The Right, Its Reformers, And Its Defectors

by Conor Friedersdorf

On the six week road trip I took when I left DC and moved backed to California, a highlight was having drinks with E.D. Kain in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he lives with his wife and child, works a day job to pay the bills, and manages to produce lots of enjoyable blogging. He wrote a post a couple days ago that's handily summed up by this line: "I no longer have any desire to be considered a conservative – and no longer consider myself one."

Unlike me, but like a lot of politically active people, Mr. Kain finds value in associating himself with a political/ideological team. It ought to trouble movement conservatives that they're losing a married father in a red state who champions localism, decentralized power, checks and balances, and not placing too much faith in the state, and especially that in his judgment, "these are positions that are perfectly acceptable on the left in ways that my belief in gay marriage or higher taxes or non-interventionist foreign policy are simply not acceptable on the right."

There are many on the right, however, who'd celebrate his repudiation of the conservative label, because he says things like this:

I would have voted for the HCR bill. The Democratic Party has its flaws but at least it cares about governance, at least Democrats try to make the world a less harsh, more egalitarian place even when sometimes their policies backfire or are simply wrong to begin with. And liberalism generally is just more serious an endeavor than conservatism is. More wonky, more beholden to, you know, data and facts.

Mr. Kain is conflating the conservative movement, a deeply unserious and corrupt political coalition, with the political philosophy of conservatism, which is every bit as serious as liberalism, and isn't inherently less wonky either.

I disagree with Mr. Kain on health care reform too. I opposed it, and would've much preferred something like the plan articulated here. But do I understand why he's concluded that movement conservatism is to be abandoned? Yes, I understand, and much as I'd encourage him to vote for divided government this November, and to keep trying to reform the right, the more important message is directed at those who prefer a pure, narrow coalition of hard core conservatives to an inclusive one: Mr. Kain fits into neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party, but you've driven him toward the latter's coalition by assessing his particular mix of beliefs and asserting that he is a statist on the side of tyranny.

Over at The Moderate Voice, Dennis Sanders observes all this, and remarks:

You take a guy who was a conservative that starts to see some of the problems. They start to see them grow bigger and bigger and start to take on a crusade to reform conservatism. However, they continue to focus on the issues plaguing the movement, until the problems are all they see. At some point, they write a post renouncing their ties to conservatism and citing how awful the movement is. They either choose to become independent or go over to the liberal side of the political spectrum. On the surface, one can look at this as proof about how messed up conservatives are. I don’t doubt that. The current state of conservatism has caused many to pull up stakes and move towards greener pastures. But I am also bothered by another concern and that is: why are there so few folks committed to reforming conservatism?

That isn't quite accurate. In my estimation there are a lot of people who are committed to reforming conservatism, and who've pursued a different path. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat co-wrote a book laying out a policy agenda a reformed right might embrace going forward. The Tea Party is earnest about repudiating the K Street style conservatism that prevailed for much of the Bush Administration, as are writers like Tim Carney and Matt Continetti, who disappointed me with his over-wrought defenses of Sarah Palin, but did great work prior to it, and has since penned an excellent critique of Glenn Beck's oevre.

The American Conservative, George Will, and even Ann Coulter are among the voices calling for the conservative movement to renounce its imprudent forays into nation building. Gene Healy is still working on the cult of the presidency. Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Ron Paul, Paul Ryan, David Frum, and Andrew Sullivan are just some of the people who've explicitly set out to reform the right or infuse it with new ideas, many are working more quietly, and you'd be surprised by some of the e-mail I get from staffers at places like National Review and even Human Events encouraging me to persist in my own quixotic campaigns, whether against conservative entertainers or intra-movement writing that isn't defensible. (Sometimes I suspect that talk radio hosts are about as powerful as East German leaders in the months before the wall came down, but no one has realized it yet.)

Naturally, I'd like to see more conservatives call out popular talk radio hosts and powerful movement writers when they say things that are factually inaccurate, especially intemperate, or analytically indefensible. It's a project I've taken up, so naturally I think it's important. Some people disagree. Others think I'm right, but understandably deem my crusade to be less important than working on their own projects, which would be jeopardized by alienating powerful conservatives and the institutions they run.

It's a problem itself that some figures inside conservatism are deemed untouchables who ought never be forcefully criticized. Still, I'd be shocked if many of the people I've mentioned above don't accomplish far more than I ever do to reform the conservative movement. They're certainly a lot more invested in that end than I am. As an outsider, I am able to say things that some of them aren't, and it's important to call out talk radio hosts and subpar journalism for reasons bigger than the fate of the conservative movement.

So I do it, and I hope more people join me.

But the movement to improve on conservatism is a lot bigger than the subset of people who criticize Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck. Yes, it's strange that calling out their least defensible rhetoric is so verbotten. That doesn't mean doing so is the most important reform work happening on the right, and I often think the attention it garners relative to the work being done by others is misplaced.