Who Closed the Conservative Mind?

Julian Sanchez and Matt Yglesias are only the latest to wonder about a topic that ought to matter to folks who follow this blog: assuming one agrees (as I do) that the American right-wing is, these days, substantially more closed-minded than the American left-wing (as represented not so much by ordinary people as the intellectual, political and media leadership), why should we have come to this pass?

I find Yglesias’ answer both partly persuasive and generally unsatisfying. Partly persuasive because it’s true that the demographic base of the GOP is relatively narrower (as you would expect of any minority party, and particularly a minority party that draws its support overwhelmingly from the demographic majority), and if you have a more homogeneous group you’d expect it to be more “group-think” oriented. But generally unsatisfying because the Democrats have always been more of a hodge-podge coalition, yet the common perception of those who worry about the “closing of the conservative mind” is that something has changed – certainly since the right’s intellectual heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, it’s not clear to me why demographic diversity specifically should lead to openness; you can just as easily have a series of closed-minded groups and a leadership with no mind at all, just a talent for balancing the interests of the closed-minded. That seems to be what many people thought of the Mondale campaign, anyway.

Sanchez’ main point is that a substantial contingent on the right is actively seeking epistemic closure as a response to the end of geographic isolation: relatively homogeneous communities that used to be able to keep the world at bay fairly naturally now have to fight to keep it out because of new communications technology that puts the world at their doorstep every day. I find this answer partly persuasive as well, but inadequate on two levels. First, the politics of resentment are nothing new, and neither is their utility in forging a right-wing coalition. The modern GOP was born in the fires of George Wallace’s 1968 run for the Presidency, and Nixon’s entire persona was wrapped around the politics of resentment. But this period was a period of great intellectual ferment on the right, emphatically not a time when people think of the conservative mind as “closed.” Rather, this was the era of Pauline Kael’s famous astonishment at Nixon’s victory, since nobody she knew had voted for him. Second, it’s an explanation of why a certain segment of the right-wing followership might be especially energized these days, but it doesn’t really explain anything about the state of conservative leadership.

Here are some possible additional explanations that I think are worth considering:

- Blame the South. The argument, in a nutshell, is that a successful political coalition in America cannot be dominated by the South, as the GOP currently is. The South is a distinct region in America, significantly different in history and political culture from the rest of the country. Moreover, regional identity in the South is manifested substantially in opposition to the rest of the nation. A political movement dominated by the South will necessarily manifest a political culture that is more similar to that of the South than to that of the rest of the nation, and that political movement is also going to absorb this oppositional element of Southern identity, and will necessarily become overly invested in intellectual shibboleths. What looks like epistemic closure is really just identity politics.

I don’t think this explanation can be dismissed out of hand – in particular, dismissing it out of hand as “insulting” to the South would be in instance of precisely the dynamic I’m outlining. The South does have a distinct history and culture; that culture is substantially oppositional; and the American right is dominated by the South in a way that it has not been before. Dominance of a party by an atypical and oppositional region is just a structural problem. And, if this is a problem, it is going to be a hard one for the American right to solve, because the South is now large enough and strong enough, and remains cohesive enough, that its leaders should expect to lead any coalition of which they are a member.

Now, you might plausibly say that whether the GOP is dominated by the South is irrelevant to the intellectual state of the right in America. The GOP could be run by a bunch of ninnies and the right could be full of intellectual ferment. I think that’s a reasonable description of the state of things in much of the 1970s, for what it’s worth.

The problem is that, if you are an engaged intellectual, you want to be able to see a way forward. And right-leaning types today – contrary to historical type – are terribly engaged. If, for the foreseeable future, the GOP is going to be dominated by the South, and the Democrats are going to be dominated by the left, then where is a Northern conservative to find a natural political home?

You can see the dynamics playing out in a place like the Manhattan Institute. Properly, the focus of the Manhattan Institute should be topics relevant to urban America – that’s their beat. So why do they publish so much culture war fodder? Why do they publish on foreign policy at all? Is it really plausible that what’s good for Alabama is good for New York? If not, then why isn’t City Journal the forum in which New York’s right-wingers get to make the case for their priorities over the priorities of Alabamians? I think part of the answer relates to the fact that an oppositional section is now dominant within the conservative coalition.

- Blame the money. Is there a major patron of conservative intellectuals who is a patron primarily because he or she wants to generate new ideas, insights, works of the spirit that do not already exist in the world, as opposed to advancing arguments for ideas that are already well-established in defense of interests that are well-entrenched? If there is, please let me know that person’s name. Ron Unz is the only person who comes immediately to mind, and honestly I don’t think he’s quite in the wealth category one would ideally want.

Nobody, of course, is just going to hand out money willy-nilly. But there is an enormous difference between bankrolling a person or organization because you like what they think, and bankrolling a person or organization because you like the way they think. If a multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I believe that vouchers are the answer, so I’m going to give $100,000 per year to a think-tank to produce pro-vouchers research and advocate for vouchers, well, that’s not really intellectual patronage. If, on the other hand, that same multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I am skeptical of the way the system works now, how we train teachers to how our schools are financed, and impressed with some of what’s been achieved following new models. I’m going to find the smartest, most informed, most independent-minded people I can, who are also skeptical of established practice, and give them money to do whatever research they want. If they can impress me with their independence and intelligence, then I want to know what they can learn with a bit of money to work with – and I want other people to know as well. That second millionaire might wind up funding Diane Ravitch – and getting a very different report than he or she expected. And why would that be so bad? If Diane Ravitch has lost faith in a certain kind of school reform, that’s a hugely important fact – her arguments are ones that any advocate of school reform needs to know and grapple with. Even if she doesn’t change her patron’s mind, he or she should be glad to have funded her work.

Ultimately, you can only have an intelligentsia if you have patrons who are interested in learning things they don’t already know. And so, if you want a conservative intelligentsia, you need patrons of a conservative temperament who want to learn things they don’t already know – things that may unsettle them. If all the patron wants is advocacy for established views in defense of established interests, then you don’t actually have intellectual patronage at all, and pretty soon you won’t have an intellectual establishment.

I have never been a movement conservative, and I’ve never worked for a conservative institution, so any impressions I have are from a considerable distance – second-hand impressions at best, generally third-hand. Having declared that caveat, I will say that my general impression is that the money going to purportedly intellectual conservative organs is vastly more interested in advocacy than in developing intellectual talent or generating new insights. If I’m right, then that is something that has to change if you want an open conservative mind.

But if I’m right, the question that must next be asked is: has this changed? Were things different in 1975, and if so – why? I think it would be highly instructive to see a study done on the sources of funding for conservative organs and see how these sources have changed over time – is the money coming more or less from individuals over time, from more or fewer sources, from the same or different industries, is the age of donors changing, has the place in American life of donors changed over time, etc. I don’t know much of this information is in the public domain, but if it is, it would be interesting to see if anything can be gleaned from this kind of aggregate data. But, you know, I’m an elitist. My own inclination is to think that single individuals who are determined to shape history can make an enormous impact if they have the wherewithal. You don’t need a whole generation of intellectually-minded plutocrats to sponsor a renaissance. If he’s rich enough, and clear-eyed and determined enough, you may only need one.

- Blame David Frum. Just prior to the Iraq War, David Frum published a now-infamous essay expelling “unpatriotic conservatives” – that is to say, people who vociferously opposed the war – from . . . well, it’s not exactly clear from what, since he had no power to expel anybody from anything – let’s say from “conservative respectability.” And this endeavor on his part was, generally, applauded by the outlets of the organized American right. I don’t know that this was literally unprecedented, but it felt to me at the time – and more so since – like a crucial Rubicon had been crossed.

In previous defenestrations – Eisenhower’s turn against McCarthy, Buckley’s expulsion of the Birchers, the removal of Trent Lott from his leadership position – the organizations or individuals being expelled were extremists of the dominant tendency. If Republicans were generally anti-Communist, McCarthy took this to an unacceptable extreme; if Republicans were generally more friendly to a white Southern perspective on American history, Lott, in his remarks, took this to an unacceptable extreme. Frum was not expelling extremists, however; he was expelling dissenters.

The expulsion of dissenters is not something we generally associate with mainstream political movements; it is most memorable as a tic of the radical left, Stalinists expelling Trotskyites and so forth. Certainly, right-wing groups – anti-tax groups, anti-abortion groups, etc. – have tried to impose orthodoxy before, demanding pledges of allegiance in exchange for electoral support. But this is just interest-group politics; civil-rights groups, unions, and other left-wing organizations do that sort of thing all the time, with more or less effectiveness depending on the political circumstances. Expelling dissenters is something else again, and once the precedent has been set, it is very difficult to see how one may justify not applying it in more and more circumstances.

While I don’t think it’s fair to blame David Frum as an individual for very much (and poetic justice has already been served on him specifically anyhow), I do think it’s important for those who are concerned with the openness or closedness of the conservative mind to grapple with this particular event, and consider whether a formal repudiation might not do rather a bit of good, even at this late date.

- Blame Iraq. The Iraq War was the cause for which Frum expelled the so-called “unpatriotic conservatives” and the Iraq War is the cause for which the conservative mind closed. It won’t open again until this fact is faced.

Of course, conservatives weren’t alone in supporting the Iraq War, or in blinding themselves to contrary arguments. But it is instructive to examine the difference between the way conservatives who changed their mind about the war have behaved and the way liberals who changed their mind have behaved.

In my experience, conservatives who have changed their mind fall into three broad camps: minimizers, avoiders, and abandoners. Minimizers admit the war didn’t work out as planned, but spend their energies on damage control – arguing that intentions were good, or that knowledge was limited, or that some aspects did work out, or whatever. Avoiders show signs that they know the whole enterprise was rotten to the core – so they avoid the topic and avoid drawing any broader conclusions about, well, anything from the fiasco of Iraq. And abandoners, well, they feel obliged, when they face the depth of their mistake, to abandon their political home altogether, either for the other side or for a relatively un-engaged posture.

In other words, there’s a general sense among conservative thinkers that the die was cast long ago: within the context of the conservative political world, it is not an option to seriously rethink the decision for war. Doing so is tantamount to abandoning their political identity. Why that is, I’m not sure, though I suspect guilt has more to do with it than anything.

It’s instructive to compare conservatives with liberals in this regard. Liberal hawks – people whose political identity was very bound up with the Iraq War project – have had much the same problem as conservatives coming to grips with the war. But liberals who supported the war but didn’t consider that integral to their identity have had a pretty easy time chucking off their history and forging a new identity around what they learned from that mistake. These liberals frequently learned a great deal from dissenting conservative opponents of the war – people like Andrew Bacevich – and have thereby brought essentially conservative arguments against ventures like Iraq into the tent of liberal thinking – to the benefit of the nation, if to the impoverishment of the conservative tent.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. I do know that when Ross Douthat writes a column for the New York Times about why the Iraq War was fundamentally a mistake, and how his outlook on the world changed when he fully absorbed that, we’ll know that the conservative mind has opened a bit again.

- Blame the times. No analysis of where conservatism has gone wrong would be complete without an utterly fatalistic analysis, so here it is. Political movements have their life cycles like anything else: they are born; they grow; they mature; they decay. The conservative movement was born in the 1950s, grew in the late 1960s and 1970s, matured in the 1980s and early 1990s, and decayed from the mid-1990s through today. You can lament being born at the wrong time, but you can’t do anything about it.

To a considerable extent, the life cycle of movements derives from the life cycle of the people who grow up within those movements. Young conservatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw their movement go from strength to strength – and learned that conservatism was always right and that people who didn’t see that were fools. These same folks in the Bush years tutored their successors in appalling intellectual tactics: bullying and sophistry and identity politics. By contrast, the generation of liberals who came of age in the Bush years had to weather that bullying, had to cut through that sophistry – and were vindicated by events. I am continually impressed by the intelligence and sophistication of liberals ten years younger than I am. They are the leaders of tomorrow’s left even more than today’s, and the right is just not in the same league. It was, once, in 1960s and 1970s, when left-wing ideas were dominant and left-wingers intellectually complacent – even as their intellectual roof was falling in. The bright young things who saw that the roof was falling in, and who debated what their new home should look like, became the rising generation of conservative leaders.

I have a lot of sympathy for this kind of explanation, simply because I’m temperamentally conservative. I think it’s very hard for people to change once they are set, and so the formative experiences of a generation have a lasting political and intellectual impact. Intellectually, the children of the Bush Administration on the right are a lost generation. They may grow in wisdom, chastened by experience, but this will come at a price of lost confidence; or they may retain their confidence, but this will come at the greater price of never attaining wisdom.

An open mind seeks wisdom, first and last.