I’ve been enjoying reading Steve Benen’s work, now that he’s more or less taken over the Washington Monthly blog (and yes, Hilzoy does good work, too). More links than Kevin! More photogenic than Nate!

But if I’m making the correct forest out of Steve’s welltended trees, it looks like the American right has a personality problem, rather than just an electoral problem or an ideological problem. Yes, they are increasingly locked out of government, and we could say that they need to find spokesmen who can deal with alarming policy concerns instead of just pretending that there’s no problem.

But to who would go for that?

Benen has located an intelligent and thoughtful conservative, in it’s native environment. Shhhhhh! Don’t frighten him away. Poor thing’s likely scared to death!

We will hug him and squeeze him and call him James Joyner:

There’s almost no serious analysis of health care reform, urban planning, education, and many other issues that regularly crop up on the best lefty blogs on their conservative counterparts. If we read about those issues at all, they’re framed as if Ronald Reagan were still aspiring to high office: Say No to socialism! Abolish the Department of Education! Government IS the problem!

The problem with James Joyner’s proposal, unfortunately, is that there aren’t enough conservatives like James Joyner. The Republican base was made up of the people who got excited about Sarah Palin, who famously  defended her decision not to see much of the world because that’s for bi-curious twenty-somethings with a body-mass index under 18 and a subscription to the Utne Reader.  “Be like us or you’re gay.”  That’s their culture.

It’s a schizophrenic political movement that professes an aversion to government.  It must be a little like being a diabetic with a sweet tooth.  Ronald Reagan is the only president they ever liked because the Great Communicator is (yes, present tense) is an amphibian or proxy, a window into a world of institutional power that must not be used for anything other than pissing off the gay commies in phony America.  And that’s why conservatives like James Joyner aren’t going to dominate this party any time soon:

The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the G.O.P.

They are going to win, first, because Congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven’t been conservative enough.

Second, Traditionalists have the institutions. Over the past 40 years, the Conservative Old Guard has built up a movement of activist groups, donor networks, think tanks and publicity arms. The reformists, on the other hand, have no institutions.

There is not yet an effective Republican Leadership Council to nurture modernizing conservative ideas. There is no moderate Club for Growth, supporting centrist Republicans. The Public Interest, which used to publish an array of public policy ideas, has closed. Reformist Republican donors don’t seem to exist. Any publication or think tank that headed in an explicitly reformist direction would be pummeled by its financial backers. National candidates who begin with reformist records — Giuliani, Romney or McCain — immediately tack right to be acceptable to the power base.

Finally, Traditionalists own the conservative mythology. Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.

Maybe this just isn’t their moment. Small-market monkeys living in a time of New Green Deal chimpanzees:  this is a bad time to be less concerned with policy outcomes than with the flavor of a given policy.  At a time when Wall Street has been scared Keynesian, when even Kudlow is advocating socialism for the banks (if not the automakers), at a time, in short, when everyone needs the government to do its damned job, the thing we pay our taxes for, the social contract we sign when we obey the law, at a time like this, it is at times like these that the people who talk about the need for smaller government or who spend all their time comparing Democrats to the Weathermen sound just plain stupid and definitely not useful.

The Republican solution has been to engage in a kind of low-level holocaust denial. Thanksgiving is one of their favorite opportunities for revisionism (it’s the triumph of capitalism, don’t you know?). The New Deal prolonged the Great Depression, which in turn was only ended by World War Two. Yalta? Big mistake. This is not just an issue of “what do right wingers feel like being stupid about today,” this alternate reality appeals to a particular tribe. Policy discussions do not. Pissing liberals off gets conservative votes. Using the power of your office to improve Americans’ lives does not.

This is why I don’t understand how Joyner, who I assume is responsible for his own headlines, could write something like “[The] Right Needs New Public Intellectuals” and not see that there’s going to be a problem right away. “Intellectual” is a dirty word among conservatives. “Public intellectual” is too close to “activist,” which for some strange reason is also a dirty word among conservatives. Try telling the Palin crowd that they need more public intellectuals. You might as well tell them you’re going to quarter gay soldiers in their homes.

So, the institutional conservatives are caught between a right-wing base, on one hand, that wants to be told comforting tales about a past which, even if it had existed, is irrelevant to our present, and a wider public, on the other hand, that is so terrified by the present protracted crisis that “tough love” sounds like “eat shit and die.”