The next conservative thinkers

Many Republicans fret that the party of ideas has gotten stuck. Here are four who might help unstick it.

By Drake Bennett
July 12, 2009
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By definition, conservatism prefers the past to the present - in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation, history was something to be stood athwart and sternly told to stop - but over the past half year, the present has been particularly trying for American conservatives.

Politically, they’re in the wilderness, with Barack Obama’s popularity stubbornly high, and wide Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But there’s also a deeper sense of crisis: a worry within the movement that the Republican Party has lost its identity as the party of ideas.

Like all political movements, modern conservatism was driven by demographic shifts and economic changes, but it was also an intellectual insurgency. It gave pride of place to thinkers like Milton Friedman, the towering free-market economist; Russell Kirk, the cultural critic who mapped conservatism’s currents back through centuries of Anglo-American philosophy and literature; and Whittaker Chambers, who eloquently warned of communism’s dangerous seductions. In postwar America, this powerful intellectual bedrock helped the Republican Party unite cultural conservatives, economic libertarians, and military hawks into an effective and cohesive political alliance.

Today, though, those adhesive ideas have lost much of their power. The public has grown suspicious of two wars meant to spread freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan; free-market economics are being publicly reappraised even by Alan Greenspan; and cultural outrage appears to be ebbing over issues like gay marriage. Some of the most prominent voices in the broader conservative coalition have begun to worry that the movement is suffering from a problem it hasn’t had for generations: intellectual fatigue. In op-eds and articles and blog posts and speeches, these thinkers worry that last fall’s electoral defeats signaled that conservatives are no longer articulating persuasive modern ideas that translate into compelling politics. Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge and legal scholar, an unorthodox thinker but also an icon for economic conservatives, wrote two months ago on his blog, “I sense the intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States.”

Even if not all conservatives put things as starkly as Posner, many nonetheless agree on the need for new thinking. When asked, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, perhaps the nation’s most prominent conservative magazine, readily concedes that “the conservative policy arsenal definitely needs refreshing and rethinking. There is, on that front, kind of an exhaustion.”

Where, then, will the next big conservative ideas come from? A few young thinkers are offering intriguing new intellectual frameworks for conservative principles. Some are using the tools of social science to give fresh energy to arguments that conservatives have long couched in the language of morality; others are trying to unshackle free-market ideology from the unpopular pro-corporate policies it has engendered. Still others are focused on winning back middle-class voters who thought they liked the idea of small government, but have quickly warmed to the idea of government intervention in tough times.

None of these new thinkers are household names, and not all of them would even describe themselves as conservatives, but their ideas provide a glimpse of what the search for new ideas looks like, and how conservatives might come up with a new conceptual scaffolding in what are, politically and economically, unfamiliar times.

Luigi Zingales
Economic concerns dominate the news right now, and if conservatives stand for anything in the realm of economics, it’s free markets - the idea that the invisible hand of the marketplace is far more efficient, liberating, and fair than the dead hand of public bureaucracy. “The business of America is business,” Calvin Coolidge famously declared, and the business of government was to get out of the way.

And then came last fall, when a Republican administration committed $700 billion in government money to prop up financial companies that had, by any free-market definition, already failed.

Luigi Zingales says it’s time for conservatives to fall out of love with businesses, and fall back in love with the free market. In an argument that’s begun to catch the ear of a few conservative thinkers, Zingales suggests that it’s often business itself, rather than the government, that the market needs protection from.

“I’m very strongly pro-market and very strongly against business,” says the Italian-born economist, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Separating the support of free markets from the long Republican alliance with business isn’t easy, says Zingales, but it’s important. As he and colleague Raghuram Rajan laid out in their 2003 book, “Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists,” powerful companies, given the chance, work hand-in-glove with government officials to craft laws and regulations that protect them while limiting competition and transparency.

The current financial crisis is a clear case, he says: financial services firms carved out favorable regulations for themselves, and then took risks that gravely damaged the financial system. He argues that both the Bush and Obama administration’s responses to it have only made matters worse by catering to the demands of big banks and struggling auto firms.

Zingales believes rescue funds should have focused on workers rather than firms, and wants stimulus funds disbursed according to dispassionate algorithms, to minimize favoritism. Growing up in Italy, he says, convinced him that the government is usually the ultimate crony capitalist.

Zingales does not think of himself as particularly political, but he lays out some of these ideas in an article due out in September in the inaugural issue of National Affairs, a new quarterly modeled on the legendary neoconservative journal The Public Interest. At a time when the American public is disillusioned with the acumen of our business leaders but not sure whether to trust the government either, he sees room for a political platform that promises to protect the market from both.

W. Bradford Wilcox
For social conservatives, it is the family, not the individual, that is society’s building block. When the family breaks down, they argue, so does the nation. Today, however, the term “family values” has taken on the whiff of Bible-Belt moralizing - a relic of the 1990s culture wars that’s certainly conservative, but hardly intellectual.

But there may be an strong empirical basis for conservative family values, some sociologists are arguing. The field of sociology hasn’t traditionally been friendly to conservatives, but when it looks at the impact of fractured families on children and neighborhoods, the results are striking: Children not raised by their married mother and father are more likely to drop out of high school, be depressed, and even commit suicide. Boys from broken homes are more likely to end up in jail; and girls more likely to be teen mothers. Some researchers, not all of them conservative, blame the decline of the two-parent family for much of the increase in economic inequality and child poverty in recent decades.

An emerging major voice in this field is W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia who studies religion, marriage, and the nuclear family. In both his scholarly work and in popular conservative venues like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and National Review, he has pressed the case that Americans should be working harder to preserve traditional family structures.

The threat for Wilcox is not gay marriage, but two old taboos that have lost much of their force in modern America: divorce and single parenthood. He suggests creating tax and welfare incentives to make marriage more financially attractive than mere cohabitation. He is also a believer in “social marketing” - billboards encouraging parents to make sure the family eats dinner together, or prime-time TV commercials about how divorce affects kids.

The issue, as he sees it, is not a matter of preserving traditional moral values, but of insuring equality of opportunity. He argues that it is counterproductive to insist, as many liberals have, that all types of families are equally good for kids. Overwhelmingly, he points out, it is poor and working-class families who are grappling with the effects of divorce and single parenthood.

“The retreat from marriage in the United States over the last four decades has been important in fueling increases in inequality as well as child poverty,” he says. Marriage needs defending, in other words - not because of what it represents, but because of who it protects.

Megan McArdle
One way that the postwar conservative movement acted most like a movement was in the nurturing of its young. The careers of prominent conservative thinkers usually went, at one point or another, through magazines such as the National Review, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, or one of a few Congressional offices.

This tendency helped mold a firm ideological unity, but it also shut out those of less orthodox sensibility - exactly those who might be needed now to forge a new kind of conservative thinking. In recent years those voices have gained a hearing, and in some cases even a following, in blogs.

“[Blogging] is decreasing the power of being part of the feeder system and feeder schools, and of being part of the ecosystem, which I certainly wasn’t,” says Megan McArdle.

McArdle, whose politics make her more a libertarian than a classic conservative, is one of the most prominent voices in the political blogosphere. Also an editor at the Atlantic Monthly, she came to both journalism and blogging somewhat sideways, after working at a series of failed Internet start-ups and going to business school.

Her own interests and expertise are in economics. Tyler Cowen, a libertarian-leaning economics professor at George Mason University and a leading economics blogger, describes her as “a go-to source” on the timely issues of credit and bankruptcy. But just as importantly, Cowen argues, her blog works as a vital node. “She is a good bridge between what is valuable in conservativism and libertarianism,” he says.

McArdle and bloggers like her, in other words, have created their own intellectual ecosystem. William F. Buckley was widely admired for his determination and ability to bring a diversity of conservative voices into National Review, and similarly, McArdle’s blog is among the best at organizing the cacophony of the political blogosphere into something closer to a conversation. Blog posts on the Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination or the outlines of the stimulus package alternate with links to the insights of artificial-intelligence expert Jim Manzi, who writes on science and environmental policy, or Daniel Larison, a politically minded scholar of Byzantine history.

For all the connections she creates, McArdle is an often vehement disagreer as well, and a believer in the blogosphere’s power to kill off wrongheaded arguments on the way to something new and important. “It can take a long time,” she says, “but bad ideas do tend to die.”

Reihan Salam
Conservative activist Grover Norquist has long said his goal is to make the government so small that “we can drown it in the bathtub.” Though not often expressed with such infanticidal vividness, the idea of shrinking the government has been central to conservative politics for decades. “Small government” is shorthand for a whole raft of conservative beliefs, and since the Reagan presidency it has proved such a winning campaign issue that even Democrats have been forced to take a reduce-government line to get elected.

But in the past year, our huge federal government has looked less like a bogeyman and more like the fire department, a very welcome presence in a crisis. As it turns out, many people don’t have much of a problem with big government when it’s helping them out.

According to Reihan Salam, that might not be such an irredeemably bad thing. Salam, a journalist, commentator, and fellow at the New America Foundation, is one of a few conservative thinkers outlining what a new big-government conservatism might look like. He wrote a 2008 book, “Grand New Party,” with the columnist and blogger Ross Douthat, another rising star among young conservatives and the New York Times’ newest political columnist. In it, they return again and again to the issue of how a modern Republican party could strategically embrace government, allaying the economic anxieties of important white working-class voters without fostering a culture of government dependence and waste.

According to those who have worked with him, Salam blends conservative political belief with a voracious embrace of contemporary pop culture in all its forms - in conversation, before the references to Russell Kirk and John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Predator State,” he opens with a semi-profane line from the hip-hop artist Ludacris.

“He has this personality which is culturally very contemporary but at the same time his ideas are more on the right, and that’s very important for the right,” says David Brooks, who Salam worked for as a research assistant for two years at the New York Times.

If big government is necessary, Salam asks, and can even help create a society more agreeable to conservatives, then what should it be doing? Drawing in part on the work of scholars such as Wilcox, Salam and Douthat craft a vision of a government that is activist in a different way, putting priority on stability and responsibility, along with opportunity. They push for child-care subsidies, market-friendly healthcare reform, more affordable housing, and for wage subsidies to boost the incomes of poor young men and make them more eligible for marriage and stable fatherhood.

“The idea is, let’s actually reduce the scope of government in some areas, where it’s kind of pernicious, but let’s increase its role in some areas, insofar as increasing the role can actually increase freedom,” Salam says.

Under the Obama administration, Salam has continued to press the case for big-government conservativism in articles and as a blogger for both the National Review and the online Daily Beast. A very early Sarah Palin supporter, he has also started to write about the wrenching changes caused by shifting gender roles, both here and in the developing world where the manufacturing jobs once held by working-class American men have gone - a process that has, he says, been accelerated by the global recession. He admits that, like squaring big government and conservatism, it won’t be easy to craft a policy to deal with it.

“The problem with this is that when you start talking about it you’re acknowledging that these things are hard,” Salam says. “It’s much more fun and much easier to talk about ‘Let’s just get rid of the income tax.’ ”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail