Breaking With Movement Conservatism Over Its Ugliness

Michael Fumento is the latest to renounce the "fear, anger, and hatred" that have become hallmarks of one subset of the right.




For conservatives who persist in believing, without apparent evidence, that there is a strategic benefit to allying with Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Rep. Allen West, and others on the right who accuse their political opponents of being demonic, treasonous, moronic Communist sluts, a new essay published at Salon should serve as a reminder that there are demonstrable costs. Writer Michael Fumento announces to the world that he no longer wants to associate with a movement that tolerates obvious affronts to dignity and truth. "Nothing the new right does is evidently outrageous enough to receive more than a peep of indignation" from most other conservatives, he complains in his jeremiad. "All of today's right-wing darlings got there by mastering what Burke feared most: screaming 'J'accuse! J'accuse!' Turning people against each other. Taking seeds of fear, anger and hatred and planting them to grow a new crop."

This is a statement against interest for a guy whose made his living writing for publications including National Review, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, The American Spectator, Human Events, Forbes, The Sunday Times of London, and The Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Who wants the headache of a bunch of old friends and acquaintances who feel betrayed?

Then again, there's a growing community of people who are either conservatives or at least sympathetic to conservatism but are deeply disappointed by its most prominent American incarnation. Thinkers as diverse as Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, David Brooks, Chris Buckley, and Bruce Bartlett are most often mentioned, but are hardly alone. While working at The Daily Dish, one of my duties was sifting through the huge volume of reader email to select notes worthy of publication, and in doing so I'd come across thoughtful notes from despairing conservatives each week. It's a common feeling among the younger set in right-leaning journalism too. As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it in a piece titled "Dear Conservative Movement: Stop Ruining My Life":
You may not know this.

But all the smartest people on the Right are basically ashamed to be associated with you .... You start teaching us to embrace an inferiority complex, one that makes us feel like rebels, while making us more dependent your largesse .... The only thing you're really good at is preserving the conservative movement ....  But, we're done. I tried to "improve you," from my associate editor perch at a dissenting conservative magazine. Now? I wish you would go away. You're an obstacle, taking every civic impulse of your audience and turning it into rotten populism. You turn every bit of goodwill and honest anxiety into a sleazy direct-mail fundraiser.
Here's how Austin Bramwell put it in 2006:
Until recently, it has been almost impossible for me to speak candidly about the conservative movement, for it was my strange fate to serve as director and later trustee of the movement's flagship journal, National Review. Earlier this year, at William F. Buckley's request, I resigned both positions. I can therefore now declare what perhaps has oft been thought but never, at least not often enough, expressed. Notwithstanding conservatives' belief that they, in contrast to their partisan opponents, have thought deeply about the challenges facing the United States, it is they who have become unserious. 

What I like especially about that essay is its conclusion:

None of this is to suggest that conservatism is uniquely pernicious. The roots of ideology lie deep in our cognitive limitations and instinct for group loyalty. One could make similar observations of any ideology. The most distinguishing feature of conservatism is its misleading name. Lexically, "conservatism" denotes caution, prudence, and resistance to change. Conservatism the ideology, however, has if anything tended towards recklessness. "Nuke 'em!" has always been a popular conservative sentiment, never more so than today with respect to the Muslim world. For frantic boast and foolish word / Thy mercy on thy people Lord!

Whatever its past accomplishments, the conservative movement no longer kindles any "ironic points of light." It has produced fewer outstanding books even as it has taken over more of the intellectual and political landscape. This trend will only continue. Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to "see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched." The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.

That first paragraph contains a ready response for the practicing conservatives with their inevitable retorts: "But the liberals are worse!" Or, "What say you to all the bad things about Democrats?" The response is that there's lots of pernicious nonsense in the world. Citing one bit doesn't justify another. Stripped of that fig leaf, much of movement conservatism is nakedly depraved. I'm glad that Fumento cited specific examples, and that he didn't end in a David Brock-style conversion, putting the same dubious means he observed to work for "the other side."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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