All About That Republican Base
How long will conservative intellectuals abide its illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies?
We talk a lot about “the Republican base,” as in “Trump owns the Republican base” and “Liz Cheney has no future in the GOP because the base rejects her.” When we say things like this, we know who we’re talking about: The most engaged members of the party—the people who show up to vote in party primaries, volunteer to knock on doors, order yard signs, and fall in behind the party’s nominee as soon as he’s been chosen.
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But what is the opposite of the base? Party “elites”? Maybe. But we need to distinguish among different groups of elites: funders/donors (Peter Thiel; Charles Koch; Paul Singer); “entertainers” (Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro); and intellectuals/pundits (Yoram Hazony, Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari).
Note that in listing intellectuals/pundits, I didn’t mention Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, or David Brooks, when all of them would have been high on any list of leading conservative writers 20 years ago. All are alive and still writing. Why do they not make the list today? Because they have fallen far enough out of step with the Republican base that they have been replaced at the commanding heights of punditry by others more in line with what the most engaged voters want to hear. In this respect, Goldberg, Kristol, and Brooks are independent writers now, no longer toiling for the sake of advancing the prospects and refining the ideas behind the Republican Party.
Once Upon a Time on the Right
This is a post about the process of how this happens—or how it has happened in the past—on the right. It’s one of those posts in which I reflect on my own past experiences as a conservative, and how and why I left it behind, as a way of exploring the phenomenon of rupture between the base and the elite of the party.
I was never as prominent a writer as Goldberg, Kristol, or Brooks, but they were in some sense my models—as were those of an older generation: William F. Buckley, Jr., George F. Will, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and the other neocon policy wonks, along with those I worked with in the circle around First Things for 3-1/2 years in the early aughts. And above all, Richard John Neuhaus.
(I’ve told the following story a handful of times down through the years, most recently in my appearance on the “Know Your Enemy” podcast in September. If you heard me tell it then, I’m sorry for potentially trying your patience. I’ll try to add more to what I said on that occasion to make this post worth your time regardless.)
I had been working as an editor at the magazine for about 16 months when I pitched a column about my experience of becoming a father for the first time. My son had been born in July 2002, and I thought I had something to say about the experience, and where it led me morally and politically.
Neuhaus had no objections, so I set out to write a column titled “Fatherhood 2002,” about how my wife and I aspired to have an egalitarian family in which each of us equally immersed ourselves in the joys and tribulations of caring for a newborn baby—changing diapers and getting up with our son for feedings at all hours of the night. It was exhausting for both of us—I had a long commute into New York City from southern Connecticut every weekday, while my wife was in graduate school at Yale 30 minutes in the opposite direction. But we made it work, and the struggle was worth it, because it involved me more fully in the experience of caring for my son than the norm for men during earlier decades. I also concluded the column by calling for Scandinavian-style paternity leave to give more men the opportunity for a similar level of involvement with their young children.
I don’t recall the other editors objecting to anything in the column prior to publication, though I vaguely remember Neuhaus muttering something about how it would be antagonizing for some readers. That was an understatement. Almost immediately, angry letters began streaming into the magazine’s offices, via snail mail and emails to the First Things website. We published eight of them, seven negative, one positive. Three were from people I would describe as members of the conservative elite; the other four were from people closer to the Republican base. But the latter weren’t really representative of the responses we received. They were the relatively articulate and thoughtful ones. The many letters we didn’t publish were far nastier—more like the insult-laden polemics that would appear at the time in online comment threads and today in right-wing swarms on Twitter and other social-media platforms.
In and Out of Step with the Base
When I’ve recounted this story in the past, I’ve focused on the arch, condescending, self-important character of the lead letter, by an old friend of Neuhaus and a member of its governing board, and on my testy response to that letter (which I stand by wholeheartedly all these years later). But in this post, I’m more interested in what the author of this and the other two critical letters from elite writers got right: They were intellectuals in far better sync with the conservative Republican base, at least as it was represented among readers of our little magazine in 2003, than I was.
My column and response to the letters created a bit of controversy in house, and more than a bit of tension between Neuhaus and his old friend, but my position on staff was secure. In fact, I was promoted to the position of editor of the magazine shortly thereafter. Yet something in me had shifted as a result of the experience.
I’m often asked to explain why I ended up breaking from the right in this period. I usually emphasize the Iraq War, the Catholic sex-abuse scandal involving priests and its cover up by bishops, my aversion to demonizing same-sex marriage, and the magazine’s overemphasis on presumed continuity between Christianity and the Republican Party of George W. Bush. All of those points of disagreement were important because all of them were essential elements of the variation on elite conservatism that prevailed at my place of employment.
But reading all of those angry, sometimes vulgar, letters from First Things readers attacking me and the magazine, accusing us of abandoning the properly gendered outlook on the family, supposedly rooted in Scripture (but actually derived from pop-culture representations of 1950s middle-class white suburban family life), was significant, too. Doing so left me feeling deeply alienated from the place I worked. Not, again, in terms of the workplace. But in terms of the workplace’s telos—its end or goal. I was an editor for an opinion magazine. But who were its readers? What did its “base” believe about the world? How did I feel about devoting myself and my talents to serving this group of people and its prejudices, which I now began to wonder if I shared?
In situations like this, a case can be made for staying put. And if all of the other points of dissent hadn’t been a factor (Iraq, the Catholic sex scandal, and the rest of it), I probably would have done that, at least for a while longer. The case for sticking it out was and is this: Any high-minded political magazine exists in part to edify the taste and judgments of its readers. This works by meeting those readers where they are, on common moral-political ground and then leading them to become more thoughtful by introducing them to more refined, literate, cogent arguments and formulations for what everyone—base and elite—agrees is important.
Parties serve an analogous role, again in part. They elevate, organize, and channel demotic passions into rhetoric and policy to advance goals that everyone from rank-and-file voters to staffers, policy intellectuals, and politicians can affirm. Pundits are an important part of this ecosystem, fighting battles against common ideological enemies and building up an arsenal of arguments and evidence in favor of what one’s own team aims to achieve.
But this presumes everyone is on the same team. What I described as a crisis of doubt about this in the wake of my fatherhood column amounts to a looming suspicion that we weren’t all on the same team—that what I thought we were up to at the magazine was actually quite different than what significant numbers of our readers had in mind. Was I willing to stick it out despite this divergence in outlook? Given all the other points of substantive disagreement, the answer was No.
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