The Conservative Imagination | The Nation


The Conservative Imagination

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Of course, it isn't news that conservatives at least act less ambivalent and more cocksure than liberals. A book could be written on the theme that liberalism's problem is that it always involves complication and uncertainty. In his preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling wanted to "recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty." That was in 1950, when political liberalism had reached its zenith and Trilling was worrying aloud that it had grown crudely deterministic at least in part because it lacked any viable conservative counterforce. At midcentury Trilling pleaded with American conservatives to revive themselves philosophically for the health of liberalism. And so they did. Today one can imagine an intelligent conservative like David Brooks begging liberals to find their voices so that conservatism doesn't stiffen like the liberalism to which D'Souza and his pals at Dartmouth delivered a few swift kicks on the eve of the Reagan revolution.

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George Packer
George Packer is the author of two novels and two works of nonfiction, most recently Blood of the Liberals, which won...

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Muslim "fundamentalists" are often people from the striving middle class.

But to judge by the tone and content of this book, and of so much conservative talk in magazines and on TV and radio, it's already happened. The disease of success has begun to waste the musculature; a new cycle of atrophy has set in. Electoral victory is a nice thing, but it doesn't necessarily signify intellectual health--as the Democrats found out after 1976. It's not just that there are no new conservative ideas; it's that the old ideas sound hollow at the core. Thus, D'Souza has to maintain with a straight face and the flicker of a smile that "more and more people are moving into the ranks of the affluent classes"; that "the power of big business over the average American is quite limited"; that "in their personal conduct, conservatives do not claim to be better than anyone else"; that the solution to crime is more guns; that the key to environmental protection is more growth; that the world's poor have no objections to globalization. Some of it is questionable, some of it is flatly wrong and much of it sooner or later will bump up against the wall of reality. But conservatives of D'Souza's age--which is mine, and I've been watching them since we were in college--are generationally in the same position as liberals of Trilling's or Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s.

Their adult lives have coincided with an era of political triumphs (D'Souza understands that even Clinton represented a conservative triumph of sorts). The intellectual work done by neoconservatives of a previous generation brought insurgents like D'Souza into a position where they could enjoy power and influence. They tasted it early, and they liked it. Who wouldn't, with all those soft landings? Just as universities, liberal foundations and, ultimately, Democratic administrations were waiting for the likes of Trilling and Schlesinger, an archipelago of business-funded think tanks, foundations, publishing ventures, lecture circuits and, of course, Republican administrations has underwritten careers like D'Souza's. Liberals writing for the omnipotent liberal media can only dream of the rewards that have come the way of a whole generation of conservatives. Ideas Have Consequences was the title of a 1948 manifesto by the conservative writer Richard Weaver, cited in D'Souza's reading list--and millionaires and corporations have taken it very seriously. But by cyclical entropy, or some mental version of Gresham's law, that very seriousness has produced a culture of heavy subsidy and institutionalization that is bound to end up the enemy of thought and to produce books like Letters to a Young Conservative. Dinesh D'Souza is symptomatic of this process today in the same way that writers proclaiming the death of conservatism in 1964 indicated the low fuel level of Kennedy-era liberalism.

A serious book by a conservative today would face the dilemma I mentioned above--that freedom and authority are profoundly at odds. Any true conservative (as opposed to a mere libertarian) has to be disturbed, if not disgusted, by the spectacle of contemporary America. If belief in a traditional and externally existing system of moral values by which human beings must organize the good society is the philosophical touchstone of conservatism, then America today represents the closest thing on earth to its actual repudiation. In this sense the Islamists are right to hate us, and the initial reaction to September 11 from the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson was philosophically correct. It wasn't long ago that a slew of books with titles like Slouching Towards Gomorrah and The Death of Outrage and The De-Moralizing of America were pouring from conservative writers and publishers like the curses of Jeremiah. September 11 prompted an about-face: Suddenly the instant books, in some cases from the same authors, were resolutely proclaiming Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism and What's So Great About America (D'Souza's contribution to the genre).

And by the same token, any true conservative must be uneasy with how completely the Republican Party has submitted to the interests of big business. The making of money doesn't signify any higher value, and in techno-capitalist America it is the single strongest force for crushing competing values, including what are known as "family values." No one can seriously despise the trash culture of TV, video, music and the Internet without having deep concerns about the unregulated industries and the glorification of wealth that produce it. But you won't find them in the undivided mind of Dinesh D'Souza or most of the other conservatives who turn out the books and commentaries. America is being polluted, they argue, by something called the liberal media, not the corporate media--get rid of liberalism and we'll be clean as well as rich.

Beneath this immunity to critical thinking lies an aversion to disturbing the party's electoral success. D'Souza and his contemporaries came in with Reagan, and unlike the right wing that produced Goldwater or even the neoconservatives of the 1970s, conservatives under 45 have always enjoyed a heady, intimate association with political power. Unlike Buckley, Rusher, Kristol and Podhoretz, they never learned the value of wandering in the wilderness for a decade or two. They expect to win. Like the Best and Brightest under Kennedy, their rhetorical style is arrogant and their politics mainly strategic. Losing doesn't have an automatically stimulating effect on ideas, but in the case of earlier conservatives it made them work harder and think more boldly than coalition maintenance and presidential apologetics could ever have done. With D'Souza we have the young conservative turned organization man. He seems to understand instinctively that too much thinking might endanger the two-headed Republican anomaly of business conservatives joined to moral conservatives. Last month's election suggests that this creature, especially during wartime, could have a potent political future. No one knows yet whether 2002 is 1966 or 1970--a realignment or an adjustment. The results have no doubt spread more sunshine across D'Souza's mental scenery. I can't help wondering, though, whether the didactic complacency of these letters will actually inspire any young conservatives out there--or whether a new turn of the wheel has already begun, with Dinesh D'Souza destined for the role once played by hapless university presidents.

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