The Anti-Intellectual Intellectuals of the Conservative Movement

The Anti-Intellectual Intellectuals of the Conservative Movement


The world according to Mark Levin.


Authors on the left are prevalent in academia, while liberals and centrists are dominant in much of the national media—apart from Fox News and its imitators, of course. But conservatives have long been adept at producing best-selling books that shape public opinion and even galvanize movements. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, educated two generations on the right about the alleged virtues of untrammeled capitalism; the Austrian-born economist’s disciples included the likes of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. Goldwater did not actually write The Conscience of a Conservative, the slim paperback issued under his name in 1960 (it was ghost-written by L. Brent Bozell Jr.). But the manifesto, which made the Arizona senator’s fervent case against the moderate liberalism then prevailing in both parties, quickly sold over 3 million copies and propelled him to the GOP presidential nomination four years later. In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, the classicist Allan Bloom assaulted university curricula and student mores with a blend of outraged hauteur and nostalgia for an anti-relativist past. And while subsequent politicians and pundits may not have replicated Bloom’s high-minded, erudite style, echoes of his arguments can be found in many of the culture war screeds against academia that have been issued over the past three decades.

Mark R. Levin’s American Marxism, a polemic against all manner of progressive ideas and movements, may rival its predecessors in popularity. Published this past summer, it spent weeks perched at or near the top of the best-seller list. But American Marxism represents a distinct dumbing-down of the kind of book-length attacks on the left that have appeared over the past century. Hayek and Bloom produced rigorous critiques of the liberal ideology and left policies they abhorred, which required them to take the time to learn about them. Levin just slaps the label of “Marxism” on the various political phenomena he detests—from critical race theory and “genderism” to environmental justice, teachers unions, and the bias of the liberal media. He also accuses the Democratic Party of embracing these ideas and institutions and “adopting Marx’s language of class warfare” in order to put its own “interests…before those of the country,” thereby destroying what makes (or made), in his view, America so great. American Marxism is a virtual digest of familiar attacks on all the favorite targets of the contemporary right, and it suggests the depths of the right’s commitment to depicting its opponents not just as wrongheaded but as sworn enemies of the nation itself. Of course, liberals and leftists revile conservatives, too. But most of us refrain from accusing the entire Republican Party of harboring treasonous thoughts or wanting to overthrow the republic (the January 6 insurrectionists notwithstanding).

Levin devotes most of the chapters in his book to a particular head of the “Marxist” hydra he aims to slay with his invective. He moves from Black Lives Matter to “Hate America, Inc.” (radical educators) and from “‘Climate Change’ Fanaticism” to “Propaganda, Censorship, and Subversion” (the liberal media). Marx makes an occasional appearance, but contemporary left-wing professors (including The Nation’s Jon Wiener) get the lion’s share of references, whether or not they identify as Marxist. Levin’s point is obvious: The bearded author who spent far more time in the British Library than he did fomenting rebellion wrote the bible of anti-capitalism and obedience to the state. Americans who “cloak themselves in phrases” and names like “progressives,” “Democratic Socialists,” “Antifa,” and “The Squad” are just adapting his evil gospel to our own time.

When it comes to the old Rhinelander himself, Levin appears to have no genuine understanding of what Marx wrote and believed. How else could he accuse the “degrowth movement,” a rather obscure group of climate activists who supposedly long for “a pre-industrialized environment where progress comes to an end,” of being in thrall to a theorist who viewed capitalism as a necessary stage in economic development? Marx, after all, was a pointed critic of the “utopian” socialists of his own time, who endeavored, he and Engels wrote, “by small experiments” on the land “necessarily doomed to failure…to pave the way for the new social Gospel.”

To expect Levin to wrestle as seriously with Marx as Bloom grappled with Nietzsche, or Hayek with Harold Laski and other social democrats, would be to mistake today’s right-wing agitators for yesterday’s neoconservative men and women of ideas. Instead, Levin deploys “Marxism” as a collective zombie: Garbed in the bloody rags of failed tyrannies abroad, it’s meant to frighten his readers (“who love their country, freedom, and family”) into taking action against the “haters” who “pursue a destructive and diabolical course for our nation, undermining and sabotaging virtually every institution in our society.”

Such rants, of course, are standard fare on talk radio and on TV shows hosted by the likes of Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and their feverish emulators on other right-wing cable channels. Levin himself has a sizable audience on both; his daily radio show alone claims 8 million listeners. I suspect most of the people who bought this volume or one of his six previous New York Times best sellers did so more out of fan loyalty than because they expected to learn anything new.

One consequence of such low expectations is that the author can get away with prose that often resembles the raw contents of an oppo research file more than an earnest attempt to make a persuasive argument. Paragraph-long quotes from leftists he despises and conservatives he admires fill most of the pages. Levin is also fond of quoting lengthy passages from his other books, and he repeats the same arguments so often and in such similar terms that even enthusiasts might be tempted to skim through the text, nodding on occasion in jaded affirmation. Few of his faithful readers may pause to wonder why the author identifies Herbert Marcuse, a pillar of the Frankfurt School whose writings were a hit with the 1960s New Left, as a member of something he calls the “Franklin School.” Others will conclude that he just didn’t bother to do the reading.

Portraying himself as a rational exponent of individual liberty, Levin disdains social movements as havens for unhappy people who flock together to build an unhappier world. His list of misfits bizarrely includes George Soros, LeBron James, and Colin Kaepernick—none of whom are normally considered to be “impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around” them. Levin lifts those lines from Eric Hoffer, a popular conservative skeptic during the Cold War period, who scorned mass movements for attracting the “fanatic,” who “sees in [them] the source of all virtue and strength” and “cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.”

That Levin cites Hoffer admiringly is an act of blatant irony, whether intentional or not. The shock jock is, after all, a leading voice on the Trumpian right, whose adherents believe the 2020 election was stolen and that vaccine mandates are a form of tyranny. And he goes on to devote a long section of his final chapter, “We Choose Liberty!,” to detailed recommendations on how to wage a mass struggle against the intersecting forms of the “Marxism” he loathes. For example, Levin urges citizens to bring lawsuits against state or private “entities that tortiously interfere with your use of your property” in the name of curbing climate change. In a backhanded tribute to the activists protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, he calls for a BDS offensive by “American patriots” to pressure corporations and governments to cease all financial backing for “Marxist movements.” Levin thus indulges in the tactical repertoire of the collective movements whose very existence he abhors.

Yet the shoddiness of Levin’s presentation and arguments should not obscure the power of his message. American Marxism belongs to an influential tradition of right-wing rhetoric that the economist-philosopher Albert O. Hirschman called the “jeopardy thesis.” The opponents of mass suffrage in the 19th century and of the welfare state in the 20th both argued, according to Hirschman, that “progress in human societies is so problematic that any newly proposed ‘forward move’ will cause serious injury to one or several previous accomplishments.” For Levin, the glory of the United States resides in the capitalist republic that the founding fathers established. All his “Marxists,” whatever their superficial differences, burn with the ambition “to destroy American society and impose autocratic rule.” They are engaged in nothing less than a “counterrevolution to the American Revolution.”

The jeopardy thesis is not the only way conservatives, past and present, have sought to counter the appeal of the left’s embrace of social progress, whether of the reformist or radical kind. Hirschman identified “perversity” and “futility” as other types of rhetorical attacks commonly used by the right over the centuries: Changes that radicals and liberals view as necessary will, their ideological adversaries contend, either produce the opposite of what they desire or simply fail to achieve their lofty objectives, such as the equality of opportunity or outcomes.

But sounding an urgent alarm has an advantage that other modes of right-wing persuasion lack. The jeopardy thesis has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to fire up a backlash among liberals themselves against people and groups further to the left. The fear of socialism, at home and abroad, convinced some liberals as well as most conservatives to ally with state authorities to repress the speech of radicals and get them fired from their jobs during the red scares that followed both world wars. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Eagle Forum, led by Phyllis Schlafly, defeated the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by accusing feminists of seeking to destroy the nuclear family, outlaw alimony, and force women in the military to undergo the perils of combat.

Levin accuses Black Lives Matter of being the latest iteration of what Schlafly and her ilk opposed: “violent Marxist-anarchist movements of the past.” Here he’s also echoing Ronald Reagan, the premier icon of the modern right. “One of the foremost authorities in the world today has said we have ten years,” Reagan declared in 1959, when he was merely a B movie star turned corporate spokesman. “Not ten years to make up our minds, but ten years to win or lose—by 1970 the world will be all slave or all free.” Seven years later, Reagan used absurd alarums like that one to get elected governor of California by a landslide.

To debunk American Marxism is a simple pleasure, but its popularity does point to an absence on the intellectual left. Our clan has rarely produced books that appeal to as large an audience and with an analogous intent—to make plain, in passionate but accurate detail, the danger the mass right poses to the nation and the world. For better or worse, that is not the kind of political book most intellectuals or activists on our side seem comfortable writing.

Authors on the left have a long and rich tradition of creating protest literature. But what stands out tends to be acute reportage, not sweeping explanations of why the other side is so wrong morally and practically—and of how to defeat it. From Ida B. Wells’s Southern Horrors and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Michael Harrington’s The Other America and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, left authors have specialized in exposing particular outrages, not in making sustained attacks on large and systemic bulwarks of malevolence. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, which tells the nasty tale of how plutocrats like the Kochs funded the contemporary right, belongs to this honorable genre.

But lacking precise, eloquent takedowns of every big thing the GOP and the reactionaries who rule it stand for, the left has had difficulty making gains outside its ideological bubble in the big cities and deep blue states and among people with college degrees. The result is that many Americans probably have no clear idea of why the left vehemently opposes not just Trump and his minions but the whole range of policies that conservatives espouse—or why those initiatives have turned the United States into a meaner, more grossly unequal, and perilously undemocratic nation.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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