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Purge the Right, Not the Left

That seems to be David Frum’s line. After making a career out of attacking paleos and antiwar conservatives, Frum — who was himself purged from AEI — now bemoans the intolerance of the Right as displayed in the apparent firing of liberaltarians Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson from Cato. Says Frum:

in the Lindsey-Wilkinson case, we confront the problem of the closing of the conservative mind in its purest form… . The waters are surging in the conservative world, and conservative institutions must either ride the wave or be swamped. But if wave-riding is all that these very expensive institutions are doing, who needs them? … The right-of-center world is poorer for the dessication of the institutions that used to act as the right’s brains.

There’s plenty of truth in that, but as Tim Carney says, Frum’s newfound concern with diversity of opinion is “a bit rich”:

Perhaps Frum has learned a lesson in the past seven and a half years, when he was the one doing the dessicating; he was the one trying to spur the wave and tell everyone on the Right to get on board with the party line or be damned; he was the one who saw an open mind as a sign of treason.

Clearly the institutions of the Right have shifted their priorities. In the Bush years, criticism of the war and its commander in chief was forbidden — not only did National Review publish Frum’s “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” but scholar John Hulsman was fired from Heritage for being critical of Bush’s foreign policy. (Note that Frum tellingly fails to mention Hulsman in his litany of think-tank intolerance.) Differences in foreign policy didn’t get Bruce Bartlett dismissed from the National Center for Policy Analysis, but he did commit a capital crime of lese majeste in writing Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.

The recent think-tank firings, by contrast, have targeted anyone who seems insufficiently enthusiastic about the idea of an Ayn Rand Right. Even NR is once again running anti-nation-building articles (in an issue with Rand on the cover, no less). On the one hand, this is about as complete a repudiation of Bush “conservatism” as could be imagined from these institutions — even Cato, which was not at all a bastion of Bushism, has “turned the page” on the era of the 43rd president by scuttling the “liberaltarianism” project that began as a response to his transformation of the Right. And while there’s plenty of reason to suspect that this mood will prove ephemeral, it at least ceates an environment in which arguments against nation-building and big-spending “compassionate conservatism” might get a wider hearing. Enjoy it while it lasts.

On the other hand, the alacrity with which the enforcement apparatus imposes a new conservative/libertarian orthodoxy illustrates the truth of something Austin Bramwell wrote two years ago: “conservatism is not a philosophy or approach to political affairs that inspires the set of institutions known as the conservative movement. Rather, the conservative movement is a set of institutions that inspires the ideology known as conservatism.” Or, as he put it a little earlier with reference to 1984:

First, like Ingsoc, conservatism has a hierarchical structure. Like Orwell’s “Inner Party,” those at the top of the movement have almost perfect freedom to decide what opinions count as official conservatism. The Iraq War furnishes a telling example. In the run-up to the invasion, leading conservatives announced that conservatism now meant spreading global democratic revolution. This forthright radicalism—this embrace of the sanative powers of violence—became quickly accepted as the ineluctable meaning of conservatism in foreign policy. Those who dissented risked ostracism and harsh rebuke. Had conservative leaders instead argued that global democratic revolution would not cure our woes but increase them, the rest of the movement would have accepted this position no less quickly…

Second, conservatism is concerned less with truth than with distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Conservatives identify themselves in part by repeating slogans (“we are at war!”) that, like “ignorance is strength,” are less important for what (if anything) they say than for what saying them says about the speaker. At the same time, to rise in the movement, one must develop a habitual obliviousness to truth, or what Orwell labeled “doublethinking.” Anyone who expresses too vociferously too many of the following opinions, for example, cannot expect to make a career in the movement: that the Soviet Union was not the threat that anti-communists made it out to be, that the current tax system discriminates in favor of the very wealthy, that the Bush administration was wrong about the Iraq invasion in nearly every respect, that the constitutional design itself prevents judges from deciding cases according to the original meaning of the Constitution, that global warming poses small but unacceptable risks, that everyone in the abortion debate—even the most ardent pro-lifers—inevitably engages in arbitrary line-drawing. Whether these opinions and others are correct or not matters little to the movement conservative, even if he knows next to nothing about the topic at hand. If you do not reject these opinions or at least keep quiet, you are not a movement conservative and will be treated accordingly.

As with most things in life, degree matters as well kind — movements by their nature are not comfortable places for independent thinkers, but some movements are more rigorous than others about enforcing conformity. The conservative movement is moving (no pun intended) in two directions at once — substantially it is moving toward the Tea Parties and away from Bush, while structurally it continues to move toward democratic centralism. Dubious as this trajectory may be, it’s a little better overall than what we had a few years ago, when David Frum was commissar.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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