The self-inflicted derangement of the conservative intellectuals
What the hell is wrong with the conservative intellectuals?
I've asked that question numerous times since the coronavirus pandemic began, sometimes online, but usually to myself after reading one right-leaning writer after another take positions that can only be described as intellectually shoddy and morally obscene.
You wouldn't necessarily expect that from me. I'm a one-time member of the conservative movement who broke from it over the Iraq War and disagreements over the aims and ambitions of the religious right during the administration of George W. Bush. Since then, I've been situated on the center left, albeit in a quirky way, because many of my assumptions about politics and life are more often held by philosophical conservatives than modern liberals. (That wasn't true of the greatest liberals of the postwar period, but it is today, especially of those under 40.) So, I read and think with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Alexis de Tocqueville, Leo Strauss, and Hans Morgenthau, but I cast ballots for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Over the years, I've remained in close dialogue with plenty of conservative thinkers, often disagreeing with them, especially on what policies ought to follow from conservative assumptions. But I've nonetheless continued to learn from them and feel understood and sometimes appreciated by them — certainly more frequently than I am by the liberals with whom I vote. That's remained true even through the turbulence of the Trump administration, despite many concerns and frustrations, since debates on the intellectual right have been far more interesting, raising farther-reaching questions, than those among progressives, many of whom have become paranoid and conspiratorial since 2016, when history stopped looking like it was going their way.
But this has changed dramatically in the past two months. As countless commentators have noted, the nexus of talk radio, Fox News, book publishing, and digital media has long served as an incredibly powerful echo chamber that encourages tribalism and groupthink on the right, along with reflective distrust of government, experts, and even formal education. This has become worse under Trump, with dissenting voices increasingly marginalized or excommunicated entirely. But until recently, this hasn't been true of the conservative writers I most value reading and thinking with.
In a column written in mid-March, just as the public world was shutting down in response to the pandemic, I even allowed myself to hope that a forced confrontation with a deadly contagious disease that couldn't be assimilated into pre-existing ideological narratives might break through the noise machine on the right, leading less thoughtful conservatives to give up the obsessions stoked by dishonest media rabble-rousers and engage more honestly and thoughtfully with our common reality. Maybe the result would be a modest elevation in the quality of discourse on the right.
To my dismay, the opposite has happened. Instead of the dittoheads learning a lesson in the limits that reality imposes on ideology, it's formerly thoughtful intellectuals who've gone into overdrive trying to force reality into pre-existing ideological frames, while also actively dismissing knowledgeable expertise and displaying contempt for the uncertainty confronting us all. In its place they substitute tribal loyalty and a nasty Social Darwinism. Self-described nationalists express no solidarity at all with members of their nation dying by the tens of thousands. Formerly thoughtful people have turned themselves into heartless hacks with no interest in seriously engaging with the real problems, challenges, and trade-offs the country confronts in the present crisis. It's incredibly ugly and disheartening.
Why has it happened? I can't say for certain. But there are several possible explanations.
One is that the right has finally surrendered fully to the hubris and postmodern relativism expressed back in 2004 by a senior Bush administration adviser (widely assumed to be Karl Rove), who dismissed the “reality-based community” of journalists and experts in favor of allowing and encouraging those in power to create whole new realities by manipulating information. This temptation has been radicalized by Trump's brazen mendaciousness and its electoral success. Trump has shown that Republicans can be rabidly right wing, refuse to compromise with liberals on anything, and still win. This has made the dismissal of facts too great of a temptation to forswear, especially when the flood of bad news following from the pandemic threatens to drown the president just as he's heading into a re-election campaign. Which is to say that conservative intellectuals haven't just been Trumpfied on policy. They've also been Trumpified on epistemology and ethics.
Another possibility is that we're seeing the consequence of conservative intellectuals deciding to allow the culture war to swallow everything else in our public life. Conservatives have long believed that economics and politics are ultimately downstream from culture. But only now have they started to view every political or economic conflict as an expression of an underlying cultural clash that they believe they can win. Instead of getting their hands dirty with data, statistics, modeling, or wrestling with the difficult trade-offs involved in responding to dual epidemiological and economic crises, they prefer to tell ideologically satisfying stories that shoehorn the behavior of people, classes, politicians, and dreaded “elites” into pre-existing assumptions about the culture war.
Finally, there's the antinomian (and very American) distrust of science and expertise, which has now combined with long-standing conservative respect for the metarational prudence or wisdom of statesmen, to produce an inverted form of deference to ill-informed hunches, instincts, and intuitions, provided they're felt by ideological friends and political allies. So libertarian legal author Richard Epstein gets taken seriously across the right and in the White House when he defies the consensus of public-health experts on the basis of no concrete evidence at all to claim that the coronavirus will kill just 500 Americans. (He later raised his prediction to 5,000. The virus has thus far killed more than 63,000 with no immediate end in sight.) So R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, relies on his gut (and a willfully obtuse reading of the data) to denounce efforts to halt the spread of the virus, all but claiming the American economy and public life have been intentionally wrecked by a malicious hoax promulgated by demonic liberals.
And then there are the many other conservatives who have quite seriously argued that the lockdowns that were imposed to lower fatalities from the virus were unnecessary … because the fatalities from the virus under the lockdown were lower than they were predicted to be without the lockdowns. (No, I'm not kidding.)
None of this means that questioning our response to the pandemic should be considered off limits. But it does mean that those questioning our response should be expected to engage with the same facts and evidence as everyone else who's making a good-faith effort to understand what we've done and what we need to do going forward. Judged by that measure, far too many conservative intellectuals are failing miserably.
Things get even worse when we realize that many of these same writers appear to be motivated to reach their ill-informed conclusions by a moral conviction that encouraging commerce is obviously, uncomplicatedly preferable to preventing widespread illness, suffering, and death. Rather than helping readers understand the tragic conflicts that confront us, pitting economic exchange against a deadly contagion, we are asked instead to embrace the ethic that governed the Donner Party: Every man, woman, and child on his or her own, facing a merciless struggle for survival and learning vitally important lessons about the need for self-reliance and rugged individualism in the process.
As I said, it's ugly. But that's not all it is. It's also reckless, dimwitted, vulgar, cruel, and almost totally lacking in empathy. If that's what it means to be a conservative today, none of us should want anything to do with it.