Should Conservatism Be a Movement?

I meant to say something earlier about Austin Bramwell's attack on the idea of a conservative "movement." He writes:

Movement conservatives have in fact produced few of the conservative ideas in general circulation. Even the movement's intellectual founders--men like James Burnham, Richard Weaver, and Whitaker Chambers--did their best work before they decided to pool their energies into a movement. Take any movement conservative position: the original insights usually came from someone with little initial interest in building a conservative movement. Originalism in constitutional law was developed by Raoul Berger, a Harvard liberal; free-market ideas by academic economists working within the mainstream of their profession; anticommunism by disillusioned leftists, only some of whom (from Chambers and Burnham to the later neoconservatives) went on to form or join the conservative movement; foreign-policy realism by émigré academic Hans Morgenthau ...

Only the non-movement conservatives have managed to upset the intellectual consensus, for they speak to the intellectual establishment rather than at it. Consider the major traumas of establishment liberalism: Jane Jacobs's Death and Life, Daniel Moynihan's 1965 Report on the Negro Family, E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement speech, Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind. At the time, not one of these authors was known as a movement conservative.

This is an overstatement, but one with no small amount of truth to it. But I hardly think it's unique to conservatism, or uniquely damning as a critique. In most successful political movements, the big ideas precede the institutions designed to promote them - or put another way, the philosophers describe the world, and then their disciples set out to change it. It does not discredit the modern environmentalist movement, for instance, to note that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring wasn't published by the National Wildlife Fund.

Bramwell continues:

That leaves but one rationale for the movement: to preserve conservative ideas in an inhospitable world. No sentiment is more widely shared by movement conservatives than that they are an embattled minority fighting a hateful enemy. Yet none of the elements of movement conservative ideology by itself poses any career hazard. Mickey Kaus opposes open borders; Nicholas Wade of the New York Times and New Republic contributor Steven Pinker believe in the reality of race; Al Gore is a critic of modernity; Jewish atheist Nat Hentoff is pro-life; Bill Cosby excoriates black culture; Camille Paglia lambastes feminists; Gregg Easterbrook is a skeptic of environmentalism. Some movement conservative views, such as support for the free market, are firmly a part of mainstream discourse. Others, such as a fondness for tradition, can be found all over the political spectrum. On close examination, it is difficult to find a movement conservative idea to which mainstream organs of scholarship and opinion are actually closed.

Well, not exactly. The rationale for the movement and its institutions is to advance right-wing ideas, not to preserve them. And while it's true that many individual ideas identified with modern conservatism are held and defended by non-conservative thinkers, it's awfully hard to argue that, say, Nat Hentoff has done more for the pro-life cause than the National Right to Life Committee. If you want your ideas translated into actual policy, a few sympathetic columnists won't do the job: You need think tanks and activist groups and lobbyists. You need, in other words, a movement.

This doesn't mean that there isn't a broader truth to what Bramwell says next:

Take a hypothetical young talent with contrarian inclinations. Movement conservatives would counsel him to make his way up their ranks. But suppose he ignores their advice and joins the New York Times--or the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. There, even if he never classifies himself as conservative, he pursues stories that expose the perverse incentives of well-intentioned policies, the human costs of mass immigration, or the reality that, as Steve Sailer puts it, "families matter." Not only are his eccentric interests not a liability, they may even prove to be an asset. His ability to see the world differently gives him a monopoly on stories that his colleagues cannot or will not spot themselves.

If the climate of opinion ever shifts, it will be thanks to non-movement conservatives working within mainstream establishment institutions.

As a critic of right-wing cocooning (and the employee of a mainstream publication!) obviously I'm sympathetic to this argument. But I think Bramwell is setting up something of a false choice here. Consider the example I cited above, the environmental movement. On the one hand, there's a whole constellation of what you might call "movement" institutions, large and small, that have grown up to promote green ideas - the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resources Defense Council and Gristmill, and so on down the list. But these institutions haven't prevented the vertical integration, if you will, of people who share environmentalist premises into the New York Times and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, or into any other establishment institution, from Harvard to Hollywood. Movement and non-movement environmentalism exist in symbiosis, rather than in tension: Reporters favorably disposed to green ideas cite papers from environmentalist think tanks; major universities run environmental studies programs that draw on the work done by movement environmentalism, and so on.

The same thing happened, on a much broader scale, with early-twentieth century progressivism, which had all kinds of movement-ish qualities but nonetheless managed to co-opt the establishment of its day. Indeed, nearly every successful movement, from abolitionism to gay rights, has advanced on two fronts simultaneously, creating new institutions and conquering old ones at the same time. And if late-twentieth century conservatism has been less successful in this regard than other mass movements - if we've reached a point where conservative institutions seem intellectually exhausted, but the establishment remains largely unconquered by conservative ideas - then the problem probably lies with the limits and weaknesses and contradictions of the American Right itself, rather than with the fact that it decided to sell out and become a movement.