by Michael Brendan Dougherty
Dear Conservative Movement,
That was crazy in Massachusetts! Right? I mean, it was like two months ago that liberals were all up in our faces. They said, “NY-23! We beat that Doug Hoffman, teabaggers!” Yeah. They beat a third-party candidate. And then Ted Kennedy’s still-warm seat was just handed to us. They can console themselves with a congressional district, while we strangle the most important liberal reform since the Johnson administration.
So, yeah. We’re supposed to be happy. I know we’re all talking about the glory days of 1994, or 1984. I’m sure there is some mid-level staffer at National Review, trying to conjure the tears of Barry Goldwater on behalf of Scott Brown. But in case you’ve forgotten, even by your own standards, you’re kind of in terrible shape.
First, you’re obsessed with yourself. You try everything in the culture-The Incredibles, Wal-Mart, Crocs-and you ask: Is it conservative? This makes us look like creep socialists from the 1930s, debating endlessly about whether something is sufficiently proletariat. Weren’t we supposed to defend truth, beauty, and goodness (like St. Thomas Aquinas?) You ask us to measure Bill Watterson, Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton by one measure: conservative/not conservative.
You go so far as to encourage people to fabricate their entire identity from the Republican platform. Look at S.E. Cupp. She used to be a person! Now, under your influence, she is one of the lamer Rush Limbaugh monologues from the Clinton era. She’s a copy of a copy of Xerox of a rejected P.J. O’Rourke riff. How can you live with yourself, conservative movement?
You may not know this. But all the smartest people on the Right are basically ashamed to be associated with you. Your “success” in building a set of near-permanent institutions, think-tanks, and magazines to promote your ideals in an uncontaminated environment leaves us with two choices:
1) Sell out to the movement. That is, we may occupy ourselves by explaining that whatever the GOP is promoting-whether it be torture, pre-emptive war, Mutually Assured Destruction, or supply-side economics-is an enduring Western value. If John Boehner is doing it, we’re supposed to figure out why Edmund Burke would support it.
2) Sell out the movement. That is, pitch our articles to liberal audiences. Trash the movement (like I’m doing), and trade our actual conservative convictions for the ephemeral respect of our peers.
If one of us tries to walk a fine line between these two, we’ll be accused of either disloyalty by the hacks or of hackery by the principled and aloof. One way merits a secure gig in the movement’s intellectual ghetto. The other may win a few of us a higher status but a more insecure job at a respected outlet.
This situation makes actual arguments difficult, since everyone assumes we are simply enacting long-term branding strategies, rather than stating our views honestly. You’ve made it impossible for us to have a conversation.
Because you’ve made yourself a prostitute for the GOP, a cynical and corrupt organization since Reconstruction, all of your young geniuses are tainted. People don’t respect their ideas, because they can’t assume they are genuinely held, rather than cynical ploys to keep Joe Palinsupporter in line.
And so, young conservatives hate themselves. They live in fear that if they do state their actual views, they’ll be forbidden from any meaningful work in the future outside the movement.
The reason Ross Douthat won’t share his views on gay marriage in detail is simple. He knows gay marriage opponents will be portrayed as the Bull Connors of the near-future. And he wants to keep writing film criticism and noodling theology for educated readers.
How many times did William F. Buckley have his tepid, once-moderate sounding defense of segregation quoted to him? A million times. By liberals, and paleo-conservative racists both. But Buckley was indestructible. Douthat and the rest of us aren’t. We know that for the foreseeable future, liberals have the whip-hand in forming the “prevailing structure of taboos.”
Which brings me to the last point. You’re a failure, and your ambitions are so limited, it makes me cold.
The prelapsarian conservatives of the 30s opposed foreign adventurism and naive Wilsonian internationalism. They wanted to shrink the size of the federal government. In over 70 years, despite massive public spasms of disgust with the federal government, conservatives have only made it larger and stupider.
Let’s list how! Eisenhower’s Cold War mobilization, Nixon’s wage and price controls and the EPA, Reagan’s massive expansion of military spending, financed by tax cuts that were sold to the public as “revenue generating.” The process culminated in the hilariously fascist sounding, grant-writing chop shop known as the Department of Homeland Security. So: failure.
Don’t get me started on foreign policy. There we were always at odds. I was a kind of isolationist. Your two unwinnable wars did little to dissuade me on that point.
But then this free market stuff. Live within your means. Fend for yourself. Be responsible. I believed that. But the people you elected didn’t. Bankers, GE, Archers Daniels Midland, military contractors, really all sorts of speculators-they deserved wealth transfers, cheap credit, debt cancellation. These are your welfare queens, conservative movement. Do you know how bad this makes us look, after having attacked poor people and minorities as free-riders?
Anyway, perhaps most grandly, you’ve tried to preserve Christian civilization, in decline since the 60s, or the 20s, or the French Revolution, or since William of Ockham, if you ask Richard Weaver.
Though a minority of us still read and adhere to some hearty theology, Dutch Calvinism, Tractarianism or Latin-Mass Catholicism, you’ve abandoned your charges and America to Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend style mega-churches. If the choice is between listening to the wisdom of Kirk Cameron and singing Jars of Clay songs and pledging our virginity versus going to college, reading Kant and fornicating? I can tell you, categorically, we’ll be going at it like heathens and Democrats.
But perversely, you seem to thrive on this sort of failure. You’ve always accused liberals of creating social ills with government programs, immediately followed by proposing government programs for said social ills. The same is true of you. The more anxiety we have about family breakdown, the more we donate to the Heritage Foundation. Because the cure for deracinated social atomism is obviously a white paper.
The only thing you’re really good at is preserving the conservative movement. And that project bored me to tears.
I will admit it. There was something I found seductive about you. If someone wants to shout “Abortion is disgusting” (it is) or “Taxes suck” (they do) or “Let’s defend America First!” (always), they can find a place to do it in the conservative movement. If they are presentable enough to date women, within two years or so, they’ll be writing for conservative magazines, appearing on conservative podcasts, maybe even hanging out with elected officials.
It begins with one unshakable intellectual conviction in college, like “Entrepreneurs are awesome!” (a little Randian for me), or “modernity is chaos”-and suddenly someone is a part of a movement staffed with other bright, young, idealistic conservatives who think, drink and talk like they do. Privately, they even complain about you, like I do.
But it doesn’t take long for the nausea to set in. You start teaching us to embrace an inferiority complex, one that makes us feel like rebels, while making us more dependent your largesse.
You’ve tried to sweet-talk me-to convince me that a Kenyan socialist is sleeping in the same bedroom once occupied by Saint Ronnie, the divorced patron saint of union-busting.
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.
Some of us want to actually conserve what is good about this country. Some of us want to write fiction that has nothing to do with “conservatism,” as you call it. Some of us just can’t swallow our embarrassment anymore.
P.S. Scott Brown is what you used to call a “squish.” So, you’re settling too.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is (still) a contributing editor to The American Conservative. As of this writing S.E. Cupp was one of his Facebook friends.