Where Are The Conservative Intellectuals?
It’s telling that Newsweek turned to a British academic, not an American movement conservative, to produce its hackwork anti-Obama cover story. An American movement con might have got the facts right, but wouldn’t have any star power as an intellectual brand, since what makes a movement con a movement con is sticking always to lines of argument that support the team. A cover story by a highbrow movement conservative, if there is such a thing, would only amount to another conservative reciting the team’s line; nobody — left, right, center, nowhere — would treat the story’s conclusions as something arrived at by thinking for oneself. Niall Ferguson, by contrast, is his own demographic, so at least you know what he says is what he thinks (even if he has interested reasons for thinking what he does), whereas movement conservatives — perhaps that ought to be “professional conservatives” — say what they’re supposed to say and what everyone expects of them. Mild exceptions are allowed: the occasional op-ed about prison reform, for example. But that’s just frosting.
This description brings to mind the way British diplomat Matthew Rycroft described the Bush administration’s pre-war thinking on Iraq: that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
I think that the conservative intellectual class never really recovered from the Bush years. The Iraq debacle was a defeat of conservative foreign policy thinking, and the economic crash was a defeat of conservative economic thinking.
Note well that the converse is not true: these events weren’t a vindication of liberalism. But conservatism has so dominated the intellectual landscape of US politics for a generation that even the liberals accepted the basic conservative stance on foreign policy and economics. This is what Clintonism was all about — especially on economic policy.
Liberal intellectuals have their own problems and challenges, of course, and I don’t care about them. For my side, it seems to me that conservative intellectuals have become so fossilized as a class because they responded to the two devastating shocks to the Standard Conservative Model by essentially doubling down on ideology. Just say the same old things, but louder and more insistently, and rely on tribalist instincts and hive-mindedness to marginalize dissenters, and that will carry the day. That, and the fact that liberalism hasn’t come up with a dynamic and compelling vision either for the post-Iraq, post-crash world — that is, a post-1980 world in which assumptions generally shared by both parties about American foreign policy and globalized capitalism have proven inadequate to the world as it is.
That’s not going to work in the long run. What next? That’s why we have this magazine. As Noah Millman put it on his TAC blog the other day:
This magazine, as I understand it, is devoted to a project of redefining what Americans think it means to be a conservative, specifically arguing that it is more properly conservative to exercise restraint in foreign affairs (potentially even to oppose interventionism on principle) than to try to preserve hegemony, and that it is more properly conservative to nurture local economies and cultures (potentially even ones an individual might find baffling or distasteful) than to try to flatten them in the name of capitalist or administrative efficiency. The fact that one needs to make an argument to the effect that these things are conservative, when most self-identified conservatives plainly don’t think they are, implies acknowledgement that whatever “conservative” means, it means something else – otherwise it would be impossible to convince a self-identified conservative who identifies his or her “conservatism” with nationalism and unfettered capitalism that he or she is wrong in making that identification, and the mission of this magazine would be fruitless.
Conservatism didn’t begin with Ronald Reagan, nor was Reaganism the last word in conservatism, no matter what Conservatism, Inc., says.