The Movement Conservative Style: Men without Footnotes

By The Intersection | June 16, 2011 11:36 pm


by Jon Winsor

In Monday’s piece on Rush Limbaugh, Chris mentions Rush’s confidence—that Limbaugh has psychologically “seized and freezed” on “climategate”, using it for his go-to excuse to end all discussion on climate.

It’s true that Rush is nothing if not confident. But this is partly a matter of what Rush Limbaugh does all day, nearly every day. As Nate Silver pointed out, there are certain demands that the medium of talk radio makes. Uncertainty and shades of grey don’t play well to Rush’s audience, who are often mowing their lawns and channel surfing through stations. So Rush has developed certain professional skills and habits to give his audience what it wants, which isn’t trenchant analysis of a topic, isn’t a discussion informed by reliable sources–Rush is above all an entertainer, as he often reminds us. And it seems he doesn’t feel he owes his audience much more than that.

…Which has me thinking of the conservatives who didn’t think of themselves as entertainers, who probably served as Limbaugh’s inspirations, and who originally worked in the medium of the essay and op-ed, not radio. Recently, a number of columnists have been reflecting on the work of the late Irving Kristol (whose work will be published soon in a new collection of essays). Most of the columns I’ve read make the following two points: 1) that Kristol was immensely influential (and not just an essayist–the word impresario often crops up), and 2) that Kristol continually drew conclusions that oversimplified his subjects—but drew those conclusions in so confident a way, so unacknowledging of other views, that his work seemed designed to simply end productive discussion.

George Scialabba in The Nation is the most scathing on Kristol:

Matisse said he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. Irving Kristol seems to have wanted his writing to have the effect of a good martini on a beleaguered corporate executive. The executive’s prejudices, widely scorned among the young and the educated (in the 1960s and 70s, that is, when Kristol began offering this therapy), were eloquently reaffirmed; his feelings, wounded by impertinent criticism, were tenderly soothed; his conscience, feeble but occasionally troublesome, was expertly anaesthetized. The executive’s gratitude knew no bounds; in return, he and his foundations showered their faithful servant with the money and favors that made Kristol so prominent a figure in American intellectual life.

…Kristol’s breezy certainty… is a thing to be envied. His ideological comrade Joseph Epstein wrote wonderingly of Kristol’s “commanding tone, supremely confident about subjects that are elsewhere held to be still in the flux of controversy, assuming always that anyone who thinks differently is perverse or inept.”

Kristol’s readers were decidedly not mowing lawns. They were donating to the then-fledgeling conservative foundations. He was also inspiring the next generation of conservative figures (like Limbaugh). Schialabba calls Kristol, despite his shortcomings (or perhaps because of them), “one of the most influential minds of his generation.”

Of course, you could argue that the job of someone writing for the Nation is to polemicize, and perhaps even build up some straw men. But we can also quote Karl Rove:

Karl Rove… called Mr. Kristol an “intellectual entrepreneur who helped energize several generations of public policy thinkers.” Through editing, writing and speaking, Mr. Kristol “made it a moral imperative to rouse conservatism from mainstream Chamber of Commerce boosterism to a deep immersion in ideas,” said Rove.

Franklin Foer at the New Republic has a similar opinion of Kristol’s influence:

Kristol’s significance to the movement very nearly matches [William F.] Buckley’s. The latter re-launched American conservatism in the 1950s, bringing the disparate forces of reaction and libertarianism under one anti-communist, anti-statist banner. But under Buckley’s leadership the movement remained raw, disorganized, apocalyptic-minded, delusional about the prospects of repealing the New Deal, and poised perennially to suffer Barry Goldwater’s fate. Kristol did more—as an ideologist and an institution builder—to solve the engineering problems that plagued Buckley’s contraption, and to burrow the tunnel through which conservatism entered its triumphal era.

On the quality of Kristol’s work, Foer writes:

For better or for worse, he would make his case by issuing categorical judgments, without expending much effort to provide bolstering evidence. Nathan Glazer titled his contribution to one Festschrift “A Man Without Footnotes.” At his best, this liberated Kristol to render broad judgments about history, politics, and life—the timeless questions of philosophy, which genuinely animated him…

But he also played the part of the counter-establishment pundit, the ideological provocateur, and in that role his pronouncements feel significantly less monumental. As he assumed his place as the “godfather” of a movement, bromides increasingly displaced his fine judgments, and his essays lost the vitality that came with his struggle to define a new politics. His thinking calcified into aphorism, and the aphorisms were often caricatures of ideas designed to rally the troops. He felt comfortable quipping, “It is the selfimposed assignment of neoconservatism to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong.”

The part about “without footnotes” seems crucial (most of Glazer’s essay can be found here). Yuval Levin’s attack on Chris’s work a few years ago cried out for footnotes. Reading Levin’s essay I found myself asking something like, “He seems supremely confident. But strangely, there are absolutely no science references. Isn’t he even going to drop Bjorn Lomberg’s name?” Or with George Will’s disastrous op-ed, I found myself asking, “just what are those ‘20 Internet reference links’”? These kinds of referenceless assertions seem similar to Rush Limbaugh’s “exchange” with NH resident Michael Hillinger, where there was no good faith attempt to publicly justify a case, just a flat assertion and a cut to a commercial.

Of course, the phrase “without footnotes” is mostly figurative here. No one expects a newspaper columnist to literally use footnotes. But still, footnotes exist for a reason. They are like the grade school math teacher who requires her students to “show your work,” partly to make sure students aren’t just giving someone else’s answers, but partly because mistakes can be instructive.  When you see how someone came to a wrong conclusion, there’s often something to learn.

Being “without footnotes,” or not being forthcoming with sources of information, can be a sign that you’re not playing the same good faith game as everyone else. You’re not willing to lay down your marker on the table and have it discussed. It seems to show a lack of respect for values that a country founded on Enlightenment principles should hold dear.  And Kristol certainly wasn’t holding up those values when he at one point called talk-radio populism “the ‘last, best hope’ of contemporary conservatism.”


Comments (4)

  1. Chris Mooney

    Yes…but maybe not everybody wants an argument with footnotes, which would be why Kristol was so effective. Maybe some people want just enough of an argument to reinforce and be sure of themselves. In other words, you’ve just convinced me Kristol was a genius.

  2. TTT

    You haven’t really read Irving Kristol until you’ve read him talk about how much Negroes scare him because they look Oriental. Though his same-breath praising of Ivy League legacy admissions while bashing minority admission quotas for undermining meritocracy comes in a very close second.

    With Kristol, Buckley, and most other supposed “thinkers” of that generation of conservatism, I really get the feeling that “you had to be there”–that there was something in the force of personality of the person that simply had to make them sound more convincing. Because to a person who didn’t become politically aware until after these supposed luminaries had either gotten very old or were actually dead, they just look like blustering con artists. It might also help that the more time passed, the more their wishes became true–i.e. relentless tax cuts and military adventurism–and are now free for judgment outside the beautiful world of perfect academic theory. That’s one of many unfortunate features Kristol shared with Marxists.

  3. The Intersection

    @1 “Kristol was a genius”…an evil genius (similar to Rove, Limbaugh and some in Congress). I believe some people are aware of their dissonance and relish it.

    It’s a perversion of motivated reasoning. It’s agenda-based motivated reasoning as opposed to subconscious motivation. For them, the overarching goal is more important than the individual arguments that require fact-based conversations.

    Have you ever taken a debate class where you were forced to argue a point with which you viscerally disagree? A good debater can do it well, regardless of the “facts.”
    Jamie Vernon

  4. Nullius in Verba

    “Being “without footnotes,” or not being forthcoming with sources of information, can be a sign that you’re not playing the same good faith game as everyone else. You’re not willing to lay down your marker on the table and have it discussed. It seems to show a lack of respect for values that a country founded on Enlightenment principles should hold dear.”

    That’s a sentiment that I very much agree with. (Surprised?)

    Of course, the standard reply is: “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

    I think figures like Limbaugh and Will talk to an intended audience who already share their beliefs and sources, so in their work as it stands footnotes would be redundant. But where there is evidence to support their positions available, and where opponents or the unconvinced are interested, then it is of course sensible for them to share it on request. If they’re right, they may gain more followers or score a point, if they’re wrong, they can clarify or improve their own arguments and make them more unassailable, while acquiring a reputation (deserved or not) for fairness and honesty in debate. Refusing to share your data openly will immediately invalidate your claims in the eyes of anyone who respects Enlightenment or scientific values.

    The rules of politics are not the same as those of science or enlightened debate, though. It’s part of the reason politicians and political operators have the reputation for truth and honesty that they do.


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