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Sources Of Conservative Renewal

TAC and Your Working Boy, as well as our friends at Front Porch Republic, got a nice mention this morning by David Brooks in his column about the conservative future: . Look: If you listened to the Republican candidates this year, you heard a conventional set of arguments. But if you go online, you can […]

TAC and Your Working Boy, as well as our friends at Front Porch Republic, got a nice mention this morning by David Brooks in his column about the conservative future: . Look:

If you listened to the Republican candidates this year, you heard a conventional set of arguments. But if you go online, you can find a vibrant and increasingly influential center-right conversation. Most of the young writers and bloggers in this conversation intermingle, but they can be grouped, for clarity’s sake, around a few hot spots:

Paleoconservatives.The American Conservative has become one of the more dynamic spots on the political Web. Writers like Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison tend to be suspicious of bigness: big corporations, big government, a big military, concentrated power and concentrated wealth. Writers at that Web site, and at the temperamentally aligned Front Porch Republic, treasure tight communities and local bonds. They’re alert to the ways capitalism can erode community. Dispositionally, they are more Walker Percy than Pat Robertson.

Larison focuses on what he calls the imperial tendencies of both the Bush and Obama foreign policies. He crusades against what he sees as the unchecked killing power of drone strikes and champions a more modest and noninterventionist foreign policy.

“More Walker Percy than Pat Robertson.” I like that.

I’m grateful to David for his notice (I owe that guy a lot; it was his Dec. 29 column about me and my return to St. Francisville that resulted in a deal to write a book about it all, and about my sister’s amazing life). One thing that jumps out at me from this column is how the writers he mentions are in almost every case high among my go-to writers for helping me think through politics and current events. None of them (none of us) are big names on the right, though some (e.g., Ponnuru, Levin) are bigger than others, and you won’t often see us on Fox News, but I read these writers because even when I disagree with them, I find that they usually make me think about things in a fresh way. If nothing else, it’s a more interesting conversation than one finds among the conservative old guard.

David says:

By and large, these diverse writers did not grow up in the age of Reagan and are not trying to recapture it. They disdain what you might call Donor Base Republicanism. Most important, they matured intellectually within a far-reaching Web-based conversation. In contrast to many members of the conservative political-entertainment complex, they are data-driven, empirical and low-key in tone.

That’s an important insight, I think. As it happens, last night I was looking for something on Netflix to watch while I exercised, and settled on The American Experience programs about Ronald Reagan. I watched as far as his election as California governor, and will finish it today. I found myself reacquainted with the man’s greatness. With all the gassy Reagan nostalgia on the contemporary right, it’s easy to diminish his legacy in one’s mind, if only as a reaction to all the hero-worship. So it was good to watch this detailed historical account of his life and times, and see him with fresher eyes. It was particularly helpful, at least to me, to have seen the part of Reagan’s biography dealing with his origins, and his rise to political prominence. When I think of Reagan, I usually think of Reagan the President, and forget what made him the man he became as Commander in Chief. This film made, at least to my eyes, a strong implicit case for why he was so right for his time.

I did grow up in the Reagan years, or at least I first came to pay serious attention to politics during the Reagan years (I was 13 when he was first elected president).  I’m not so young that I can’t remember how powerful Reagan’s narrative was. For better or for worse — I would argue for better, on balance — he really did change the narrative of American politics; on the right, he was so effective that it became impossible for his immediate descendants to think and talk about politics in categories that didn’t hew closely to the form of conservatism that Reagan espoused and indeed embodied.

The weakness here is that an iteration of conservatism that came out of an era of social chaos, overweening statism, and Soviet expansionism, and that presented itself as a compelling answer to the misery, malaise, and drift of the 1970s, cannot speak to voters who didn’t live through the times that formed Reagan, or immediately preceded his ascension to the presidency. If you can’t remember the inflation of the Seventies, or the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the emotional weight of those times, chances are you will struggle to make sense of Reagan conservatism.

This is not, of course, Reagan’s fault, but it’s the fault of the conservative establishment that he helped build. In the same way that Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s couldn’t figure out a way beyond New Deal categories and modes of thought, leading Republicans and conservatives of our time are stuck in Reaganism. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, my comrade Elizabeth Scalia was mistaken when she said, despairingly, “because for young adults and the generations coming up the backbone of conservative theory—rugged individualism, privacy, minimal government—is a complete non-sequitur; it does not compute.” She’s right to say that these concerns don’t compute, but she errs in calling this “the backbone of conservative theory.” It’s the backbone of Reaganism, which is libertarianism with a conservative Protestant gloss. He was the embodiment of conservative fusionism: economic libertarianism + social conservatism, and it is by no means clear that fusionism makes a lot of sense in America 2012.

This, I think, is why the conservative future is being worked out among the post-Reagan right-of-center crowd. They can think about conservatism in a way that goes beyond Reagan, because they aren’t constrained by the sense that to do so is a kind of heresy.



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