The political right has been successful in swaying the general public for the time being, but American intellectuals remain unconvinced: are there any serious conservative intellectuals?
I am not worried that the universities are dominated by tenured radicals, as one right wing ideologue or another regularly discovers. While the political center of American academics is significantly to the left of the center of the public at large, I see no reason to be particularly upset by this. Career soldiers are probably to the right of the American consensus and this too doesn’t put me up in arms. Better not, I guess. The experience of particular vocations informs political judgment, and people with common world views make common career choices.
But I do worry about the absence of intelligent conservative commentary and criticism in American intellectual life. It does seem to me that almost all serious thought these days is to be found on the left, and I don’t think that this is a good thing. The conservative tradition contributes too much for it to come down to this. And given the swings from left to right in the public mood (which I do regret, all I am saying is give leftists a chance) it would be a good thing if there were a sensible right.
Ideologues of the right, of course, do exist, those who know that there is a clear and present danger, and we must be vigilant, these days against “Islamofascism. “ I think that’s what they call it. But these use fantasy and fear to empower their arguments, not reason and careful observation. How else can you find a liberal Sufi cleric to be a terrorist sympathizer?
And there are those who cling if not to their guns and religion, to their absolute dogmatic beliefs and their assertions of the moral high ground, while fearing actual moral inquiry and debate. Better to worry about the attack on Christmas. And also those who know with certainty that the market is magical, and condemn government waste and inefficiency, who never met a tax cut they didn’t like, won’t ever concede that tax increases may sometimes be a good idea. They won’t debate with me my strong conviction that there is no civilization without taxation.
I find Fox news intolerable, not because there are people on it that I disagree with, but by the way they assert their positions and the way facts are disregarded. And when I read newspapers and magazines and search the web, I still can’t find conservatives that force me to take them seriously. Here and there, I find the witty or the apparently educated, but they don’t challenge me, as great conservative thinkers do. I deeply admire, Burke, Tocqueville, Arendt, Oakeshott, even my teacher with whom I had a difficult relationship, Edward Shils.
They were all conservatives or at least influenced by significant conservative insights. Shils taught me the importance of tradition and custom, and to worry about the limits of reason, as he introduced me to the conservative tradition. We didn’t get along, but I had to take him seriously, and in the end I was flattered that he took me seriously. But I can’t find conservatives to have a discussion with now.
That’s not my conclusion but my challenge. Who are the intelligent conservatives out there? Do you think it is necessary to find them? And what should we do, when we do? My guess is that we will find an intelligent conservative intellectual or scholar, and if I am lucky and they read this post, they will assert themselves in no uncertain terms. But what about an intelligent, serious public figure, a conservative politician that acts in a way that is worthy of respect. Are there any out there? At least over the past year, they have become not simply an endangered species but apparently, extinct.