The Conservative Family Feud

Conservatism does not breed intellectual laziness, power does.

I've mostly shied away from weighing on this intra-movement debate about the Right's epistemic closure, as Julian Sanchez calls it. It feels weirdly out of place for me to really say anything. When watching someone else's family fighting, best not to leap into the fray. I don't want to lose sight of the fact that I have deep-seated philosophical disagreements with, say, a David Frum and fall into this strategy of selective linking. I'm not naming this right. But something about bringing in a conservative to take shots at conservatism feels icky.

But I have been paying attention, and this piece from earlier this month by Noah Millman is really, really good. I'm linking to it because, to me, while it says a lot about conservatism, it says more about the basic nature of intellectual/political movements. This part stuck with me on the red-eye home last night:

No analysis of where conservatism has gone wrong would be complete without an utterly fatalistic analysis, so here it is. Political movements have their life cycles like anything else: they are born; they grow; they mature; they decay. The conservative movement was born in the 1950s, grew in the late 1960s and 1970s, matured in the 1980s and early 1990s, and decayed from the mid-1990s through today. You can lament being born at the wrong time, but you can't do anything about it. To a considerable extent, the life cycle of movements derives from the life cycle of the people who grow up within those movements. 

Young conservatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw their movement go from strength to strength - and learned that conservatism was always right and that people who didn't see that were fools. These same folks in the Bush years tutored their successors in appalling intellectual tactics: bullying and sophistry and identity politics. By contrast, the generation of liberals who came of age in the Bush years had to weather that bullying, had to cut through that sophistry - and were vindicated by events. I am continually impressed by the intelligence and sophistication of liberals ten years younger than I am. They are the leaders of tomorrow's left even more than today's, and the right is just not in the same league. 

It was, once, in 1960s and 1970s, when left-wing ideas were dominant and left-wingers intellectually complacent - even as their intellectual roof was falling in. The bright young things who saw that the roof was falling in, and who debated what their new home should look like, became the rising generation of conservative leaders.

I've seen that point made before, but I think Millman makes it with a greater degree of specificity and elegance. What stuck with me is the pall of death that hangs over that passage. Did you ever catch yourself during the primaries listening to someone analyze Obama and feel like you were listening to the same pet-theory they'd held for the last 30 or 40 years? You wonder how that happens, how people don't evolve with the times. I know folks who, to this day, can't bring themselves to admit that Castro is a dictator. Out on 125th, there are brothers who still swear by Mugabe.

I don't want to overstate--these guys aren't the brain-trust of the Left. But I suspect that at some point, maybe this sort of thing was more tolerated more among liberals. Commenters who've been around longer than me can speak to this, but my sense is that nuttery is a luxury of political power, or perceived political power. When I was young I really thought that it was plausible that the government invented HIV. Then I was humiliated a few times while debating some brothers who were sharper than me. It became clear that nuttery wasn't a luxury I would enjoy. I had a choice--be serious, or be laughed out the room.

What I see in all of this is a warning--or maybe an omen. Conservatism does not breed intellectual laziness, power does. I have my beliefs about modern conservatism, and will gladly state them. But like I said, I've been hesitant to link to this debate. Best not to be caught laughing too loud.