Criticisms of the conservative media have proliferated since the presidential election revealed that many conservatives, including political professionals, had little idea what was happening in the real world. Too often, we’ve been reminded, conservative journalists offer uninformed speculation, pass along unverified rumors, or just make things up. In a piece by Michael Calderone, our esteemed editor Dan McCarthy described the lazy interdependence of conservative sources, reporters, and pundits as a “circle jerk.” That sounds about right.
But intellectual onanism is not the right’s only problem. Mark Judge piles on by observing that conservatives struggle not only to get the facts right, but also to write with any flair or elegance:
This became clear when I was reading Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, a William F. Buckley omnibus that collects some of the late conservative icon’s best writing. Reconnecting with Buckley’s wonderful prose revealed something quite clearly: conservative journalism has plenty of pit bulls, but it lacks show dogs. It needs some graceful writers.
I’ve never much admired Buckley as a stylist, for whom “show dog” seems an apt metaphor. But Judge is right that few contemporary conservative writers are any fun to read. What accounts for the decay of a literary tradition that includes, in addition to Buckley, Kirk, Chambers, Eliot, Wolfe, and many others?
The disappearance of vehicles for long-form journalism is one cause. The most stylish writing has historically been magazine writing. And while magazines haven’t entirely disappeared, most survive only in reduced form.
One can, of course, publish an article of any length on the Internet. In most cases, however, that means bypassing the formal editing from which nearly all writers benefit. Moreover, the medium itself rewards short, topical pieces rather than digressive elegance. This obstacle to good writing, incidentally, is not limited to the right. We don’t find many heirs to Dwight Macdonald these days, either.
A second problem is the excessive focus on issues that characterizes contemporary conservatism. Buckley wrote perceptively about sports, clothes, religion, and music as well as elections and policies. Today’s conservative writers are, for the most part, pundits rather than men and women of letters engaged with culture and the arts as well as politics. And when conservatives do write about culture, it is too often a contrarian display of populist tastes.
Finally, conservative writers suffer from the general decline of literary standards, which is a development that they should be particularly able to recognize and resist. One aspect of this decline is the expectation that one can learn to write from ephemeral journalism rather than the imperishable sources of the English language. So maybe the reason there are no Buckleys anymore is, paradoxically, that conservatives read too much Buckley. Let’s try the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and Gibbon, instead.