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What Went Wrong with Conservatism?

Two important pieces of the puzzle: mindless anti-leftism and hackish popularizers.
September 28, 2021
What Went Wrong with Conservatism?
Supporters listen as US President Donald Trump speaks at a "Make America Great Again" rally on October 15, 2020, held at Pitt-Greenville Airport in Greenville, North Carolina. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Conservatism in its postwar incarnation was, for the most part, a coalition of ideologies. Chances are you know them by heart: the anti-Soviet hawks, the free marketeers, and the traditionalists. The eureka moment in which a conservative movement cohered came when Bill Buckley brought these three groups—which were deeply suspicious of one another—together. This fusion was possible because they all shared one hatred: communism. (All this is a simplification, of course, but not a distortion.)

One small problem with this new American conservatism: The ideas put forward by Richard Pipes, Friedrich Hayek, and Russell Kirk—to pick just one intellectual from each of the three factions—didn’t mean much to the general public. Conservatism needed popularizers who could communicate its ideas with the masses, connecting the ideas to the masses’ interests so as to win votes. Such popularization would require not only politicians, of course, who would make the conservative case while running for office, but just as importantly—and ultimately much more critically for the fate of conservatism—it would require non-politicians, who would use books and magazines and newspaper columns and radio shows and TV shows and the internet to explain and persuade and build an audience.

Someone—I’ve heard that it was Irving Kristol—once said that there were two paths to conservatism: being anti-state and being anti-left.

As modern conservatism was being created, the left and the state were, for all intents and purposes, the same. Conservatives wanted small government. Liberals wanted to expand government in pursuit of their vision for America.

Many of conservatism’s popularizers chose to be anti-left, making the case that liberalism was a threat to the interests of Americans—and thus that conservatives were the guardians of those interests.

These popularizers came in three main categories. If you’ll forgive some hyperbole:

There were hawks who made the case for a muscular foreign policy against Senator Ted Kennedy who was plotting together with Chairman Leonid Brezhnev for the invasion of Kansas.

There were the free marketeers who pointed to business heroes—the Lee Iacoccas of the world—and worshiped the rich, the idea being that only smart, hard-working people got rich, so rich people were worthy of adulation.

And there were the traditionalists, who created an entirely new class of Christian conservative culture warriors, from the Robertsons and Falwells to the Ralph Reeds of the world.

These popularizers did their jobs. Conservatism went from the pages of National Review to a governing majority in about two generations. But along the way, conservatism was dumbed down considerably. Perhaps this dumbing down was an inevitable concomitant of conservatism’s growing popularity; surely it was also linked, as Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin and Neil Postman suggested, to our technology-induced shift away from a culture accustomed to written complexities to a culture that prefers the vapidities of pictures and sound bites. And so America’s hegemonic responsibility became justified purely on the basis of the Soviet, and later Islamist, threat. The importance of free markets and low taxes was once the sort of thing explained in middlebrow TV shows and books by Milton and Rose Friedman; in the hands of their popularizing successors, free-market rhetoric became little more than a reflexive accusation that anyone wanting to raise taxes for any reason was a socialist. As for the arguments for traditionalism, the less said about these never-ending culture fights—the “war on Christmas,” kneeling at football games, yelping about Dr. Seuss—the better.

And all the while, conservative elites—conservative-tending media moguls, wealthy donors to conservative causes, established Republican politicians, wonks in think tanks—were largely at peace with these popularizers. Certainly, they rolled their eyes at the excesses of the talk-radio crowd. They sniggered at how unsophisticated the barons of direct mail were. They grumbled about the prime-time demagogues on Fox News. But they largely kept such thoughts to themselves. After all: They were all on the same team.

The conservative elites, however, had miscalculated. They were not mindful enough of James Madison’s fear of the passion of the masses.They failed to realize the danger inherent in such dependency on popularizers who were ultimately with “the people” and against the elites.

Pipes stood for America’s role in the world, Hayek for free markets, Kirk for virtue, and Buckley for all three—on their own merits. The popularizers, though, had arrived at these positions merely in opposition to the left. They didn’t know why they liked what they claimed to like—they merely knew whom they hated, and constructed their positions from there.

However well versed the popularizers might have been in conservative arguments, they were ultimately not adherents of any specific conservative ideology. They were beholden to the passions of the masses. That was their business model—not just at Fox News and on talk radio, but among various culture-war organizations that knew profit was to be found in heat, not light. The popularizers came to replace the elites. Talk-radio hosts had once sought to debate and popularize the ideas in conservative magazines; they in time became the arbiters of what counted as conservatism. Fox News hosts became more important shapers of conservative opinion than the authors of rigorously argued think tank studies or the politicians who appeared as guests. CPAC, which had once tried to bring together activists and intellectuals, energy and ideas, turned into a sorry circus for dimwitted demagoguery.

This change allowed Donald Trump to arrive on the scene in favor of big government.

The “anti-state” conservatives—those who had arrived at conservatism on the merits of conservative arguments—refused to join him. But by then they had become the minority even within the right-wing intelligentsia, displaced by the barkers and hucksters.

At which point the schism became irreparable. Eliot Cohen drafted an anti-Trump letter, signed by fellow Republican national security experts, while John Bolton, an anti-left Republican, impatiently waited and lobbied for Trump’s attention and a job. Robert P. George, the Catholic philosopher, rejected Trumpism, while the anti-leftists Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham were rallying Christians for Trump. Free-market libertarians stood athwart the Trump train while the pro-business tax-cutters, such as Art Laffer, Stephen Moore, and the Wall Street Journal opinion page, became advisers to the new big-government conservative president. East Coast Straussians who spent their lives studying regimes and virtues stood where they were. The West Coast Straussians at the Claremont Institute, more interested in everyday politics and culture war, followed Trump.

Looking back, none of these divisions should have surprised us.

For two generations, anti-state conservatives and anti-left conservatives had taken different paths to arrive at the same place. But when American politics transformed, they continued along their paths to arrive at different destinations. And only the divergence has allowed us to measure the relative size of the two groups. It turns out that the anti-state conservatives were a relatively small cadre. Most of the people who identified as being “conservative” were only at the party because they hated the left.

Trump finally exposed the division, and in so doing revealed that what’s left of the conservative movement—the conservative movement as dominated by the popularizers and the populists, the conservative movement that gave up on its positive principles and only clung to the negative principle of anti-leftism—has become explicitly pro-state, just so long as it controls the state.

They want the state to have the power to tell businesses what to do.

They want the state to have the power to pick winners and losers.

They want the state to spend tons of money on entitlement programs.

They just want all of those things directed to their constituents. It’s a nationalized vision of machine-era politics.

The erstwhile anti-state conservatives look at their former friends and ask, “How can you betray the principles you once preached?”

Meanwhile, the anti-left conservatives respond by saying, “Trump is all that is standing between us and the left. How can you take a position that puts you on the side of the liberals?”

The dispiriting truth is that these two sides never wanted the same thing from politics.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.