Many conservatives believe Beck is undermining conservatism with his often goofy style and his sometimes outlandish and paranoia-tinged diatribes. In an ode to conservatives such as William F. Buckley, my friend Charles Murray writes, “Don’t tell me that we have to put up with the Glenn Becks of the world to be successful. Within living memory, the right was successful. The right changed the country for the better — through good arguments made by fine men.” Murray is nostalgic for conservative leaders who were, like Murray himself, soft-spoken intellectuals.
There are problems with such nostalgia. First, there has always been a populist front on the right, even during the “glory days” when Buckley was saying he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard. Moreover, whatever Beck or Limbaugh’s faults, they are more cheerful — and more responsible — warriors than the populist right-wingers of yesteryear. The Tea Partiers may be rowdy and ideologically diffuse, but their goals — like Beck’s — are indisputably libertarian. And from a conservative perspective, popular libertarian uprisings should be preferable to the sort of statist populism so often celebrated on the left.
Most important, popularity is what the intellectuals were fighting for: to create a conservative culture (Americans describe themselves as conservative over liberal 2-1 ). By definition, making conservatism popular means making it less stuffy and intellectual and more accessible. Not only is Beck good at that, he actually gets people to read serious books in ways Buckley never could. Why defenestrate him from the house of conservatism merely to preserve the rarefied air?