Conservative intellectuals kowtow to the Tea Party.

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 1 2010 2:38 PM

Late for the Tea Party

Conservative pundits rush to catch up.

Glenn Beck. Click image to expand.
Glenn Beck

That "giant sucking sound" you hear—remember Ross Perot's phrase?—is the sound of once-dignified and intellectually sophisticated conservative pundits attempting hastily, belatedly, and for the most part clumsily to suck up to the surging Tea Party phenomenon.

While some conservatives have kept their distance from the ignorant TPers (who imbibe the historical perspicacity of Glenn Beck) and the thuggish, Bircher, conspiracist, head-stomping, racist-tolerant Tea Party ideology (Carl Paladino only forwarded racist e-mails, he didn't create them himself!), we have lately—in just this final month before the election—been treated to the spectacle of conservative pundits and think-tank intellectuals rushing into print with their discovery of that familiar Washington quality, found whenever a new power bloc emerges: A "Strange New Respect," this time for the TPers.

These pundits clearly sense the train leaving the station, the party going on without them, pick your cliché, and it sure looks like they're trying to give their late awakening a profound intellectual rationale. "We are you!" they seem to be saying to the TPers. "Don't think of us as elitists. We're the good elitists, the ones on your side! We always believed what you believe, and we can give you the intellectual gravitas Glenn Beck cannot." One almost gets the feeling reading their encomiums to the TPers that they feel they are addressing a species of noble savage. Unlettered but virtuous. Sadly it conjures up a memory of that old cartoon about a giant bulldog with a spiked collar with a little lapdog dancing around it, yipping belligerently, "You get 'em Spike! Don't let them insult you like that."

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It's not just the intellectuals from think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute and the New York and D.C. media elite who are jockeying to display their "right from the start" credentials. Even the mighty Rush Limbaugh rushed to assure his radio followers—a week or so after the Times had done a story about the way master historian Glenn Beck had made relatively obscure conservative tomes newly popular—that he, El Rushbo, had recommended Austrian free market economist Friedrich August von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom to his audience "as far back as '88 or '89."

But Limbaugh has something like a rivalry with Beck. The hasty Tea Party conversions I'm speaking of are those of elite conservative intellectuals who suddenly discover remarkable commonality between their long-held views and those of the new force in American politics. There's an old saying, "The Supreme Court follows the election returns"; so too does this once-proud group of thinkers suddenly kowtowing to one of the most shameless anti-intellectual movements in American history.

They are prereading the election returns. (If the election is not a total Tea Party triumph and the TP eventually goes down the toilet, they will have to live with having ineradicably TP-ed themselves forever.)

One would have hoped to find some resistance from those conservatives who like to pride themselves on their Burkean and Buckleyan heritage of erudition and who value the careful study of history and its lessons. And, yes, there is some resistance. (FrumForum and the occasional lonely dissenter such as Peter Wehnerare among the few notable holdouts.) But mostly there is a sudden hasty rush to be at the forefront of the movement of the moment. Truly the spectacle of sucking up is hilarious, the great entertainment in political media in some time.

First we get Ross Douthat, the Harvard-educated New York Times columnist and blogger, dispelling liberal myths about the Tea Party. (As if we made up all those tales of racist e-mails, Nazi impersonators, and the private goon squad handcuffing a reporter.) It's a prime ploy among the late-to-the-party pundit crowd: They're really attacking liberals who don't understand the TPers the way they in their wisdom do; they're not merely throwing themselves at the feet of the Tea Party.

So Douthat portrays himself as boldly cutting down the liberal myth that Tea Partiers are "hypocritical"—the early plethora of "Get the government's hands off my Medicare" signs to the contrary. Douthat tells us that, in fact, TPers are courageous truth-tellers.

Why, did you know, you ignorant liberal myth-makers, "some Tea Party-backed candidates have been refreshingly courageous on this front—whether it's Rand Paul telling Fox News that he'd support higher deductibles for seniors, or [Ken] Buck apologizing to Michael Bennet, his Senate opponent in Colorado, for Republican demagoguery on Medicare"?

Profiles in courage indeed! The sheer guts it took to "support higher deductibles." Give that man a Senate seat. He is the Aqua Buddha of fearless fiscal sanity.

No profile in courage for Douthat, alas. At the close of his column, he sounds an uncertain trumpet by saying: "The jury is still out," thus giving himself an out if the winds shift and the thuggery and ignorance of the TPers get in the way of their presumed triumph and place in history beyond transient neo-Know Nothing movements like George Wallace's and short-lived anti-Washington crusades like Ross Perot's. Boldly temporizing, Douthat keeps one foot in each conservative camp as he nonetheless gives the TPers a degree of credibility in the pages of the Times with his Broderesque semi-blessing.

One characteristic of all these suck-up apologias is the "to be sure ... there are a lot of psychos in the TP" paragraph. Douthat admits there are troubling echoes of John Birch in some TP rhetoric but argues that the Birchers "only had a crackpot message; they never found a mainstream one. The Tea Party marries fringe concerns (repeal the 17th Amendment!) to a timely, responsible-seeming message about spending and deficits."