The Many Projects of American Conservatives

Damn you, The New York Times, give Ross Douthat a blog! Don’t you understand that delay makes no sense? You’ll get exceptional content for the same outlay in salary, better print columns, and ideas that more fully penetrate the national conversation. What’s your downside?

My interest in the matter is selfish. Due to Mr. Douthat’s extended absence, Rod Dreher and I have been talking past the folks at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen in a sprawling, muddled debate about the state of the right, the role dissident conservatives should play, and the wisdom of attacking talk radio hosts, among other issues. If only there were a deliberate writer who would ponder our entries, clarify the issues at stake in a concise, hyper-linked summary of our views, and proceed to offer a fair-minded assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, finally adding a bit of insightful analysis that moves the whole conversation forward. Already I’m plotting my final escape from Washington DC. Should Mr. Douthat and his calming influence on the political blogosphere remain absent much longer I may just stop writing about politics entirely. Alternating between avocado farming and my book project sounds like a fine life indeed.

Meanwhile I can only offer this imperfect monster of an essay. This all began when Freddie wrote this post, where he castigates dissident conservatives for disavowing the various sins of the Bush Administration rather than taking responsibility for them. I responded by arguing that Freddie possesses an incoherent notion of what it means to take responsibility for something, and pointed out that the political philosophy of conservatism is distinct from the governing coalition of George W. Bush Republicans and even from “movement conservatism.”

Enter Julian Sanchez, who charitably restates Freddie’s screed. He writes:

It’s not that opinion writers should have bad consciences about not being party activists, or that a fondness for Edmund Burke actually makes one “responsible” for whatever some racist loons shout at a town hall, which would be silly, but is also an easy way to read the claim on a first pass. Rather it’s that there’s an actual conservative base out there supporting the political actors, they’re not going away anytime soon, and if the conservative movement’s going to pull out of this toxic death spiral, someone who’s not an imbecile or a psychopath is going to have to identify with them enough to lead them out of the fever swamps. Someone has to play Prospero here and say: “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”

The temptation for someone who wants to see a sane conservative movement is to think that if only you can sufficiently distance yourself from the crazy shouty people—the ones on the radio and the ones in their audiences—you can rope together the more moderate conservatives with a big chunk of independents and forge some new untainted coalition. But no, you go to politics with the base you’ve got, not the one you might wish you had—you’re actually going to need at least some of the crazy shouty people. Presumably there’s a limit, and there are voices you do need to marginalize if conservatism itself isn’t going to be marginal—the Michael Savages and Orly Taitzes. But if there’s value to pointing out that Rush Limbaugh is a crass blowhard, it’s also a little too easy.

Agreed, though I insist on reaffirming the distinction between the political philosophy conservatism and “movement conservatism.” The flaws that are so evident on the right are entirely due to the latter.

Let’s travel back for a moment to the Civil Rights era, when many conservatives were saying, “Slow down, desegregation is happening too fast,” while many liberals were saying, “The time for justice is now.” Were I alive during that era I’d like to think that I’d have sided with the liberals. It certainly would’ve been the right choice, as even folks like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley ultimately acknowledged. That is an example of how the political philosophy conservatism was inadequate to the circumstances of the country. It is a perfectly conservative impulse to resist rapid social change. In that case, it was also a perfectly wrongheaded stance.

The present moment is different. Consider the most egregious blunders championed by the right lately. You’ve got the Iraq War, an ill-considered Utopian adventure in nation building; a radical attempt to revamp the separation of powers; a regime of lawless torture that utterly ignored the corruptibility of all humans, especially those in positions of power; irresponsible deficit spending; the appointment of unqualified people to staff the federal government; and a slow federal response to a national disaster. Unlike the conservative failure on civil rights, these weren’t instances where the philosophy of conservatism was coherently applied, but proved inadequate to specific circumstances, or led its adherents astray due to some feature embedded in the body of thought. On the contrary, the Bush Administration would’ve done far less damage to the country had it adhered more closely to conservatism properly understood, or even coherently understood.

As a practical matter, “the conservative movement” now refers to a political coalition most recently led by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Tom Delay. Often the thread that connected its actions to the political philosophy of conservatism was impossibly thin. Other times it was nonexistent. This is a political coalition that deemed John Ashcroft excessively respectful of civil liberties, and replaced him with Alberto Gonzalez. It claimed power to detain an American citizen indefinitely without charges, based solely on a judgment made by a president who wasn’t subject to oversight — and its lackeys, from Rush Limbaugh on down to self-described conservative Republicans, too often went along with these policies, insisting all the while that they were inherently conservative.

On domestic policy, “the conservative movement” made dissenting noises about spending, and rebelled against Harriet Meyers, but on the whole it failed to prevent the most egregious missteps by its chosen leaders in the Bush Administration – at the base and elite levels—because its heretic hunters excelled at privileging loyalty, political gain and cultural cues above honesty, principled dissent and actual policy outcomes.

After the fact, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who championed George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries despite serious questions about his preparedness for higher office, disclaimed all responsibility for his deviations from the political philosophy of conservatism, yet somehow the Republican president’s excesses never inspired the apocalyptic rhetoric that the Obama Administration has inspired in its first year. We know what it looks like for the talk radio right and the grassroots to oppose a political figure. Measured against their own standards, they supported rather than opposed George W. Bush, and they’ll defend him more than is defensible even today.

It is “the conservative movement” — this political coalition, its leaders, its propaganda arms, and the most indoctrinated subset of its base — that needs someone to say, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine,” and that person must be a charismatic, line-muddling political figure, not a writer or a journalist. But that isn’t to say that intellectuals haven’t any role to play.

Those who were part of “movement conservatism” during the last decade, and who despaired at its direction, are right to shout, “never again will this political movement be defined by an absence of principled dissent, for that is how good ideas, the ability to govern, and prospects for political success are destroyed.” That is David Frum’s project, Bruce Bartlett’s project, George Will’s project, and Peggy Noonan’s project, insofar as they share one. These folks are lifelong Republicans who saw “the conservative movement” turn from a principled philosophy to a successful governing coalition to an unprincipled, corrupt, dysfunctional entity that is finally more a moneymaking machine than credible governing alternative. Put another way, they’ve seen the candidate of “the conservative base” go from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, and they’d like to see the trend reverse itself, so that the Republican Party can again successfully govern the United States.

Though his approach is different, I suspect and hope that this is also Rich Lowry’s project. When William F. Buckley ran National Review, one could write for it as a principled conservative who wasn’t a “movement conservative,” and I see Mr. Lowry trying his best to carve out a space where that is still true.

It is a space shared with writers like Jonah Goldberg, who aren’t themselves heretic hunters, and make real contributions to public discourse, but whose default mode of argument is so often “but the left is hypocritical, or more corrupt, or wrongheaded,” that one cannot help but conclude that he and his fellow travelers taken different lessons from the last 8 years than the other writers I’ve mentioned.

National Review also hosts writers who are staunch defenders of what I regard as the Bush Administration’s most indefensible excesses. Andy McCarthy is foremost among them, though one must give him credit for doing his damnedest to argue on substance, offer truly held convictions, and engage in arguments to defend his ideas. Much as I abhor his conclusions, it is proper, I think, that he is part of the conversation at the magazine. The same goes for Mark Levin, of whom I’ve also been critical: his writerly persona in the pages of NR is so distinct from his talk radio persona that one can hardly believe they are the same person, though I think that both versions are guilty of extreme straw-manning.

Obviously there’s a lot going on here: folks who are loyal to the Republican Party, folks who want to reclaim the political coalition of movement conservatism, folks who see those projects as indistinguishable, and others who disagree, among many other things. These distinctions are useful in understanding what is going on today among conservatives who participate in public discourse. Note that when Mark Thompson says he agrees with Freddie that the dissident conservatives aren’t doing their jobs, he ignores these distinctions, and conflates two other groups that are distinguishable from one another: conservative dissidents and conservative wonks.

These are sometimes overlapping categories. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat arguably fit into both camps, as does Ramesh Ponnuru. David Frum isn’t a wonk exactly, though he sure is knowledgeable about policy, and dissents from mainstream “movement conservatism.” Of course, there are wonks who aren’t dissidents — see the Heritage Foundation — and dissidents who aren’t wonks: Rod Dreher, Daniel Larison, and myself, to cite three dissidents who possibly have more policy preferences in common with the folks we’re dissenting against than with one another! What draws us together, by my lights, is that we identify with the political philosophy of conservatism — albeit different threads of that philosophy — rather than the political coalition of “movement conservatism,” so we can appreciate aspects of one another’s oeuvre, especially when we’re writing against the most absurd orthodoxies of thought within the political/ideological coalition.

My sense is that among us, Daniel Larison is most interested in politics, though he understands he is so far outside the mainstream that he has little chance of influencing it in the short term, whereas Rod Dreher and I are less interested in electoral politics, and more interested in our own related but distinct projects: aspects of American culture, in Rod Dreher’s case, and the intersection of public discourse and American journalism, in my case.
That isn’t to say that we’re entirely uninterested in politics, anymore than it is to say that Ross Douthat isn’t at all interested in journalism, or that Rich Lowry is uninterested in culture. It’s just to say that every writer has his own primary interests, obsessions, and areas where he thinks he can make the biggest difference.

This helps explain, I think, why Rod Dreher is confused by what is written at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It’s as though he is saying, “So I subscribe to the political philosophy of conservatism — what do you mean I should take responsibility for bringing a sane, right-leaning political coalition back to power in this country? That isn’t my project, and even if it were the base wouldn’t listen to me anyway.”

Put another way, tweaking Rod Dreher for his failure to fully invest himself in reforming “the conservative movement” with wonky solutions acceptable to the base makes about as much sense as criticizing Reihan Salam for failing to abandon his cosmopolitan tendencies long enough to convince culturally conservative Texans to raise backyard chickens in the name of spiritual fulfillment and environmental sustainability. What a shame it would be if everyone who understood and embraced conservative insights uniformly turned their attention toward or away from politics! It is preferable that folks who identify as conservative adopt different postures toward “the conservative movement,” play greater and lesser roles in shaping it, wield influence in different places, and make varying contributions to American culture, political and otherwise, more generally.

This may not even be inconsistent with returning “the conservative movement” to health as soon as possible.

As Julian Sanchez hypothesizes:

For now what we want are a bunch of divergent visions and internecine critiques rendering the concept of conservatism sufficiently contestable that a few years from now, someone can fuse together enough of the various strands to make some kind of coherent coalition capable of holding a majority, and plausibly call it by that name. At that point, it will be necessary for someone to “take responsibility” for a new conservative movement; right now I think we should be content to watch them pump a few more shotgun shells into the zombie carcass of this one.

One thread remains in this blog conversation. After I objected that The League of Ordinary Gentlemen wanted dissident conservatives to “assess an ideological subset of the American public, discern their sensibilities, and craft all subsequent writing so as not to offend them,” Mark Thompson insisted that I got their critique all wrong: “Our point has nothing to do with insisting that Conor or anyone else soft-pedal their critiques of Limbaugh, et al, although those attacks may well have the effect of making matters worse.”

E.D. Kain agreed:

My critique is simply this: engage in a fight over ideas, often and passionately. But engage. Don’t try to unseat the champions of the right. Try to change their hearts and minds, or at least use them to reach their audiences.

Soon after, however, he wrote another post suggesting that conservative dissidents should become duplicitous writers. Of course, that’s not how E.D. Kain labels his approach. Wait. Double-checking. Ah, actually, it is basicallyhow he labels it: “Let’s call it the Trojan Horse strategy.” Go read it for yourself.

Okay, are you back? It contains some good advice, and some less good advice. On the whole, however, the idea is that Rod Dreher and I should make the following calculations: 1) we’d like “movement conservatism” to improve; 2) it can only be improved from the inside; 3) Forcefully arguing for our true beliefs will prevent us from being insiders. 4) We should therefore conceal our true beliefs, and instead focus on advancing calculated positions that E.D. Kain regards as the wisest way forward for conservatives (if only folks like Rod and I would get busy putting ourselves into a position of manipulating them into doing what’s best).

I’ve already offered my own as yet un-refuted account of an intellectually honest writer’s duties, so I won’t repeat it here. But I would like to make one last point about why the assumptions beneath The League of Ordinary Gentlemen advice to conservative dissidents is flawed.

E.D. Kain again:

What Conor is suggesting is that a war against the pundits – against Beck and Limbaugh, et al. – is a fight over ideas. I would argue that calling people like Limbaugh out for some stupid thing(s) he’s said is not in fact a battle of ideas. It’s just your classic personality politics. A number of dissidents on the right have fallen into this very trap, engaging their loud, swaggering opponents on their own terms rather than within the framework of ideas. And all this does is alienate the base.

Admittedly, when I criticized Mark Levin for telling a female caller that her husband should shoot herself in the head, I was engaged in criticism about tone, not ideas. This makes sense, I’d argue, insofar as I care about healthy public discourse beyond its impact on conservatism and/or “the conservative movement.” The vast majority of my criticism of talk radio types, however, is decidedly about substance and ideas, whether I am criticizing them for transgressions against conservatism properly understood, or transgressions against society more broadly. Saying that Mark Levin contributes to the conservative inability to understand its ideological opponents by using straw men in his influential book isn’t about personality. Nor is explaining the many levels on which Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about white kids getting beat up in Obama’s America is damaging. Nor is my argument that it’s a disservice to young people on the right when their elders convince them that they won’t be treated fairly in a cultural career. These are influential, wrongheaded ideas that I am writing against, and they are thus worth refuting. And what good can it possibly do?

Consider my most recent piece on Rush Limbaugh. It offered an ironclad argument that he constantly accuses people of racism. I’ve long regarded frivolous accusations of racism — especially against political opponents — as a pernicious force in American life. Almost all conservatives agree. As the most viewed piece at The Daily Beast for a solid four or five days, it is very likely that I drew attention to a behavior of Mr. Limbaugh that non-listeners inclined to be friendly to him wouldn’t have expected. Perhaps they’ll now afford the benefit of fewer doubts to a media figure who misinforms his audience often enough that he isn’t due any.

There’s a fair chance that someone on Mr. Limbaugh’s staff saw the piece. I received a dozen or so e-mails from people who described themselves as conservatives, and said they enjoyed the piece, and several more from independents who said it made them better disposed toward conservatives to see folks on the right acknowledging Mr. Limbaugh’s hypocrisy. I also got notes from fellow writers — including two people from solidly conservative magazines, one of them NR — that they were unaware of the problem’s extent, and agreed with me. One even said he e-mailed Mr. Limbaugh to tell him so (though having heard no public apology I have my doubts).

Finally, Ramesh Ponnuru (not my correspondent) wrote on The Corner(emphasis added):

I don’t think the parallel Friedersdorf draws between the use of the label against Limbaugh and its use by Limbaugh is quite right. Most importantly, Limbaugh didn’t make up now-Justice Sotomayor’s wise-Latina comment. But it does seem as though Limbaugh makes accusations of racism too much, perhaps in the belief that the only way to get liberals to stop playing the race card is to deploy it against them.

Will a popular column at The Daily Beast, a mild rebuke from a writer at The Corner, and e-mails from some probably small, inherently unknowable number of conservatives and some greater number of independents and liberals make Mr. Limbaugh marginally less likely to race-bait so frequently or shamelessly in the future? I hope so. Will a subset of his audience be more attuned to his behavior and dismissive of it if he does persist? Yes. Perhaps it’ll take another blogger who remembered my piece criticizing Mr. Limbaugh after his next tirade to make any significant difference. I don’t know.

But I do think that forceful, accurate, intellectually honest arguments matter over time. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a writer. There is a rather widespread assumption that criticizing talk radio hosts does no good, but it is always ungrounded by any evidence, it assumes a readership composed entirely of un-persuadable ditto-heads, and it ignores the fact that talk radio hosts sure go out of their way to demand apologies or target their interrogators whenever they are criticized.

I am a writer, one who happens to subscribe to many tenets of the conservative political philosophy, who is invested in many of its insights being implemented in public policy, and who aligns myself with “the conservative movement” only when I think it is in the right, and rejects it when I think it is wrong. I’d like to see the GOP be a successful party that wins elections, governs well, opposes responsibly, and implements various conservative ideas, but I’ve got no particular loyalty to it, unlike Peggy Noonan or Rich Lowry or David Frum, so when it goes off the rails, it doesn’t win my vote.

I am a journalist with more than one project. Writing about the conservative political philosophy, its wisdom, and its role in public life is one of them. The role that public discourse plays in society is another. Apolitical narrative journalism is a third. I’m sure someone else will make reforming “the conservative movement” their life’s work rather than an occasional side interest, but that person isn’t me, nor is it Rod Dreher, nor do we have any obligation to focus on improving society in that particular way, though I like to think both our efforts help a bit on the margins.

Mostly, however, I just want Ross Douthat back so I never have to write, and you never have to read, a substitute as overly long and inferior as this one again. Damn you, The New York Times!

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6 Responses to “The Many Projects of American Conservatives”

  1. Free Douthat | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen Says:

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    […] still trying to decide if Conor is willfully misreading me or if this is simply a rhetorical tit-for-tat.  Conor pounces on the title of my “strategy” for taking responsibility for the […]

  4. Tweets that mention Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog – The Many Projects of American Conservatives - True/Slant -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Conor Friedersdorf, Noah Kristula-Green. Noah Kristula-Green said: "Free Douthat" now with its very own JPEG http://bit.ly/NkOqY http://bit.ly/39N75l and fans […]

  5. E.D. Kain - American Tory – Ross Douthat’s blog - True/Slant Says:

    […] Sullivan points to this post by my co-blogger Freddie.  Freddie and others want the New York Times to give Ross Douthat a […]

  6. against the wind | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen Says:

    […] me just say that I am overwhelmingly sympathetic to what Conor and Rod are saying regarding the punditocracy on the right and the futility of engaging the base. […]

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