Roughly four months into Barack Obama's presidency, it's possible to make a few observations about the factions forming on the intellectual right as it adjusts to life in the political wilderness.
It's fitting that National Review -- the intellectual incubator of the conservative movement that rose to power with Ronald Reagan -- seems poised to go down with the ship. In the magazine and more recently on its lively website National Review Online (NRO), National Review has always mirrored the mood on the political right: unpredictable and feisty in the 60s and 70s; exuding confidence in the 80s and 90s; overdosing on militaristic American exceptionalism under George W. Bush; and now spiraling down into the dumps with the post-Bush Republican Party. Today NRO's group blog The Corner is angry, sarcastic, cranky, irritable, grossly populist -- miles away from the serene high-mindedness cultivated by founder William F. Buckley, Jr. Contributors compete with one another over who can offer the most obsequious encomium for Rush Limbaugh and turn instantly against anyone who dares utter a criticism of him. Like the vulgar talk-show hosts with whom they've firmly aligned themselves, the editors and writers around National Review occasionally criticize the Bush administration, but they rarely do so in the name of new ideas. Instead, they treat Reagan as the Platonic ideal of the conservative politician, the standard from which all present and future Republicans diverge at their peril. Call it a cocoon or call it a casket -- either way, it's hard to imagine National Review in its current configuration contributing very much to the revival of the right either politically or intellectually.
The Weekly Standard and Commentary -- the two magazines most closely associated with neoconservatism -- overlap quite a lot these days with National Review in both content and contributors. (Jennifer Rubin's endless string of lengthy posts on Commentary's Contentions blog, which mechanically praise nearly every Republican utterance while monotonously denouncing the Democrats for everything they do, would fit in quite well at The Corner.) Yet there is an important difference in emphasis. Whereas National Review promotes Reagan worship, the Weekly Standard and Commentary have chosen to rally around Dick Cheney, proud champion of "enhanced interrogation" and thoroughly unrepentant advocate of the invasion of Iraq. There's something admirable in this position, I suppose, since it can't possibly flow from a belief that an embrace of the wildly unpopular and increasingly grouchy Cheney will improve the political fortunes of the Republican Party, at least in the short term. No, William Kristol and John Podhoretz appear to be standing tall with Cheney out of principle. If you doubt it, take a look at this revealing blog post from Podhoretz, written shortly after Obama's national security speech last Wednesday, in which he bristles at the president's suggestion that the Bush administration sometimes "made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight.” To which Podhoretz responds with a heartfelt defense of conducting foreign policy in a state of acute fear, while also praising the former president's "brilliant efforts to thwart mass killings." Neoconservatism, 2009 reduced to a slogan: "Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!" It's hard to imagine such a message succeeding politically, at least short of a genuine crisis (as opposed to a spurious one). Count that as one more reason to hope our luck holds out.
And that's about it for the right's flagship opinion journals. Oh sure, there are bright spots at all three magazines/websites: Jim Manzi's libertarian-minded commentary on economics and finance for NRO; Max Boot's historically informed posts on foreign affairs and military issues for Contentions; and best of all, Christopher Caldwell's carefully reported essays on various political and cultural topics for the Weekly Standard. But that's pretty much it for intellectual conservatism these day, at least in the places it used to thrive.
Which isn't to say that interesting things aren't going on in other places, just that those efforts have yet to gel into a coherent alternative to the old wares being peddled by the movement elders. In the pragmatic center, David Frum has brought together a group of journalists and policy intellectuals (many of them with ties to Rudy Giuliani's disastrous presidential campaign) to think their way to a new vision for the Republican Party -- one less beholden to the religious right and more attuned to the economic challenges facing the middle class. Frum's website (NewMajority.com) is fun and often surprising, and his own scrappy posts challenging various GOP pieties are refreshing. What does it add up to? Not much yet. But the hour is early -- stay tuned.
Offering slight variations on Frum's approach are David Brooks and Ross Douthat, both of them New York Times op-ed columnists. Back in the late 1990s, Brooks championed "national greatness conservatism" in the pages of the Weekly Standard. These days his nationalist enthusiasms have mellowed into a defense of what might be called Hamiltonian communitarianism. That is, Brooks believes the federal government has an important role to play in fostering the institutions (families, neighborhoods, churches) on which a liberal society depends for its health and vitality. If this reminds you of the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, it's because that's exactly what it sounds like. Does Brooks really think that doubling back to the start of Bush's disastrous presidency is a sensible strategy for the GOP? We'll no doubt find out as Brooks refines his position over the coming months and years.
Douthat takes a similar approach and faces a similar challenge -- namely, how to differentiate his ideas from the ones that got the GOP into its current mess in the first place -- but he has the added burden of being a pro-lifer firmly committed to the agenda of the religious right. Douthat has written an interesting book (with Reihan Salam) that's filled with innovative policy proposals, many of which would help the Republican Party increase its appeal to middle-class voters. But as long as those proposals are wedded to social policies increasingly viewed as a sop to the culturally alienated religious extremists who form the base of the party, I suspect the GOP will remain stuck in the doldrums. I just can't see "Bush Plus Competence!" inspiring much excitement in either the party or the nation as a whole.
And that leaves a final group of conservative writers--most of them younger and more intellectually interesting and eclectic, and for that reason much less politically consequential, than anyone listed above. I'm thinking of people like Conor Friedersdorf, John Schwenkler, Peter Suderman, Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, Jeremy Beer, my friends Russell Arben Fox and Noah Millman, and my old sparring-partner on same-sex marriage, "Crunchy Con" journalist Rod Dreher. Some of these writers (all of them primarily bloggers) can be found at The American Scene, while others contribute essays to Front Porch Republic and blog for the website of the American Conservative. The more moderate ones (Friedersdorf, Schwenkler, Suderman, Millman) are similar in temperament and outlook to Frum, Brooks, and Douthat, though they tend to be more philosophical and less policy-oriented in approach. Meanwhile, the more radical ones (Larison, Deneen) are downright anti-modern in outlook. Delighted by Christopher Lasch's indictment of the free market, enamored of Wendell Berry's poetic agrarianism, romantically drawn toward "localism," titillated by Alasdair MacIntyre's praise of monasticism as an option for those seeking refuge from the moral impurities of modernity, open to radical environmentalism, hostile toward an idealistic foreign policy, disgusted at the overall tone of life in America since sexual revolution--these writers are interesting in the way all reactionaries are interesting: as a provocation to deep thinking, and as a warning about the (political and intellectual) dangers of indeterminate negation.
Will any of these writers contribute to the emergence of a new right to take the place of the one that left such a profound mark on the nation over the past three decades? It's much too soon to know, of course, but reading their essays and blog posts, one at least senses them thinking for its own sake, following their ideas wherever they lead, without regard for whether or not their conclusions will contribute to the short-term advantage of a political party. That, at least, is a step in the right direction, as none other than William F. Buckley realized fifty years ago.