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New Thinking on the Right

How high-toned quarterly journals are enlivening the conservative exploration.
National Affairs

Reports of conservatism’s brain death are greatly exaggerated. The right is more intellectually vibrant today than it has been in decades—at least since the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan and Jack Kemp enlivened the conservative debate, and neocons, paleos, and libertarians offered markedly divergent views on how to confront the post-Cold War world. The intellectual vigor of today’s right can best be seen in a number of quarterly journals, particularly in two that represent stark differences in philosophical direction: National Affairs and American Affairs. Though each of the two resists easy ideological labeling, National Affairs has generally been associated with the “reform conservative” movement, while American Affairs is the closest thing there is to a theoretical journal of the populist right.

The quarterly that had the most powerful effect last year was an older one, however. After the Journal of American Greatness, a bracingly provocative and anonymously authored pro-Trump website, shut down, the quarterly Claremont Review of Books became the platform for JAG’s star attraction, “Decius”—the nom de plume of Michael Anton, who now serves on President Trump’s National Security Council. Decius’s Claremont Review essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” served as a declaration of a new and more urgent—or, as critics would say, apocalyptic—American right. It caught the attention of influential Trump backers who subsequently promoted Anton for a position in the new administration.

The Claremont Review has in fact published many articles over the past two years that have heralded the rise of new thinking on the right. Christopher Caldwell, for example, has written in its pages about taking a realistic view of Vladimir Putin and giving the devil his due: “By certain traditional measures,” he argued, “Russian president Vladimir Putin is the pre-eminent statesman of his time.” Caldwell has also sounded Trumpian notes on immigration and trade issues. The Claremont Review’s editor, Charles Kesler, and scholars affiliated with the think tank that publishes it, California’s Claremont Institute, have meanwhile sought to explain Trump in terms of their own “West Coast Straussian” school of thought. By their lights, Trump’s populist appeal arises from a reaction against the unaccountable, undemocratic “administrative state” in Washington.

But the principal successor to the Journal of American Greatness is American Affairs, launched this year by several writers who had been involved with the JAG. Its editor is Julius Krein, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate who left a career on Wall Street to commit himself to the intellectual fray, first as one of the founders of the JAG, and now at the helm of the new quarterly. Joining Krein as deputy editor is Gladden Pappin, a fellow Harvard alumnus, just a few years Krein’s senior, who is an assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and senior adviser of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. The first issue of American Affairs included an essay by Michael Anton, writing under his own name and appearing after he had become the NSC’s deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications. (A disclaimer noted that his essay had been written before he joined the administration, however, and officially reflected only his own views.)

American Affairs announced its debut last February with an intellectually—and financially—star-studded event at the Harvard Club in New York. It was an eclectic gathering: As I walked in, I saw Sam Tanenhaus ahead of me, William Kristol to my left, and soon I was talking to Paul Starobin, the former BusinessWeek Moscow bureau chief and author of a realist essay on Russia in American Affairs’s second number. Republican mega-donors Rebekah Mercer and Roger Hertog were on hand, as were unorthodox center-left thinkers Mark Lilla and Michael Lind—the latter a member of the journal’s board of advisers. The night’s panel discussion, introduced by Krein, included Peter Thiel and the New America Foundation’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. The event and the journal soon earned write-ups in the New York Times, Politico, and, with predictable chilliness, The Nation.

“The reception has been very warm,” Pappin says, with the journal quickly garnering “a wide audience on the left and right” and “being followed widely in Europe” as well as in the United States. But he and Krein are wary of their quarterly being identified as strictly a Trump organ. “The initial coverage of American Affairs framed the journal much more narrowly than we framed the journal’s mission ourselves,” Pappin notes. “The limits of the initial coverage were apparent by our second issue: articles on neo-Confucian political theory are hard to fit under the label of ‘Trumpism.’”

By mid-August, after President Trump had blamed left-wing antifa as well as alt-right extremists for the violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to one woman’s death, Krein had come to repudiate his support for the president. “I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It,” declared the title of an essay Krein wrote for the New York Times. Krein did not, however, retreat from the criticisms of “the neoliberal policy consensus” that he had published in the JAG and American Affairs. As Pappin indicated, American Affairs never saw itself as a vehicle for one politician’s agenda. Now it occupies the difficult position of being perceived as a Trumpian journal at odds with Trump himself. But such difficulties have been healthy for some publications: Partisan Review arguably had a relationship to the hard (indeed, pro-communist) political left parallel to the one American Affairs now has with Trump.

Whatever its editor’s views of the president, American Affairs retains a clear affinity with the currents that brought Trump to power, particularly the nationalist and anti-globalist spirit of his supporters, including the most ideologically sophisticated among them. For those who want to understand the Trump moment in terms beyond those of the president’s own Twitter feed, American Affairs remains valuable. And it’s all the more revealing of the crossroads at which the right stands when it’s contrasted with National Affairs, the policy quarterly founded eight years ago as a publication of what has come to be known as “reform conservatism.”

Its editor, Yuval Levin, is just as circumspect about tying his journal to current politics as the editors of American Affairs are. “I wouldn’t want to equate National Affairs and reform conservatism,” he says, though he adds that “we have certainly been a home for some important work by people who’ve been termed reform conservatives.” The labeling came largely from the outside, when journalists writing in 2013 sought to identify conservative intellectuals who could give the right a new direction in the wake of Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat. Levin and his magazine figured prominently in that search. In his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat, himself often counted among the reformers, referred to the “reformicons,” as he called them, as a loose group that included writers such as Reihan Salam (Douthat’s co-author on a book called Grand New Party); National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru; Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute; Yuval Levin; and others. The following year, the New York Times Magazine featured Levin and ten other policy-minded conservative writers—several of whom were also contributors to National Affairs—in a cover story on reformicons asking, “Can the GOP Be a Party of Ideas?”

That story, by Sam Tanenhaus, illustrated why National Affairs might not avidly embrace the reform conservative label. While Tanenhaus was working on it, one of the political champions of reform conservatism, Representative Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, was crushed in his Virginia Republican primary re-election effort by an insurgent Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat. Tanenhaus called National Affairs “the citadel of reform conservatism,” but today, with Trump having done to wonkish Republicans on a national scale what Brat did to Cantor in Virginia, reform conservatism appears politically dead. Yet National Affairs lives on. It may have been the victim of unreasonable early expectations: There is a certain parallel here to the fate of Senator Rand Paul, whose well-wishers were encouraged by a New York Times Magazine cover story to believe that the “libertarian moment” might soon arrive. That dream, too, was shattered, or at least postponed, by Trump.

Levin says he’s “reasonably encouraged by the modest early progress” of his journal. “I think we’ve helped conservatism start to think harder and better, and I think that work will pay dividends in the years to come—when it will be badly needed.” He adds that he sees conservatism, from Burke onwards, as “inherently a reforming inclination,” and thus reform conservatism is really just “applied conservatism—a policy-minded American conservatism.” In concrete terms this entails, he says, “a transformation of the welfare state into more targeted forms of assistance to the vulnerable aimed at working through rather than against the private economy and civil society and rooted in social conservatism, constitutionalism, subsidiarity, and a commitment to competition founded in epistemological modesty.” In short, National Affairs’s conservatism is less radical in its outlook and prescriptions than American Affairs is. The welfare state can be made to serve conservative ends, and the free market and American civil society are basically healthy. America and the world are not in the grip of a malign “neoliberalism” or lost to a post-capitalist “managerial revolution” in economic organization.

Levin, 40, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is the author of several books, including last year’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. He also was a domestic policy adviser in the George W. Bush administration. One of the qualities that made reform conservatives appear influential beyond their small numbers was their access to Republican leaders and the elite media: Paul Ryan, along with Eric Cantor, was an ally of the reformicon tendency, and reformicons have had a presence at the Washington Post through contributors such as Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, both former Bush speechwriters, as well as at the New York Times with Douthat. For a time, the reformicon group seemed to connect conservative thinkers and writers directly with officeholders: It was an insider formation, in contrast to the outside eclecticism of American Affairs, which is not part of the capital’s Republican-conservative universe.

Donald Trump is not of that universe, either. But Levin does not find everything about the president’s program unfamiliar. “Obviously, there’s a grave concern about Trump among most of the people associated with this notion of ‘reform conservatism,’” he says. “And I think a lot of that concern, beyond sheer concern for the country, has to do not with Trumpism being somehow the opposite of what we’ve offered but with it being a kind of funhouse mirror distortion of what we’ve offered.” Trumpism, says Levin, had the effect of “discrediting some of the ideas we have worked to advance—on immigration, certainly, but in the direction of a more populist conservatism generally.” A defining element of reform conservatism has been its technocratic approach to populism, as paradoxical as that may sound. Michael Gerson once described the main reform conservative policy initiatives as “wage subsidies (through an expanded earned-income tax credit), payroll tax cuts, apprenticeship programs, dramatic increases in the child tax credit and a welfare system that requires work in exchange for benefits.” These are modest policies—small beer, by Trump’s rhetorical standards—that may or may not have salutary effects (in truth, they’re a mixed bag) but lack visceral appeal with voters and the imprimatur of economic orthodoxy among Capitol Hill conservatives. Just try to imagine them getting past the House Freedom Caucus.

The adverse headwinds of party politics do not seem to discourage the thinkers attached to National Affairs, however. As Levin notes, Trump’s political success has accomplished one thing for reform conservatism: “It has exploded the notion that the Republican electorate is implacably committed to what have long been understood as Reaganite litmus tests that point toward libertarianism.” The weakening of small-government orthodoxy’s hold over the GOP strengthens the reformicon case, Levin says, a case he describes as “something akin to ‘two cheers for capitalism,’ with the third cheer held back by concerns about the market’s effects on social cohesion, family, and community.” Drawing a parallel to politics past, Levin concludes: “That puts us in something like the original neoconservative position, and that’s certainly where I find myself in any case.”

Indeed, National Affairs owes a debt to the early domestic form of neoconservatism and its flagship policy journal, The Public Interest, founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in 1965. “The Public Interest was our foremost model” for National Affairs, Levin says. “In form and function, in disposition, and in our sense of purpose we are very influenced by their example.” The difference between the two journals, says Levin, is, “We are a conservative magazine, which the PI certainly wasn’t in the beginning and really wasn’t even in the end.” When The Public Interest debuted, its centrist policy outlook, grounded in social science, was arguably more at home in the Democratic Party—at least the Democratic Party of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Senator Scoop Jackson—than in the GOP. The Democrats have moved to the left since then, and the intellectual heirs of Irving Kristol, such as one finds in National Affairs, have been unembarrassed about embracing the Republicans and conservatism. Or at least that had been the case before Trump.

National Affairs does not touch on foreign policy, and some reformicons have noted that the domestic agenda dear to many of them during the George W. Bush days was entirely sidelined by Bush’s wars. Whether a reform conservative president—a Marco Rubio, perhaps—would stay out of the foreign morasses that bogged down Bush is, however, a doubtful proposition, to say the least. In the absence of a clear alternative foreign policy, what’s to stop any reform-minded Republican from repeating Bush’s mistakes?

There is a contrast here with American Affairs, which includes foreign policy among its areas of concern. Yet based on what American Affairs has published so far, it is easier to discern what their preferred policy is not than to discern what it would be. The journal’s editors say their “overall approach to foreign policy” accords with an idea Michael Anton expressed in the journal’s first issue: namely, that “correcting the errors of the neo-interventionists does not require adopting those of the paleo-isolationists.’” But what does that mean? A story in the second issue by George Mason University’s Colin Dueck and two co-authors from the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation—“Reclaiming American Realism”—does not call for any significant changes in the U.S. posture of global primacy. Even George W. Bush was happy during the 2000 campaign to talk about “a humble foreign policy” that would not involve nation-building. Practically no one in the foreign-policy community openly acknowledges a desire for new wars, but clearly there is a steady demand in Washington for regime change in the non-democratic world. That demand has been served whenever the occasion arises for meddling, as happened in Iraq and Libya. U.S. foreign policy, and conservative orthodoxy about it, requires just as deep and thorough a re-examination as domestic policy does. Why does it work the way it does—and why have its outcomes been so reliably appalling in recent years?

American Affairs is in many respects a radical journal, in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter. The journal seems to offer less than two cheers for capitalism, in part because its leading thinkers do not believe that capitalism, on the classical Adam Smith model, exists in the world today. Instead, capitalism has been replaced by economic managerialism—a concept that Krein explored in the first issue with an essay on the thought of James Burnham, with added insights from Krein’s own experiences in the world of modern finance. The second issue contained an essay by Michael Lind delving further into the Burnhamite analysis of an economy where managers and bureaucrats in the private as well as public sector wield more power than the nominal owners of capital. Lind called attention to John Kenneth Galbraith’s debt to Burnham, and revisited a 1902 book by the British social philosopher John A. Hobson—Imperialism: A Study—which seemed to anticipate features of the modern global economy’s class structure. Lind sees the United States and Europe as facing a long-term choice between an Asia-like economic model (involving “a cross-class compromise between the managerial elite and the working-class majority”) and a Latin American one (in which dire economic inequality results in constant conflict between oligarchs against populists). The problem with our managerial elite since the end of the Cold War, he argues, is that they have steered the country toward becoming more like Latin America.

A key theme, perhaps the defining one, in American Affairs is the restoration of political community in the face of a post-political economic and cultural elite’s demands for transnational integration. “We have a strong interest in revitalizing the standpoint of political economy, that is, rejecting the separation of economic and market analysis from political context,” Gladden Pappin says. In the journal’s second issue, the French political theorist Pierre Manent considers how the old “left-right” political divide came to lose its significance in matters such as trade and immigration, while a new division between “respectable” and “populist” movements arose. The liberal consensus has decided that certain formerly political questions have now been definitively settled on liberalism’s own economic and cultural grounds. Thus, unlike the old left-right contest, in which each side acknowledged the other’s legitimacy, in the new contest the populists are deemed simply beyond the pale because they adhere to old, now politically incorrect notions of political community and what powers are proper to it. As Manent explains:

The ‘effectual truth’ of the Right, like that of the Left, ultimately rests on what it considers its community of reference. The community of reference of the Right is, or rather was, the nation; the community of reference of the Left is, or rather was, the class, the working class or the classes populaires. Throughout all the comings and goings, through all the accidents of history, the unifying principle of the Right or Rights was the nation, and the unifying principle of the Left or Lefts was the class. The Right and the Left professed two versions of the people: for the Right, le peuple national; for the Left, le peuple social.

And today?

The doctrine now triumphant, congealed into a pedantic and arrogant orthodoxy, can be summarized as follows: Peoples or classes—indeed, human communities or associations in general—do not have any sovereignty or intrinsic legitimacy. They cannot make up the framework of human action. The only humanly significant realities, the only ones which are entitled to incontestable rights, are the individual on the one hand and humanity on the other; between these two, strictly speaking, there is nothing of worth. This doctrine applies in different areas: in economic terms, against any form of protectionism; in political terms, against any form of national sovereignty; in moral terms, against any intermediary group whose legitimacy might contradict the rights of the individual or of humanity.

Anyone who does dare to speak out for the old forms of political community is now anathematized as a far-right nationalist or a far-left socialist (or, in France, communist). Dissidents may also be labeled “illiberals,” as one American Affairs writer, the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, recently noted in the Wall Street Journal:

Anyone who advocates nationalist and religious ideas in the wrong circles gets tossed straight into the basket of illiberals, with Messrs. Putin, Erodgan and Kim.

This is worth thinking about with care. A country where you can no longer advocate a nationalist or religious viewpoint without being stigmatized in this way is a place where only one political party is legitimate: the liberal one. The illiberal party is going to be put out of business, whatever it takes.

The flip side of this is that American Affairs needs a way to define the American political community—the nation—that does not descend to the stereotypes painted by liberals. Hazony and his Herzl Institute colleague Ofir Haivry attempt in the second issue of American Affairs to recover an Anglo-American conservatism that is distinct from liberalism and authoritarianism alike. They find it in a lineage of political thought stretching from John Fortescue in the 15th century to John Selden in the 17th and Edmund Burke in the 18th. This tradition of a constitutionalism rooted in biblical religion and English national history, they argue, rejects John Locke’s rationalism as well as the absolutism of Thomas Hobbes or Robert Filmer. It certainly is not anyone’s idea of a crude, ethno-nationalist “tribalism,” although it is not any kind of universalism, either.

Such arguments may seem far removed from real-world politics. But Pappin believes that philosophical distance from polls, elections, and policy battles can be useful. “We do not necessarily know what political ideas or strategies will be relevant next,” he says. “Journals that pursue a highly policy-oriented approach risk becoming quickly dated and risk defining themselves by the search for influence.”

Not that American Affairs is all high-flown theory. The journal has run essays on infrastructure, foreign aid, and electricity policy. The second issue’s editorial responded to a bevy of questions about where the editors stand on specific issues. Here, too, American Affairs could sound radical: Regarding personal taxes, the editors wrote, “In today’s circumstances, reducing upper-income tax rates is unlikely to address core economic challenges in any significant way. We are equally skeptical that tinkering with line-item tax incentives will achieve meaningful results. The child tax credit, for example, strikes us as unobjectionable, but its likely impact would be insignificant.” They also departed from mainstream conservative thought in healthcare policy. “In general,” they wrote, “we support universal health care administered by the government.”

But American Affairs may be less about remaking conservatism than simply transcending the leftover ideologies of the late 20th century. For all of the journal’s rightward tilt, it has made overtures to the left as well. When Pappin and Krein debated two editors from Dissent last May in New York, they made a point of seeking common cause with their progressive counterparts—though the Dissent editors seemed far from amenable. The third issue of American Affairs even includes an essay titled, “Make the Left Great Again.”

Does the future belong to a reformed National Affairs-style conservatism or to a more radically revised right (or left) led by American Affairs? A qualified, disinterested judge might be Samuel Goldman, director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University and literary editor of the venerable conservative quarterly, Modern Age. (It was founded in 1957 by Russell Kirk.)

“My concern about what’s been called Reform Conservatism or the Reformicons is that in their presentation they miss the forest for the trees,” Goldman says, “and they sometimes give the impression that what they’re interested in is technocratic fiddling,” something that Goldman sees as valuable but of limited appeal. “One reason that I think that candidates they favored were unsuccessful,” he continues, “is that they could tell you a lot about what they wanted to do to your taxes, but they didn’t really have a story about who they were, what they wanted to do, and how that would help ordinary people.”

American Affairs, by contrast, is “in some ways the opposite. They have a fantastic story and a very powerful account of what’s gone wrong and also where we should be going. In that case, the question is the details. And although it’s described as a policy journal, I didn’t see very much policy in the first issue.”

Goldman, 37, shares with Krein and Pappin a Harvard connection—he earned his Ph.D. there. Unlike any other editor at a conservative quarterly, though, Goldman also has a background in punk rock, which he played in bands in high school and as an undergraduate at Rutgers. Becoming a conservative was, he jokes, an even better way to shock authority figures than being a punk rocker: “Nothing is more annoying and offensive than a young conservative.”

Goldman’s approach to conservatism is distinct from that of the big policy journals. He places an increasing emphasis on literature, particularly the novels of George Eliot, “because her presentation of social relations is among the most humane of which I know, and in some ways that’s been a kind of antidote for me to the bitterness and nastiness of the last few months.” Goldman elaborates, “Eliot presents people as people, not as social or ideological caricatures, and that means both good and bad, but valuable as they are. One of the important features of a more literary or imaginative or cultural perspective on conservatism is that it reminds us of what’s really important and what’s really to be conserved, which is the possibility of humane personal existence, for real people.”

At Modern Age, Goldman was working in tandem with the journal’s editor, the prolific scholar Peter Augustine Lawler, a self-described “post-modern conservative.” Under Lawler, Modern Age this year took on a new currency, with essays by Yuval Levin, Goldman, and others on the meaning of conservatism in the age of Trump. But Lawler fell ill suddenly and died in May, leaving the journal to his successor.

While I was at work on this essay, I learned that I had been chosen to be that successor. The hour is too early for me to digress on my vision for Modern Age, but I hope I can do honor to the standards Peter Lawler set. And I look forward to the quarterly begun by Russell Kirk taking its place alongside National Affairs, American Affairs, and the Claremont Review of Books in the revival of the conservative mind.

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative and incoming editor of Modern Age.