I’ve spent this week searching for John Nichols’ inspiring writings, in order to remind myself of one of the most important if often overlooked conservative insights: that the left remains on the defensive on political and cultural questions even as it has gained an indisputable degree of cultural and philosophical power. At the moment, the left seems remarkably relaxed about its rights-based liberal ascendancy and “disruptive” decentralization, while conservative claims for local and small-state political authority and economic sovereignty seem as hysterical and desperate as ever.
A decade ago, however, when I asked my own editors at The Nation what was behind the success of conservative commentators like Neal Boortz and Michelle Malkin and cultural provocateurs like Michael Savage, we all pointed to the same political movement that came to dominate the U.S. news landscape in the late 1990s: the anti-tax, anti-government conservatism embodied by Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley Jr.
Of course there are many conservatives who have turned from the reality-based position of Buckley and Reagan to the faux-intellectual pose of Bannon and Tucker Carlson. But conservative nostalgia for ideologically pure “true conservatism” is of itself illusory: Douthat and Ross Douthat.
What they did best was to be master players of cultural politics and intellectual verbal gymnastics. They framed conservative outrage about diversity as a legitimate way to defend a policy agenda defined by traditional values — but who happens to be at war with a tiny group of radical culture warriors, some of whom are even adherents of non-traditional beliefs. On cultural issues, meanwhile, they repeatedly elided different truths about fundamental American values and made up absolutes out of thin air: Real conservatism is called “ethnocentric,” “race-obsessed,” “deplorable” — basically anything that they could twist to make their worldview seem slightly more important.
Douthat and Ross Douthat weren’t infallible arbiters of right-wing ideology, nor was Reagan, Pat Buchanan, and many of their ideological colleagues, and their pretensions and biases were often shameless and transparent. But their achievements were nevertheless impressive, particularly considering that the influence of those ideas had steadily weakened since 1981.
That’s why I find it astonishing that less than a decade after conservatives reasserted their cultural and political dominance, they’re searching for definitive symbolic gestures, for “icons” like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Pat Buchanan to make their cultural and political view of America happen. And that’s why liberals and progressives might want to be skeptical when today’s right starts calling for a fight to the death over whether the president should have a military exemption to the disbarment board.
Read the full story at The New York Times.