If you ask me why conservatism has become intellectually impoverished, my answer is going to be a lot more prosaic than David Brooks’s. He starts his decline-of-the-conservative-mind column with a relatively rare allusion to his years working for National Review , and I could do the same but I don’t want to talk out of school. So I’ll stick to something any attentive reader might have noticed, which is that NR and NRO have filled their writing stable with a heck of a lot of think tankers. Almost every article that isn’t written by someone on staff is written by someone from Heritage, AEI, Cato, Hudson, or Hoover. I’m just speculating here (I have no inside knowledge on this question), but the most obvious reason for relying so heavily on think tankers is that they come cheap. Unlike freelancers, think tankers will put up with nonexistent-to-nominal fees because their salaries are being paid by someone else. Alas, think tankers—with a few exceptions—are not exactly known for the felicity of their prose or the originality of their thinking. They also think almost exclusively in terms of policy prescriptions—i.e., what Congress or the president or state legislatures can do—because that’s what they’re paid to care about. The result is that a lot of conservatism journalism today is (1) so badly written that it is difficult to read with any pleasure, (2) entirely unimaginative in its application of conservative principles, and (3) narrowly focused on either the Hill or the horse-race. All because of the market forces that come into operation when think tankers flood the market with cheap, reliable, and minimally acceptable journalism.
That’s one explanation for why conservatism is dumber than it used to be. Many others are equally valid. But the one explanation that I refuse to accept is the one Brooks and Rod Dreher both hyped this week (which is also the Left’s favorite critique—not that there’s anything wrong with that). This theory says that conservatism has been mortally weakened by the replacement of fusionism with small-government absolutism—an overemphasis on liberty and an underemphasis on tradition and community.
In the polarized political conflict with liberalism, shrinking government has become the organizing conservative principle. Economic conservatives have the money and the institutions. They have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse. These days, speakers at Republican gatherings almost always use the language of market conservatism — getting government off our backs, enhancing economic freedom. Even Mitt Romney, who subscribes to a faith that knows a lot about social capital, relies exclusively on the language of market conservatism. It’s not so much that today’s Republican politicians reject traditional, one-nation conservatism. They don’t even know it exists . . . .Heaven preserve us from politicians who appeal to their constituents as parents and neighbors! Most of us have actual family and neighbors for that.
The Republican Party has abandoned half of its intellectual ammunition. It appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.
That particular line reminds me of the tenured radicals who argued that college instruction should recognize that students are not just scholars but also human beings of particular genders and races, as well as citizens with democratic responsibilities (the solution: politicize the curriculum). It’s quite true that my citizenship, my faith, and my heritage are more important to me than my college major—but they are miles outside a professor’s job description. Like Stanley Fish says, save the world on your own time . And introducing extraneous themes doesn’t just distract from real education, it corrupts it. Professors who want to talk about the important things, rather than the appropriate things, end up doing more harm than good—and the same goes for politicians. Double.
There was an Australian politician who wanted to run his reelection campaign on a theme of togetherness rather than tax cuts, and it’s a shame that more Americans aren’t familiar with what his colleague Neville Wran said to talk him out of it: “It’s all very well to go on with all that spiritual stuff, but if the greedy bastards out there wanted spiritualism, they’d join the f—ing Hare Krishna.”
Rod Dreher takes Brooks’s case for the intellectual poverty of modern conservatism and pursues it further, but—and I mean this respectfully—he phrases his argument in a way that left me feeling affronted. He exhorts conservatives to study the great traditionalist thinkers of the past, when it seems to me that he’s the one who could use a history lesson:
. . . Robert Nisbet saw all this in the 1950s, and wrote about it in The Quest For Community (see Patrick Deneen’s short essay on the value of Nisbet’s contribution).
Ever read that book? Ever read Kirk’s The Conservative Mind ? Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences ? These are treasure troves of traditionalist conservative thought and insight—all of it now so alien to what conservatism has become that to read them is like meeting a long-lost ancestor, a rich uncle who offers you an inheritance you didn’t know you had.
Turn off talk radio. Turn off the cable. Quit buying books from flashy Republican Party publicists. Take up the old traditionalist masters—Kirk, Nisbet, Weaver, and their philosophical school—and read. One day, their wisdom may revive American conservatism from the sterility and sloganeering of Conservatism, Inc.
The trouble is, these movements never seem to go anywhere. You’d think they would, since their common message is stuff everyone can agree with: There are things more important than money, it’s better to be caring than unfeeling, when people are in trouble they deserve a little help, etc. (Well, some people had a tougher time with the definition. Randolph Churchill said, “To tell the truth, I don’t know myself what Tory Democracy is. But I believe it is principally opportunism.”) Yet conservatism rumbles on, unchanged by these fads.
I hope Dreher won’t take it as an insult if I suggest that he and Crunchy Conservatism have more in common with these marginal movements than with Burke and Kirk. So it’s funny that he accuses his opponents of “thinking conservatism began in 1980,” as he seems to have overlooked his own obvious antecedents and, you know, drawn the appropriate demoralizing conclusion.
I have a lot of affection for the Distributists. I treasure life’s charming little inefficiencies—fancy clothes, time for leisure, and I cook a lot more elaborately than I need to. But there’s a limit to how inefficient I can afford to be, and the only way to calculate that limit is money. I don’t want capitalism or politics to give me the things I care about, they just need to leave room for them. Which is why the fact that the balance of fusionism has tipped toward shrinking government doesn’t mean traditionalism isn’t alive and well.