What Happened to Conservative Intellectuals?

This article explores the way in which conservatism originated and has evolved within recent years.


Reflecting on the death of late Senator John McCain, it is fair to say that conservatism is at the end of an era. NeverTrump, the last bastion of anti-populist conservatism, is at the brink of collapse. The movement originally began as a response to the rise of then-presidential nominee Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Taken aback by what the Republican Party had endorsed (a candidate that had referred to grabbing women without their consent, Mexicans as rapists, among a number of other things), they pledged to oppose what they say as the corrosion of conservatism. The movement is now on life support. Commentators such as Ben Shapiro, Erick Erickson, and Rich Lowry have fallen back in party line, giving him where credit is due and criticism when warranted (albeit moderate). Several centrist conservatives such as foreign policy expert Max Boot have led an exodus from the Republican party. Boot even went so far as to write a book, “Why I Left the Right”, chronicling his disillusion with right-wing populism. With the election of Donald Trump, the Republican Party has altered into something unforeseen, even by its brightest advocates. More than half a year after his passing, John McCain’s absence makes many wonder what happened to the subtler, intellectual conservatism that many were proud to affiliate themselves with.

The Birth of Conservatism

It is often said that conservatism was born with Edmund Burke’s “Reflections of the Revolution in France”. Having risen to fame during the French Revolution, Burke provided a critique of the enlightenment radicalism that gripped Europe. While Burke understood the need for reform, he believed it ought to be evolutionary and stem from institutions within society itself. The problem that radicalism posed was that it uprooted centuries of social institutions that make society functional. Much of Burke could be summarized in the maxim “Social order is very hard to build and yet very easy to lose”. A streak of cynicism runs through Burke’s work. In his mind, human nature is inevitably flawed and it is only through collective institutions that society avoids chaos. Even prior to the Reign of Terror, Burke predicted that structuring society solely around “reason” would rationalize (and hence destroy) much of the social fabric (community, patriotism,etc.) that kept society together.

It’s important to distinguish Burke from the modern lassie-faire conservatism that dominates America. Burke would have considered blind worship of free markets as a corrosive force – compromising tradition and virtue in the name of money. However, Burke defined conservatism as a force in opposition to radicalism, a theme present today. Whether it was the threat of Fascism or Communism, the Burkean impulse found merit in the present and regarded big ideas that sought to immediately change the world as illusory.

Fast forward to 1955, William Buckley created the National Review. Buckley became the staple of a new conservatism – seeking to bridge libertarian and traditional conservative principles. Backed by mainstream academia and intellectuals, the left dominated philosophical discussions during his time. Discourse became clogged by radical ideas. Writers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, etc. began to deconstruct western values along the line of “oppressive” structures. Even left-wing humanist ideas were dismissed as part of power structures that enforced western hegemony, with scholars such as Foucault labeling themselves “anti-humanists”. Buckley sought to revive conservatism as a viable intellectual force with the National Review. Speaking with a distinct northern accent, Buckley was derided as elitist and out-of-touch.

Buckley’s sense of realistic, libertarian-infused conservatism was critical of another movement – neoconservatism. Irving Kristol, dubbed The Godfather of the movement, defined neocons (a shortened abbreviation) as “liberals who were mugged by reality”. Many were former leftists (including Trotskyists) who became disillusioned with the pacifism of the left. In the lead of Senator Henry Jackson, they became anti-communist liberals before making a full conversion to the Republican Party.  Neocons were idealists who were influenced by the thought of Leo Strauss, a philosopher who rejected what he saw as Western decay in favor of universal moral truths. This meant a commitment to western values such as liberal democracy, human rights, etc. Neoconservatives viewed US foreign policy as a vehicle for spreading what they viewed as morally superior values. This included a commitment to nation-building, upholding democracy, and unilateral action. These strong interventionists thought that America’s role in the world was greater than simply itself and that it had a responsibility in spreading these moral truths abroad. Buckley’s libertarian strand of conservatism (along with progressives) criticized neocons as overly reductionist – turning morally ambiguous situations into a binary conflict between good and evil, us vs. them, America vs. the enemy.

To say that conservatism has always been an intellectual movement would be dishonest. During the 1980s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a movement that sought to infuse evangelical beliefs into politics, undermined much of conservatism’s respectability. While Buckley was a Christian, his strand of conservatism did not adopt the sort of religious fundamentalism that swept the Republican Party during Reagan. However, the Religious Right played a large role in shaping conservatism in the political arena. It is fair to say that there has always been a disconnect between the conservative elite and the religious right. In the end, the religious right played a greater role in shaping conservatism. Looking abroad, conservatism in Europe has a different flavor. More reminiscent of Burke, it has largely rejected the fundamentalism that so many Americans embrace. Thinkers such as Roger Scruton echo an older generation of conservatism. One that was as pragmatic as it was idealistic.

So What Happened?

Conservatism has always been at war with itself. With Mitt Romney representing the out-of-touch, country club Republican, Trump is the polar opposite. Filled with populist resentment, he opposes the system that men like Mitt Romney upheld. And it is in this shift that much of the Republican voter base has changed. The shift is not just ideological, it is demographic. An article by Pew Research found that the party is divided along education and wealth. 62% of white non-college republicans viewed immigrants as “a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and healthcare.” Around 26% said that immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents”. Amongst college-educated Republicans, it was split with 44% agreeing and 42% disagreeing. The report found that views on racism and economic fairness greatly differed between the two groups. Furthermore, much of Trump’s base stems from communities that lost out on globalization. The industrial Midwest, traditionally a democratic voting base, moved to the right during the 2016 election. Much of the educational disparities correlate with social class. An opinion piece by David Brook argues that progressives have begun to embrace elitism. He claims that legislation such as the Green New Deal represents faith in the “guiding wisdom of the political elite” valuing “technocratic planners” that can master “the movements of 328 million Americans”.

The rise of right-wing populism has largely abandoned the Mitt Romneys of the world. It is Mattress Mack that has become the backbone of the new America. A Republican Party whose bible is not Edmund Burke, but Wal-Mart. And it’s in this shift that conservatism has become lazy. It lost sight of its roots and traded in a set of philosophical principles for inflammatory rhetoric that can get Republicans elected. The way forward is not reactionary nor does it turn its back on everyday Americans. But it requires a reformation. A rediscovery of the values that built conservatism. A conservatism that finds wisdom not in fear-mongering but virtue. Only time will tell.

Yearning for Reform

That is to say that the cause is not lost. An article by Henry Farrell explains the rise of the Intellectual Dark Web – a collective of intellectuals who feel isolated from both mainstream media as well as populism. Much of this movement has gained traction with younger individuals. Although the IDW spans the political spectrum, it has given rise to people like Jordan Peterson who have become notorious for their debating prowess and ideas. What this shows is that there is a yearning for a new type of politics. One that transcends headlines and 4-minute interviews, but rather addresses arguments in all their nuance. While far from mainstream media, it shows that there is a craving for critical thinking.

Quintin Hogg once said that “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.” It is paramount that individuals understand conservatism as just that.

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