I’ve written a bit lately about what I see as a systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement. As commenters have been quick to point out, of course, groupthink and confirmation bias are cognitive failings that we’re all susceptible to as human beings, and scarcely the exclusive province of the right. I try to acknowledge as much, and I’m often tempted to pluck some instances from the left just to show how very fair-minded and above the fray I am. (For instance, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to complaints about the coverage of the Tea Parties: Obviously there are both subtle and not-so-subtle bigots in the pack, but I doubt they’re representative, and it’s a huge leap to the dismissive suggestion that the phenomenon is nothing but a manifestation of racial anxiety.) Yet I can’t pretend that, on net, I really see an equivalence at present: As of 2010, the right really does seem to be substantially further down the rabbit hole.
Perhaps some of that perception can be put down to the fact that I mostly write about the issues where I’m prone to agree with progressives—so I’m more conscious of it when Fox spins fantasies about the Patriot Act than when MSNBC spins on economics or health care—but I don’t think that’s the whole of it, since I feel like I see the same tendencies even on issues where I’m closer to the conservative position. So suppose it’s true that there’s a real asymmetry here—the obvious question, if we’re going to sideline the cheap partisan explanation that conservatism intrinsically appeals to the stupid or closed minded, is why this should be true now. I have a couple ideas, and (perhaps another bit of personal bias) they mostly focus on the effects of technological change.
here’s another explanation that’s related to the rise of what I’ve called the politics of ressentiment, maybe best illustrated with the help of an example in the news lately. Constance McMillen, as you may have read, is a teenage lesbian in Fulton, Mississippi who (with the help of the ACLU) sued for the right to bring her girlfriend to her high school prom, and to attend wearing a tux. At first, the school planned to simply cancel the prom rather than afford Constance the basic equality a court agreed they should. But ultimately, there was an official “prom” attended by Constance and a handful of others, including a couple of the class’ learning disabled kids, and a real (but unofficial) prom sponsored by parents, to which she wasn’t invited.Here’s what’s interesting for present purposes. A bunch of her classmates started a Facebook group called “Constance quit yer cryin” to ridicule her. The attitude of the students and parents who spoke up there was characterized less by overt homophobia than by a resentment of the effort, characterized as attention-grubbing and selfish, to upset local traditions and “force” the school to cancel the dance by demanding equal treatment. But then gay-friendly sites—including traffic behemoth Perez Hilton—began linking the group, bringing a tsunami of comments from people all over the world, in numbers vastly dwarfing the original membership. Almost all condemned the actions of the school and parents, and supported Constance. Not a few doled out their own hateful stereotypes, heaping scorn not just on the school, but on southerners or Christians on the whole, as inbred rednecks. Photos were posted, and much speculation ensued about which rack at Walmart various prom dresses had come off.
Contemplate how vertigo-inducing this must be. You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural that a lesbian wouldn’t have an equal right to participate in prom—to the point where the overt hostility isn’t really directed at Constance’s sexuality so much as her bewildering insistence on messing with the way everyone knows things are supposed to be. They’re not attuned to the injustice because it seems like almost a fact of nature. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way. There have been thousands of “outside” posts in a handful of days, with more every minute. (Think of the small-town high school quarterback getting to college and realizing, to his astonishment, that everyone thinks the “art fags” he used to slag on are the cool ones. Except without even leaving the small town.)
Fulton is an extreme case, but I think there are probably a lot of conservative communities that feel a lower-grade version of this all the time. So here’s a hypothesis: Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.
On both explanations—and I think they’re complementary rather than competing—the shift toward epistemic closure is linked to changes in communications technology. Then the obvious question is whether it’s a short-term symptom of adjustment to that technology, or the start of a new equilibrium.
The left is simply less monolithic. It seems to me that if you look at the discourse among “green” types, you see groupthink there. And if you look at labor types, there’s another groupthink there. And there’s an immigrants’ rights groupthink and there’s feminist groupthink and all kinds of groupthink all around. But these points of view come into contact with one another and only partially overlap. At times they conflict. The progressive infrastructure contains people and institutions who are robustly on both sides of important questions like trade policy or K-12 education. Business groups are very involved with most Democratic Party politicians and with many progressives organizations (we have a “Business Alliance” at CAP). I think it would actually be beyond the intellectual powers of any one person to work all the sacred cows of all the different factions of the movement into a seamless and coherent whole.
The right just isn’t like that. It’s less demographically diverse, less diverse in its financial base, and less ideologically diverse.
At any rate, it does occur to me to wonder why Julian’s post is at his personal blog rather than on the Cato blog where he works. Isn’t the first step toward disrupting right-wing epistemic closure to put ideas that challenge it into the right’s institutional network?
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
I think the answer is that liberalism is not really an ideology in anything like the sense that conservatism is. Conservatism is an ideology organized around the belief that big government inherently destroys freedom. Contemporary liberalism is the ideology of people who don’t share that conviction, though it lacks any strong a priori beliefs to hold it together. I wrote about this in a 2005 essay for TNR’s 90th anniversary issue.Liberals are not ideologically pro-government in anything like the sense that conservatives are ideologically anti-government — conservatives view shrinking government as an end in and of itself, while liberals would view expanding government a success only to the extent that doing so furthers some other real-world benefit. I think it’s the fundamental distinction between the two parties, and it explains all kinds of asymmetrical behavior — a loose coalition versus a coherent ideological movement.
Now, I realize that I’m only discussing economics, and while this is the central front for two-party competition, it’s not the only front. I don’t think I have the only answer here to Sanchez’s question. (Indeed, on social issues and foreign policy, I think there’s more symmetry than asymmetry between the two parties.) I do think the central role of economics in the two party competition does play in important role in organizing the contrasting epistemological styles of liberalism and conservatism — that is, economic conservatism plays a dominant role is shaping the epistemological style of the conservative movement as a whole, and likewise for economic liberalism.
Sanchez admirably dismisses “the cheap partisan explanation that conservatism intrinsically appeals to the stupid or closed minded.” That’s certainly an explanation we should treat with caution. But should it be dismissed out of hand? Open-mindedness to rational inquiry is a political style historically linked with liberalism, and it’s usually (though not always) found more often in liberal parties than in conservative or Marxist ones. Certainly, when we consider other countries, we frequently assume that one party is more nationalistic, populist, reactionary, racialist, fronting for powerful economic interests, and so on, and often we associate those parties with simplistic or closed-minded approaches to politics. Likewise other parties are associated with technocracy, internationalism, and general willingness to impose policy reforms in response to objective needs. We don’t assume that there’s some universal law requiring the spirit of open-minded inquiry to be equally divided between the two major parties in any democracy. Nor should we assume that such a law should apply to the United States but not elsewhere.
One of the virtues of Matt’s theory is its parsimony. The conservative coalition is diverse in many respects, but is is certainly more ideologically coherent than the liberal coalition, which, as Matt suggests, is more transactional, more interested in achieving incremental expansions of government power on issue of particular concern. You want a cap-and-trade system and a green industrial policy? That’s fine, as long as I get higher public sector salaries and a permanent system of racial preferences. In contrast, the right — for better or for worse — is organized around the principle of saying no to new expansions of government power and mostly acquiescing, in reality if not rhetorically, to old expansions of government power.
In his brilliant new book Never Enough, forthcoming from Encounter, William Voegeli writes:
All the liberal arguments point to a welfare state even bigger than Sweden’s; all the conservative ones to a welfare state smaller than pre-New Deal America’s. The welfare state we actually have limps along, lacking enthusiastic support and a compelling rationale that could explain how to improve it without making it radically larger or smaller. Liberals and conservatives are both in the awkward position of reassuring voters that they don’t really mean what all of their arguments clearly do mean. As a result, neither of them can muster the syllogisms or the votes to change the welfare state we’re stuck with.
But would this problem on the right be solved by less groupthink? Or should an ideologically coherent group move collectively away from arguments that are straightforwardly anti-statist to arguments that are more focused on value for money? The ideological through-line, about the dangers of unsustainable state expansion, remains the same; the arguments, however, would reflect more of a real-world engagement with near-term policy issues. As Voegeli suggests, this would move left-right debates from a philosophical terrain, where the left is strong because it is vague and hard to pin down, to the more practical question of what we can and can’t afford, i.e., would the median voter have the same appetite for taxpayer-financed public services if we were all paying enough taxes to pay for current spending, of if we even came close?
Noah Millman at The American Scene:
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.
Noah Millman has a very thoughtful, long post exploring the reasons for the so-called “closing of the conservative mind.” As I have said before, I am skeptical that the movement conservative mind was ever open in quite the way that Millman or Sanchez means it. The conservative mind of the sort described by Kirk is one that is both grounded in principle and also very capable of critical thinking and self-criticism, but what I think we have seen in recent years is not much the closing of such a mind as its replacement by an ideological mentality that is basically hostile to a conservative mind. To say that the conservative mind has closed leaves open the possibility that it might open someday. Perhaps I am wrong, but once such a mind is obliterated by ideology I’m not sure that it can recover.
Millman’s argument is persuasive that something has changed in degree, but I’m not at all sure that much has changed in kind. What has changed is the relative strengthening and consolidation of movement institutions compared to twenty or thirty years ago, and there has typically been greater access to Republican administrations and majorities and involvement with them during a general period of Republican ascendancy. Where conservative intellectuals once had to prove themselves by the strength of their arguments, they could now increasingly get along by repeating not much more than slogans and audience-pleasing half-truths. By the start of the last decade, there was considerable complacency, which the myth of the “center-right nation” helped to encourage by making intellectual bankruptcy seem to be politically cost-free, and then after 2006 there seems to have been general disbelief and horror that the ascendancy to which the movement had tied itself so closely was now coming to a close.
I agree that the Iraq war and the greater post-9/11 ideological rigidity movement conservatives embraced have worsened matters considerably, but what we have seen over the last eight or nine years is really just an intensification of past habits, which new forms of online media and the growth of distinctively conservative media over the last twenty years have facilitated and brought to a much larger audience. The cocooning instincts were always there (because any group that sees itself as an embattled minority is prone to this), but the means to create a large enough cocoon was not present until the 1990s and afterwards. The creation of the conservative media as an “alternative” to mainstream media gave way to conservative media as a near-complete substitute for their conservative audience. At one point, there was a desire, which I think was partly very genuine, for greater fairness to the conservative perspective, but this soon morphed into the need to construct a parallel universe of news and commentary untainted by outsiders.
Millman contrasts the expulsion of the “unpatriotic conservatives” (i.e., mainly paleoconservatives) with earlier movement expulsions, and sees a difference between expelling “extremists” as opposed to expelling “dissenters.” As far as movement conservatives were concerned then and now, paleoconservatives who opposed the invasion of Iraq (and at least some elements of the “war on terror” more broadly) were like the “extremists” of the past in that we were/are radicals, but we paleoconservatives were considered worse than these others because we were/are also basically reactionaries in many ways when compared to mainstream conservatives. We were and are very sympathetic to the Old Right on both foreign and domestic policy, and we have tended to find fault with movement conservatives on account of their myriad compromises with the welfare and warfare states. Whatever they say now that it is useful, mainstream conservatives tend to abhor the Old Right in both spheres, but they are particularly offended by the desire to return to anything remotely resembling pre-WWII neutralist foreign policy. It may or may not be an important element, but paleoconservatives also tend to be cultural pessimists and many are traditional Christians, and both pessimism and traditional Christianity have helped keep us grounded and wary of any form of triumphalism, be it nationalist or democratist or “conservative.”
Millman mentions that the expelled are expelled from “conservative respectability,” but one reason for engaging in these expulsions is to preserve the respectability of mainstream conservatism in the eyes of the broader public. Another reason for going through the expulsion exercise is to reaffirm one’s own credentials as the True Conservative and Real American, which I suppose must be gratifying in its own right. Opposing the invasion of Iraq was already a minority view during 2002-03, and on the right opposition to the war commanded almost no support, so it was not politically risky to cast out people who were already on the margins of the movement. As far as most non-conservatives were concerned, this was simply a matter of conservatives policing their own extremes, which is what “centrist,” establishment figures are always asking movement leaders to do.
My guess is that this hasn’t really changed much over the years. It just seems like it. Take vouchers. I imagine that conservative think tanks of the 70s were just as single-mindedly dedicated to producing pro-voucher advocacy as today’s think tanks. But in the 70s, the intellectual superstructure to support that advocacy didn’t exist because the big mainstream center-left institutions like Brookings or the Ford Foundation weren’t studying the issue. So conservative think tanks got busy doing research, writing white papers, developing talking points, writing op-eds, etc. This was responsible for the “intellectual ferment” that Millman associates with conservative advocacy of that era.
Today, that intellectual superstructure has long since been built. So the only thing left is to keep pressing the argument. That means repeating the same talking points, issuing slight variations on the same research, rewriting the same op-eds, and so forth. It’s really the same thing they were doing in the 70s, but without the excitement of actually constructing all the arguments in the first place. That makes it seem duller and more closed-minded than it used to be.
But I suspect it’s not, really. It’s just that things always seem more exciting when you’re doing them for the first time and fighting an insurgent campaign against an entrenched power. But once you win — or, in the case of vouchers, reach a stalemate — it’s not as exhilarating anymore. That’s the real difference between the 70s and today. The goals of the funders, the entrenched interests they serve, the ideas they want to promote, and the desire to construct arguments to support preordained conclusions are probably much the same.
(And why haven’t conservatives been more willing to entertain new ideas over time? Good question. Liberals have retained many of the same goals over the past few decades too, but for some reason have been more willing to consider different approaches and open up whole new areas of inquiry. Global warming is entirely new, for example, and Barack Obama’s healthcare reform was quite different from Teddy Kennedy’s or Bill Clinton’s. I’m not entirely sure what accounts for the difference, though Millman’s essay proposes some fairly plausible mechanisms.)
Noah’s comments on the Iraq war are also trenchant. I think his major omission is the ideological-industrial complex – the FNC/Talk Radio money machine that holds everything else in thrall. And then there’s the authoritarian leader worship of the Bush-Cheney war years, when party discipline was all the more vital because the policies themselves were so incoherent and practically disastrous.
I certainly feel, of course, total alienation from people I once saw as fellows in a broad world of ideas. I don’t think I’m alone. I just think I’m rare in saying so in public day after day. The perils of blogging, I guess. And I fear the handful of us out there in total dissent – now with extra Frum! – somehow enable the others to stay silent.
Noah Millman makes an even broader claim, that somewhere along the way conservative intellectuals ceased to be intellectuals but rather advocates for Establishment views favored by funders. Kevin Drum isn’t so sure that this is a recent phenomenon.
I don’t think this is quite right. There are oodles of conservative intellectuals out there, whether on university campuses, the journalistic circuit, the blogs, or whathaveyou. But I’d agree that the Official House Organs of the Conservative Movement are increasingly orthodox and that the hacks seem to get most of the airtime.
Partly, I think, it’s a function of network effects. People who book shows are looking for people with recognizably conservative views, and the Official House Organs of the Conservative Movement are the obvious places to look. And not only is it hard to get hired at those places if you’re far outside the orthodoxy but your views are likely to more closely approach the orthodoxy if you’re surrounded by people steeped in it. (The reverse is also true: Conservatives or liberals surrounded by reasonable and friendly people of the opposite persuasion will naturally moderate their views over time.)
Partly, too, there’s a self-selection effect. As the house blogger (among other things) at the Atlantic Council, I frequently write about breaking topics in the foreign policy realm. Sometimes, it’s about something in which I’m expert or close enough to expert that I’ve got a strong opinion. Sometimes, it’s very important to our constituency that I have to get something up quickly (and thus don’t have time to solicit and wait for a genuine expert to write something) but sufficiently outside the scope of my interests or expertise that all I can do is aggregate the news and commentary that’s out there in a way that’s hopefully of use to the reader.
Quite frequently, I’ll be approached by the booker of a show to talk about one of these second types of posts. For example, last night, a major international network asked me to be a guest this morning to talk about the mess in Kyrgyzstan. I thanked them for their invitation and expressed interest in appearing again at some point in the future, but politely declined the offer — as I frequently do — on the basis that I simply don’t know the subject well enough. [UPDATE: I've now turned down a second request from another major international outlet. Sigh: They almost always approach me after one-off posts rather than things in my wheelhouse.]
I’ve watched enough news television and heard enough news radio to know that this stance is unusual. There are clearly people who will show up any time, anywhere, to talk about anything. But that pretty much defines a hack. Doing that reduces you to regurgitating a few talking points you’ve picked up and steering the conversation back to them.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle
Michael Berube at McArdle
UPDATE #2: Matthew Continetti
Jonah Goldberg at The Enterprise Blog
Chait on both of them
UPDATE #3: Conor Friedersdorf on Goldberg
UPDATE #4: Jonathan Bernstein
Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist
Both of the above via Sullivan
UPDATE #5: Ross Douthat
UPDATE #6: Bruce Bartlett
UPDATE #7: Jonathan Chait and Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #8: More Sanchez
UPDATE #9: More Goldberg
UPDATE #10: More Bartlett
UPDATE #11: William Saletan at Slate
UPDATE #12: Glenn Greenwald and David Frum on Bloggingheads