Where are the Conservative Intellectuals?

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.

Soon to be on display at the Natural Museum: Republicanus Intelligus

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.

  • Michael Corey

    I’ve been trying to understand Conservative positions for about six months now. The clearest statement of Conservative positions that I have been able to find is at the Heritage Foundation’s web site. While there may be Conservative scholars scattered around throughout the Academy, I think that many of them have gravitated to think tanks like the Heritage Foundation: The Heritage Foundation has research and position papers on most major issues, and they are presented in a straightforward manner backed by their own research and analysis. If you were looking to try to understand these positions, this is a good place to start. So far, I’m not ready to identify a Conservative politician who I would consider to be an intellectual, but I’ll keep looking. As a whole, there are very few politicians of any persuasion who I would consider an intellectual. I have a feeling that the election process weeds out most intellectuals.

  • Alex

    Re-Blog From Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution Blog-

    Kosmos, a career networking site for classical liberals
    Tyler Cowen

    Created by the Institute for Humane Studies, Kosmos is:

    …a social-networking site for liberty-friendly academics. Here you can meet others in your discipline, share ideas and receive feedback, get career advice, and discover networking events near you.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    I am not expecting conservative politicians to be intellectuals, nor would I expect that of liberal or progressive politicians.What I would hope to find is a conservative politician who acts intelligently and is worthy of respect. In the past year, such virtues have not been apparent, as public figures on the right have repeatedly ignored factual reality and promoted positions meant to provoke fear. Climate change and the like are not partisan issues, but they have become so. American respect for a great world religion also should not be a partisan issue. In the not too distant past, i.e. before the election of Barack Obama, these positions weren’t strictly partisan.

    On conservative intellectuals and the Heritage Foundation, what I see are position papers, stances, that I don’t agree with. That’s not my problem. But that they are not seriously informed and challenging is. I, as a person who is vaguely on the left, can ignore them, in a way that I couldn’t ignore Shils and the intellectual tradition he represented. In some ways, of course, this pleases me as a political being. My opponents are intellectually weak, which in the long run gives me advantage. But because their strong position has informed me as a thinker, I regret the loss of an intellectual tradition that was worthy of respect. And I have to admit on some issues I am not always certain what is left and what is right, and where I stand.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    Thanks Alex for pointing me in the direction of some interesting relatively conservative academics, worthy of attention. I am going to read their posts and links now. I guess my problem with them is that they are classical liberals, conventionally understood these days as conservatives. But I still want to know are there any real serious conservatives out there?

  • Tim Collins

    Like Jeff and Michael, I have a hard time finding (or at least recognizing) today’s conservative intellectuals.

    It seems to me that a fundamental conservative posture in American intellectual discourse is still soundly rooted in our history and traditions as a people. That posture rests on the respectable ideal that at the conclusion of the American Revolution the sovereignty of the crown passed not to a government nor to a select elite (though it certainly did pass to a propertied white, male elite for a time) but to “The People” who then delegated carefully circumscribed powers to government through elected representatives. Of course, the historical reality was far more complex, but the ideal of “The People” setting constitutional restraints on public power is not.

    This understanding of limited government places a burden on those seeking to expand its writ to explicitly and narrowly justify almost any exercise of power. To a progressive liberal, as I would describe myself, that burden does not create an insurmountable obstacle to public action — only a serious rebuttable presumption. Concentrated power — from any source, but particularly from government — must be justified in light of constitutional limits, settled public expectations and the exigencies of the moment.

    A good and constructive conservative is therefore a natural critic of government power, constantly probing and challenging changes that encroach on private prerogatives. When I recognize such people I actively support them. For example, I supported a candidate for Congress from Long Island, Frank Scatturo, who recently lost the Republican primary in his district to a less impressive choice of the local party bosses. Scatturo has a brilliant conservative mind and would have been a thoughtful dissenting voice in Congress. For the same reason I am glad Antonin Scalia is on the U.S. Supreme Court, though I disagree with most of his decisions and wish he were the only conservative voice on the Court.

    But the conservatives I describe and respect are hardly the conservatives we routinely witness in political life today. Today’s typical “conservative” seems to be a shallow and reactionary Babbitt who operates from a theological commitment to a wierd 1950’s esthetic cultural ideal. They remain more of a backlash to social changes set in motion in the 1960’s and 1970’s than to the roots of conservative thinking (founded in a revolutionary rejection of monarchy and revitalized by serious conservative intellectuls like Hayek, Rand and Milton Friedman).

    Instead of incisive critiques of government power, we get shrill bursts of rage about same sex marriage, the construction of a Mosque, global warming and even the failure to treat “intelligent design” as a worthy alternative to the theory of evolution.

    Where serious debatable issues arise such as taxes, health care or war we get self absorbed childish polemics: I don’t like taxes; I don’t want to pay for anyone else’s health care; Kill the bad guys.

    These new conservatives don’t seem to realize that if they held power and truly got their wishes, the country would descend into a calamitous instability. The shortest path to left wing rebellion is extreme right wing government.

  • Scott

    I think you can find conservative intellectuals today. You may find conservative intellectuals on websites such as American Conservative Magazine, Reason Magazine, and sometimes the Frum Forum. The articles on the American Conservative in particular are often quite good and bridge the gap between liberal and conservative thinking. They are however a rather “old school” anti-war brand of Conservatism, and when they make arguments for smaller government, they will sometimes invoke a Tocquevillian perspective in making their case. But they for the most part are relegated to the periphery, or even none existent when it comes to appearances on Fox News. Frum has said something like, “We thought Fox News worked for us. It turns out, we work for Fox News.”

    And so, I think Karl Rove/Dick Morris style electioneering killed Conservative intellectuality, at least in the public sphere. On the one hand, what use is it to be thoughful, when in order to win elections, you just tell people what they want to hear? With the culture wars, the divide and conquer strategy, there is the inevitable Maoist like attack on “elitist” academia, as the seat of their ideological enemies.

    I think there are conservative intellectuals, but they use their brainpower however towards electioneering and must necessarily for the most part remain in the background. That is, they can’t be public intellectuals, or at least appear to be intellectual in public, but follow their own narrative which says that the elitist intellegentia are out of touch with the majority of Americans.

    So I would have to conclude that it is a divide and conquer strategy aimed at winning elections which enforces a homogeneity of thought, and which necessarily precludes thoughtful debate within a given polical group. Neither side wants to appear divided, or more properly, to lack unity. So ironically, for all the bluster about individuality, there is in fact hardly any in the conservative scene today.

    So when would conservative intellectuals rise to prominence again? Maybe when the efficacy of the previously mentioned political strategy ceases to work. But more than that, I think electioneering in general must fail, which depends on whether or not people, self-described conservatives in this case, wise up to it, and open their minds to the broader realm of thought, conservative or otherwise.

    Overall I think the return of Conservative intellectuals to the public sphere would be a very positive development for the country as a whole.

  • kelly

    lovely article, , for the sake of our country I hope this happens…not that I believe Obama is terrible, but for the sake of our problems as a country and the constant inability for the ‘press’ to do much more than give a soapbox to politicians for segments of time on their shows and in their articles- where are the questions? I mean the deep questions. Matt Taibi at Rolling Stone has been following the crooks at the top of Goldman Sachs and countrywide and others for awhile. Press, focus please.

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  • PatrioticUSGlory

    Leftist Matt Taibbi of RS is a very dishonest writer. But it works because his audience are late teens/early twenties college kids.

  • David1776


  • Roman Gypsy

    Well, if we accept the argument that the conservative swing to the far right dragged the traditional left to a ‘centrist’ position, then you’ll find that, aside from the yelling ideologues, you might have trouble telling the difference between intellectual liberal and conservative. This becomes especially complicated when you’re talking about realist or pragmatic approaches to politics, where the criticisms of the government sound very similar from both sides. It’s only when you look at ideology that you can tell a difference between the two– sometimes, even the end goals are similar– (after all, wasn’t Romney’s healthcare, which was later adapted by Obama, originally a Heritage Foundation plan?).

    On the other hand, there’s been Charles Murray, with his criticism of how America is coming apart. Maybe you could take him seriously, for all of his flaws?

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  • Ls 12348

    Conservative intellectuals write for the National Review, and their arguments are much more substantive, and less dismissive and bile-filled, than one finds in leftist sources.

    Conservatives often don’t speak out because they are relentlessly shouted down and frequently harassed by the left, who too often have no compunctions about silencing their opposition. They are under-represented in academe because such intolerant attitudes have come to dominate academe, and they simply cannot be themselves in such a chilly atmosphere. The higher-profile of conservative intellectuals are often found at foundations, where they can be themselves.

    There are and have been a good number of conservative economists, political scientists, and scientists. Leftists wouldn’t know so much about them because they are, well, conservative.

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