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The Rise of the Republican Echo-System
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The Rise of the Republican Echo-System

Obsession with purity caused GOP dysfunction well before Donald Trump came along.

From left to right: Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner at the U.S. Capitol on August 1, 2011. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (excluding any of you who make jewelry out of giraffe poop), 

If you don’t mind—or even if you do—I’m going to take a (sadly momentary) break from arguing with people who think it’s cool to celebrate the murder of Jews. 

I have a piece in the new monthly issue of National Review. It’s fun to be back in its pages, if only as a guest. And it’s an honor to be in the first issue of this new chapter for the magazine. Maybe that’s why I’m in a nostalgic mood. It calls to mind a question: What is the conservative intellectual movement for? 

The question is deliberately equivocal, in part because there are two questions that need to be answered. The movement is not an inanimate tool like a hammer or gun. It has no intentionality, no agency. It’s an ill-defined, fractious, group of human beings. But it is, practically speaking, a tool all the same. So when I ask “what is the conservative intellectual movement for?” I am asking two things: What do the people in it want? And what is its purpose

Some political movements wear the answer to both questions on their sleeves. Members of the Free Silver movement wanted free silver (or technically a return to “bimetallism”) and getting it was the movement’s purpose. But most political movements are more complicated. They want various policy goals, but they also invariably want what is in the specific interests of members of the movement. Progressives, conservatives, et al. want certain policies, but they also want jobs or sinecures for their tribe, subsidies or other favors for specific constituencies and stakeholders, etc. This is true of all ideological movements. And it’s not inherently wrong or corrupt. As the Reaganites used to say, “personnel is policy.”

In the early 1970s, a group of Cold War liberals or “Scoop Jackson Democrats,” many of whom would later join the ranks of neoconservatism, worked hard to drag the Democratic Party back to the center after George McGovern had pulled it so far left that Richard Nixon won a staggering landslide in 1972. Their outfit, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, endorsed Jimmy Carter. But when Carter took office he snubbed them, both ideologically and politically. He prattled about having “no inordinate fear of communism” and gave a cold shoulder to the group. Only one of its members got a job in the Carter administration—ambassador to Micronesia. Pat Moynihan contemptuously lamented that they “didn’t even get Macronesia!” 

Power is perhaps the greatest fuel for rationalization, so it is no surprise that members of movements that attain some level of power tell themselves that their ideological goals and their narrower self-interests are entirely complementary. The best example of this is probably found in Leninism, which lived by the syllogism that what was good for the party was inseparable from what was good for the cause. But human nature being what it is, Leninism was merely a manifestation of a tendency that can be found in virtually every political movement and social organization from the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church to Tammany Hall. 

I would argue that the job of the principled political intellectual is to see where self-interest (personal or collective) rubs up against the public interest as they see it. In short, intellectuals—broadly defined—are supposed to keep their eye on the ball. One needn’t be as incorruptible as Cato on such matters, though it doesn’t hurt to have a few Catos around to keep everyone honest. 

Reform vs. stasis.

So back to my question. What is the conservative intellectual movement’s purpose? A pithy answer is, to conserve things. Of course, this is a problematic formulation, not least because it is often weaponized against conservatives by detractors on the left and the right. On the left, this answer opens conservatives up to the charge that we are simply sticks-in-the-mud opposed to any change. On the New Right—today’s version and all the previous “New Rights” as well—it invites the scornful question: “What have you ever conserved?” 

The critiques from both the left and right rely upon a great deal of question begging that necessarily rests on a bad faith caricature of conservatism. New Right critics imply that their approach would succeed where traditional conservatives failed. But both “sides” hold traditional conservatives accountable to a view they—we—never held: that conservatism is synonymous with stasis. That this strawman has such currency has always been hard to square with a movement that champions individual liberty, and the innovation and entrepreneurialism at the heart of the American experiment. The free market has always been an engine of change and, as paradoxical as it may seem to critics, American conservatism has always sought to defend America’s commitment to it. It’s even more difficult to reconcile with a movement that (until recently at least) has been foursquare on the side of preserving the ideals of a bona fide revolution. 

Moreover, conservatives from Burke onward have always supported responsible reform. What they—we—oppose is radical transformation that does not take into account facts on the ground, the importance of culture and tradition, and the possibility of unintended consequences. Conservatism stands against the imposition of abstractions that run counter to tradition, prudence, or human nature. “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it,” Burke insisted, “is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori.” This is why Irving Kristol famously dubbed the American Revolution a “successful revolution.” Unlike the Jacobins, the American Founders didn’t try to work against the grain of human nature, but with it. As James Madison said:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

Simply put, conservatism, properly and reasonably understood, is a political orientation that has more latitude than the narrow definitions bandied by its detractors allow. It is classically liberal in economics and law, and culturally conservative in its moral commitments. There’s ample room for disagreement between these two poles, because these two poles can sometimes be in tension. Figuring out how to resolve these tensions is the fusionist project within conservatism, and many a conservative family squabble should be seen in this light. 

Okay, but what is the conservative intellectual movement for—and what should it be for? My serviceable, albeit simplistic, answer is this: Making America more conservative. For some intellectuals this can mean “keeping the tablets”—i.e. defending and arguing for certain ideas regardless of their popularity in a given moment. But for others, it means pushing grubby politics in a conservative direction.

When the modern movement came into its own after World War II (which is not to say the intellectual begats don’t stretch much further back), this project involved—to borrow Burke’s gerunds—a lot of constructing, renovating, and reforming on any number of fronts, particularly the universities. After all, Bill Buckley first attained national prominence with his book God and Man at Yale—not God and Man at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But as a practical matter, its immediate target was the Republican Party. When National Review was launched, it was the intellectual bulwark for an intellectual insurgency seeking to transform the Republican Party into an explicitly conservative party. But that was not an end unto itself, it was merely the first important step to making the country more conservative, properly understood. Nothing about this project involved fighting for stasis. Conservatives wanted to roll back not only communism, but the statist “liberalism” bequeathed to it by the New Deal—in the media, the universities, and the economy. It also sought to rectify what it saw as the other legacy of FDR—a dangerously naïve view of Soviet intentions in the world (and on the home front). 

This made National Review and its allies frenemies of the Republican Party for decades. Conservatives applauded the GOP when it deserved it, and castigated or cajoled it when necessary. Eisenhower’s bipartisan ratification of the New Deal and his approach to the USSR prompted William F. Buckley to advise conservatives to reject the slogan “I like Ike” in favor of the more pragmatic, “I prefer Ike.” This tension lasted straight through the administration of Richard Nixon, who reportedly said that the “Buckleyites” were a “threat more menacing” to the GOP than the John Birch Society. He told his aide John C. Whitaker, “There is only one thing as bad as a far-left liberal and that’s a damn right-wing conservative.” This didn’t stop Nixon from hiring many conservatives, even as he did for the Great Society what Eisenhower did for the New Deal—make them bipartisan projects. 

With the election of Ronald Reagan, the dynamic changed. And to keep this trip down memory lane short, by the George W. Bush administration, you could argue that the takeover was complete. To be sure, conservatives had plenty of fights with—and within—both administrations, but conservatives had won the argument about what the Republican Party should be for: conservatism. 

In the process, the conservative movement became entangled and enmeshed with the political and media apparatus of conservatism in ways few conservatives could have dreamed of. The dogs caught the car. Insurgent conservatism became establishment conservatism—within the Republican ecosystem. But the Republican ecosystem also became a kind of conservative echo-system in which the right talks to itself—and screams at each other—without much concern for how they look or sound to everyone else. 

Many conservative intellectuals got accustomed to power and influence. The rise of Fox News was a huge success for the right. Shattering liberalism’s monopoly of the “mainstream media” had been a goal of the right for decades. But it also convinced a lot of conservatives that talking to the Fox audience was synonymous with talking to America writ large. It also blurred the lines between what is good for us and what is good for the cause. Fox News made it possible for conservative books to dominate the bestseller lists and plus-up the speaking fees for people who made a nice living telling audiences what they wanted to hear. 

Similarly, the line between what is good for conservatism and what is good for the Republican Party became blurred, not on a Leninist scale—Republicans never had enough control of Washington to make that remotely possible—but enough to lose sight of how to make the country more conservative. The reasons for this are complicated. The “Big Sort” created safe districts and safe states, which meant that the hurdle to getting reelected moved to primaries where contests are fought over a candidate’s ideological purity rather than a candidate’s ability to persuade swing voters or independents that the Republican Party was the better alternative. 

This obsession with purity was the primary source of dysfunction before Donald Trump changed the equation for the worse. It was also the reason the party embraced Trump in the first place. More about that in a moment.

This is the context of the absurd fight over the speaker of the House unfolding as I write this. For more than a decade, Republican frustration with the inability to move the country rightward has led the purists to believe the only thing holding them back is a lack of willpower and fighting courage from “the establishment”—the Republican establishment. John Boehner was a conservative. Paul Ryan was a conservative. So, too, is Kevin McCarthy. They were arguably the most conservative speakers of the last century. 

But the purity caucus convinced itself—and its army of small donors and the cable TV hosts and other “influencers” who pander to them—that Boehner, Ryan, and McCarthy (and of course Mitch McConnell) were all that stood between them and total victory. (I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to a lot of people here, because many of the people pushing this narrative understood it was B.S.) The fact that half the country—and half the Congress—isn’t conservative or Republican seemed not to enter into their thinking at all. 

The transformation wasn’t a simple tale of power corrupting. Again, the centrifugal polarization of the big sort and the balkanization of the media into ideological echo chambers both played important roles. But because it doesn’t take long for a novel and dysfunctional status quo to take on the patina of a “new normal” we’ve lost the ability to see how stupid all of this is. 

It was only Bush’s election in 2000 that introduced the tribal framework of “Red vs. Blue” that we now take to be a permanent description of political reality. 

For all the performative asininity of today’s MAGA right, it’s easy to forget that under the Bush administration it was the left that declared war on civility and democratic norms and trafficked in election denialism. Under Bush, the Democratic Party veered wildly to the left, in part out of opposition to the Iraq War, in part out of its own internal pathologies.

“Republicans who are conservatives ought not to be so cheery about what’s going on,” Ramesh Ponnuru cautioned at the time. “Conservative and Republican interests converge quite frequently, but not entirely. The resurgence of the Democratic Left is one of the places where they don’t.” He continued, “If Republicans are moving to the center and Democrats to the left, that means both parties are moving leftward—that the center of gravity of American politics is moving leftward.”

Ponnuru, as befits his Vulcan discipline, was keeping his eye on the ball, asking whether what is good for Republicans is necessarily good for conservatism—and by extension what conservatives think is good for the country. But the ball has moved since then. Now both parties operate as if the center is an afterthought. As Yuval Levin has observed, because the country is so evenly divided, the red team and blue team don’t bother trying to expand their coalitions by winning over new or persuadable voters. “Both double down on the voters they can count on, hoping they add up to a slim, temporary majority.” 

And then, once in power, they swing for the fences, trying to reward existing members of their coalition with maximal policies that inevitably invite a backlash that sweeps them out of power. “In an era of persistent, polarized deadlock, both parties are effectively minorities — but each continues to think it is on the verge of winning big.” This thinking has spilled over into some quarters of the intellectual right, where self-professed radicals have convinced themselves they’re one or two elections away from imposing some sweeping postliberal regime few normal conservatives would want and no progressives would countenance. 

The fight in the House is a product of all the pathologies I addressed above. But it’s also the result of the fact that Republicans have a very narrow majority in just one chamber but talk as if they have all the cards. If McCarthy had an average-sized majority caucus, Matt Gaetz and Nancy Mace would have no leverage. If Trump—and Trumpism—hadn’t deformed Republican politics, McCarthy (and McConnell) would probably have just such a majority. But because Trump backed terrible candidates in otherwise winnable races, such majorities didn’t materialize and the party looks more ridiculous as a result. 

None of this is good for conservatism, and so conservative intellectuals should not be for it. 

This is all the more obvious in the age of Trump, because Trump has taken the logic of purity and made it—as he does about everything—about himself. RINO used to mean being unreliable on conservative issues, on the economy, abortion, national defense, etc. Now, RINO means being unreliably loyal to Trump. Hell, Trump is currently A/B testing throwing Israel under the bus—last month it was pro-lifers—all because Bibi Netanyahu didn’t agree to go along with Trump’s attempted coup. 

So how to fix it? Well, I offer some suggestions over at NR. But I’ll just make a more basic point: If your goal is to make the country more conservative, the only way to do that is to make the Republican Party seem more sane and responsible. And that requires electing more sane and responsible Republicans who want to be in a majority party that speaks to voters outside its echo chamber. That would probably result in the center of gravity of the GOP moving leftward to the center in some respects, but if the Republican Party could form a durable, sane, majority coalition that would move the center of gravity of the country rightward. 

That, it seems to me, is what the conservative intellectual movement should be for. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So, as some of you have noticed, Gracie has been losing weight and the vet thinks it could be one of several maladies, all serious but none immediately dire. In order to figure out what’s going on, we have to put her on a special diet and see how she responds. The problem is that Gracie has a very serious addiction to Friskies Original Flavor Party Mix. It is her blue meth. If we cut her off cold turkey, I can easily see her selling my wife’s jewelry on the internet to procure her own supply. In other news, Pippa continues to demand extraordinary coaxing to get out of bed in the morning. Her fear of mean dogs always gets worse when it starts to get dark in the fall. I should note that it’s not like she constantly runs into aggressive dogs, it’s just that while she loves all the people, she’s scared of pretty much all strange dogs and assumes they are mean, even when they just want to say hi. Zoë does an admirable job of keeping the actual mean dogs at bay. Also, Pippa is going to the beauty parlor this weekend (technically it’s coming to her). Please don’t tell her. Also, the Fair Jessica and I are going to Europe next week. Given that the stress of us being gone seemed to feed tensions between Zoë and Pippa last time, we’re trying something new. The housesitter will keep the Dingo and Kirsten will board Pippa. They’ll still see each other on many walks. Also, puppies!


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.