The Young Right


There are interesting and inter-related discussions floating around about whether young conservative writers are more collegial than their elders, whether they're gloomier than their elders, and whether they aren't going to grad school as often as they should. Let me raise another related question: Are young conservative writers more heterodox than their older peers? At least superficially, the answer seems like yes: If you compare the right-wing twentysomethings flitting around Washington D.C. to their elders in the world of magazines and think tanks, the younger set seems to include many fewer writers whose ideas fit neatly into the "movement-conservative" box. I have a tough time thinking of more than a couple twentysomething conservatives whose writings I encounter regularly, in fact, who have precisely the "check-all-the-boxes" politics that's fairly commonplace in the movement establishment - who are pro-war and pro-life and Norquistian on size-of-government issues and so on and so forth. Instead, you've got paleocons and Paulites, Christian libertarians and uber-neocons, plus a host of unclassifiable types. (I suppose I fall into the "unclassifiable" camp, though perhaps for no more admirable reason than my inability to make up my mind about various issues.)

What does all this betoken for the future of conservatism? Possibly nothing. Young writers looking to distinguish themselves have an incentive to be heterodox, and they also have a tendency to cluster around smaller, more niche-ish outfits - in this case, places like Reason and The American Conservative, the Spectator's blog and the good old American Scene - because small, niche-ish and heterodox outfits are, well, more likely to publish young writers. Further, as Poulos notes, many of the people who make up today's movement establishment - the talk-radio talking heads, especially - didn't come up through the Young Washington world, and it's entirely possible that tomorrow's movement-conservative establishment will be dominated, not by today's inside-the-Beltway bloggers and associate editors and research fellows, but by kids from flyover country who didn't come to Washington, but stayed home and developed the next hit talk-radio show (or website) instead, and whose views are more or less indistinguishable from the views of Hannity and Limbaugh.

Moreover, part of what creates the air of heterodoxy among the young turks is the fact that many of the young conservative writers I'm thinking of (again, myself included) are still experimenting with a wide range of topics, and haven't settled into the kind of groove (or rut) that most successful pundits and public intellectuals eventually find themselves slipping into. In this sense, at least some of the ideological conformity that you see among old older right-wingers on, say, foreign policy is really just ideological conformity among those older right-wingers who dilate regularly about foreign policy. There are more than a few writers for the Weekly Standard who opposed the war in Iraq, for instance; you just don't know it because foreign affairs isn't in their chosen wheelhouse. And that's to say nothing of those writers, left and right, who outsource their views on various topics as they grow older to trusted friends and allies who know more about the subject than they do - which isn't necessarily a bad habit in all cases, but does tend to diminish the diversity of opinion available on the topic in question.

Having thrown out all of these caveats, though, I'll conclude by expressing cautious hope that today's heterodoxy among young right-wingers does mean something - and that it bodes well for the future of a political persuasion that currently seems intellectually and politically moribund.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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