The Spectacle Blog

Birthers, Ruffini and the Urge to Purge

By on 9.4.09 | 1:52PM

Quin Hillyer is correct, as is his habit, in warning against the dangers the "pseudo-intellectual" tendency poses to conservatism. And certainly Patrick Ruffini is correct that the "Birther" conspiracy theorists are both wrong and a potential source of embarrassment to conservatives.

However, I disagree with Ruffini's nostalgic longing for a return to the days when William F. Buckley Jr. (allegedly) reigned as the sole arbiter of what was, and was not, conservative. Such rear-view mirror perspectives neglect the reality of changes in the political landscape.

In the mid-1950s, Buckley and a relative handful of others -- we might name Whittaker Chambers, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver among them -- created an intellectual movement quite nearly from scratch. The engagement between that intellectual movement and real-world considerations of electoral politics was, for many years, quite indirect.

There were few if any institutions through which the relatively small clique of conservative intellectuals who orbited National Review could exercise political influence, and so such institutions were built from the ground up over the course of several decades. ISI and YAF, Regnery Publishing, the Heritage Foundation, talk radio, Fox News -- a few points on a sprawling graph tracing the growth of the conservative movement. A large, established, broad-based movement (Rush Limbaugh is estimated to reach as many as 20 million listeners weekly) does not function in the same way that it did when it began as a sort of intellectual rebellion in the 1950s.

Therefore, Ruffini's wish for a latter-day Buckley, who might purge the Birthers, is to a large degree impractical. The most influential people and institutions in the conservative movement have nothing to do with the Birthers, and if some others wish to consign themselves to an irrelevant conspiracy-theory cul-de-sac -- which is what Birtherism is -- the rest of us cannot stop them. There is no need to purge anyone; they've effectively purged themselves.

Yet Patrick Ruffini is not merely a conservative intellectual, pondering philosophical truths in a cloister. He is a professional Republican political entrepreneur, whose firm, EngageDC, describes itself thus:

We help innovative political and public affairs clients seize the high ground in a chaotic new media environment defined by the 24-hour news cycle, blogs, and YouTube.
Our team is distinguished by its work on the toughest battles in recent political history, with on-the-ground experience ranging from the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, the Republican National Committee, the 2008 Romney for President campaign, and serving dozens of Members of Congress. Led by Mindy Finn, a veteran eCampaign Strategist for two presidential campaigns, and Patrick Ruffini, a former RNC eCampaign Director and a pioneer of political blogging,

Straddling the worlds of politics, commerce and intellect in such a manner must surely be a challenging task, and Ruffini manages it admirably. Yet this biographical information about Ruffini -- he is young, savvy, and engaged with GOP political online operations at a high level -- illustrates the distance between him and grassroots activists like Barbara Espinosa.

Grassroots conservative activists are, by their very nature, not engaged in the political process as a career. They tend to be older, well-established in non-political occupations and less concerned about the Big Picture questions than in finding immediate, practical ways to oppose the menace of liberalism. The question one hears from the grassroots is not, "Whither conservatism?" but rather, "What can I do?"

The Tea Party movement -- which will host a major rally in Washington next weekend -- has given the grassroots something to do, so that joining en masse to voice their opposition to the Obama agenda, they are actively engaged in the political process.

However, grassroots activism has consequences. One of the consequences of a ressurgent conservative grassroots is that their concerns, beliefs and attitudes are sometimes not in sync with the concerns, beliefs and attitudes of smart young Republican activists like Patrick Ruffini.

We cannot deny evidence that some grassroots conservatives are sympathetic to the "Birther" meme. (To cite one bumper sticker slogan: "Kenya Called. They Want Their Marxist Back.") And those who are pushing that meme are diverting attention from more valid critiques of the Obama administration and its liberal policies. So they should be discouraged or ignored.

It is wrong, however, for Ruffini to long for a neo-Buckley to play the role of conservative pope and excommunicate the heretics. And it is also wrong for Ruffini to buy into liberal propaganda, to wit:

I still remember a time when success and intellectual achievement were more often than not conservative virtues, and I remember WFB looming large in this framework. Recent Democratic gains within the creative and educated classes have eroded this image, creating a media dynamic where intelligence is seen as aligning with the left within the Democratic Party, and the center within the Republican Party.

One might ponder the sources of those "recent Democratic gains within the creative class" without freaking out because WorldNetDaily publishes some article tending toward Birtherism. Considering myself both creative and educated, I do not suffer from any status insecurity about voting trends among my peers. And I do not think that a purge of Joseph Farah -- who was pioneering online media when Patrick Ruffini was still a schoolboy -- would be a net positive for conservatism.

You cannot build a movement by a process of subtraction.

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