Last November I received a friendly request from an editor at a political publication. A liberal himself, surrounded by liberal colleagues, he wanted to make sure that the journalists he was hiring were not drawn exclusively from the left. He wondered if I might help him out with a list of “conservative reporters, writers and commentators” whom I admired most. “Who on the right does the best job of covering politics or the economy or anything else, for that matter, in a thoughtful, fair and accurate way?”
Maybe if I had a time machine and could travel back to the 1970s or 1980s, I could name names. Now, though, I can’t think of a single one.
Sure, the right in previous decades was jam-packed with the same sorts of haters, hustlers, hacks and conspiratorial lunatics that are familiar to us now. But there were lively exceptions. George Nash, a still-active independent historian, celebrated The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America in a classic book published in 1976, when that tradition was very much still alive and kicking. James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader, may have been an intellectual architect of the South’s “massive resistance” against integration in the 1950s, but he also wrote columns that were literary, politically independent and often wise. Kevin Phillips was an idiosyncratic conservative then who wrote brilliantly prescient articles with the same critical acumen and empirical ruthlessness he demonstrates nowadays as an idiosyncratic liberal. He published a piece in Harper’s in 1973 predicting that the Republican Party would “cement its coalition by creating a new managerial and communications establishment that merchandises the values that Middle Americans hold dear” and that “the liberal establishment of the Sixties will begin to wither.” A liberal columnist responded by calling Phillips’s argument “the most ludicrous political analysis of our time.” Knee-jerk inanities like that were one of the reasons it was so important to read conservatives back in 1973.
George Will, National Review’s Washington editor, won his Washington Post column that same year as part of a wave of contributors that evinced the success of an organized and underhanded campaign in the Nixon White House to scare mainstream (“liberal”) publications into hiring conservatives. From that privileged perch, however, he proved positively scathing as a principled critic of a White House that, during 1972, both believed “virtually every possible Democratic candidate was a garish sham who would destroy the country” but that they “couldn’t trust the American people to choose that way in a fair fight.” Thus they ended up destroying themselves via Watergate—and that there’s solid thinking.
Then there was William F. Buckley Jr., a problematic figure in so many ways: seriously proposing marooning welfare recipients on an island off Manhattan, tattooing AIDS sufferers on the buttocks, mentoring flock after flock of right-wing journalists who got stupider and lazier and more hawkish with each successive generation. But at least Buckley himself was intelligent and honest—and granted his adversaries on the left, like Noam Chomsky, the respect of debating them seriously on TV.
Now, however, Buckley is dead—very, very dead. Will, meanwhile, is ensconced exactly where he belongs, with the haters, hustlers, haters, hacks and conspiratorial lunatics at Fox News—but also, unfortunately, still at The Washington Post, enjoying a handsome living by making up things about Barack Obama and Benghazi and calling climate change a hoax.
That’s about the long and short of conservative “journalism” these days. Sure, if you put a gun to my head I could name some right-wing journalists who are, at the very least, as they say, “smart.” But every time I think I can sign on to the promise of one of these folks, they just end up disappointing me. The writer Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics wrote an impressive book debunking the idea—much as I have—that demographic trends make a Democratic majority a near-inevitability. Then, last summer, he published a four-part series arguing that Republicans could regain the majority, not by recruiting more Hispanics but by flushing out the “missing white voters” who didn’t go to the polls from 2008 and 2012. It sounded like an interesting argument—until Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz pointed out at ThinkProgress.org that the rate of “missing” minority voters who might have gone for Democrats was about the same as for whites who might have voted for Republicans. Trende simply cheated: “He adds back in all the missing white voters to the 2012 electorate while leaving out all the missing minority voters.” That, practically speaking, made his analysis as useful as cross-country skis at the beach—though it was ideologically useful to his team. Which is about as far as most journalists on the right care to go.
Trende’s about the best journalist they’ve got. And I wouldn’t wish him on an enemy, let alone to be hired by a friend.
The level of conservative stewardship of their “intellectual tradition” is even worse: just look at the 204-page “poverty study” published by the Republican Party’s supposed intellectual heavyweight, Paul Ryan, which as economist Dean Baker points out, informs us on one page that “child care subsidies have negative effects on child development,” and on the next that they have “significant positive effects…on children’s academic performance.” The problem with our media ecology is—just as the question from my editor friend suggests—that conservatives are protected from any consequence for their intellectual failings. That the Ryan report was a self-contradictory joke didn’t prevent The Washington Post from publishing what Baker aptly describes as an “unintentionally humorous puff piece” on it by a former National Review blogger.
Which returns us to the problem I have with my friend’s question to me in the first place: why is it that liberals and moderates and editorial non- and anti-ideologues of (too) good faith insist on making like the Greek philosopher Diogenes, scouring the horizon for the last honest conservative, instead of accepting the fact that there are virtually none to be found? Diogenes at least knew he was a cynic—a satirist. These editors, though, are entirely, pathetically, in earnest. It’s almost a psychological need—a neurotic refusal within in the reality-based community to accept the reality that conservative intellectualism is a tradition that quite nearly died. (But not entirely died: here, I want to single out the contributions of ISI Books, which among other things has published some genuinely scholarly biographies of important conservatives from a more serious conservative age like Brent Bozell Jr., Robert Nisbet and James Burnham.)
Some smart speechwriter for George W. Bush once came up with a rather brilliant phrase to describe what conservatives see as the moral failing of affirmative action: that it imposes a “soft bigotry of low expectations.” By patting under-qualified minority candidates patronizingly on the head and giving them jobs and educations for which they are not prepared, the argument goes, liberals supposedly do the objects of their tender concern more harm than good—and the greater public good a grievous harm as well. Time to stop the soft bigotry of low expectations toward the right. No more affirmative action for conservatives. It does no good for a right-wing literati that would be better served by a swift kick in the ass.