One of the remarkable things in my time has been the precipitous decline of the so-called conservative movement. Even if you were on the paleocon side of the great fight, you could not help but admire some of the writers and thinkers on the other side. Unlike the Left, which has always tended for preachers, rather than thinkers, the people writing for the Buckleyite and neocon outlets were often quite bright and original. They even permitted a sprinkling of heretics, which made their publications worth reading.
Over the last decade, anyone with the least bit of originality has been purged from their sites. Scan The Weekly Standard or National Review and what’s interesting is how dull it all feels now. It’s like reading the internal newsletter of the postal service. That’s being kind, as these sites often resemble a cargo cult. They hire guys like Ben Shapiro to spin the oldies, hoping they will be magically transported back to 1994. If you are engaged in this world from the Right, there is no reason to read these publications. They offer nothing.
This post before the holiday by Jonah Goldberg is good example. Goldberg now plays the role of “senior fellow” for Conservative Inc., so he gets the job of dong the theoretical stuff for National Review. He’s their man of ideas now. Goldberg made his career as a snarky Gen-X jokester, making conservatism sound fresh. Of course, the implication was that the Left was correct about conservatives being humorless stuffed shirts. Shecky Goldberg’s quest was to make conservatism fit for the Catskills. Now, he is their big ideas man.
I understand very well that conservatives often bristle at the idea they need to change with the times. As the famous line from (the far from famous) Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, goes, “where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
But we forget that the conservative movement’s strength came from the fact that it was armed with new arguments from diverse intellectual sources. More important, its vigor stemmed from the fact that these various strains of conservatives were eager to argue among themselves. There are arguments aplenty on the right these days, but the vast majority of them are arguments over a specific personality — Donald Trump — not a body of ideas. And to the extent that there are arguments about ideas, they tend to be subsumed into the larger imperative to attack or defend Trump.
This is from a guy who repeatedly said that large chunks of observable reality are “morally repugnant” and therefore off-limits. It’s a bit tough to have “new arguments from diverse intellectual sources.” when the prevailing assumption is that those ideas and sources are outside what is morally acceptable. Of course, whatever it once was, mainstream conservatism is a no longer a vigorous debate about moral and political philosophy. It is merely a shopping list of talking points acceptable in the managerial elite.
Even in the mundane areas of public policy, the so-called conservatives are startlingly obtuse in their observations. Trump’s diplomacy in Asia, for example, is a genuine sea-change in American policy. He has craftily linked North Korea’s behavior to US trade relations with China. He is making the master responsible for the servant. This is actually resulting in real progress on a half century problem. Yet, the experts of Conservative Inc. remain baffled by what’s happening.They still think North Korea is a Soviet client.
The great Eric Hoffer observed that the difference between a movement and a practical organization lies in the goals of the members. In a political movement, the people joining do so to attain a political goal, something that is bigger than themselves. In a practical organization, people join out of self-interest. They act in order to advance up the ranks of the organization. A rat like Dinesh D’Souza was willing to be a neocon assassin, because he thought it was a good career move. The organization man is not a man who dreams.
That’s been the case with the conservatives for a long time now. The pioneers may have been motivated by ideological zeal, but they built practical organizations. Buckley-style conservatism, by the 1980’s, had become a lucrative career path for the man good with his letters and careful to never color outside the lines. More important, the organization was positioned within the managerial class, rather than opposed to it. An obsequious writer could work for both National Review and a liberal TV network.
Another byproduct of this is the boiling off of anyone with the least bit of creativity. If the in-house intellectual is a vapid airhead with a fetish for 1980’s pop culture references, you are no longer an intellectual movement. The result is a collection of dull and uninteresting people left to figure out how to keep the racket going. That’s the point of Goldberg’s cri de guerre. The old act is no longer pulling in the crowds, so they need a new act with new actors. The trouble is, the dullards left in charge are not up to carrying the burden.
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