, and in doing so discredit conservatism as a whole. However, the real problem America faces is not with conservatism, but rather with populism—that insidious force which poisons American political discourse from both sides of the spectrum.
Rather than take liberal claims of conservatism’s demise at face value, we need to examine the underlying motives of the left. Even in today’s age of Obama, 40 percent of Americans self-identify as “conservative,” whereas only 21 percent identify as “liberal,” according to a recent Gallup poll. During the Bush years (especially the 2004 election), the term “liberal” became a political liability, as Republicans were able to convincingly caricature their opponents as tax-and-spend liberals who were soft on terrorism. As a result, liberals felt the need to re-brand themselves, choosing the term “progressive” in an attempt to win over the sizable portion of Americans who identify as moderates. The reason why this history lesson in semantics applies to the current topic is that liberals haven’t forgotten their thrashing, and are determined to do the same to the Republicans.
Thus, we see all conservatives branded as fanatical fear-mongerers who try to deny Americans the benefit of universal health insurance by screaming about death panels. These kinds of characterizations certainly don’t apply to all 40 percent of Americans who self-identify as conservative, yet dozens of liberal pundits have basically made that insinuation. I understand that all is fair in the game of politics, and I don’t presume to be so naive as to believe that everyone should just “respect each other more.” Rather, my goal is to point out that there are ulterior motives at play in this focus on conservative nuts by the liberal media, and that we should be aware of this when forming our opinions on the movement as a whole. It was wrong for conservatives to paint liberals as unpatriotic cowards in 2004, and likewise, it is equally unacceptable for liberals to portray conservatives as racist hicks today. Gross generalizations aside, birthers and tea-baggers do exist, and it is important to understand what ideology these people actually represent. These people are not conservatives but rather populists, who happen to associate with the far right wing of the Republican Party. Intellectual conservatism—which I would argue is grounded in the traditions laid out by figures such as Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley Jr., and Milton Friedman—is based on a belief that free markets, individual opportunity, and institutional stability are the best means of achieving a free and prosperous society. This is ultimately where the difference lies between intellectual conservatives and populists like Glenn Beck. For someone like William F. Buckley Jr., politics was a necessary means to an end, namely prosperity. For Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, politics is an end in itself, because the more exciting the horse race, the greater the audience for their vitriol.
If the obfuscation of conservatism weren’t already enough, the fact remains that many individuals who have been labeled as members of the “far right” aren’t even right wing at all. For instance, we all remember that exchange from a town hall meeting over the summer, when a woman called Obama a Nazi and Barney Frank responded by labeling her a nut. For liberals, this was a heroic moment, as a champion of their cause stood up to the fear-mongering of the right. However, the ignoramus in question was not a conservative, but rather a supporter of the radical leftist populist, Lyndon LaRouche . Combine this with figures like Michael Moore and you start to see a radical wing of the Democratic Party that looks equally as insidious as that of the Republicans.
Conservatism is not dead, but it is leaderless. When a political party is not in office, it is always vulnerable to attacks on its credibility because it does not have a sitting president able to defend it. Until 2012, the Republicans are going to have deal with pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh hijacking their name to boost their own ratings—something that liberals will in turn relish. However, a large portion of Americans continue to identify as conservative—a fact that liberals will quickly recognize in the 2012 elections.
Jonathan Hollander is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics. He is the director of intergroup affairs for the College Republicans. Reasonably Right runs alternate Wednesdays. email@example.com