The conservative opinion elite is divided—irreconcilably so—about Sarah Palin's decision to quit the Alaska governorship. One faction says good riddance: The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer had already judged her unfit for national office 24 hours before her announcement, and The New York Times's Ross Douthat now refers to her "brief sojourn on the national stage" in the past tense. On the other side, the Post's William Kristol called Palin's quitting a "high-risk move" designed to catapult her to greater public prominence. Taking the longer view, though, the clash is symptomatic of the deepest strategic debate in Republican circles since the disciples of the Reagan revolution captured Congress in 1994.
For decades it has remained a Republican article of faith: white, lower-middle-class, "heartland" masses, fundamentally socially conservative, were an inexhaustible electoral resource. So much so that Bill Clinton made re-earning their trust—he called them the Americans who "worked hard and played by the rules"—the central challenge in rebuilding Democratic fortunes in the 1990s. And in 2008 the somewhat aristocratic John McCain seemed to regard bringing these folks back into the Republican fold so imperative that he was moved to make the election's most exciting strategic move: drafting churchgoing, gun-toting unknown Sarah Palin onto the GOP ticket.
But beneath the surface, some Republicans have been chafing at the ideological wages of right-wing populism. In intel-lectual circles, writers like David Brooks and Richard Brookhiser have argued for a conservatism inspired by Alexander Hamilton, the least democratic of the Founding Fathers, over one spiritually rooted in Thomas Jefferson, the most democratic. After Barack Obama's victory, you heard thinkers like author and federal judge Richard Posner lamenting on his blog that "the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party."
Such discomfort has been dormant for some time. Under the influence of philosophical gurus like Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol, the sotto voce tradition arose of flattering the sort of voter who drove a pickup truck even if he wasn't the sort you might want to socialize with. (Take, for example, "jes' folks" Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Long before his jet-setting affair, after all, he met the jet-setting, Georgetown-educated Yankee investment banker who became Mrs. Sanford at a Hamptons beach party.) But Palin has raised the "class" question publicly among conservatives as seldom before.
Michael Barone, writing in March on U.S.News's Thomas Jefferson Street blog, noted that the electorate's portion of "under-30 downscale whites" has been stagnating, while the participation of both young upscale whites and African?-Americans generally has spiked upward. The pool is shrinking; thus he thinks Republicans should now focus on wooing upscale whites, banking on their disenchantment with Obama's moves to fix the economy. Author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum recently made the argument, on the occasion of the split between Palin's single 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, and the 19-year-old father of her child, that "it is marriage that creates culturally conservative voters—and young downscale Americans are not getting married. When they do marry, they do not stay married: While divorce rates among the college educated have declined sharply since the 1970s, divorce rates among high school graduates remain ominously high." In a much-discussed blog post titled "Bristol's Myth," Frum cited statistics showing that white women without a college degree are far more likely to have a child out of wedlock than their -college-educated counterparts. He concluded that "the socially conservative downscale voter is increasingly becoming a mirage—and a Republican politics based on that mirage will only lead us deeper into the desert."
It was a strange argument to make. This is the kind of statistical story liberals frequently tell: they will note that the states that vote most heavily Republican are the ones with the highest divorce rates, teenage births, and usage of online pornography—the highest rates of sin. They mean to sting conservatives with the charge of hypocrisy: "See? Conservatives aren't more 'moral' after all." Such claims, though, misunderstand a basic underpinning of conservative philosophy: human beings become civilized not through the absence of sin but the conscious struggle with sin. Sin is bad; but the true offense is sin in the absence of guilt—an indifference to the notion that there are moral boundaries even worth recognizing. Conservatism is usually most politically successful in religiously orthodox precincts where anxiety over the modern-day collapse of visible moral boundaries is most evident. That Americans sin a lot so we can't hope for them to vote conservatively is a new claim.
Why the change? For one thing, populism has never been an entirely comfortable fit for elite conservatives. Majorities of middle-class Americans can be persuaded to support tax cuts for the rich—even repeal of the estate tax—out of an optimism that they may eventually become rich themselves. But they are also susceptible to appeals like the one George Wallace made in the recession year of 1976. He built his campaign on both hellfire-and-brimstone moralism and a pledge of soak-the-rich tax policies. The elite conservative fears that the temptation to woo working-class voters will, you know, shade into policies that actually advantage the working class. That fear surfaced recently when Rush Limbaugh—whom Frum himself has singled out as one of the dangerous populists dragging the Republicans down—dismissed those who criticized the AIG bonuses as "peasants with their pitchforks" who must be silenced for the sake of conservative orthodoxy. But it's harder to persuade the economically less fortunate to respect conservative orthodoxy during a recession. That's starting to make some conservatives nervous.
Another thing that makes some elite conservatives nervous in this recession is the sheer level of unhinged, even violent irrationality at the grassroots. In postwar America, a panicky, violence-prone underbrush has always been revealed in moments of liberal ascendency. In the Kennedy years, the right-wing militia known as the Minutemen armed for what they believed would be an imminent Russian takeover. In the Carter years it was the Posse Comitatus; Bill Clinton's rise saw six anti-abortion murders and the Oklahoma City bombings. Each time, the conservative mainstream was able to adroitly hive off the embarrassing fringe while laying claim to some of the grassroots anger that inspired it. Now the violence is back. But this time, the line between the violent fringe and the on-air harvesters of righteous rage has been harder to find. This spring the alleged white-supremacist cop killer in Pittsburgh, Richard Poplawski, professed allegiance to conspiracist Alex Jones, whose theories Fox TV host Glenn Beck had recently been promoting. And when Kansas doctor George Tiller was murdered in church, Fox star Bill O'Reilly was forced to devote airtime to defending himself against a charge many observers found self-evident: that O'Reilly's claim that "Tiller the baby killer" was getting away with "Nazi stuff" helped contribute to an atmosphere in which Tiller's alleged assassin believed he was doing something heroic.
At least in the past, those who wished to represent their movement as cosmopolitan and urbane could simply point to William F. Buckley as the right's most prominent spokesman. Now Buckley is gone, and the most prominent spokesmen—the Limbaughs and O'Reillys and Becks—can be heard mouthing attitudes once confined to the violent fringe. For the second time in three months, Fox heavily promoted anti-administration "tea party" events this past Fourth of July—rallies in praise of secession and the Articles of Confederation, at which speakers "joked" about a coup against the communist Muslim Barack Obama like the one against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. "What's going on at Fox News?" Frum recently asked, excoriating Beck for passing out to followers books by the nutty far-right conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen. If you were an elite conservative, you might be embarrassed too.
The conservative intellectuals once were able to work together more effectively with the conservative unwashed. Now, more and more, their recent irritation renders them akin to the Stalinist commissars mocked by poet Bertolt -Brecht, who asked if they might "dissolve the people/And elect another." The bargain the right has offered the downwardly mobile, culturally insecure traditionalist—give us your votes, and we will give you existential certitudes in a world that seems somehow to have gone crazy—is looking less like good politics all the time.