Noah Millman has a very thoughtful, long post exploring the reasons for the so-called “closing of the conservative mind.” As I have said before, I am skeptical that the movement conservative mind was ever open in quite the way that Millman or Sanchez means it. The conservative mind of the sort described by Kirk is one that is both grounded in principle and also very capable of critical thinking and self-criticism, but what I think we have seen in recent years is not much the closing of such a mind as its replacement by an ideological mentality that is basically hostile to a conservative mind. To say that the conservative mind has closed leaves open the possibility that it might open someday. Perhaps I am wrong, but once such a mind is obliterated by ideology I’m not sure that it can recover.
Millman’s argument is persuasive that something has changed in degree, but I’m not at all sure that much has changed in kind. What has changed is the relative strengthening and consolidation of movement institutions compared to twenty or thirty years ago, and there has typically been greater access to Republican administrations and majorities and involvement with them during a general period of Republican ascendancy. Where conservative intellectuals once had to prove themselves by the strength of their arguments, they could now increasingly get along by repeating not much more than slogans and audience-pleasing half-truths. By the start of the last decade, there was considerable complacency, which the myth of the “center-right nation” helped to encourage by making intellectual bankruptcy seem to be politically cost-free, and then after 2006 there seems to have been general disbelief and horror that the ascendancy to which the movement had tied itself so closely was now coming to a close.
I agree that the Iraq war and the greater post-9/11 ideological rigidity movement conservatives embraced have worsened matters considerably, but what we have seen over the last eight or nine years is really just an intensification of past habits, which new forms of online media and the growth of distinctively conservative media over the last twenty years have facilitated and brought to a much larger audience. The cocooning instincts were always there (because any group that sees itself as an embattled minority is prone to this), but the means to create a large enough cocoon was not present until the 1990s and afterwards. The creation of the conservative media as an “alternative” to mainstream media gave way to conservative media as a near-complete substitute for their conservative audience. At one point, there was a desire, which I think was partly very genuine, for greater fairness to the conservative perspective, but this soon morphed into the need to construct a parallel universe of news and commentary untainted by outsiders.
Millman contrasts the expulsion of the “unpatriotic conservatives” (i.e., mainly paleoconservatives) with earlier movement expulsions, and sees a difference between expelling “extremists” as opposed to expelling “dissenters.” As far as movement conservatives were concerned then and now, paleoconservatives who opposed the invasion of Iraq (and at least some elements of the “war on terror” more broadly) were like the “extremists” of the past in that we were/are radicals, but we paleoconservatives were considered worse than these others because we were/are also basically reactionaries in many ways when compared to mainstream conservatives. We were and are very sympathetic to the Old Right on both foreign and domestic policy, and we have tended to find fault with movement conservatives on account of their myriad compromises with the welfare and warfare states. Whatever they say now that it is useful, mainstream conservatives tend to abhor the Old Right in both spheres, but they are particularly offended by the desire to return to anything remotely resembling pre-WWII neutralist foreign policy. It may or may not be an important element, but paleoconservatives also tend to be cultural pessimists and many are traditional Christians, and both pessimism and traditional Christianity have helped keep us grounded and wary of any form of triumphalism, be it nationalist or democratist or “conservative.”
Millman mentions that the expelled are expelled from “conservative respectability,” but one reason for engaging in these expulsions is to preserve the respectability of mainstream conservatism in the eyes of the broader public. Another reason for going through the expulsion exercise is to reaffirm one’s own credentials as the True Conservative and Real American, which I suppose must be gratifying in its own right. Opposing the invasion of Iraq was already a minority view during 2002-03, and on the right opposition to the war commanded almost no support, so it was not politically risky to cast out people who were already on the margins of the movement. As far as most non-conservatives were concerned, this was simply a matter of conservatives policing their own extremes, which is what “centrist,” establishment figures are always asking movement leaders to do.
What was noticeable this time was that the supposed radical reactionary extremists were actually the far, far more reasonable ones who were not advocating all of the things that have become so important to movement conservatives: aggressive war, reckless power projection, expansion of state surveillance and detention, exaggeration of the nature and scope of foreign threats, and absolute deference to the executive in “time of war.” In this respect, we have become much more like the anti-anticommunists beginning in the ’50s (e.g., Lukacs, Viereck), who were not really expelled from movement circles so much as they were ignored completely.
Something that people expelled from the movement have tended to have in common is a profound distrust of the federal government and wariness of the expansion of its powers. At least as far as the national security and warfare state is concerned, that is simply not acceptable, because growing and using that state apparatus is the one thing that seems to unite most movement conservatives during and since the Cold War. The expelled have also been just as likely to criticize and oppose Republican politicians and policies as they have those on the Democratic side, and sometimes in even stronger terms because Republicans rely on conservative support. The expelled are very bad partisans and are not “team players.” Another reason for bothering with these expulsions is to show those who remain “inside” how far they are allowed to go until they will no longer be tolerated. At one level, this is standard boundary maintenance that any group practices, but it is also a means of imposing a degree of uniformity and discipline on those who remain.
On the whole, the practice works to keep those “inside” in line, but what it also does is signal to anyone with much intellectual curiosity to stay far away or to leave now. If the quality of conservative thought is worse today than it was ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and I agree that it certainly seems that way, I would attribute this to the triumph of the ideological spirit that has afflicted movement conservatism from very early on and to the strong disincentives ideological rigidity creates for anyone who might be interested in conservative ideas.