I feel very lucky to have entered the conservative movement when I did, back in the 1980s and 1990s. I was working at National Review, The Washington Times, and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. The role models in front of us were people like Bill Buckley, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, Russell Kirk and Midge Decter.
These people wrote about politics, but they also wrote about a lot of other things: history, literature, sociology, theology and life in general. There was a sharp distinction then between being conservative, which was admired, and being a Republican, which was considered sort of cheesy.
These writers often lived in cities among liberals while being suspicious of liberal thought and liberal parochialism. People like Buckley had friends of every ideological stripe and were sharper for being in hostile waters. They were sort of inside and outside the establishment and could speak both languages.
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Many grew up poor, which cured them of the anti-elitist pose that many of today’s conservative figures adopt, especially if they come from Princeton (Ted Cruz), Cornell (Ann Coulter) or Dartmouth (Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza). The older writers knew that being cultured and urbane wasn’t a sign of elitism. Culture was the tool they used for social mobility. T.S. Eliot was cheap and sophisticated argument was free.
The Buckley-era establishment self-confidently enforced intellectual and moral standards. It rebuffed the nativists like the John Birch Society, the apocalyptic polemicists who popped up with the New Right, and they exiled conspiracy-mongers and anti-Semites, like Joe Sobran, an engaging man who was rightly fired from National Review.
The conservative intellectual landscape has changed in three important ways since then, paving the way for the ruination of the Republican Party.
First, talk radio, cable TV and the internet have turned conservative opinion into a mass-market enterprise. Small magazines have been overwhelmed by Rush, O’Reilly and Breitbart.
Today’s dominant conservative voices try to appeal to people by the millions. You win attention in the mass media through perpetual hysteria and simple-minded polemics and by exploiting social resentment. In search of that mass right-wing audience that, say, Coulter enjoys, conservatism has done its best to make itself offensive to people who value education and disdain made-for-TV rage.
It’s ironic that an intellectual tendency that champions free markets was ruined by the forces of commercialism, but that is the essential truth. Conservatism went down-market in search of revenue. It got swallowed by its own anti-intellectual media-politico complex – from Beck to Palin to Trump. Hillary Clinton is therefore now winning among white college graduates by 52 to 36 percent.
Second, conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else. The very essence of conservatism is the belief that politics is a limited activity, and that the most important realms are pre-political: conscience, faith, culture, family and community. But recently conservatism has become more the talking arm of the Republican Party.
Among social conservatives, for example, faith sometimes seems to come in second behind politics, Scripture behind voting guides. Today, most white evangelicals are willing to put aside the Christian virtues of humility, charity and grace for the sake of a Trump political victory. According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey, 72 percent of white evangelicals believe that a person who is immoral in private life can be an effective national leader, a belief that is more Machiavelli than Matthew.
As conservatism has become a propagandistic, partisan movement it has become less vibrant, less creative and less effective.
That leads to the third big change. Blinkered by the Republican Party’s rigid anti-government rhetoric, conservatives were slow to acknowledge and even slower to address the central social problems of our time.
For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good. Trump demagogy filled the void.
This is a sad story. But I confess I’m insanely optimistic about a conservative rebound. That’s because of an observation the writer Yuval Levin once made: That while most of the crazy progressives are young, most of the crazy conservatives are old. Conservatism is now being led astray by its seniors, but its young people are pretty great. It’s hard to find a young evangelical who likes Donald Trump. Most young conservatives are comfortable with ethnic diversity and are weary of the Fox News media-politico complex. Conservatism’s best ideas are coming from youngish reformicons who have crafted an ambitious governing agenda (completely ignored by Trump).
A Trump defeat could cleanse a lot of bad structures and open ground for new growth. It was good to be a young conservative back in my day. It’s great to be one right now.