U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Comes Next? The Conservative Establishment after November

What are some of the ideas which mainstream conservative intellectuals—those, at any rate, who wish to distance themselves from the Trump movement—might try out over the next few years as they try to reboot? That was the question I raised two weeks ago, and I’ve been trying—unsuccessfully at first—to explain why I think that’s a worthwhile question, both in the sense that it is an important question and second that it might produce some interesting answers. Not necessarily brilliant answers, but “brilliant” is a hard bar to clear in the best of times, and these are not the best of times for… anyone. “Interesting” will do.

My idea of “interesting” may not align with yours, of course, and to be honest I’m not trying so much to predict what the most likely responses will be as I am trying to imagine the way that certain ideas and arguments already kicking around could flourish as the platforms for an attempt at rethinking conservatism. To be entirely candid, these are books or ideas that I am interested in learning more about, that I’ve read just a little about in book reviews or other bits of journalism and that intrigued me. But if they intrigued me—so I wager—they might intrigue people who begin with somewhat more sympathy to the political worldview that produced these ideas. So with those caveats in place, here’s a short handlist of some ideas I hope to explore a bit and which I imagine might become part of the conservative intellectual reboot.

The first idea that I want to monitor has very long and twisted roots, and its politics even today are quite complex. I was recently reading Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, which was the book published shortly after he died in 1994. It was in many respects a classic example of the “new class” argument which has flourished periodically ever since—according to some writers like Alvin Gouldner or Ivan Szelényi—the mid-19th century. This argument is based on a fairly simple idea: an intellectual or bureaucratic elite exists which uses its strategic position in society to do little more than perpetuate itself by a process of insulation and entrenchment. This class tries to remove itself progressively from any substantial contact with ordinary people, all the while attempting to maintain a cautious balance between radical postures and nonthreatening actions vis-à-vis the economic elite, the people who own things and not just ideas about things.

I found Lasch’s book, like The True and Only Heaven, to be maddening in innumerable ways, and I may try to blog a bit about some of the sources of my irritation and exasperation. But what is pertinent here is that I thought as I read how natural—indeed obvious—a fit this particular discourse is for the immediate and longterm needs of a renewed mainstream conservatism. Because what is remarkable about this line of attack is that it is not—despite Lasch’s appropriation of the term—genuinely populist, and it is not, properly speaking, anti-intellectual. It actually works better coming from intellectuals who can testify to the bankruptcy of other intellectuals; they can say convincingly that they are smart enough to see through the intellectual frauds.

I will have more to say later about “new class” thinking and the role it has played at various junctions in U.S. history (among other works dealing with it, Andrew Hartman’s War for the Soul of America touches on it very well in the context of the culture wars), but I do want to add here that mainstream conservatives may have to fight the alt-right for the possession of this narrative: if Tim Shenk’s history of some of the intellectual influences on the alt-right is correct, James Burnham’s idea of the managerial revolution—very much a new class idea—is fairly central to the movement. But this weirdly ambivalent excoriation of Trump by former Giuliani lieutenant Fred Siegel demonstrates how establishment conservatives might stand by their rejection of Trumpism while attempting to capitalize on the anti-elitist energies that Trump has unleashed. Knowledge elites—academics, media types, etc.—are the ones actually responsible for Trump, Siegel argues:

The American Left is composed of academia, media, and cultural elites, who, for decades, have tried to act as the arbiters of acceptable public debate and shut down any political expression with which they disagree. “To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight,” Nicols continues, “forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness.” Because liberals couldn’t stop attacking conservatives as “sexists, racists, and imbeciles,” Nichols maintains, “they paved the way for a jackass who embodies their worst fears.”

Siegel is referring to a column at the Daily Beast by Tom Nichols titled “How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump,” but this idea has also been bruited by Frank Bruni of the New York Times. This kind of line—that the Left is simply too out of touch with the rest of America to be able to comprehend and face down the disruption of the alt-right and the anger of Middle America. Conservative intellectuals, on the other hand… The Right as a bulwark against fascism—it’s an odd idea, but then again a prominent conservative intellectual has written a book titled Liberal Fascism, so who knows.

The second idea that intrigues me is a lot more straightforward. The work of Yuval Levin has been touted as the great hope of the conservative intelligentsia rather often, and I’d certainly like to see what the fuss is about, but it is his idea of subsidiarity—and its longer intellectual history—in which I am particularly interested. In a New York Times review, Nicholas Lemann describes the “ethic of subsidiarity” as one of “decentraliz[ing] political power and elevat[ing] local ‘middle institutions’ like churches and neighborhood organizations.” The market absolutely plays a part in subsidiarity (at least as far as I can tell), but the “ethic of subsidiarity” also seems to presume that the market is embedded in society, and that it thus has limits. It’s an idea that could have obvious appeal to Catholics and Mormons, especially.

Levin also represents one more example of the way “outsiders” can rise to become spokespeople of conservative movements—Levin is an Israeli. But I am also wondering about the part that class outsiders to the conservative establishment might play in that establishment’s rebooting. Said more simply, could people who grew up poor be among the best “faces” for a rejuvenated conservative movement?

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance seems to be selling very well judging by NYT bestseller lists and by going into almost any bookstore. I have yet to read the book so I don’t know how it is framed, but the life story of Vance is a sort of archetypal “American success story.” The incessant gloom of the Trump campaign about the U.S.’s squandered global superiority notably rubbed many conservative intellectual elites the wrong way, and they compared Trump’s speech invidiously to President Obama’s earnestly patriotic affirmation of “American values.” Perhaps one antidote to that jealousy might be the development of new narratives of the resilience of conservative American values. How some new positivity—probably coming from outsiders like Vance—might affect the conservative movement, I don’t know. But I’m willing to wait for it–how such a tonal shift might be managed will be quite a sight to see.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting post, Andy! Other than the idea of the Right as a bulwark against fascism — one wonders of course how that would work to woo the same voters who nominated Trump, but of course I know you’re not concerned here with electoral viability, necessarily — most of these ideas seem repackaged to me. The “ethic of subsidiarity,” for example; isn’t this just what libertarians and small government types have been saying for generations? That the control of the market takes place (and is ethically and ideologically ok) through local institutions? The phrase is new and I’m sure there some more original jargon around it, but fundamentally it seems more like recycling than something unique coming out of the Trump nomination disaster.

    • That’s totally fair! But I think that what looks recycled or repackaged to us might also appear to be new to someone embedded in the culture of conservative think tanks, magazines, blogs, etc.

      Maybe the best way to frame my expectations is that I do not expect the next step for the conservative intellectual establishment to be self-critique. That’s probably something I should have said at the very beginning! So, apart from self-critique, most of the directions that conservative intellectuals can go are going to be paths someone has already gone down before. I think the question is just, which paths?

  2. In a New York Times review [of Y. Levin], Nicholas Lemann describes the “ethic of subsidiarity” as one of “decentraliz[ing] political power and elevat[ing] local ‘middle institutions’ like churches and neighborhood organizations.” The market absolutely plays a part in subsidiarity (at least as far as I can tell), but the “ethic of subsidiarity” also seems to presume that the market is embedded in society, and that it thus has limits.

    Quick thoughts on this: 1) I associate the word ‘subsidiarity’ with the EU and its m.o. (at least at the level of official documents) — maybe Levin got the word from there? just a guess, or maybe it has a much longer genealogy; 2) an emphasis on ‘mediating institutions’ goes way back in some strains of conservative thought (as Robin Marie says, above) — searching on the phrase, without quotation marks, just now yielded 669,000 results; 3) the market’s embeddedness in society is perhaps more interesting, and not an idea that’s the sole province of conservatives (cf. Polanyi, The Great Transformation).

    …the Left is simply too out of touch with the rest of America to be able to comprehend and face down the disruption of the alt-right and the anger of Middle America. Conservative intellectuals, on the other hand… The Right as a bulwark against fascism

    The problem they may run up against here is that it’s not clear that the intellectual Right is any more in touch with ‘Middle America’ than the intellectual Left… But maybe they’re in a better position to pretend to be. (?) [People who know much more than I do about the history of American conservatism would probably be better placed to address this.]

    • re: subsidiarity–right, I think there’s a formal element of devolution here rather than simply a sort of stripping out the capacity of the central state (that is, from what I’ve gathered, subsidiarity is more of a positive principle than libertarianism). Hopefully, I’ll get time to read one of Levin’s books and be able to report back with some actual information, though.

      re: Middle America–I would totally agree with your assessment, but it’s also possible that some of the people directing “Conservatism, Inc.” may recruit more credible voices who can genuinely claim to have strong roots in “Middle America.”

  3. If Clinton is elected expect Paul Ryan to extol subsidiarity as the principle behind his agenda of entitlement reforms. But if Trump is elected (or loses by a close margin) his people and their voices will shape what passes for policies opposing “the Left.” As the Lemann review notes, the idea of subsidiarity, with its references to Catholic social teaching, Tocqueville’s “associations” and Burke’s “little platoons,” will hold no sway over someone accustomed to his own airliner and a gaudy penthouse on 5th Avenue. I doubt anyone will cite Robert Nisbet’s 1953 book, The Quest for Community (optimistically reprinted in 2014 with an introduction by Ross Douthat) as a foundational text for a new Trump administration. If there is to be a next “big idea” for never-Trump conservatives it is likely to be a comparatively small and non-ideological one such as how to recapture the Republican party to sustain political leaders who are deferential to talent, have legal and administrative expertise, and know how to use big words.

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