U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The CTRL+ALT+DEL Right, Part II

In last week’s post, I gave some reasons why I think it is important that we begin asking where mainstream conservative intellectuals will turn for intellectual resources as they try to “reboot” after November. Although the effort to historicize and understand the intellectual roots of the “alt-right” is also tremendously important, it is worth remembering that—regardless of what happens in November—establishment Republicans and the network of intellectuals aligned with them still hold great power and many positions of authority. George Will is not going anywhere, Ross Douthat is not going anywhere, even if it seems their voices have been marginalized within the Republican Party at present. How they choose to move forward intellectually is, I’m arguing, of considerable importance.

I tried to anticipate a couple of objections to that argument in my last post, but I don’t think I succeeded, so I’m going to defer for a week once more a brief outline of some possible directions mainstream conservative thought might take in the coming years. Below, I will try to reprise and improve on what I argued last time.

I assumed that there would be two basic objections to my argument that we ought to be paying attention to where establishment intellectuals are going to turn after November. The first objection I anticipated was that what these intellectuals write doesn’t in fact matter, because the thinking they do is either going to be politically opportunistic and philosophically unserious (a cosmetic fix, a mere rebranding), or it’s going to be serious but will fail to produce anything intellectually rich or original. Skepticism about the quality of the next wave of mainstream conservative thought is warranted, and the best case against optimism for something profound to emerge from this conjuncture is the one Corey Robin laid out in a comment: the loss entailed by Trump’s takeover of the party simply isn’t serious enough to produce genuinely original political or social thought. The only possible source of a shock deep enough to produce new thought of real complexity is a potent left, Corey argues. Figuring out how to redefine conservatism in such a way as to contain and excise Trumpism is simply not a big enough deal.

The second objection to my argument for closer attention is that, while it might be important to know what establishment intellectuals are going to do next, my premise is faulty—there’s not really a meaningful ideological difference between mainstream conservatism and Trumpism. I ran into this objection a bit on Twitter, and Louis made something of the same point in his comment.

My thoughts in response to the first line of objection are complicated, I’ll admit. I am not, to be honest, expecting that we will see a masterpiece of conservative political philosophy published in the next five or ten years. But I feel that if we’re asking the question, “will this moment produce a text as complex and rich as Burke’s Reflections?” we’re not after all asking a historical question. In the last post, I focused on the reasons why I think establishment intellectuals may choose to step rather far back at this moment—much as they did in the wake of the New Deal—instead of taking a moment to rebrand and then throw a bunch of money at the problem. I do think we will see some serious, ambitious, thick tomes of conservative political philosophy written and published over the coming years, but that is not a pre-judgment of their quality, merely of their tone and the diligence of their scholarship. I do think establishment intellectuals are going to hit the books harder to try to renew conservatism intellectually, but saying that is not the same as saying the results are bound to be high quality. Intellectual historians need to pay attention to the intellectual production of powerful people, even if the books they publish are not masterpieces.

But I would also argue that the idea that only a defeat at the hands of the left—a true dispossession—is enough to launch a substantial revision or reformation of conservative intellectual philosophy. Betrayal by other conservatives—or by those who are generally aligned with the right—can also be a profound shock, and I think we tend to underrate the way that the buckling of many business leaders and erstwhile conservative intellectuals to some accommodation of Keynesianism shaped the particular form which libertarianism took in the wake of the Depression and the New Deal. Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion is especially good at evoking the pathos of the free market intellectuals who felt themselves truly isolated—not merely because of the power of the (center-)left but because of the acquiescence of many conservatives to the necessity/inevitability of some forms of planning and welfare statism. Internecine conflicts on the right have been and can be intellectually generative, to put the point plainly.

Another way of making this point is that the right can argue with itself just as well as the left can, although perhaps that statement will produce some disagreement. Part of that disagreement may be with the premise that there is any meaningful ideological distinction between conservative establishment intellectuals and the alt-right. The National Review and Commentary and Weekly Standard and Red State and on and on—they have not only tolerated but encouraged anti-immigrant racism, anti-abortion militancy, Islamophobia, climate change “skepticism,” and outright panic over the Black Lives Matter movement—all standard planks of Trumpism. To turn around and declare the new standard-bearer of these causes “not a true conservative” seems a bit rich.

I do not disagree with that assessment, but I think that by emphasizing the hypocrisy of, say, William Kristol plumping for Palin while rejecting Trump, we lose sight of some very salient factors which do separate the alt-right from the old right. Those factors are not primarily ideological but sociological.

One of the most effective aspects of the conservative intellectual movement over the five or so decades from the founding of National Review in 1955 up to some point during George W. Bush’s administration was its incredible success in socializing its aspirant intellectuals into a particular culture. To be reductive, it took young men (mostly men) from just about anywhere, and made them want to be little William Buckleys. That was, more or less, how one got to the top of the conservative intellectual movement: by accepting that form of socialization. I think that stopped being the case as a confluence of factors broke open the opportunities to real success and prominence outside the Buckleyite network. The death of Buckley himself was certainly a factor, but more important was probably the new opportunities afforded to young men and women on the make outside the world of print media and the prestige think tanks. (I’m venturing here—I hope someone like Jason Stahl might weigh in!) Talk radio, Fox News, and the internet vastly expanded the reach of conservative ideas but it also demolished that grooming process of young intellectual talents that had served the conservative movement so well.

It didn’t help—it is probably indicative of this breakdown—that some of those who were groomed for intellectual leadership like Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham took the opportunities afforded outside print media to accelerate their fortunes. While observers tend to look at D’Souza’s career as an example of an intellectual hack who showed his true superficiality (and criminality), it is also possible to read it as a case study in the breakdown of intellectual socialization: D’Souza turned away from the career that was offered him and from the culture (or subculture) that contained that career.

There are still quite a number of conservative intellectuals who were socialized in this manner and through these channels, while the alt-right’s intellectual leadership is drawn almost wholly from outside of the Buckleyite subculture.[1] That basic distinction should not be waved away or subordinated to comparisons of the two groups’ ideologies. I think this more sociological factor matters greatly, and any effort to unite the alt-right and the older culture of Buckley-style conservatism will face problems that cannot be resolved by ideological agreement.

[1] Ben Shapiro is an interesting case: the former editor of Breitbart.com, he is also a graduate of Harvard Law School—and attendance at an Ivy is certainly a part of the socialization of establishment conservative intellectuals. While his association with Breitbart and numerous other associations puts one of his feet firmly in the alt-right, Shapiro also found himself basically conflicted earlier this year when Corey Lewandowski handled Michelle Fields, a Breitbart reporter, roughly. The company refused to stand behind the reporter, so Shapiro left Breitbart.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an exceptionally interesting and highly relevant topic. I became so hyper-charged trying to respond to Part One last week that my meanderings grew too long-winded to submit! Let me pick just a few points this time and actually pull the trigger.
    I suppose all intellectual historians accept that ideas have consequences, but they (we) tend to focus on the kinds of ideas that can be explained most coherently and patched into existing traditions or theoretical systems. Alternatively, the kinds of ideas that manifest themselves primarily through passions, prejudices, religious fervor, or sociological strife are by their nature more difficult to reconcile with academic rationality. The problem with politics (not political theory, but electoral and legislative trench warfare) is that it combines the two types of ideas, often in conflict with each other within the same party.
    In the case of America’s conservative party—the Republicans—it never (since WWII) won elections solely by winning a war of ideas concerning economic or foreign policy matters. Instead it had to mobilize the majority of its voters by playing to their fears (in this regard Corey Robin’s first book on Fear is more enlightening than his higher-profile Reactionary Mind). First it was communism, then “crime in the streets,” then the threat of same-sex toilets or women drafted into the military should the ERA be ratified, then moral relativism and multiculturalism, then terrorism, and recently immigration. The Left, by contrast, mostly employed various campaigns for justice: civil rights, equality for other marginalized groups, more broadly based economic opportunity, and other “quality of life” issues (ecology, education, etc.). For the most part hope triumphed over fear for a generation, before fear began to triumph more regularly over hope. Elections are won by feelings rather than ideas, except that ideas are needed to legitimate feelings (and in the longer term ideas can alter feelings).
    Donald Trump is running on feelings, not ideas. If he loses, it will be because swing voters find him too unreliable or obnoxious; not because they necessarily endorse Hillary Clinton’s ideas. The test for both conservatism and liberalism in the future will be the ways in which their belief systems and their organizations and institutions deal with libertarian ideology, and in the political strategies each side develops to counter or incorporate libertarian ideas and feelings. The Left would seem to have a better chance of harmonizing its positive ideas with the passions of its masses. But the Right has already demonstrated that it can win with its house divided.

  2. I agree that without a potent left many individual conservatives are happy to take their stand with George F. Babbitt rather than Irving Babbitt. There may be no revival of intellectual conservatism for some time. However, the conservative movement is now far more institutional than intellectual, more political than policy-oriented, more attuned to audience ratings than book reviews. When communism collapsed its elaborate infrastructure had a hard time overcoming its dependency on the apocalyptic frame of mind and the logic of the “slippery slope” to socialism. There was no French or Russian Revolution, no Rousseau, no Lenin. Hence the campaign against the infiltration of sharia law, the war on Christmas, transgender bathrooms etc. Conservatives could applaud Bush’s war on terror, but it was embarrassing to have him and Jeb! urge bailouts and offer kind thoughts about Muslims and Mexicans. The movement needs a potent left and, at least until something better comes along, that will have to be President Obama and the Clintons. Trump really doesn’t know his Right from his Left, but talk radio and Fox, Giuliani and Gingrich do.

  3. It’s useful, I think, to look at the UK, where all three of the long-established parties are in total disarray. One thing we see there is that while a “potent left” would seem to have a great opportunity, the traditional leftism of Corbyn is shaping up as an electoral disaster — in a country with a much stronger left tradition than ours.The US is relatively fortunate to have a viable though flawed center-left.

Comments are closed.