Conservative Politics as an Occupation

The 6th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in February, 2016.


This journal expects little from Paul Krugman, whose writings seldom offer more than a predictable mash of remedial textbook Keynesianism and strident campus partisanship.  However, credit must be given where credit is due, and Mr. Krugman’s latest broadside against the Republican punditocracy, “Twilight of the Apparatchiks,” hits most of its marks.  Indeed, we regret not having written it first.

Perceptively explaining the conservative commentariat’s  fecklessness in the face of Trump, Krugman writes:

So what’s the source of this obliviousness? The answer, I’d suggest, is that in recent years — and, in fact, for the past couple of decades — becoming a conservative activist has actually been a low-risk, comfortable career choice. Most Republican officeholders hold safe seats, which they can count on keeping if they are sufficiently orthodox. Moreover, if they should stumble, they can fall back on “wingnut welfare,” the array of positions at right-wing media organizations, think tanks and so on that are always there for loyal spear carriers.

And loyalty is almost the only thing that matters. Does an economist at a right-wing think tank have a remarkable record of embarrassing mistakes? Does a pundit have an almost surreal history of bad calls? No matter, as long as they hew to the orthodox line.

Whatever one’s disagreements with Krugman, none of this can be denied.  In truth, the reality is much worse (and let us for the moment leave aside the extent to which this reality also prevails on the left).  The degeneration of conservative ideas is not simply a matter of partisan enthusiasms overwhelming detached scholarship, as Krugman implies.  It is not because of misplaced zeal that the party has come to rely on blind loyalty to old orthodoxy.  Quite the contrary.  The party insists on loyalty to orthodoxy because it has no new ideas.  And it has no new ideas because its intellectual leadership has allowed conservative thinking to ossify into little more than repeating the slogans of the 1980s and wondering why they don’t work anymore.  Of course the carried interest loophole is vital to economic health!  Of course free trade is beneficial always and everywhere!  Of course holding elections in Iraq and Egypt and Syria will transform those societies!  The calendars in conservative think tanks ended in 1983, or maybe 2003.

Why is this so?  Again, Krugman is mostly right.  Becoming a conservative intellectual in good standing today is all about finding a sinecure at the right donor-funded institution and writing for the right money-losing magazine.  Attend the right summer fellowship programs and get the right NRO internship and you, too, can become an up-and-coming conservative blogger!  And once established as a conservative luminary, you can be assured that the conservative media will never criticize the actual results of your work or proposals, as long as you obey the unwritten rule that the system must never be criticized.  Questioning the conservative intellectual consensus is costly; simply being wrong has no price.  It is the conservative equivalent of university tenure, and the system’s beneficiaries fight with equal relentlessness to preserve their prerogatives.  However admirable the origins of many conservative institutions, the result today is essentially a madrassah system in which scholars are judged on how perfectly they can recite the holy text, not on whether they can improve upon it.

We can hardly blame conservative intellectuals for seeking to propagate their doctrines.  But we do blame them for making ideological consistency the main criterion of excellence.  We blame them for confusing fealty to institutions designed to offer apologias for their donors with intellectual courage and leadership.  We blame them for finding truth in adherence to dogma rather than achieved results, quality in comfortable conformity rather than depth of experience or thought.  Ronald Reagan’s life experience was not limited to attending the right seminars nor, for that matter, was Irving Kristol’s.  And if it were, most probably neither would have amounted to much of anything.

Like many elite institutions, orthodox conservatism has become its own mandarin class, and as such it is no surprise that it fails to produce any effective political or intellectual leadership.  It has no capacity for self-examination or critique.  It has no basis outside–and it is incapable of drawing ideas from anywhere beyond–the established think tank programs, where one former low-ranking Bush appointee imparts the immutable creed to the next generation of already sympathetic “young leaders.”  The actual experience of a policy’s author, or the practical results of its implementation, rarely seem to be considered.  The system is designed to create a professoriate and a priesthood, not a president; a book club rather than a government.  The result is an intellectual leadership as obscurantist as the Lebanese Druze, without any of their political agility.

The “seriousness” of every Republican candidate is judged by how many of the old think tank hacks they have on staff as advisors, regardless of how many failures those same advisors may have been responsible for in the previous administration.  Any candidate suggesting the slightest deviation from the old Reaganite platform will be denounced as an irresponsible heretic.  Any candidate who promises a third term of the Bush administration will inevitably be praised for “innovative policy proposals.”

Of the formerly “greatest field ever” of Republican presidential candidates, one glaring deficiency characterized the whole establishment-approved lot: Neither Marco Rubio nor Ted Cruz nor Scott Walker nor any of the others (except Paul, Carson, and Trump; Bush’s career as a showpiece for Lehman does not count) had any significant life experience outside of politics.  Is it any wonder, then, that they could not conceive of a political campaign outside the straight-jacketed conventions of the conservative cocoon?  That they could curry favor with pundits and donors, but no one else?

Yet the politicians, at least, have to win elections to hold their offices.  The former frontrunners of the media-think tank complex never gracefully suspend their campaigns.  Why anyone ever considered Bob Kagan and Max Boot credible foreign policy strategists in the first place defies belief, neither of them having ever accomplished anything greater than speechwriting and punditry.  But that anyone continues to publish their nonsensical drivel–now so thoroughly discredited by an uninterrupted series of failures over the last two decades–is an insult to reason.  And yet, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men of conservative media foist them upon their readers again and again.  Why?  So they can express how outraged–nay, appalled!–they are by the voters who reject them?  Where is the National Review special issue which denounces these clueless blowhards and Clinton supporters?

Thus it is that most conservative institutions today are intellectually bankrupt.  They have been for decades.  Most of the movement’s leading talkers are a defunct clerisy.  And it is this class which Trump now threatens most.  He has already exposed them and their whitepaper filigrees as hopelessly irrelevant–if not repellent–to a wide swath of the party, and a Trump victory would shatter all the precious china of conservative “thought” completely.

Admittedly, we wish that National Review would have purged the failed doctrines of the Bush administration and their oblivious authors from its pages rather than waiting for Trump to marginalize National Review.  And we would prefer that the destroyer of institutional conservatism had a firmer grasp of policy and a better understanding of the theoretical currents in American history.  But at this point it is clear that a plurality of the party, at least, would prefer even the shallowest Trumpism to the profound failure of Bush era conservative doctrine and its gatekeepers.  Frankly, we find it hard to disagree with them.

The Bush presidency discredited the movement’s ideas.  The Romney campaign proved it could no longer win on a national level.  And, win or lose, Donald Trump has proven that its self-proclaimed intellectual elite no longer motivates its own party.  For even the “non-Trump” candidates have discovered that they can only win by running against Trump’s personal flaws, rather than for the desiccated husk of Bush era ideology.

In a healthy political movement, such events might be cause for serious reflection and a rethinking of its doctrines, of whether its policy platform is the right one for the country and its constituents.  But we do not have a healthy movement, so the debate is over whether a particular candidate or policy is authentically “conservative” or appropriately “Reaganite,” but never whether it is right.  Is this really all there is to conservative thought?

If so, those who continue to affiliate with the movement will soon find themselves holding their debates in the basement rooms of used bookstores, wielding as much political influence as the pre-Bernie Sanders Trotskyites.  Trump’s many shortcomings notwithstanding, clearing the dead wood of such a hopeless elite is the most compelling rationale for his campaign.

—PLAUTUS

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