Last Friday Kevin D. Williamson published an essay at National Review that in many ways represents mainstream conservatism’s highs and lows. By turns hilarious, insightful, bizarre, obnoxious, confused, and offensive, Williamson explores the ugly ways in which Trump and his cadre of right-wing media sycophants now perform a vulgar “real American” shtick to distract from the fact that they have nothing of substance to say and their fans have nothing to be responsible for. His critiques of right-wing elites land beautifully (admittedly, their intellectual and moral stagnation make such a task easier every day), but he goes further to reveal an equal or greater disdain for the “white underclass.”
As Williamson discusses the ugly world of poverty that he grew up in, he gets to a line that feels the most true and is thus the most insidious: “The more you know about that world, the less sympathetic you’ll be to it.” He intends this to skewer the chattering classes of liberals who are overflowing with sympathy for the abstract “poor” but squirm at the thought of sharing a school or subdivision with actual poor people. It’s a fair enough point – there are a lot of those people, and they need more actual contact with the poor.
However, that argument is only accessory to Williamson’s main point, which he summarizes as thus:
Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show. It is a sad spectacle, but I do have some hope that the current degraded state of the conservative movement will not last forever.
One of the clearest lessons of the past two years is that “the conservative movement” has for some time been a large number of power-worshipping Trump-loving sheep waiting for their Trump, corralled by a handful of ideologues on the billionaires’ ranch. These ideologues have been shocked to see their principles abandoned in favor of vulgar might-makes-right tribalism and you can find any number of well-written essays from this past year reckoning with this disappointment and cursing the alliance of fools, cowards, crazies, and racists that have come to dominate right-wing institutions. Less plentiful are the conservative authors willing to say that ideological conservatism has been degraded because it didn’t have anything useful to say in the first place. (Notable exceptions include Avik Roy and Reihan Salam; Joe Carter noted some of these trends several years ago).
Williamson’s conclusion (and his funny but ultimately incoherent ramblings about Ice-T, which would require another entire essay to unpack) demonstrate this succinctly. If all conservatism has to offer is a stern message about personal responsibility and a repetition of something conservative-sounding you heard from that one black friend of yours, it’s no wonder nobody wants it. It’s simply not a political philosophy you can govern with, win votes with, or even communicate with. The reason why the vast majority of Republican voices are emulating Donald Trump’s gutter-speak, Paul Ryan’s incoherent fantasies, or Roy Moore’s fever dreams is that they’re filling in the very large blanks that movement conservatism can’t fill in.
Every traditional right-wing voting bloc has come apart at the seams: “National security” has given way to wars a decade and a half long and still counting and new escapades in countries most of us can’t pronounce or find on a map. It still includes supporting our allies in campaigns of terror against civilians. “Economic growth” has become a mindless reflex to ensure that no undeserving human gets a penny of government aid while no business that might possibly create a job in the next decade fails to get a subsidy. “Family values” have suffered the most because of non-political currents, but many in the “Moral Majority” demonstrated that their principles were just window dressings on political ambitions. (Anyone who was willing to vote for Trump in order to protect their religious liberty from Clinton probably would have caved when she cracked down.)
If personal responsibility and tax cuts were the path to prosperity and virtue, then Kansas and Alabama ought to be shining exemplars of governance. They’re not. Movement conservatism has been tried and found wanting; it has degraded into a parody of itself nationally because all three legs it used to stand on can’t hold anything up anymore.
Williamson’s statement about knowing the world of poverty and growing more unsympathetic is wrong in three ways. The first way he’s wrong relates to common tropes about welfare: the more poor people you know, the more you realize how little they get from the government and how few of them actually get anything. The most shocking anecdotes get our attention – a cousin or a friend of a friend who is a lazy drug addict and gets a disability payment – but these examples are far from representative. You can only know that, though, if you are actually spending time with poor people.
For example: Earlier this year, Commentary ran an absurd statistic claiming that half of prime-age men were Medicaid beneficiaries that inspired pearl-clutching throughout conservative Twitter. This is the sort of thing you can believe if you only know one prime-age man who is eligible for Medicaid. (I emailed the editors about this at the time and got no response.)
There are groups of people who can fool themselves into thinking their time on the job with the poor matters – I think especially of police officers, doctors, and nurses, who end up seeing humans at their worst by virtue of the fact that they are charged with facing the worst things humanity can suffer. Doctors can remember the one patient with a fancy phone on Medicaid a lot more easily than the five who are working and still can’t make enough to afford all of their prescriptions, or the person on disability who works under the table to make ends meet.
Trust me: if there’s an egregious example of someone locking the door to stability for themselves (and their kids) from the inside, I’ve seen it. However, these cases of self-destruction are not exclusive to the poor (as Elizabeth Bruenig points out), and given the great number of people who continue to make bad decisions despite not getting anything from the government, we have to think about other ways to inculcate virtue in the people who need it most. Mostly by being their friends and sharing in their pain.
The second way that Williamson’s statement is malignant is that it actively discourages friendship with the poor and praises the sort of ignorance his statement is meant to lambast liberals for. The way that Williamson writes, it would seem that the best thing to do for our inner cities and Appalachia is to wall them off and open the gates when someone who works hard enough to buy a bus ticket out of there asks politely to leave in proper English. This is, for the most part, what we have been doing for many years now, coaching the best citizens of any community to get out at whatever cost and never look back.
In West Baltimore, I often heard people describe the “crabs in a barrel” phenomenon that Williamson would call a pathology of poverty culture. Like crustaceans grabbing a companion who is trying to climb out of the barrel, some community members intentionally try to hold back their neighbors who are putting in the hard work to succeed economically or academically. (Other cultures around the world – even Western ones like Australia – will share similar conventional wisdom like “The chicken with the longest neck gets cut.”) While this obviously has negative consequences, it is based in a very reasonable human desire for communities to maintain their equilibrium by not allowing all of their best members from leaving – for if all of the above-average leave, the average goes down.
The “coming apart” phenomenon that Charles Murray describes and many conservatives grumble about is in no small part a result of our obsession with meritocracy. When we are constantly encouraging people who are born with or acquire the virtues necessary to live a stable life to shake the dust off their feet and abandon their dysfunctional friends, those left behind stagnate in ever-more-toxic dysfunction. A culture of hard work, thrift, and personal responsibility only emerges when people have enough financial capital to make those virtues pay off (less and less a reality as wages stagnate and jobs require skills that aren’t taught in high school) and enough people practicing those virtues to be a part of that community.
Conservatism rejects the deterministic economics that denies people their agency, but the modern conservative movement has preached an atomizing freedom that eviscerates the structures and relationships that help people to exercise agency. This is why the eloquent ideas of politicians like Mike Lee or Ben Sasse ring hollow: They are only willing to tinker with a handful of policies that might stop the tidal wave of atomization our society is experiencing. If we want to create a conservative movement robust enough to deal with the challenges America is facing, we’re going to have to work a lot harder and spend a lot more time with the poor so that we can understand what they need, want, and can contribute.
Part of that work is doing our research and trying out more radical ideas. The most prominent right-wing writers at various outlets (with a few exceptions like Lyman Stone, Jonathan Coppage, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry) are always suggesting the old wineskins of 20th-century conservatism, which is part of why their reformocon ideas have never taken off. Conservative health care wonks are constantly trying to repaint the burning Hindenburg that is our employer-based health insurance system. No conservative publication had any mention of focused deterrence until yesterday. Conservative education policy is oriented around using vouchers to help a larger percentage of kids get good grades so they can get a useless college degree. The few good ideas (like E-Verify for immigration or closing prisons for criminal justice reform) get drowned out by the populist rabble or lobbied to death.
More importantly, conservatism needs to decide what it is we’re trying to conserve and rewrite everything else around that. Conserving the institutions that help people to flourish – churches and families most prominent among them – is more fundamental than “liberty” or “small government”. A focus on the family will almost certainly require, though, that we buck the individualist-atomist elements of conservatism that have become ideological orthodoxy. I’ve advocated before for some of the more radical ideas that the American Solidarity Party is pushing, mostly because the vision of society that they describe is one that is best able to conserve human dignity and the institutions that inculcate virtue.
Most of all, though, conservatism is doomed to degradation if conservatives neglect our pre-political relationships and do not use the freedom we have to be sympathetic and sacrifice for our neighbors. Here Williamson’s formulation is backwards: the more that one chooses to love and share in the pain of the poor, the more intimately you will want to know them and be friends with them. This is not only a necessary front in the war on the atomization, consumerism, and individualism that are picking us apart like crabs on a plate, but it is also what Christ demonstrates for us and demands of us.
The eternal truth that we ought to proclaim loudly in word and deed is that God’s love for the poor is not dependent on how much responsibility they demonstrate. The freedom and wealth God has given us in America is a blessing that must be shared with others; we can argue about the most prudent way to steward our blessings but we cannot disguise our disinterest in solidarity with some pablum about agency or even with appeals for redistribution. Being friends with a lot of poor people will probably incline you a bit more towards redistribution, but it will probably also ensure you mean what you say whenever you bring up agency.
Movement conservatism itself has, in Williamson’s words, failed to grasp that what is not necessarily our fault may yet be our problem, and that we must act and bear responsibility for what we have been given. Demonizing the poor will only corrode our faculties and hamstring our capacity for making policy. The way forward is to embrace our responsibilities to one another as citizens and choose to sympathize with the poor, but not in the abstract, cut-‘em-a-check manner that Williamson hates. Rather, we have to back up our words about agency and responsibility by exercising some of our own and putting in the hard work necessary to suffer with and learn from our less fortunate neighbors.
“If personal responsibility and tax cuts were the path to prosperity and virtue, then Kansas and Alabama ought to be shining exemplars of governance.”
I’m not a movement conservative but I think you are misrepresenting their argument here. It is not that tax cuts will lead to greater prosperity than higher tax states but rather the lower taxes will lead to greater prosperity than would have pertained with higher taxes. Essentially, do higher taxes help or hinder wealth accumulation? This can only be answered theoretically not empirically.
This entire essay is indeed a profound misrepresentation of true movement conservatism – not the talk radio, Breitbart nonsense – but the more philosophically grounded conservatism. One can argue that Reaganism is dead – and I would certainly agree that our proposals need adjusting to the present moment, but Loftus is moving the goal posts in a rather unfair manner – and doing so without actually tackling conservative thinkers themselves. Does this criticism apply only to Wililamson? Does it apply to Arthur Brooks? Jonah Goldberg? Reihan Salaam? Ross Douthat?
Here’s the rub. In the third to last paragraph, Loftus states that we should “use the freedom we have to be sympathetic and sacrifice for our neighbors.” The response a conservative will have to this is what do we mean by sympathy, and what do we mean by sacrifice? Because if Loftus’ answer to deep rooted social ills is based upon confiscatory tax policy and state-regulated bureaucracy, then conservatives will argue, rightfully, that there is neither freedom, nor sympathy, nor sacrifice.
Jake – happy to work on a much longer response.
Thanks, Will. Just to clarify, what I meant by “sacrifice” in that paragraph is that more conservatives who believe in freedom and dignity need to seek out friendships and relationships with the poor. One of the key ways this can happen is by voluntarily moving into struggling neighborhoods and towns and committing to being a part of those communities. See any of the linked pieces in the essay for more details.
Yes, but if the policies of Kansas and Alabama are indeed superior to those of Massachusetts and California, one would expect to see some tangible result of such policies. As it stands, places like Kansas and Alabama have little to show for their low-tax policies. There’s not a place in either state where I would ever consider moving. I’m happy to keep paying higher taxes and enjoy the benefits of living in northern Virginia.
You could attempt some econometrics but there’s so many factors it ends up being guess work. Lowering taxes is good but they could be running deficits or have increased zoning regulations at the same time. Determining good policy requires theory and any critiques must be in the theoretical, not the empirical form.
Also even if Mongolia had the perfect government I still wouldn’t want to move there. I may in two hundred years when they catch up economically speaking but certainly not before then.
In regards scarcity there are no sins, even waste, just opportunity costs.
I believe I comprehended the main thrust of this piece. However, I would like to hear anyone’s take on the idea of applying a Christ-like approach to dealing others. Am I mistaken in understanding that Christ not only met with, ate with, and socialized with those that current society considered less desirable, but that He also expected repentance of them and a changed life? I’m always confused by those who invoke Christ’s teachings on reaching out to others and stop short of the rest of Christ’s earthly message, which was repentance. I believe there is a bit too much selective listening to the scriptures with people picking out what they like and ignoring what they don’t. Christ didn’t hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors because it was trendy or philosophically the moral thing to do. I believe He hung out with them because they were willing to repent and that humility of the repentant would be a witness to all — an example that even the “least of these” have the opportunity of salvation through the Son of God.
What are you asking the poor or underclass to repent of?
Hi Joe … maybe I didn’t make my point very well, which is very likely.
I’m not asking anyone to repent of anything because I’m not God. What I was trying to ask was if others also notice that when some people invoke Christ’s approach to people during His earthly ministry as a way to address “poor or underclass” today that they only talk about half of Christ’s approach. So, let me restate my question: Why is it that Christ demanded repentance of those He “hung out with” and is there anything to take away from that for today?
Thanks for commenting. The answer is yes, most of us who attempt to imitate and obey Christ by living in solidarity with the poor absolutely do call them to repentance as we preach the Gospel to them. Read John Perkins or virtually any other practitioner of Christian community development and you’ll see this is the case. But quite frankly, often it works just as well the other way around: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/needing-my-neighbor
This is not a particularly generous portrayal of movement Conservatism, nor does it seem like there is a real grasp of it. It’s understandable since there seem to be so few movement conservatives left. But, conservatism isn’t just about tax and welfare cuts. Conservatism is about localized governance via the core tenants of free markets, federalism, and the dignity of the individual being granted by God, not man. Though conservatism is portrayed here as being theoretical, the opposite is actually true. For instance, free markets are the only tried, tested, and proven economic system being argued over in the public square. Conservatives are said here to have no solutions for healthcare except to maintain employer coverage. That is so wrong and disingenuous. Conservatives have been proposing private cost sharing plans (which are becoming increasingly popular) for quite awhile. Mandates, restricted buying in-state, and regulations to one size fits all plans drive the cost of healthcare way up. Conservatives have been trying to overturn all of these things in an effort to get insurance companies to compete with each other. History has shown, if you make the sellers compete, the cost to the consumer will go way down. Now, this isn’t sexy, because people want their government to “do something.” But, this isn’t conservatism’s problem. This is the problem with an electorate that doesn’t understand economics and an electorate that wants their problems solved by a centrally planned force. This is why conservatism is being replaced and undermined…not because it doesn’t have something to offer.
Thanks for commenting. Your observations about healthcare illustrate my point quite well. You assert that lifting regulations will allow insurers to better compete with one another, this bringing down prices for *some* consumers. This is true, but it would not fix most of the problems we have in our health care system. Our insurance system would still be horrifically inefficient, hospital billing would still be outrageously opaque, and millions of people would have minimal or no access to necessary preventive or chronic care. As I have argued previously, a healthcare system in which people routinely die of preventable causes is not one which honors our God-given dignity, so I think we have to start from there: https://mereorthodoxy.com/creating-just-good-healthcare-system/
I appreciate your premise, that death from preventable causes dishonors God-given dignity. However, I’m not entirely sure I agree. We have dignity, value, and worth because we are made in our Creator’s image. Our founding documents acknowledge this as the basis for our “natural rights.” But, taken to conclusion, your premise entails healthcare as a right. Now, do we have the right to a product or service given to us simply because of its necessity? That’s a hard sell. Just because free market conservatism denies this philosophical point does not mean its inadequate. It just means you disagree with free market conservatism. I’d have to see your policy propositions, but otherwise we are entirely in the realm of the theoretical. If you would advocate something like a single payer system, then it would be just as easy to decry the inadequacy and inefficiency of that. Surely, it could never end the tragedy of death from preventable causes. Thanks for your response brother. Agree or not, I appreciate your heart for Christ.
Driving the price of insurance lower means nothing if doing so generates additional externalities that must be absorbed by the economy in some less transactionally efficient way. I don’t necessarily accept Matthew’s premise concerning natural rights. In a world of limited resources, the only sin is waste. Thus, all policies must be justified in terms of transactional efficiency. The problem with “free market conservatism” lies in the fact that it fails to consider the broader context of economic policies. I don’t necessarily believe that a basic degree of health care is necessarily a human right. But I do believe that it’s transactionally efficient to provide a basic degree of healthcare to a broad base of citizens and to do so in a way that is uniform and predictable.
Well, I more or less agree with you Bob. But, of all historic economic systems, free market capitalism is the most efficient allocator of scarce resources. Commodities are distributed naturally according to the need of free individuals making free choices. Price correspondingly adjusts based on that natural allocation. In a market system, commodities that aren’t desired aren’t overproduced since they can be better utilized elsewhere. Profit is the motive, but that motive creates efficiency. The alternative, in which commodities have their price set and are distributed by a central planning force, has had devastating effect throughout history. Central planners cannot keep up with the complexities of a national economy. Just look at the former Soviet Union and their empty grocery stores and warehouses full of overstocked bear pelts. Free markets can’t and won’t eliminate human suffering and need, but of all the alternatives, it produces the highest standard of living, and it allows for individual freedom on top of it. Healthcare ceased being a free market long ago. When you go get an x-ray a doctor can’t tell you how much it’s going to cost and that says it all. I am interested though. What are your ideas for an efficient and uniform system that isn’t market based?
Thanks, Adam. I don’t believe healthcare is a right — I discussed it here (http://blogs.mereorthodoxy.com/matthewloftus/2017/03/24/health-care-not-human-right-not-market-commodity/). Obviously, there are limits to our abilities to protect any citizen’s natural rights — we don’t install security cameras in everyone’s homes to protect them from murder, but we do ensure any citizen who needs it can get a restraining order against someone who threatens to murder them. It’s just that healthcare is more expensive than a police force.
I think if we’re going to compare apples to apples, we should look at any countries that still have otherwise strong markets but still have universal access to healthcare (Singapore, Northern & Western Europe).
We can still guarantee a basic level of preventive & chronic care to all citizens without sliding into Communism. I talked about different policy proposals for ensuring access here: http://blogs.mereorthodoxy.com/matthewloftus/2017/03/29/5-ways-to-actually-reform-american-healthcare/
I think we can all agree that healthcare costs are absurd. But, it unfortunately seems that everyone has given up on trying to counteract that and opted for what is perceived as an easy way out. If we provided a government option, the costs would still be astronomical and would be unsustainable in time. We could debate this for days, but rationing, absurd wait times, and lack of choice are all real problems with universal systems. I’ve seen the data and the anecdotal evidence of it. Universality of coverage has its price, and to be sure, preventable deaths would continue…sometimes in more insidious ways than in a market system. I’ve read some of your work before, but I will definitely check out your proposals. Thanks for dialoguing Mr. Loftus!
I’ve lived in several countries in which a single payer provided at least a basic degree of health care. I never suffered from rationing, and never had to wait more than a day or two to get an appointment. In my experience, single-payer systems tend to offer a superior product at a fraction of the price compared to the US. Most of the additional money we pay goes into the pockets of insurance executives and non-physician administrators at hospitals.
I generally believe that private solutions are generally more efficient than public solutions. But healthcare is n exception to that, IMO.
My concern with naive “free market capitalism” is that it treats all goods and services alike, and assumes that one can shop for health insurance in the same way that one shops for widgets. I’m not proposing that one adopt a command economy as an alternative. Rather, I’m suggesting that one consider the nature of the transaction and regulate (or decide not to regulate) the provision of that good or service in a way that leads to transactional efficiency.
I’m not proposing anything liberal. This is basic Coasian (conservative) economic theory. Even Adam Smith acknowledged that unregulated free markets only generate transactional efficiency under certain circumstances.
I don’t think that there’s a single solution. But our current healthcare system is rife with waste. Almost any solution would be better than what we have. Besides, denying healthcare to people has an effect on others. I can’t negotiate my desire not to get tuberculosis. Rather, the main way that I avoid contracting it is by ensuring that proper treatment for tuberculosis is provided to all without respect to ability to pay. Your analysis seems to have no appreciation for how efficient markets operate in an institutional context, and also seems to lack any appreciation of how disease outbreaks are prevented at a societal level.
I basically agree with Matt’s conclusion. But I’m deeply suspicious of moralistic reasoning. Measuring market efficiency in a given context is not hard. But it has to be contextualized to the nature of the good or service being provided.
No one is arguing for a completely unregulated market. My point is that our healthcare system isn’t a market… at all. The brunt of the matter is that we are never going to be able to provide healthcare in a sustainable fashion to the poor, even under a government option, unless we drive prices down. Thus far, no one other than conservatives are providing solutions to drive down costs. The only other popular solution being offered is, “aww heck with it, let’s just have the tax payer pay for universal single payer care.” Unless costs are driven down, even this would be unsustainable. I understand that people are grasping for new ideas, but there is not a lot of grounded talk. Free markets are immediately discounted because no one understands markets, and everyone assumes that’s what we have now. You say we can’t treat healthcare as a commodity, but we already did and it brought affordable care to the masses. You say we can’t contain disease outbreak with market healthcare, but we already did, and haven’t had to worry about something equivalent to a tuberculosis in a long time. I’m open to hear ideas that make sound economic sense…but I think we’ve got to be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in search of some new, feel-good, cure-all solution.
Good piece, but–
the reason the Commentary statistic about Medicaid does not make sense is that you have misrepresented it.
It is not that half of all prime age men are on Medicaid, but half of all prime age men NOT IN THE LABOR FORCE are on Medicaid.
The second group is a much smaller group than the first, and far more likely to be on Medicaid.
That’s not what it says: “over one-fifth (21 percent) of all civilian men between 25 and 55 years of age were Medicaid beneficiaries. For prime-age people not in the labor force, the share was over half (53 percent). And for un-working Anglos (non-Hispanic white men not in the labor force) of prime working age, the share enrolled in Medicaid was 48 percent.” non-disabled men were not even eligible for Medicaid in 2013 (before ACA expansion), and this does not match up with the CMS stats.
I don’t know what the CMS stats are (and am not sure what you’re referring to), but my interpretation still stands.
Of all prime-age men, 21% receive Medicaid.
Of all prime-age men not in the labor force (this is a much smaller group, obviously), 53% get Medicaid.
A significant portion of prime-aged men not in the labor force are also on disability (perhaps explaining why they are not in the labor force).
From http://www.aei.org/publication/where-did-all-the-men-go/ : “Some 41 percent of these men lived on food stamps, while just over half reported using Medicaid, a noncash benefit program.”
So…I’m not sure what’s controversial here. No, it’s not the case that, “half of prime-aged men are on medicaid”. But, “half of prime aged men who aren’t in the labor force are also on medicaid” seems to be true.
Want to be clear: I really liked your article and agreed with most of it (I’m a liberal jew, actually–I just try to read a lot of stuff not from my perspective). I only commented cause, as far as I can tell, you misinterpreted the stat and wanted to clear it up.
I’ll be reading a lot more here :o
Sorry to be harsh. In that paragraph, I linked to a series of tweets about the stats with links. Here’s another one showing that 12% of all adults 19-64 were on Medicaid in 2013, which makes the first statistic not possible. (https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/adults-19-64/?dataView=0¤tTimeframe=3&sortModel=%7B“colId”:”Location”,”sort”:”asc”%7D) The smaller group mentioned in the second stat “all people not in the workforce” presumably includes stay-at-home moms, so it’s more likely to be accurate. As far as the third one goes, I don’t know how to access the data Eberstadt used but in order to get Medicaid you have to be disabled or a very poor parent of a dependent. There were twice as many prime-age women as men on Medicaid in 2013, so I am suspicious simply based on eligibility criteria. Based on how many prime-age men are blind/deaf/severely mentally ill, etc I am curious how many men not in the workforce we would *expect* to be on Medicaid.
You hit the nail right on the head when talking about how American meritocracy has caused the “coming apart” phenomenon Charles Murray documented. The “conservative intellectual” class doesn’t have a thing to say about helping the poor other than “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” platitudes. I loved these paragraphs Tucker Carlson wrote a couple of years ago:
“Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
“It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.”
Almost two years later, has anything changed? No, we’re just stuck in a vicious cycle where Conservative Establishment thinks they’re entitled to run the Right because Trump and the Breitbarters are idiots, and Trump and the Breitbarters think they’re entitled to run the Right because the Conservative Establishment is selfish and out of touch. National Review, Heritage, etc. haven’t changed a bit.
Dr. Loftus asserts “’the conservative movement’ has for some time been a large number of power-worshipping Trump-loving sheep waiting for their Trump, corralled by a handful of ideologues on the billionaires’ ranch.” Had Dr. Loftus conducted a careful review of the books and articles that are being written by conservative scholars, as he had an ethical obligation to do before publishing this article, he would have quickly realized the above-quoted statement is not just false, but outrageously so.
Later in the article, Dr. Loftus alleges “the modern conservative movement has preached an atomizing freedom that eviscerates the structures and relationships that help people to exercise agency.” Here, he seems to be conflating conservative and libertarian thinking. In any event, the above-quoted statement is wildly inaccurate, as he would know had he read the seminal works of post-war American conservatism. A good place to begin would be The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet.
Thanks for commenting. While my study of historic works such as The Quest for Community is admittedly limited, what I describe is what I have read and heard as long as I have been old enough to do so. Conservative politicians have given lip service to formational institutions for the past decade or two but “compassionate conservatism” was the last time we saw it reflected in policy efforts. Even the minority of prominent conservatives who deeply appreciate and want to fight for these institutions (e.g. Yuval Levin, who I highly respect and enjoy reading) seem insufficiently committed to the radical political reorientation necessitated by the changes that have taken place since Nisbet wrote his book.
The fact you have heard opprobrious comments about conservatives since you were a boy does not make them true. Before publishing your article, you had a duty to conduct a competent investigation of modern American conservatism. At a minimum, that meant reading a representative sample of the books and articles conservatives have written. There are numerous websites you could have consulted in order to get an accurate sense of conservative thought. Given your particular prejudices, it would have been well for you to begin with the Claremont Review of Books, the Imaginative Conservative, and the Law and Liberty blog. Had you conducted even a cursory review of the articles that were published in those fora during 2016, you quickly would have realized no reasonable person would assert either that “’the conservative movement’ has for some time been a large number of power-worshipping Trump-loving sheep waiting for their Trump[,]” or that “right-wing institutions” are dominated by an “alliance of fools, cowards, crazies, and racists[.]” So baseless and shameful are those statements you have an ethical duty to publicly retract them.
Your article suggests you have only a superficial understanding of post-war American conservatism. Otherwise, you would not have had the temerity to assert “the modern conservative movement has preached an atomizing freedom that eviscerates the structures and relationships that help people to exercise agency.” You attempt to deflect attention from your error by criticizing conservative politicians and pundits. In your opinion, they are “insufficiently committed to the radical political reorientation necessitated by the changes that have taken place since Nisbet wrote his book.” That’s bold talk. What makes you think you know what sort of reorientation is necessary?
From what I can tell, your views reflect the conventional assumptions of early twenty-first century progressivism. I encourage you to engage in a critical examination of the political tradition that informs your views. In that regard, Angelo M. Codevilla’s article “The Rise of Political Correctness” is indispensable reading. You will find it in the Fall 2016 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. (You might ask Professor Paul Miller whether he’s read that article and, if so, what his thoughts are.)
I responded to your article because I think you are a man of integrity who is willing to listen to criticism. No doubt, you think I am being too harsh. Not so. I have been blunt because you made a serious mistake; one which you need to rectify.
I urge you and the other contributors to Mere Orthodoxy to reflect carefully on your duties as public intellectuals. You have an obligation to foster civil discourse, especially among Christians. In order to fulfill that obligation, you must (1) conduct a competent investigation before publishing a moral judgment, (2) thoroughly understand your opponent’s position and the evidence he is relying upon to support it, (3) express his position in its strongest possible form, and (4) acknowledge the weaknesses of your own position. I think Professor Miller made a good-faith effort to do that in “Social Conservatism vs Tribal Nationalism” (August 16, 2017), although I have serious reservations about his ultimate conclusions.
There are numerous websites you could have consulted in order to get an accurate sense of conservative thought. Given your point of view, it would have been well for you to begin with the Claremont Review of Books, the Imaginative Conservative, and the Law and Liberty blog. Had you conducted even a cursory review of the articles that were published in those fora during 2016, you quickly would have realized no reasonable person would assert either that “’the conservative movement’ has for some time been a large number of power-worshipping Trump-loving sheep waiting for their Trump[,]” or that “right-wing institutions” are dominated by an “alliance of fools, cowards, crazies, and racists[.]” So baseless and shameful are those statements you have an ethical duty to publicly retract them.
I urge you and the other contributors to Mere Orthodoxy to reflect carefully on your duties as public intellectuals. You have an obligation to foster civil discourse, especially among Christians. In order to fulfill that obligation, you must (1) conduct a competent investigation before publishing a moral judgment, (2) thoroughly understand your opponent’s position and the evidence he is relying upon to support it, (3) express his position in its strongest possible form, and (4) acknowledge the weaknesses of your own position.
You criticize conservative pundits on the ground they are “insufficiently committed to the radical political reorientation necessitated by the changes that have taken place since Nisbet wrote his book.” That’s bold talk. What makes you think you know what sort of reorientation is necessary? From what I can tell, your views reflect the conventional assumptions of early twenty-first century progressivism. I encourage you to engage in a critical examination of the political tradition that informs your views. In that regard, Angelo M. Codevilla’s article “The Rise of Political Correctness” is indispensable reading. You will find it in the Fall 2016 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
It is possible to understand the American predicament without reading Robert Nisbet or Russell Kirk, but one is much more likely to accurately diagnose America’s ills if one has a working knowledge of their insights. The same is true of Paul Gottfried. He is an independent thinker who has been marginalized in the manner Alexis de Tocqueville predicted. Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part. II, Chapter 7 (“On the Power that the Majority in America Exercises over Thought”). I encourage you to read Fascism: The Career of a Concept (2016) followed by The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium (2005) .