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JONATHAN CHAIT

Here's the skinny on conservatives

July 30, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

THIS FALL, ABC is unveiling a new sitcom starring Calista Flockhart as a conservative television pundit. Now, when I read that the fair-haired, frighteningly undernourished actress was cast in this role, I immediately assumed that she was going to be modeled after a certain fair-haired, frighteningly undernourished right-wing pundit. Apparently I'm not the only one who had that reaction because the show's producer assured the public: "She's not Ann Coulter. She's not insane."

Indeed, the point of the show seems to be casting conservatives in a sympathetic and understanding light. As Jon Robin Baitz, a writer for the show, explained: "It's very, very interesting and compelling to us to try and understand this, to leave behind some of the smug presuppositions of the two coasts ... to look at evolving patriotism and evolving traditionalism."

Ever since President Bush won reelection almost two years ago, liberals have been on the cultural defensive. We're all a bunch of latte sippers; we don't understand Real Americans; we should feel guilty for not caring about stock car racing, etc. Because we are but a tiny, alien coastal minority, representing an insignificant 49% of the public, the burden of bridging the divide apparently rests with us. Flockhart's character, according to the show's staff, represents a small effort to bridge this gap -- Hollywood liberals seeking to present conservative beliefs in all their true complexity.

Well, God bless them. Unfortunately, I think they have a ways to go before they understand conservatism.

Flockhart's character is not merely non-insane, she's thoughtful, Baitz explained. "She's ideologically, in some respects, very much in mind with the older parts of the party, the sort of Eisenhower Republican, the William Buckley conservative."

If you didn't smack your forehead with the palm of your hand when you read that sentence, let me explain why you should have. Buckley was a staunch critic of Eisenhower. Indeed, he founded National Review in no small part to organize conservatives in opposition to Ike. As he wrote at one point: "It has been the dominating ambition of Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism to govern in such a fashion as to more or less please everybody. Such governments must shrink from principle."

Eisenhower was a moderate who made his peace with the New Deal and accommodated labor unions. Buckley, on the other hand, was the definitive conservative hard-liner. In the 1950s, he defended Joe McCarthy. In the 1960s, he spoke up for segregation.

Even more embarrassingly, a few months ago, the New York Times printed not one but two news stories describing Buckley as a neoconservative. Those of you who did smack yourselves on the forehead two paragraphs ago may have given yourselves concussions by now. For the rest of you, let me explain again. The term "neoconservatism" refers to those who converted to the right beginning in the 1970s. ("Neo" means "new.") The opposite of the neoconservatives are those conservatives who date back to the movement's origins. Those origins are generally agreed to be in the mid-1950s, to when Buckley founded National Review. If there is any conservative alive who is not a neoconservative, it's Buckley.

So, clearly, the great liberal experiment in understanding the right has a ways to go. I will say this, though, on behalf of my earnest, benighted liberal friends: At least they're trying. There are two biographies of Buckley that make fair-minded attempts to understand his thinking, and both are written by liberals. Even if sitcom writers and newspaper reporters get things wrong, there's still a deep sense among the liberal intelligentsia that it's important to understand conservative thinking in all its permutations.

But where are the right's efforts at outreach? You don't hear conservatives mourning their lack of common ground with the English department at Columbia University. In fact, it's incredibly rare to find a conservative who understands liberalism as anything other than hatred for the rich and a desire to hand over our foreign policy to the United Nations.

Winning, apparently, gives conservatives the luxury of not having to care what the other side thinks.

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