Politics & Policy

Conservatism After Clinton

Goodbye the new.

I got a call the other day from a researcher at the Village Voice asking me if I was serious when I said that Bill Clinton was caught shooting amateur porn with an intern in the Oval Office while blasting Barry White music. Our friends at Salon quoted me saying as much at last week’s C-PAC conference. Unfortunately, it wasn’t crystal clear to someone at the Voice that I was joking. It’s even more unfortunate that it is totally reasonable to have assumed I wasn’t joking and that Bill Clinton was caught telling an intern “ignore the red light honey” to the tunes of “Can’t get enough of your love, babe.” Alas, the only West Wing resident to get caught playing that particular game was Rob Lowe a long time ago.

But I wasn’t joking when I said that conservatives have gotten themselves into a bit of trouble with Bill Clinton. Until a month ago, “conservatism” was defined largely as Clinton-hating in many apolitical circles. Fortunately, the pardon fire sale has finally made Clinton-bashing fashionable. All of these liberals crossing over to our side of the Clintonian divide reminds me of that scene from Stripes when Bill Murray’s girlfriend complains about Murray’s Tito Puente albums. “Y’know,” he says, “one day, Tito Puente will be dead, and you’ll say, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been listening to his work for years.’”

Well, that day seems to be here for Bill Clinton. I half expect to see Sid Blumenthal look up from his bowl of freshly stewed puppies and kittens any minute now, and declare that he’s hated Bill Clinton all along. Nevertheless, conservatives do need to move on. Criticizing public and private corruption, lies, abuse of power, and the sort of unadulterated metaphysical tackiness you’d normally expect to only find casting shadows in Plato’s cave, is not Right Wing, it is simply right. When we start defining decency as “conservative” we invite liberals to manufacture ideological and intellectual defenses of indecency (which is certainly what is going on in much of academia today). It should not be a point of pride that conservatives were right to denounce Bill Clinton’s shameless behavior, it should be a point of shame that his defenders did not.

In the post-Clinton era, the new mission for conservatism should be — Surprise! — the old mission of conservatism; defending the old and tried against the new and untried, preserving reverence for eternal truths, reminding people of the limits of human reason and governmental hubris. You know all that stuff that sits comfortably behind the curtains when someone really smart says, “that’s not a good idea.”

Alas, there’s a hitch. Conservatives were kicked out of every major cultural institution like loud Irish guys booted from a bar full of Zima drinkers. Rather than charge back in (or after giving it several good tries) conservatives instead chose to go off and create new bars where they could be left alone to grouse, complain, and reminisce over beers with like-minded chaps. These out-of-the-way places are the numerous conservative think tanks, the relatively few conservative universities like Hillsdale and Claremont, and the handful of publications that make up the conservative media.

Now, I am not one to second-guess my conservative forefathers and betters. I’m perfectly willing to concede that it was necessary to create the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, Hoover, etc. These places are vital and important and I hope one day one of them will give me an office and an expense account. Robert Bork used to joke that he considers AEI and think tanks like it to be the modern equivalent of the Irish monasteries of the Dark Ages which preserved the flame of the civilization until the continent was ready to be re-introduced to reason. Closer to home, it is irrefutable that the modern conservative movement wouldn’t be where it is, if it weren’t for a devoutly conservative magazine called National Review.

Regardless, it is time for the monks to leave the monasteries. We don’t need anymore new conservative institutions; we need to kick in the doors to the old institutions where conservatives were once welcome. As great as the Washington Times is, we don’t need anymore of them. We need more conservatives at the New York Times. Hillsdale College is wonderful, but I would rather just one conservative added to every department at Harvard than one Hillsdale added to every state in the Union.

This is a more controversial position than it might sound. For much of the 1990s conservative intellectuals and activists argued that what conservatives should do is create new conservative museums and universities. Everyone from Paul Weyrich to David Gelernter to Grover Norquist has argued for creating a “parallel culture” or building “new conservative institutions.”

As much as I respect many of the people making these arguments, it’s a bad idea. First of all, there aren’t enough conservatives out there who know their Burke from a bag of rocks to fill more than a couple museums or few “new” newspapers. Second, these suggestions run counter to the very experience conservatives want to correct for. The Ivy League, the foundations, much of the media used to be conservative. Why exactly do we think that we can hold onto these new institutions if we couldn’t hold onto the really important old ones?

Which leads us to the really important point. The old institutions are the important institutions. On Wednesday I wrote that National Review Online’s success has a lot to do with the fact that we have a strong brand name. Well that’s a very conservative observation; established brand names matter in the culture too. Talking apes will have humans strapped to rickshaws before Hillsdale has a comparable brand name to Harvard to the average citizen. I don’t want to slight Hillsdale, but Harvard has been around for almost four centuries and that’s a hell of a head start in the culture. Just as you can’t make new old friends, you can’t make new old institutions. And, just as you are more likely to trust an old friend more than a new one, most people are more likely to trust an old institution over a new and unproven one.

Ultimately, my point is, it’s our culture too. Hell, one could even say it’s more our culture than theirs because we actually like this country, its history, its ideals more than the other side (I’m not saying liberals hate America, but hey, conservatives don’t blush when pledging allegiance and they don’t flinch from defending the pale-penis people who founded this country either). We know that a single sane voice, a single person who can sit in a room of liberals and say, “that is a really terrible idea” or “you can’t publish that propaganda” is more useful than a whole newspaper full of conservatives across the street griping about it the next day.

What I am proposing is not easy. As Judge Bork has said, it will, be a door-to-door fight. It will involve table-pounding, screaming and perseverance (The Times hired Safire as an a token “conservative” because Spiro Agnew wouldn’t stop banging his high chair about media bias). And by all means we should keep the magazines and think tanks we have now (partly because I’d be eating out of dumpsters if we didn’t). But we should use them like the general store in Red Dawn. Young folks should pull up their intellectual pick-up trucks to National Review or the Heritage Foundation, grab as much ammo and other provisions as they can, and then charge back into town and take back what’s theirs.

Red Dawn would have been a pretty piss-poor movie if the Wolverines decided to launch a new “parallel culture” in the mountains while leaving the Commies to loot our towns, eat our food, and roger our women. Ultimately a guerilla, door-to-door, fight is the only way to go. Not only are there too few conservatives to populate some parallel culture, siphoning off conservatives from the mainstream culture for the benefit of a few conservative backwaters and ghettos would surrender the New York Times, the top 100 universities, etc. without a fight at all.

Editor’s Note

On a more personal matter, if anybody has any interesting insights into Fresh Fields Whole Food Markets please let me know, I’m writing about them for National Review OnDeadTree. On an even more personal note, if anyone has any recommendations for a really good wedding band (as in music) in the Pacific Northwest, you could save me a lot of time and hassles.


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