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Conservatism at Century's End

Thursday, April 1, 1999

For better or worse, modern ideological conservatism constitutes a completed body of thought. We need not try to settle the issue of how it came to completion, an exercise in intellectual history a bit beyond the scope of these reflections, to note the fact. There was a time, coming to a close perhaps a decade ago, when those of us who took an interest in the development of conservative ideology eagerly reached for our newly arrived periodicals and newly published books in the expectation of finding bold new insights into vexing problems, some of which we did not even realize were problems. This was an exciting time — conservative ideology was a work in progress, and the task had urgency, vitality, and freshness. Part of the task was the development of a thorough critique of liberal and radical ideology and the effects these had throughout our politics and culture. But conservative ideology was not merely negative — merely based in criticism. It had a positive component as well, laying claim to a future it proposed to make better through the defeat of radicalism, the rejection of liberalism, and the implementation of conservative ideas in the policy arena.

This period of intellectual ferment is over. In a way, that is a tribute to its success. One can say of ideological conservatism nowadays that, in general, it knows what the important questions are and it knows the answers to those questions. There remains much detail to work out, but the outlines are clear. Conservatives resolve arguments in favor of the individual rather than the collective, of clear standards of judgment rather than relativistic measures, of personal responsibility rather than the interplay of vast social forces, of the market rather than government economic intervention, of international strength and self-reliance rather than empty promises of security. The federal government is, in general, too big, taxing too much of the wealth of Americans, doing too many unnecessary and often counterproductive things that get in the way of economic growth, to say nothing of personal liberty. Even as it has indulged in frivolity, the federal government has been neglectful of the security of Americans in its rush to disarm after the successful conclusion of the Cold War. Meanwhile, a debased high and popular culture shows few signs of recovery.

Among conservatives, one is hard-pressed to find any disagreement on these basic issues. The real questions, instead, are whether, when, and how the American political process will make good on the promises of conservatism. In certain respects, this is a tribute to the triumph of conservative ideology. In the absence of its searching critique of liberalism and its advancement of an alternative vision, it seems unlikely that the old liberal dominance would have faded as it has. The practical import of this triumph is that conservative ideology is no longer merely a theoretical matter. Conservatives would like to implement it, to substitute their ideas for the dead hand of liberalism that guided our politics for decades. The principal activity of ideological conservatism at century’s end takes place not in the realm of ideas, but in the world of politics.

The conservative intellectual culture

The characteristic figures of conservative intellectual culture are no longer professors and intellectuals. The characteristic figures are lawyers and journalists. This, as much as anything, is an indication of how far conservatism has come.

Making the law and reporting on how the law is or isn’t getting made: In some ways, these seem the principal activities of idea-minded conservatives nowadays. Once again, this may be a product of the success of the intellectual endeavor, over the years, in asking and answering the basic questions. But there are no more basic questions to ask and answer, or so it seems, and so it seems neither inappropriate nor terribly significant that for those interested in the life of the mind these days, at least outside the academy, action consists of either a seat at the table where the big decisions are being made; or a place at the peephole into the room with the table, in order to describe it for others (and second-guess it).

The conservative intellectual culture reflects the broader media culture around us. That broader culture now worships two principal deities: Much and Quick. Our culture produces an extraordinary volume of information for anyone interested in consuming information. Never have so many had so much access to so much, nor so quickly. What is a media culture to do in the age of the Internet and 24-hour cable programming on politics? The answer has been: Go along with it. In addition to a new breed of on-line "magazines" whose content changes from hour to hour, we have seen biweekly, weekly, and daily publications break out of their traditional "news cycle" to give us the benefit of their reporting and analysis as soon as they can post it on their web sites. Conservatism, for its part, is now propagated as much by simultaneous e-mail transmission as by any other medium. To be au courant is to answer a liberal argument made on a morning cable show by early afternoon. It may, however, be an indication of how well-formed conservative thought is that it can propagate answers so quickly.

The questions to the answers

Is anything wrong with this? On one hand, no. In the first place, there is no undoing the profusion of cable or the availability of the Internet. We live in our time. It would be the height of folly to cede such powerful tools as the Internet and cable to people out to do in the conservative project. As long as these media are available, it only makes sense to seize them and use them the best one can. In the second place, the sometimes-rote quality of the propagation of conservatism and conservative positions is hardly the product of imposition of intellectual orthodoxy by some central committee taking as its charge the enforcement of discipline among the cadres. There is no such committee. Instead, the familiar quality of conservatism is a product of widespread agreement among thoughtful people. Its completed character is testimony to the sway of reason among reasonable people.

But is a swift and certain conservatism, even if such a conservatism is essential, actually sufficient? Here, there is reason to pause.

The long-term success of conservative ideology depends on how well that ideology understands and describes the world and predicts outcomes in it. If, in point of fact, conservative ideology is perfectly formed at present, then there is no particular risk in the current state of conservative intellectual culture. But if not, then what? And how will conservatives know?

The liberal experience should send a cautionary signal to conservatives. Liberalism as an ideology proved remarkably disinclined to engage in self-examination. The intellectual energy of liberalism was largely taken up in a decades-long argument between the go-fast liberals and the one-step-at-a-time liberals. Liberalism had no particular response to external pressure, either in the form of the failure of the world to act in accordance with its expectations or in the form of the conservative intellectual critique of liberalism during the heyday of the formation of conservative ideology. Liberalism, comfortable in the wielding of political power, simply did so — until there came the point at which it lost political power as a result of the bankruptcy, insufficiency, and stubborn wrong-headedness of its ideas.

Liberalism would surely have been better off had some substantial number of its most talented adherents been able or willing to take a step back from their ideological certainty and re-examine their premises in the light of real-world results. (One could say that some liberals did take this road, only to become conservatives; on the other hand, it is hardly obvious that the only alternative to liberalism is ideological conservatism.)

Conservatives should profit from this error. Some of them ought to take it as a project of some urgency to step back from the now hurly-burly world of conservative political and intellectual culture and take a long, hard, detailed look at conservatism. The alternative is merely the assumption that all is well. That is a dangerous assumption. Even if all is well, it is better to say so on the basis of serious self-scrutiny than on a whim, or worse, out of the ideological conviction that all must be well. And suppose all is not well. Suppose one or another problem becomes apparent. There is at least a possibility that such problems as arise can be addressed and corrected before their steady accretion threatens the totality of the project of conservative governance.

If ideological conservatism now is relatively self-confident in the conviction that it has the right answers to the important questions, the time has come for the right questions about the answers.

Time to think

One thing is certain. No serious conservative self-scrutiny will arise spontaneously from the current media culture. Rather, such scrutiny can only be a product of a deliberate decision on the part of some number of serious people to take the time to think about some pretty serious things. And the product of their deliberations will not be the least suited to delivery via sound bite or e-mail.

They will write essays. These essays will be published in a magazine that has made a deliberate decision to make its stand outside the news cycle. In a culture increasingly given to Much and Quick and more and faster, this magazine will take the radically contrarian view that seriousness necessitates deliberation, and that an article that can be read with profit and enjoyment a year or two or a dozen after it first appears is potentially at least as valuable a thing as all the e-mail traffic in between.

This magazine, in turn, will be read by people who appreciate the limitations of the media culture of Much and Quick — and the perhaps-hidden dangers this culture poses to conservatism. This magazine and its audience will, in short, constitute the dynamic element of modern conservative thinking.


The creation of modern conservative ideology was an exercise in ideas — in many cases, ideas about the consequences of an older set of ideas, those of liberalism. But conservatism is no longer merely about ideas, because conservative ideas are having consequences of their own. The success or failure of conservatism, in the long run, will depend on how well conservatism understands those consequences and adapts to them.

The project of this magazine

To serve as the pre-eminent vehicle for new conservative thinking and new and serious thinking about conservatism.

To monitor the progress of conservative ideology as it moves from the realm of theory to the world of practice, the political world.

To re-examine as necessary the premises, logic and conclusions of conservative thinking in order to ensure that conservatism remains intellectually rigorous and vital.

To create or re-create a community of conservative thinkers and writers capable of bringing to the challenges of the present the same clarity, conviction and conscience their intellectual elders brought to bear on the problems of a different time.

In a world of ephemera, it is time for some number of people to devote their energies and attention to matters of lasting consequence.