The Future of Conservatism

Yesterday I attended a panel here at Princeton featuring three and a half right-of-center thinkers: Daniel Larison, Virginia Postrel, Ross Douthat, and David Frum. I say three and a half because Postrel warmed my heart by beginning her comments with the disclaimer that she was a liberal and wasn’t particularly interested in the vitality of conservatism.

Princeton did a fantastic job of choosing representatives of four different strands of right-of-center thought. Douthat, along with my friend Reihan Salam, penned a book arguing that conservatives should make their peace with the welfare state and focus on building a populist brand of “Sam’s club conservatism.” He reprised these themes in his talk. Frum has a reformist agenda of his own, focused on re-building the conservative movement on the twin pillars of free markets and an activist foreign policy, while sanding off some of the rough edges that have turned off more educated voters.

Larison focused on foreign policy, arguing that the Republican Party’s political failure flowed from its failure to recognize that conservative admonitions about the dangers of big government apply to issues of foreign policy and executive power. Larison writes one of my favorite blogs, and I wish his perspective were more widely shared within the Republican movement. He hails from a faction of the conservative movement that has an illustrious past but declined precipitously during the Cold War. And I wish it were true that a more restrained foreign policy and stronger commitment to limits on executive power were the key to Republican success. But I’m not sure there’s much evidence for this and Larison didn’t entirely persuade me. The last two serious non-interventionist candidates for the Republican nomination were Pat Buchannan and Ron Paul, and neither of them came close to winning their party’s nominations, to say nothing of the presidency.

futureandenemiesBuchannan was a target of criticism in Postrel’s first book, The Future and Its Enemies, which is in some ways an intellectual forerunner of this blog. Her vision for what she calls a “dynamist” political movement overlaps in important ways with the bottom-up perspective I’ve been trying to articulate her. In her talk here, she argued that the Republican Party’s decline is linked to its failure to appeal to voters with the dynamist, bottom-up worldview she has championed in her writing. But she expressed doubt that the political coalition she envisions can emerge from a Republican Party that is wedded to the demagoguery of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck.

Although I’m always wary of the pundit’s fallacy, I do think one of the keys to Obama’s success in 2008 was his ability connect with voters who have a dynamist, bottom-up worldview. These more educated and affluent voters are a growing share of the electorate, and the GOP would be well advised to take their concerns more seriously. Certainly not all affluent, educated voters share her views, but I think many of them will find her arguments resonate more than those of the other panelists.

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5 Responses to The Future of Conservatism

  1. Rhayader says:

    The funny thing is that conservatives have a wealth of historical bottom-up wisdom upon which to draw, but seem much more concerned with that “Sam’s Club” populist crap. Instead of embracing their roots — Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, etc — they go for Sarah Palin? Yuck.

    I tell Republicans that there is a whole lot of libertarian sentiment growing in this country. I’m 26, and people around my age and younger were raised on individualism and bottom-up processes thanks to the internet. Instead of fighting that with the socially conservative religious stuff, they could embrace it and bring a large number of independents into their camp.

    But hey, what do I know about manipulating the masses?

  2. Rich says:

    “…[M]ore educated and affluent voters are a growing share of the electorate.”

    Is this really true? I just read Derbyshire’s _We Are Doomed_ chapter on demographic collapse, so I’m feeling awfully pessimistic about this sort of thing. I’d expect the category of “educated and affluent” to be shrinking…

    Somehow VP’s blog shook out of my RSS reader; thanks for the reminder to put it back.


  3. Thomas O. Meehan says:

    I was there as well, mostly to meet Larison with whom I joust over at the American Conservative blog. He was the only one to articulate some conservative first principles. Postrel was entertaining and she made a good point, but as a liberal she was out of place. BTW, the GOP used to take anti-dumb regulation positions regularly. There would be nothing revolutionary about the GOP defending our right to keep our light bulbs.

    Douthat and Frum represented the opportunist wing of the right very well I thought. Frum was at his oily best when he recommended booting conservative Christians and their irrational concern about “Social Issues,” out of the movement. Who needs them when we can marshal the hordes of superficially educated BA grads around a vision of endless war, free range chicken and a rootless global economics? I mean, what could be more conservative than that? Douthat’s complaint that Republican political leaders don’t pay sufficient attention to public intellectuals like himself was an amusing idea. Just how happy is the GOP with the advice they got, and took, from Frum and company last time at bat?

    David Larison was interesting. He is a poor speaker and has an air of someone who is still defending his thesis in his head. His tortured, almost forensic dissections of others arguments are a bit tedious as he seems to believe that statements that are not provable via Venn diagram cannot be true politically. But he has a penetrating mind and a coherent picture of what the conservative project should be. I wish he could drop the theological and localist dimensions to his thought as these render his advice less than useful on planet Earth.

  4. Pundit’s fallacy, indeed. Whether we call them bottom-up, dynamist, free-market or libertarian — this set of ideas is deeply, deeply unpopular in America. *At best* it is poorly understood. To say that Republicans lost because they failed to push these complicated, counterintuitive and unpopular ideas is just nonsense. To say that Obama’s win is somehow attributable to his friendliness to bottom-upness is nonsense on stilts. Even his vaunted crowdsourced campaign was pretty centralized. His message was (nearly) all about greater centralization of huge swaths of economic activity, agitating that it be directed, managed and teased this way and that from Washington, D.C. Not very bottom-up. Unless you consider the bottom to be one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and top to be the other end.

  5. Thomas O. Meehan says:

    Tim, on reflection, I want to add that I agree with your approach in one important respect. The right must avoid the anti-tech, anti-science temptation. Too many of the alternative right pundits are rejecting our scientific heritage. The drive to investigate explore and innovate is a central element of the West. Many of these neo-Luddites have a particular animus towards the space program. For taking the part of science, I applaud you Libertarians.

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