Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Maybe Something For the A Students

One of my worries about the problem of center-right communication is that I'm not sure that conservative ideas are well communicated to those who do not consume the populist right-leaning media like talk radio and FOX News.  This problem takes many forms.  One of those is the problem of reaching nonwhites generally, but another is reaching the people (of all races) who will pass through the country's top colleges or those who will graduate at the top of their classes in less exclusive schools.  This is the problem of winning over (or at least making marginal gains) among the country's A students.

As Ross Douthat writes, alot of these kids are going to end up in influential positions in society, and their cultural formation is probably pushing them to various kinds of left-of-center politics.  Douthat worries that the Ivy League schools taking in more students from white working-class and rural backgrounds will only assimilate those students to the dominant values of the left-leaning establishment.  Maybe, but I don't think losing those kids is so inevitable.  I also don't think that conservatives are doing a very good job of talking to those kids.

My own experience with really bright, hard working, ambitious, and politically engaged (but not obsessive) kids is that conservative messages rarely get to them in a detailed or friendly form outside of major election campaigns.  There are exceptions, but those kids are a minority and usually have to find conservative media on their own.  That means that, for most of these kids, their perceptions of politics are framed by media institutions that are liberal-leaning to various degrees of intensity and openness.  They are also going to go to colleges where their professors will be varying degrees of liberal.  This makes a generalized friendliness to liberal politicians and policies the default position.

The populist conservative media isn't really much of a help.  The vast majority of these kids don't listen to the radio for politics (neither talk radio nor NPR.)  They aren't going to watch Hannity or Beck.  Those shows aren't really designed for them anyway.  Those shows work best for those who have already bought into the conservative narrative and they don't really take on the best arguments of the other side.  But these kids will have heard the best arguments that liberals have to offer and they are smart enough not to forget them.  It does no good to argue that these kinds of shows might lead kids to Hayek.  They won't because most of them just will not watch that long.  I remember Roger Ailes explaining one of the reasons that FOX News was such a success was because he was producing a product for a niche market underserved by liberal-leaning media.  The niche market was "half the country."  Well it wasn't half the country, but it was tens of millions of people.  The problem is how to communicate to the audience that isn't part of that (not quite) half of the country and whose average member Charles Murray described as being a "bright reasonable person who doesn't agree with me but comes to my text ready to give me a shot."    

While reading Kevin Smant's biography of Frank Meyer, I was struck (but not totally convinced) by James Burnham's vision for National Review as a conservative magazine for the broadly educated public, a magazine on the desks of "politicians, professors, bureaucrats" and not just ones who were self-consciously conservative.  Burnham was picturing a media institution that could shift the uncommitted (or even the liberal) a little in the general conservative direction or even only on one issue, but also got the educated class to constantly take conservative ideas seriously.  This isn't to endorse every prudential judgment made by Burnham or to deny that elements of Burnham's vision are dated. For instance, it probably won't be any one institution that that manages to improve conservative communication with the most highly educated fraction of the public.   

 The communication problem with this group is tough.  We need a set of institutions that speak to an audience that will have heard many of the best (or maybe second best) liberal arguments for this or that liberal policy. As Murray pointed out, if conservatives "take a cheap shot" or "duck an obvious objection" to their arguments, they will lose this audience.  All of which is to say that for conservatives to do better among this group, they will have to get the personalities and arguments of Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Peter Lawler and Jim Manzi (among others) into the faces and heads of more of our valedictorians and Ivy League graduates.     

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Discussions - 13 Comments

National Review helped convert me, fresh out of Columbia University and radical left politics, in the early 1970s. I picked it up in the Butler library on one idle day and found the whole magazine was full of people writing about liberty. I went home and told my new husband. He had stepped back from "Smash the State!" communism and was a follower of Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. I said that I had read this great article in a magazine I had never heard of before. It was all about liberty and didn't seem to like the growing extent of current government much. However, it did not read like the usual socialist stuff he brought home. Was there another way?

Two years later we were subscribers. He had grown up and had a real job and all of the things he had thought he was unthinking. God had something to do with it, but that part is hard to explain. Experiencing real life had something to do with it, too.

We became conservative, but obviously did not stop being interested in liberty and if not smashing the state at least reducing it for the sake of liberty, if possible. I don't know that the same message gets across all the time, but I know that liberal arguments collapse (for many of us, not all, obviously. Craig Scanlon is bound to jump in here with some version of "Oh, YEAH?") in the face of real life.

Of course, real life for some demands government subsidy sometimes, which is why there are things like the Small Business Administration. There are also certified public accountants who probably work as hard to protect the incomes of liberals from taxation as they do for conservatives. I really don't know many liberals who are not concerned to "pay their fair share" and not a penny more if they can help it.

Pete, I would suggest the proliferation of conservative media is thanks to National Review and that it has so many successful competitors for readership or attention in any way is evidence of its success as James Burnham pictured. I miss the old NR terribly. It had an intensity that the current version cannot have, because there really wasn't much else. My grandfather liked The American Mercury, which must have been good once, but by the time I saw in in the late 70s was really horrible. Anyway, NR seems thinner to me because conservative media is so broad.

I would suggest that the products of liberal institutions do not always wind being liberal. If that were true, no one you mention, maybe no one educated beyond high school, would be conservative. Yet there are many conservatives in America and many of them are educated.

Kate, I wasn't being critical of NR exactly and certainly not it's legacy. NR has been quite interesting (and brave without being too showy about it) in recent months. And if I could buy everone a subscription to National Affairs, I would. It is just that I would want people who aren't reading conservative magazines to be exposed to those ideas. I don't know how that happens, but easily accessible (especially broadcast) media institutions aimed at an educated but not necessarily conservative audience are missing. I'm not even sure what they would look like in combining policy content and the ability to draw an audience.

I was arguing that we need new ways to talk to people who aren't being reached by the best conservative arguments today - not that these people aren't being convinced by the best conservative arguments (Levin and Avik Roy on health care policy. Manzi on global warming etc), they literally haven't been exposed to them. I know there are many educated conservative people, and I would like to see more so as to not see further erosion of the Republican vote among college graduates. I also think that exposing more of our top students to the best conservative arguments won't simply produce more conservatives, it would produce more subtle changes at the margin, mkaing some not conservatives exactly, but less liberal, or maybe changing opinion on one issue but not others. and every little bit helps.

Yes, I got that, but you really cannot make an impact on people who are just not listening. I am still and constantly stunned by how many people (at the college where I work for example) do not really engage with news and public events. They catch TV news, but that is blips and blurbs these days. They don't read newspapers, they don't really read much of anything that is serious analysis. NPR's news is depth for them -- "All Things Considered" is all they'll consider and it is sure not all things and often ignores big news of the day. They don't want more.

But what you are talking about is how to get people not to make up their minds without hearing all sides -- did anybody ever do that? Actually, that has never been easier; there is so much information around.

As for the young, persuade Jon Stewart to conservatism and you might make some headway.

Yeah, I agree with Kate mostly. I disagree with Douthat. Angelina Codevilla has several things right, but the focus on the intellectual homogenization of the more intellectual class isn't one of them.

"Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed."

This simply isn't true. I suppose that there is a single orthodoxy about the origins of man if you mean natural selection. I am no biologist but I have read the origin of the species and respect both Darwin and the contribution to science and technology that biologists bring to the table, everything from the creation of Viagra(which is a different take on the origin of man) to promising research on Cancer, genetics, crop yields and biofuels.

In terms of american history there is no single orthodoxy, and in terms of how america should be governed there is no orthodoxy.

My guess is that if you take the most intelligent people in america you will get great divergence of opinion.

On the other hand you will get orthodoxy among these if they are employed in an organization. The orthodoxy among Wal-Mart management is to be against card check. The reason? Card Check is bad for Wal-Mart's business model.

You don't get orthodoxy until you get down to the sector that these folks will work in. Once you get them in management jobs they will voice the opinions that bennefit the organization they are tied up with. Sure a lot of folks will on idealism about proggressive issues join up left-of center political organizations, but some number of conservatives will do the same, there is a natural limit to the number of jobs in such organizations.(Thank God?)

Basically NR is not as good as it used to be(taking Kates word for it) in part because there are more conservative sources and because it is a sort of "proffesional" conservative magazine.

Its the sort of magazine you might echo if you were conservative proffesionally. Douthat for example.

I figure you might echo the nation if you were proffesionally liberal.

Without a doubt there are a lot of sectors where being some version of proffessional liberal might be worthwhile. I suppose if you are in Labor Law for example(you work with and for Unions), or against them You hate Wal-Mart, or not.

You work in the military industry, you are a certain type of proffesional conservative, provided this remains generally hawkish.

Any homogenization among the more intelligent group of americans depends largely on who they work for.

As an example Kate as a proffessor has a sort of orthodoxy or agreement concerning what is cheating, this is standardized and more or less part of the rules of the game with a process for punishing students. Still I imagine that while there is general proffesional consensus, there is considerable intellectual disagreement among proffessors.

The problem with the most educated group of americans is that they all seem to work in persuation, and in general they would rather persuade than be persuaded. You are selling to salesmen, lawyers, doctors and in part because they have a sort of seperate professional ideology, they aren't budging off the personaly held idealism, opinion or unique factual insight.(as much as I like to persuade I am not trying to persuade folks out of areas of expertise, for example my so called darwinism isn't intended to teach a biologist)

As far as I can see the real fear of Douthat only really makes sense if Government has reached so far into the economy that the professional interest of this white collar class leans liberal.

I think there are really so many potential interests and sectors and issues that are fitted loosely into conservatives or liberal camps that the only ones who pay attention are really the proffessionally liberal or conservative. So while in general I can say with confidence that a lot of businesses dislike cardcheck and among them wal-mart I can't say that all conservatives like or dislike wal-mart. Generally republicans anti- democrats pro, but you get splits quickly. In fact I think that the more intelligent or educated you are the more you are aware(and perhaps find it fun to play with) potential splits and factions in what would otherwise be an undifferentiated ETF(sector/generalized macro) like conservatism or liberalism. (Interesting that bank stocks despite GS news and different performance are moving at a .9 corolation to the sector ETF.)

Again back to the generalized/particularized interest question. Is there at least a conservative General Will? I suppose I disagree with Douthat because I don't think there is even a liberal General Will(and so far as it exists it might be spoken for and spun by this intellectual class but in terms of being made up of a group, you would have to look to Unions, the intellectuals are just there proffesionally), if in fact there is some great liberalism that exists I have yet to see it held together and even on healthcare the Whip had to work hard.(and yet the general will is single payer?) You have bluedogs, yellowdogs, hawks, doves, and a president Obama who gets criticized for not standing for the right things(something that would be impossible if there really was this General Will)

Look there is more of a general will among the teaparty and the folks who watch fox news, yet even here the game is always to speak for it, to selectively redefine the teaparty...and if a liberal from the NAACP to seek to isolate on some of its members who also happen to be racists, and then to force those who falsely(because it is not astroturf, but general will) claim control of a faction to eject or speak out against radical members.

Ironically this is only really possible with astroturf or corporate interest or proffesional interest. The Republican party can certainly be leaned on, the teaparty cannot.

In any case for all the difference between republicans and democrats it is probably the case that like the Bank ETF's individual politicians are never fully distinguished. The gap between Republican and Conservative while among the intellectuals(the more educated class) is a meaningfull distinction also trades I suspect with high corrolation. Democrat and Liberal, likewise.

My general theory is that the more educated class is more aware of distinctions.

Wow, I never realize how much I write in a single sitting. I would appologize but I will do it again as I find it usefull for thinking.

Pete I can get bills and a lot of other information, I can't justify doing or learning about politics much past my current level. (I am not a proffesional)

So among non-proffesionals I think Kate is right both in her observation (and perhaps in a rationalization). Thus there is a distinction between these proffesors(the A list) in terms of how much and what they pay attention to.

I think perhaps the A list might have more of an appetite for specific knowledge about individual politicians. That is the hunger is less for broad knowledge of what the republican party stands for than insight into what a particular politician stands for. A certain number of people will just vote republican or democrat, I think the A list is more resistant and unforgiving. Some portion of the A list might even bother to figure out that postmodern conservatives exist, albeit here you are talking to busy people, time management and conciseness are important.

If I am going to bother with analysing a stock I don't want to see a .9 corrolation, otherwise I just pick a sector ETF. Why bother picking an individual politician or stock? Broadly speaking you can skip sector diversification and just grab an SP500 ETF like SPY. Some portion of busy folks(A list) aren't going to read about post-modern conservatives or Lawler(can they justify it?) In chemistry terms you always have a limiting ingredient. Some of this is left over oxygen that can't or won't mix with hydrogen to form water. No matter how refined your conservatism at some point, you have to find a politician it corresponds to.(or you don't but then you have an element that will never form a compound, some forms of conservatism and libertarianism are ends in themselves.)

Kate is right that it has never been easier, still there are at least 20 factual reasons why not paying much attention makes sense, and all of them boil down to a perceived low return on investment. Even in presidential elections when attention is focused, and participation is near its peak, in most states due to the electoral college the end result is statistically a forgone conclusion. There is a level of determinism in the system, that for the sake of sanity in the general course of a reasonable persons affairs is not courted. (We had what in all other walks of life would amount to actionable certainty that Obama would win against McCain.)"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win." -Sun tzu. Certainly if the macro-picture/trend is risk aversion Sun tzu is looming large and creating all sorts of catch 22's(i.e. climate change needs to be agreed upon by all before it is passed, and it needs to be passed by all before it is agreed upon...unemployment needs to fall before companies will feel good enough about the economy to start hiring.)

I have heard this sort of song about the Ivy Leagues and valedictorians before, but I have no way of knowing its truth, and in general I think it is a bad arguement to try to air from a conservative standpoint, experts are often times idiots, and I am a gloves off type of guy, but knowledge and wisdom being unequal you default to authority(as a way to save time and effort) thus you are really casting a shadow on conservatism from appeal to authority.

I would point out that Amy Finkelstein of MIT did a study that pointed out that Medicare alone is responsible for nearly half of the health care inflation between 1950 and 1990. MIT is Ivy league enough for me. Just today on Kudlow a Harvard's Joshua Coval discussed his study on Pork. I wouldn't want to make this list exaustive, but it strikes me that the general Ivy League ="liberal" meme rarely names names, I mean sure Kudlow had Keynesian Robert Reich(also of Harvard) on at the same time.

Coval and Finkelstein may or may not be conservatives, but this doesn't mean they don't make what amounts to conservative arguments in some cases. My guess is that both of these are really too smart or too A list to agree wholesale to any simple conservative "general will." But this is simply a function of massive disagreement that comes from narrowing the search, getting down to details, picking a stock, picking a politician focusing on policy details.

Generically Romney was at Ashbrook, and he might be the Republican front runner in 2012, but is Romney Care conservative just from the corrolation between republican and conservative(spawned by voter inattention)?

I must admit that I have never heard of the folks you mention Pete, but again the more you get into details the more easy it is to disagree.

Levin is a democratic Senator from Michigan, but I think the context is wrong.(given perhaps my republican =functionally conservative bias.)

Ivy league equals liberal brainwashing only makes sense from an already rarerified conservative meme, its too broad to actually be particular(since neither conservatism nor liberalism exist as anything but broad hazzily defined versions of general will), and neglects Mansfield among others.

Yes, John Lewis, I am considered a liberal when it comes to academic cheating. I have very liberal (politically liberal) colleagues who will send kids up on charges of academic dishonesty for mishandling MLA citations and the iteration of ideas from sources the student probably never read or heard of. Ignorance, I say. For example, if someone writes about being a man echoing Mansfield on manliness, but doesn't cite Mansfield, I figure he never heard of him and find it interesting. For some colleagues ignorance is no excuse, in fact is indictment on grounds of disingenuity; the student could not possibly have thought that up himself if Mansfield thought it. Theft of another man's ideas without citation is academically dishonest; crucify him! If you don't, it's not fair to other students who are merely stupid or thought-less and echoed what the professor said. "At least you know where the ideas come from and that's fair."

The latter is a close to actual quote in an argument on this topic and still rankles. "Liberally" I only bring charges if a Google search gives me word for word plagiarism of complete sentences or more. In my syllabus I paraphrase or quote (memory is fuzzy on this) something I heard from Hadley Arkes in an Ashbrook podcast, "I expect your words to be your words." Simple, elegantly simple and to the point. 98% of my students get it.

But if ideas are your stock in trade, then you want to patent ideas to prevent "theft". My colleagues respect that enormously, though almost all of them are unpublished. That respect can become incredibly complicated to thoroughly explain to the young (often) non-academics that we teach. Therefore I go for simplicity, my conservative mind embraces " I expect your words to be your words." The so-called liberal ones I work with create a seven page pamphlet of rules that comes to the same thing and they complain that it is not adequate to cover every contingency of dishonesty and want to expand it yearly.

Isn't simplicity better to convey a point? If you really haven't got a point and are trying to find one, vast meanderings through ideas are what you end up with. Perhaps that's the problem with the intellectual class, that it embraces complexity as an absolute good and then where are we? With 2000 pages of legislation and no one really knows what it says because it so complex and contradictory.

Can I hint there that a John Lewis comment reminds me of congressional legislation and my little college's academic dishonesty handbook?

Anyway, my preference for the old NR is because it was conservative thought condensed. All sorts of conservatives wrote for it, arguing away for the heart of conservatism and even attempting to define the term with principle and policy, about all the conservative thought anyone was likely to be able to read and between two covers arriving biweekly. It used to take days to get through, and now it takes an evening. I still love it and think what it was is a victim of its success.

Now we have conservative thought dispersed throughout modern media and in different publications arguing this point of view on conservatism or that one. Probably, that is a good thing, because that means all of our conservative thinkers or talkers are out there writing and talking away and making a living at it. However, the dispersal of thought and plethora of words may dilute the effect of the thinking.

Pete's call for a kind of simplicity that gets to the conservative point, makes the point clearly and cutting through the cant of leftist academia effectively makes sense to America's "A" students is really on the money. He is right, such a thing could make all the difference. I think there are hundreds of conservative academics out there (look at the Ashbrook Center, for example) trying to do just that. However, more focus, condensation, a clear voice articulating the essentials, might make all the difference.

Kate, I'm not worried about the more obtuse, lazy or ideological (well maybe I am a little, but that is a different discussion), I'm more thinking about how ideas can brought to the attention of young people who pay attention to public affairs, and are turned off by the styles and assumptions of the populist conservative media. There is a whole world of arguments that they are unaware of and those kids have to be reached (if they are to be reached) in the places (both real and virtual) where they are. Articulating the problem is much easier than solving it, and I sure don't have the answer. My two tentative suggestions are that 1) conservative policy intellectuals like Levin or Salam are going to have to try to raise their media profiles and share their ideas with general college audience. The current media strategy of those intellectuals does some good, but their work is aimed more to activists, politicians and other groups already involved and knowledgeable in the policy arena. A media and (especially) public appearance strategy aimed at college freshmen who be a good supplement. It is easy for me to say since I won't have to be the one leaving my family and other work for stretches of time, but it could do some good. My second suggestion would be a paid media strategy of taking out two or three minute block of time to explain one policy and it's benefits and maybe boost the profile of one media source that can explain things in greater detail. It will cost money of course, but it would be a between elections investment in spreading ideas and all the hundreds of millions of ads spent during election time avail little if your audience doesn't understand your policy proposals.

Pete, what the heck, you can start doing that on You Tube and so can those people you are talking about. Or make a Facebook site -- "What Liberalism Really Means" or even "Give me Liberty or Give me FREE STUFF." and kids might accidentally find themselves on the latter page looking for freebies.

The techniques you are talking about to connect to a wider young audience have some checks and I don't just mean the money. In a sense this is your suggestion #1, but I am proposing media other than what you suggest. I mean, where are you going to place your media spots? Maybe there are TV programs that your target audience ALL watch that I don't know about. Can you imagine conservative ads of the sort you are talking about on the Colbert Report, say? I don't even know if that is still on, but the last time I asked my students where they got their news, the few that responded with any interest in news mentioned that show.

I am not arguing with what you say, but considering the means to your end. Ask any parent of young folk that age, getting their attention is just not that easy. You think you have his ear and find you're talking to the back of his head. He's tuned in to something else and it's probably an earbud.

Kate, I don't have have any confidence that I have any answers on the means (your suggestions sound fine to me, but I'm a neophyte when it comes to social networking media.) The more the better and I think success will involve multiple media institutions, many of which I have neither heard of, nor that I would understand if someone explained them to me.

I responded to your last in the only possible way, on Facebook.

I think the real problem for the neoconservative right is that the populist flag waving founding principles message delivered via conservative talk radio and foxnews does not match up with what they would put forth in an academic setting. In other words the A students would get a very different and contradictory message, and if this was put out in great volume it would shake the foundation of the populist media. Its not very pragmatic to tell the people their beloved traditions of liberty and limited government are utter hogwash that have left somewhere near the end man. I mean what if Limbuagh had a guest on who said that man has been ruined by individualism and the answer is to go back a bit and replace his rights with duties to a state. Coming from a conservative I imagine half the audience's heads would explode. If the true ideas of neoconservatism and by extension the republican party that it controls were to so much as be captured by a cell phone camera it would warrant a full chalk board the next day by 5pm. It is much more pragmatic to say only what will please the audience and continue to work toward an end understood only by the enlightened philosophers gradually and outside the public's consciousness. The left does not have this problem because their ideas are pretty much the same on the base level as well as the academic level, that is to say foolish. What hope does the republic have when only those without the faculty or the education to understand its principles still support it? Oh, the problem is you still lack the ability to defend individualism on the moral level (although I would deny that neocons have any intention of ever trying to do this as they don't believe it is good). Gordan Gecko saying greed is good will not cut it you are fighting for the minds of idealistic and romantic youth.

Um, I'd have to disagree. With everything. This whole "neo-conservative" meme has become so uninteresting (not to mention unintelligent) that it makes me want to pull my hair out.

care to explain or offer examples and evidence of why i am wrong? it is not a position that i hold with any great joy so your insight may provide a ray of sunshine into my dreary world view.

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