The Future Of Conservative Journalism Isn't Tom Wolfe

Discussed In This Review:
Proud To Be Right edited by Jonah Goldberg, published by Harper Collins

In the final years of the Bush Administration, the American right began grappling with a devastating reality: after eight years in the White House, majorities for several sessions of Congress, and a Supreme Court largely composed of Republican appointees, the GOP would soon be ousted from power — and its legacy would be a significantly larger federal government, an alarming fiscal crisis, and a squandered reputation for competence in foreign policy. The American people were poised to elect the most liberal president in a generation and a friendly Congress to implement his agenda. Conservatives, libertarians, and right-leaning independents faced the prospect of a long rebuilding process.

Amid this tumult, a few established conservative voices began surveying the next generation of thought leaders on the right, much as fans of a losing sports franchise avoid depression late in the season by focusing on the rookie draft or a promising Minor League pitcher. New York Times columnist David Brooks was the first to issue a scouting report, opining in the summer of 2008 that he’d found “one bright spot” for his ideological team. “Over the past five years, a group of young and unpredictable rightward-leaning writers has emerged on the scene,” he noted in a June column. These heterodox thinkers “did not rise through the official channels of the conservative or libertarian establishments” — they established themselves as credible voices largely through blogging, and that “allowed them to create a new sort of career path and test out opinions without much adult supervision.” A veteran of The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Review and The Weekly Standard, Brooks seemed to imply that the adult supervision on offer at movement conservatism’s establishment publications was more hindrance than help.

The ten journalists he proceeded to laud in The Gray Lady were unknown to the average American, but they fed my impression that it was an exciting time to be a young, right-leaning writer in Washington, DC. Several were colleagues at The Atlantic, where I was then an intern. By spring, when former Mike Huckabee campaign staffer Joe Carter recruited me to help edit a start-up Web magazine, I played a part in publishing many of the rest. In some ways, my employers at Culture11 were engaged in another effort by established participants in movement conservatism to change its course. The Chairman of the Board at our company was Bill Bennett. Our CEO, former Bush staffer David Kuo, said he hired me on the strength of an essay I’d published arguing that what the right needed wasn’t another William F. Buckley so much as a dozen Tom Wolfes — talented narrative journalists who understood conservative insights, but whose primary aim was furthering the journalistic project rather than undermining it. Our young staff produced a Web magazine with its share of flaws. I like to think its greatest strength was captured by Charles Homans, who profiled our effort in The Washington Monthly. “Culture11’s contributors were often people who also wrote for more ideologically coherent political magazines, environments that encouraged group-think,” he wrote. “What they wrote for Culture11, which encouraged the opposite, was often much smarter.”

We weren’t the only ones offering an alternative to the stultifying confines of establishment conservative journalism. The American Conservative, a paleo-con magazine, regularly published unpredictable, well-edited feature stories, and filled an especially important niche challenging the hawkish foreign policy consensus in the Republican Party. Patrick Ruffini, Jon Henke and others were hosting frank discussions about political strategy at The Next Right. The group blogs Secular Right, Postmodern Conservative, and Front Porch Republic, among many others, were insisting that the mainstream of movement conservatism was flawed in its value system. And that autumn, Washington DC abuzz with election fever, former Bush Administration speechwriter David Frum joined the rebellion against the status quo.

Then a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a writer at National Review Online, Frum saw very early that an Obama victory was likely. In preparation for the future, he gathered in his living room one evening another group of young right-leaning writers, including Eli Lake, James Kirchick, Noah Pollack, and Mary Katherine Ham. He sought reactions to a project he intended to launch: a Web site called New Majority.Com that would begin to do the work of rebuilding the GOP into a viable governing party. He spoke about the political magazines that helped him find conservatism as a youth, his desire that some among today’s high school and college students might be similarly influenced by his Web site, and the dearth of other publications that present a face of conservatism that is appealing to young people. “I’m not relying on it to make any money, and the goals I have for the number of people it’ll reach are modest enough that they’re attainable,” Frum said. “But it’s an ambitious enough project that after the election I’ll be leaving National Review.”

That revelation captured the general mood. It wasn’t that I had anything against NR. It just didn’t speak to me or anyone else in my generation, if only because it had to serve its own largely elderly subscriber base. Aside from the always lively Reason, the occasional superb feature story in The Weekly Standard, and City Journal, a place that shares the urban outlook of my peers at its very core, there wasn’t any right-leaning publication that I looked forward to perusing as a reader (especially once the Claremont Review of Books, a place that also prizes quality, bought into the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, failing to notice that its accumulation of executive power was incompatible with the Founding vision they ostensibly champion). It felt as though you’d find the future of right-leaning journalism outside the CRB and NR—and I added Frum to the list of people wagering money on that proposition.

AS IF TO UNDERSCORE the changing guard in 2008, William F. Buckley had died at the beginning of the year, survived by a son who very publicly supported candidate Barack Obama at the end of it. Under Rich Lowry, already its longtime editor, National Review remained the conservative movement’s flagship publication: less influential in its pronouncements than Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, occasionally publishing suspect material — especially online — but rightly credited with publishing solid pieces too, and maintaining much higher standards than the right’s intellectually dishonest entertainers—not that you could call them out in the print magazine!

Even in the narrower world of conservative letters, NR wasn’t nearly as influential as it once was. Its very success birthing a conservative movement meant sharing readers with a whole right-wing media landscape that didn’t previously exist. And like all decades-old media organizations, technology had spawned innovative competition. In the age of the fax machine, William Kristol launched The Weekly Standard, sending pages to an influential Inside the Beltway audience, en route to creating a national magazine of his own. The Internet saw upstarts of lesser quality like Townhall, Newsmax and World Net Daily challenge NR for the hard right audience, along with a constellation of bloggers for whom the old flagship wasn’t ever hard-nosed enough. Another challenge came from outside the movement: unlike in prior generations, a young right-leaning writer could make a name for himself without getting punched by NR or making peace with its orthodoxies (partly because mainstream publications had become more open to dissenting voices than they once were).

As the Obama Administration began, Andrew Breitbart seized the moment to launch his answer to Gawker Media, running a series of Web sites that would skewer “Big Hollywood” and “Big Government,” just to start. In terms of accuracy, sophistication, and quality of argument, Breitbart’s sites couldn’t nearly compete with the house that Buckley built, but he could pander and provoke more shamelessly — associated only with The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, his public brand had no reputation for quality or intellectual honesty, so fear of squandering them wasn’t ever an impediment. NR does worry about those things. When less restrained competitors with lower standards and costs attract more attention and readers per editorial dollar spent, it puts the publication in a tough spot.

Despite all this, National Review remains the premier name among conservative magazines. And there is at least one writer and editor there for whom the Web era has proved a tremendous boon: 40-year-old Jonah Goldberg, who was asked to launch National Review Online shortly after joining the magazine in 1998, and deserves much of the credit for its emergence as the single most successful online destination for conservative readers. Along with the capable Rich Lowry, who has the impossible job of publishing a magazine meant to advance a perpetually splintering ideological coalition (while keeping all its factions happy enough to keep subscribing), Goldberg was responsible for getting some brilliant voices into the NR orbit, sometimes alongside hackery that seemed as though it couldn’t have been approved by the same editorial team.

Goldberg especially appealed to younger readers, as one longtime fan in his late twenties explains. “What distinguished Goldberg from the others of his generation at NR/NRO — Lowry is the same age and Ponnuru and K-Lo are actually younger — was that he breathed the same cultural atmosphere I did and wrote about it regularly,” he said. “Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I can’t think of anything cultural the other three have written that sets them generationally apart from WFB or John O’Sullivan. Goldberg is instantly recognizable as someone who was young during the 80s and who enjoyed it.”

Youthful compared to colleagues, a commercially successful author, an accomplished online innovator, Editor At Large at conservatism’s flagship publication after serving as its Web editor — all these qualities made Goldberg particularly suited to offer up his own dossier on the future of conservative journalism. As it turns out, he’s done exactly that.

As editor of the recently released book “Proud To Be Right,” he curated a collection of essays from young right-leaning writers that even skeptics would do well to give a look. Aside from the high quality of the best several pieces, the quality of argument and writing is uneven — more sophisticated briefs for conservatism can certainly be found elsewhere, and I imagine that Brooks, Kuo or Frum, if hired as editors on a similar project, would produce very different volumes, for better or worse.
But the right’s various dissidents seem to share a conviction that it’s now impossible to be loyal to the conservative movement — at least as loyalty is now defined by its membership — and to write wide-ranging, intellectually honest stuff without pulling punches. This makes them good at championing talented writers who don’t fit very well within rigid ideological orthodoxies, and less inclined or able to influence future purveyors of movement journalism.

In contrast, Goldberg would object to the notion that loyalty, as defined by today’s conservative movement, is a strike against a writer’s intellectual honesty. He is a movement lifer.

At his worst, that means acting as an apologist for convenient ideological allies like obvious charlatan Glenn Beck, actively “doing his part” in the spin wars — that’s how the man himself once put it — and responding to much cogent criticism of the right by insisting that liberals are even worse, as if Team Red point-scoring is an important component of his intellectual work. Put another way, Goldberg reflexively sides with ideological allies more often than any writer I completely trust—but contra his staunchest critics, he is also capable of insightful analysis that goes beyond talking points, occasionally offers mild criticism of indefensible behavior by “his own side,” and risks public debates with smart, forceful interlocutors, unlike the Rush Limbaughs of the world.

The man who edited “Proud To Be Right” is Jonah Goldberg at his best. Drawing partly though not entirely from people more loyal to conservatism than to journalism, he has managed to produce a volume of largely well-written, intellectually honest essays that do justice to some of conservatism’s strengths and reflect the diversity of its strains. It certainly includes paragraphs that would be difficult to get into the pages ofNational Review. The essays also lend insight into sides of the ideological movement that unaligned, right-leaning heretics like me regard as recurring, maddening flaws. Its primary value isn’t as a book of arguments; the reader who can most benefit is the one wondering, “What is the world view of young conservative writers in the United States of America? What assumptions under-gird it? And how did they come to their beliefs?”

Taken as a whole, the most confusing thing about the book is its intended audience. In the introduction, Goldberg applauds its contributors for their senses of humor, optimistic spirits, and grasp of human experience, writing that “this volume was intended to show—rather than tell—that, in fact, conservatives are people too.” Set aside the wisdom of that goal. The implication is that the book is meant to convert non-conservatives, or at least to instill in them a higher opinion of young people on the right. So why is the cover art red, white, and blue, the title “Proud To Be Right,” and “edited and with an introduction by… bestselling author of Liberal Fascism” the pitch on the cover? One can imagine it on the table at Barnes and Noble alongside George W. Bush’s memoir and Glenn Beck’s latest — another illustration of the tension between the imperatives of Conservative Inc. and the ideological project it’s ostensibly advancing.

If you’re among the subset of the book-buying public put off by such packaging, I’d urge you to look past it. Oh, you’ll vehemently disagree with parts of the book, and roll your eyes at several others, but it’s a paperback, and the polished essays by James Poulos, Michael Brendan Dougherty, James Kirchick and Helen Rittelmeyer alone justify the price. Almost everyone in the collection is someone I’d contact about writing for me if I were still commissioning pieces for Culture11, some with more suggestions for improvement than others. They’ve produced work worthy of serious critique and engagement, something that cannot be said for a large part of each year’s Regnery catalog. So I intend to address several of their essays in subsequent posts, offering to air their rebuttals in an update or follow-up. If commenters have the book, perhaps they can ask questions too, and push back against my assumptions and arguments.

In another essay, I could tell a long story about the evolution of my thinking about journalism and its compatibility with ideological movements. I’ve written elsewhere that The Atlantic’s motto, “Of no party or clique,” seems to me the best attitude, and it won’t surprise any regular readers that I’m a great fan of almost everyone on David Brooks’ list of heterodox conservatives, several of whom either wrote or still write here at The American Scene. I very much hope that they’re prominent in the future of opinion journalism. If we’re realistic about the limits of ideological journalism on the right, the contributors on offer in Proud To Be Right represent an optimist’s glimpse at the future of conservative journalism.

Should any of its contributors choose to accept employment within the confines of the conservative movement, I hope they’ll retain their willingness to challenge the status quo, or at least be given many chances elsewhere to do work that is smarter and more interesting. Goldberg deserves enormous credit for giving them one such opportunity.


Essay 1, “The Politics of Authenticity” by Matthew Lee Anderson, is discussed here.

Essay 2, “Pursuing Happiness” by Joseph Ashby, is discussed here.