Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Crisis and Conservative Intellectual Renewal

Matt Continetti's "Crisis of the Conservative Intellectual," published last week, has set off a bit of a conversation.  In recent days, Ross Douthat, Ben Domenech, and Conor Friedersdorf have responded to it.  While I posted some of my own thoughts on Continetti's piece at NRO, I thought I might add a few more observations here.

Domenech makes a solid point in his argument that a loss of faith in American institutions and a broader collapse in social trust paved the way for Trump.  One thing we might take away from Domenech's piece is the importance of conservatives working to restore that public trust and rebuild the various civic and political institutions of this country.  Part of that restoration and rebuilding will involve encouraging virtue, tolerance, empathy, and competence (something that Friedersdorf and Douthat also talk about).  This enterprise is not just about policy, but it will in part require some hard thinking about how various policies can strengthen our communities (and also how to avoid policies that weaken them).  Some promising work has been done along those lines, but more, I think, will be needed.

I'm not as confident as Friedersdorf that a more temperate version of Trump would have lost the Republican primary.  Still, the penultimate paragraph of his essay offers a provocative take on the challenges facing the right:
So long as a significant faction on the right is driven by ressentiment to embrace adversarianism, so long they’d rather see their enemies attacked than achieve anything constructive, and they choose their champions based on their stridency more than their virtues or competence, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible for anyone to win a Republican presidential primary and a general election. And so long as the Republican establishment fails to grapple with the failures of its foreign policy ideology, to purge its hucksters, and to construct policies for its base more effectively than it does for its donor class, it will fail to win back enough voters from adversarianists, whose grievances have some truth to them.
One thing worth saying in passing is that a disconnect between the Beltway GOP and its voters' preferences actually contributes to a kind of adversarianism.  If one wants to muster populist energies without actually delivering on populist policy priorities, invoking the language of radical adversarianism might--in the short term, at least--seem a promising avenue.  It rallies the populist base without actually making any policy concessions.  Over the long term, though, a party that employs such a strategy ends up feeding an ever-swelling shark of rage, which imperils the party's ability to institute a governing agenda.  As Friedersdorf suggests (and I might not agree with all the details of the picture he paints above), more directly addressing the key concerns of many Republican voters would be a way of lessening adversarian tendencies, which would give the party more flexibility in crafting and implementing a policy agenda.  Trying to address the real concerns of voters both inside and outside the GOP coalition could also lead to some good policy outcomes, too.

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