Ross Douthat kindly critiques my essay urging a “non-movement conservatism” (if not a non-conservative conservatism). Dan McCarthy makes some of the same arguments here.

A few points in response:

– Ross correctly observes that all ideological movements not just conservatism — have both theorists who generate the ideas and disciples who go out and advance them. He cites Rachel Carson and the environmentalist movement as an example. An even purer example might be Jane Jacobs who came out of nowhere and the New Urbanist movement.  These movements all have a clear and distinct idea of what they stand for; hence, they can also distinguish between those issues relevant to their movement and those that are not. In contrast, nobody has any generally accepted idea what conservatism is supposed to mean or what conservatives are supposed to achieve. (The best one can probably do is to say that conservatism is whatever the movement says that it is.) The difference between conservatism and, say, environmentalism or New Urbanism, then, is that conservatives are constantly trying to stitch various disparate ideas together into some plausible whole. My point is that this stitching project doesnt add anything (indeed, it may be counterproductive).  If you want the underlying ideas, or even organizations to advance those underlying ideas, you dont need conservatism or a broad conservative movement.

– Ross also correctly observes that it’s possible both to build a movement and to influence those outside of it. Again, he cites environmentalism as an example. Again, there are crucial differences between the conservative movement and a movement like environmentalism.  Environmentalists have never sought to create a counter-establishment. Rather, they try to supply establishment institutions with environmentalist ideas.  Conservatives, by contrast, have sought to create a whole alternative institutional world.  The movement offers entire career tracks for aspiring conservatives. Moreover, the movement preaches hostility to non-movement institutions. From the moment a movement conservative starts his career at his college conservative paper, he learns to conceive of conservative organizations as the City of God and traditional establishment institutions as the City of Man. The two Cities, he believes, are antagonists. Hence, movement conservatives have not generally succeeded in reaching sympathetic outsiders if anything, they have actively sought to alienate them.

– Finally, both Ross and Dan correctly observe that you can’t get anything done without coalitions, strategists, foot-soldiers – in short, movements. The question is: movements of what type? First of all, it is unclear whether popular movements are the most effective.  Given vast levels of political ignorance, a great deal of policymaking goes on without effective public scrutiny. If you want to achieve a change in public policy, it may be better to create a loose networks of like-minded elites rather than to organize a mass movement. Second, the conservative project of stitching together various disparate ideas may be counterproductive. Sure, its great that pro-lifers have an alliance with foreign-policy Projectarians. But the cost is that the enemies of the Projectarians who are legion become the enemies of the pro-lifers. If youre pro-life, might it not be better to build alliances with all ideological types, whatever their views on other subjects? I would think so.  But conservatism and the conservative movement prevent this from happening.