White House: head shots of Amb. Adlai Stevenson

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As an academic, I am often in informal gatherings with colleagues, some of whom take for granted that social democratic liberalism (as opposed to classical liberalism) is the correct political philosophy to follow. If anyone dares to deviate, few arguments are given; rather, there are accusations that the lone conservative “is not committed to critical thought.” This claim is merely asserted, not argued.

The Democratic Party in the United States is doing the same thing that academics are doing–claiming that those who support Republican candidates are intellectually vacuous. Now I would be the first to admit that there are some conservatives (just as there are some liberals and some moderates) who are intellectually vacuous. Ignorant people are found of all political persuasions. But intellectual conservatism has a long history stretching from Edmund Burke through Russell Kirk through academic conservatives today who vigorously debate the meaning of conservatism. Such debate is a sign of a healthy movement committed to intellectually weeding out views that are not helpful to a stable social order. One may disagree with such conservatives, but to call them intellectually vacuous is unfair.

What about conservative voters? Are some of them ignorant? Of course, but there are also ignorant moderate and liberal voters. When Democrats insult voters for shifting their loyalty to Republicans, this is a foolish move that alienates most voters. Adlai Stevenson discovered this the hard way, and did not learn his lesson in 1952 when he lost again to Eisenhower in 1956. When the left shows its intellectual snobbery, it fails in politics. To win, it must hide its superiority complex behind a veil of populism.

Conservatism at its best values practical reason and recognizes that behind traditions there often lies deep wisdom gathered over time. Intellectual experiments in social order invariably fail, as the failure of the Great Society programs has shown to most individuals who are not blinded by intellectual dogmatism. It is this wisdom that many conservative voters recognize. Most may not be among the academic elite, but they have a common sense and practical wisdom (phronesis, to use Aristotle’s term) that liberals lack. The left can be intellectually arrogant all it wants, but behind its theories lies the true complexity of real life, a complexity that is lived by real people living in real communities rather than by academics hiding in their ivory towers.