Some of the comments made on my last posting have caused me to think further about the larger dynamics suggested by the circumstances surrounding Juan Williams’ dismissal.
Here is the dynamic I see at work. When I was born, the idea-driven world (academic, media, and so forth) was dominated by an establishment liberalism that was so thoroughly in charge that it had the breathing room to build and run the institutions under their control in a fairly broad manner, and without overt political purposes front and center. Liberal meant “sensible” and “mainstream,” and although this attitude was hopelessly smug, it tended to create a comfortable feeling of command that wasn’t inclined to impose ideological standards.
The easy dominance of establishment liberalism came to an end during my youth
The emergence of a radical elite in the 1960s was the first shock. But it was largely handled by selective integration of radical critiques into the liberal establishment. Bill Ayers, for example, ended up as a college professor.
Then came the second shock: the emergence during the Reagan era of a conservative elite capable of changing the terms of political and social debate. This was the moment when Commentary magazine exercised its greatest influence and did so in accord with the rise of the DC think tanks.
This conservative ascendancy could not be accommodated by the liberal establishment, or at least was not for a long time, and now only to a very limited degree. (Historians may look back and interpret this failure as the decisive error of the WASP elites who dominated in the post-War years—though a good historian must account for the profound role of the civil rights movement in transforming—and narrowing—political options in America.) Gradually an increasingly powerful conservative elite founded its own institutions, among which, perhaps, we should number First Things magazine.
Thus began a social dynamic of wagon circling and ideological purification on both sides. I experienced this dynamic in the Episcopal Church, where the question “where do you stand on women priests or gay clergy?” became the decisive, indeed, exclusive concern. The effect was to hollow out the seminaries, where after all only a small percentage of what is taught concerns these controversial issues.
As I look back, I can see that is was probably of the nature of things that new conservative institutions demanded ideological conformity. Otherwise, they would be quickly re-absorbed into the outlooks of already existing institutions dominated by the liberal establishment. If one wants to start a new Catholic college, for example, one can’t just hire “the best and the brightest,” because the result will be Harvard or Yale writ small.
What strikes me is that liberal-dominated institutions have been doing the same thing, and perhaps with greater urgency as time has passed. I take this to be a sign of the ongoing ascendancy of conservative ideas among elite Americans.
I want to emphasize that what “conservative” means in American politics is a contested matter. It may be that the nineteenth century liberalism that we call “conservative” today is what is on the rise, not a social conservatism that wants to challenge the dominant modern definitions of freedom. But however one parses the current scene, the reaction of liberal institutions toward conservatives or even liberals such as Juan Williams who don’t toe the line suggests increased penetration of conservative ideas into elite opinion.
In other words, the decision by the head of NPR to fire Williams—a stupid decision in so many ways—suggests an impulse toward wagon-circling among the liberal elite. This impulse is being motivated by the continued ascendancy of a conservative (or at least non-liberal) outlook among American elites.
First, as I point out, the tendency to task everything to the political purpose of the moment is not good for the nation, because it has the tendency of perverting the non-political missions of important institutions, e.g., education, news-gathering, art museums, and so forth. Unfortunately, the Left has theorized culture in such a way as to make everything into politics, which eases their consciences as they politicize non-political institutions. What worries me is that conservatives in America assume that they must do the same.
The second thought follows directly. The struggle for political power is important. There are civic goods at stake in American politics: questions of fiscal responsibility, foreign policy, appropriate regulatory controls and social welfare policies, as well as the always important question of whether our laws are in accord with moral truths. But it is very important that conservatives not become counter-revolutionaries who have an essentially Bolshevik mentality oriented toward supposedly conservative ends.
One of the signal principles of true conservatism is that there exist personal and cultural spheres of life that are not the proper domain of government power. Therefore, no true conservative should use these spheres—family, education, art, and most importantly of all religious life—as mere instruments in the struggle for political power.