May 14, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Lost Status of the Conservative Intellectuals

Expect more arguments from conservative pundits that can't be proven, because proving them isn't the point. Anxiety is.

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It’s debatable whether “economic anxiety” fueled the vote for President Donald Trump. While evidence points to fear of lost social status as a primary driving force in 2016, the same evidence puts that fear in a global economic context.

What’s not debatable, I think, is another kind of “lost social status” felt not by the fabled white working class, but the old white conservative intellectual class that no longer has a home in real-world politics. They are the real left behind.

I’m talking about elite conservative pundits still paid lots of money by elite publications who can’t quite figure out what to do with themselves now that their views have lost much of their impact on policy makers and partisans. Think of them as philosophers damned to interpreting the world with little hope of changing it in the future. The result is a species of argument with little point but its own sake.

I don’t know Gerard Alexander, a professor of political scientist at the University of Virginia, but I would put his newest column for the New York Times, entitled “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think,” in this category. It’s a clever fake argument, because the problem he outlines has no solution, for one thing. The more liberals win, the more they lose, he infers. So the answer is … not winning?

For another, the “smug” argument appears nonpartisan when it’s not. Pat Robertson, who regularly blames “sodomy” for natural disasters, isn’t smug. The NRA’s Dan Bongino, protector of “the crown,” i.e., Trump, isn’t smug. House Speaker Paul Ryan, comforter of the comforted and afflicter of the afflicted, isn’t smug. No, only city-dwelling liberals in favor of pluralism, equality and justice are smug.  

I’ll leave a more thorough debunking to Lefty Twitter. For me, the smug-liberal argument had more impact a decade ago. Recall the Obama administration laboring mightily to offer a conservative health care reform plan that would avoid a conservative backlash that ended up happening anyway. The Democrats are still cautious, but they don’t fear backlash like their used to. And why should they?

Instead of appealing to the political center, conservatives say, for instance, that uneducated immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from—fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that last week.

The Democrats don’t fear backlash as they once did, because the Republicans aren’t pretending to be moderate as they once did. What’s a conservative intellectual to do? My sense is until the parties align around new realities, we can probably expect to hear more conservative arguments that do not and cannot prove their theses.

Think of it as wish-fulfillment on the part of Republicans who can’t stand Trump but who can’t stand minority groups seizing a greater share of the franchise, thus pushing those accustomed to privilege and authority to the margins of polite society.

Think: Bill Kristol, George Will, David Brooks, and other old white boomer men who can’t quite accept the new competition threatening to eclipse them in the marketplace of ideas. The smug-liberal argument is a twofer: it hits two things in one go.

I suppose the solution, as far as the smug-liberal argument is concerned, is to move away from liberalism, to some kind of imagined golden age when the social fabric held and the center did too, but that’s not going to happen, because there never was in the first place a center that held. Politics is about conflict, first and last. Somebody wins, somebody loses. It’s telling that even as the GOP holds every lever of power in Washington, conservative intellectuals fret over imaginary ties that never bound.

As the GOP leaves them behind, their anxiety manifests in arguments about liberalism that can’t be proved, which is fine, because the point isn’t proving anything. The point is expressing anxiety over being displaced, like talk therapy in Times op-ed page.

So instead of getting steamed about the New York Times’ apparent delight in triggering the libs, consider that this clever fake argument and others like it are really a symptom of something larger: a conservative intelligentsia no longer needed.

Believe it or not, I have great conversations with readers on Twitter. Join me there by clicking @johnastoehr. And don’t forget to send this newsletter to your friends! If you have an idea or topic you’d like me to consider, write me at johnastoehr at gmail.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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