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The five-headed future of conservative thought
Commentary magazine invites the Right's biggest thinkers to a forward-looking symposium. The results may delight liberals
Conservative journalist David Brooks speaks at the launch of the unaffiliated political organization known as "No Labels" in 2011.
Conservative journalist David Brooks speaks at the launch of the unaffiliated political organization known as "No Labels" in 2011. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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n the days since President Obama delivered his second inaugural address, with its expansive vision of progressive governance, liberals have been feeling a little giddy. And understandably so. Not only does the president sound newly confident and ambitious in his plans, but his opponents in Congress, bewildered by the outcome of the election and the fiscal cliff standoff, seem increasingly demoralized and confused about how to respond.

What comes next for the right? One place to look for signs is a symposium in the January issue of Commentary magazine on the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election. No fewer than 53 intellectuals, pundits, and strategists weigh in. Should liberals be worried? To judge from the current thinking of their ideological adversaries, the answer is no. Or rather: Not yet. 

Contributions to the symposium can be divided into five groups.

1. The Lazily Incoherent High Brows
The bafflingly bad essays contributed by three of the Right's leading minds aren't necessarily a sign of intellectual decline among conservatives, but they are indisputably a sign of intellectual decline among these particular conservatives. Harvard's Harvey Mansfield — acclaimed translator of Machiavelli, brilliant theoretician of constitutional government and executive power — has been a leading conservative thinker for decades. But here he's reduced to pondering whether the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate implies "a right, and a government guarantee, that [a condom] will be put to use." Mansfield's student William Kristol does little better, offering a series of windy slogans about conservatives "acting as a moral force." He also, apropos of absolutely nothing, spends half of his essay quoting political philosopher Leo Strauss about how Zionism fulfills a "conservative function." 

Then there's Paul A. Rahe, the author of a magisterial multivolume history of republican government, who thinks the GOP needs to stand against the "tyrannical implications of Barack Obama's massive increase in the size and scope of the administrative entitlement state." Since federal outlays as a percentage of GDP (see Table 1.3) came in just six-tenths of a point higher under Obama in 2011 (24.1) than they did under Ronald Reagan in 1983 (23.5), Rahe must be using some other measure of "massive," though he doesn't bother to tell us what it is. Instead, he merely asserts that the country is on the verge of succumbing to "the 'soft despotism' described by Alexis de Tocqueville 172 years ago." No wonder he concludes that "the immediate prospects for the country are grim." 

2. The Gloom Mongers
Rahe is hardly the only conservative in a foul mood. Author Mark Steyn foresees "a total societal collapse" in the United States and wonders whether there will be any "future in America" at all. Theocon George Weigel rails against American "decadence" and denounces "the imperial autonomous Self" that sets the nation's cultural tone, all before warning (in language borrowed, without attribution, from Pope Benedict XVI) that the "soft dictatorship of relativism" toward which the country is hurtling will be "no less dangerous for its lack of Gulag camps." Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt adds his two cents by claiming that the U.S. is "on a perilous trajectory," while literary critic Roger Kimball sees an imminent slide down "the path that we know is the road to serfdom." And on it goes, with little hope for the future, and even fewer concrete suggestions.  

3. The Sunshine Warriors
At the opposite tonal extreme are those — including Karl Rove, Elliot Abrams, Michael Barone, Arthur C. Brooks, Matt Continetti, Tevi Troy, and Peter Wehner — who think the GOP mostly has to do a better job of marketing precisely the same product it's been selling for the past 34 years. Freedom, tax cuts, markets, liberty, tax cuts, small government, freedom, tax cuts, and liberty — the same old catechism repeated endlessly, always with a smile and a twinkle in the eye, just like the Gipper. It sounded bold and fresh in 1979, when the top income-tax bracket sat at 70 percent. But today, it's an anachronism.

4. Reformers, Writ Small
A fourth group of conservatives — Linda Chavez, Jay P. Lefkowitz, Jason Riley, Jennifer Rubin, Roger Simon, and Bret Stephens — recognizes that the center-right faces a grave electoral challenge, but it thinks the main problem can be solved on the margins of the conservative movement. Keep the GOP platform constant, just reach out to Latinos. Rethink nothing fundamental, only drop the gay bashing. Continue to pursue the same policies, but hold off on speculating about "legitimate rape." In sum, take Romney's 47.8 percent of the vote and add on a couple of targeted voting blocs, and it'll be Morning in America all over again. (Would it work? Possibly, at least in the short term. But the Republican Party would still face longer term demographic difficulties.) 

5. The True Leaders of the Conservative Future
If the first four groups were all contemporary conservatism had to offer, liberals might have reason to feel cocky about the prospect of holding on to the Oval Office in 2016 and beyond. But there is a fifth camp of conservatives committed to undertaking more fundamental reform. Over the past several years, David Brooks, David Frum, Rod Dreher, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, and Reihan Salam have made the case for rethinking conservatism for the 21st century — and they continue that work in their contributions to the Commentary symposium. All of these writers believe the center-right needs to move beyond its obsession with Reagan because (in Ponnuru's words) "the Reagan program no longer speaks to the needs or concerns of most Americans."  

True. But what's the alternative? All of these authors make provocative and productive suggestions. They range from Brooks' rejection of the big-government vs. small-government dichotomy altogether to Levin's insistence on radical reforms to the welfare state that would return federal spending and regulation to where they were in the mid-1950s. (If the economy hits another rough patch and the deficit continues to grow over the coming years, a Paul Ryan presidential campaign with Levin heading up the policy shop could prove politically formidable.)  

Less radical but more intriguing is Salam's suggestion, echoed in passing by several symposium contributors, that conservatives take on "the breakdown of the American family" as a crucially important issue. Neoconservatives used to talk about out-of-wedlock births, but mainly as a pathology associated with inner-city poverty. Such births are much more common today across all demographic groups, and Salam says this is a serious problem. "Millions of children suffer enormously from the lack of family stability and find it difficult to acquire the skills they need to flourish in school and in the workplace." That's why conservatives should be working on ways to address family breakdown, "not by scolding or hectoring an America that won't listen, but rather by crafting a language that is relevant and compelling to young people open to breaking the cycle." 

"Save the two-parent family!" Is it a politically potent challenge to the progressive vision President Obama sketched last Monday? No. But it's a start — and certainly more promising than the mumbled curses, marketing plans, and marginal tweaks that so many on the Right seem to consider a compelling vision of the conservative future.

Damon Linker is a senior writing fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test. You can follow him on Twitter: @DamonLinker.

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