Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn't believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.
Driven by a need to engage elite opinion, conservatives tried to build an intellectual counter-establishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind.
Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working them through. He was rooted in the Midwest, but he also loved Hollywood. And for a time, it seemed the Republican Party would be a broad coalition – small-town values with coastal reach.
While narrowly losing the 1976 election, Gerald Ford carried the entire West Coast, along with Northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.
But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.
Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.
What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. Liberals had coastal condescension, so conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.
Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.
George W. Bush restrained some of the populist excesses of his party – the anti-immigration fervor, the isolationism – but stylistically he fit right in. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book, “Rebel in Chief,” Bush “reflects the political views and cultural tastes of the vast majority of Americans who don't live along the East or West Coast. He's not a sophisticate and doesn't spend his discretionary time with sophisticates. As First Lady Laura Bush once said, she and the president didn't come to Washington to make new friends. And they haven't.”
The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions – Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.
The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by 4-1. With doctors, it's 2-1. With tech executives, it's 5-1. With investment bankers, it's 2-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.
Conservatives are as rare in elite universities and the mainstream media as they were 30 years ago. The smartest young Americans are now educated in an overwhelmingly liberal environment.
This year could have changed things. The GOP had three urbane presidential candidates. But the class-warfare cliches took control. Rudy Giuliani disdained cosmopolitans at the Republican convention. Mitt Romney gave a speech attacking “Eastern elites.” (Mitt Romney!) John McCain picked Sarah Palin.
Palin is smart, politically skilled, courageous and likable. Her convention and debate performances were impressive. But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the “normal Joe Sixpack American” and the coastal elite.
She is another step in the Republican change of personality. Once conservatives admired Churchill and Lincoln above all – men from wildly different backgrounds who prepared for leadership through constant reading, historical understanding and sophisticated thinking. Now those attributes bow down before the common touch.
And so, politically, the GOP is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission – because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission – by telling members of that class to go away.