Politics & Policy

Baby Cons in The Mist

Celebrate young conservatives, but also remind them they don't need to reinvent the wheel.

I despise youth politics. I do not consider “the youth” to be members in the Coalition of the Oppressed. “Youth Rights” is a concept best thought of as a sponge for the lugubrious rage of a handful of precocious teens and twenty-somethings who cannot find a more coherent vessel for their agenda. People involved in “youth politics” whine incessantly about how unfair it is that they are subjected to “stereotypes,” and yet the whole enterprise of youth politics is premised on the cliché that young people are somehow united politically. The terms “Generation X” and “Generation Y” were little more than secular astrology. The only thing that unites young people politically, as a general rule, is that they are–by definition–at the bottom of the learning curve and, consequently, they try to power their way uphill with passion instead of wisdom. As Oscar Wilde observed, “In America, the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.”

#ad#But, I repeat myself.

In fact, I plagiarize myself. I lifted the above paragraph from a column I wrote last fall about “Rock the Vote” and other organizations dedicated to baptizing each succeeding generation into a spirit of worship toward the pantheon of clichés imposed upon them by the liberal priesthood of the baby-boomer generation.

Now, laziness alone does not explain why I recycled that paragraph. I repeated myself because what I said in November was true then and it remains true now. In fact, most of the things conservatives say have been said before. It’s simply baked into the cake of conservatism to say the same things over and over again. After all, you cannot take it as an axiom of conservative thought that human nature has no history and then presume that you have that many new insights into human nature. You cannot believe in the “wisdom of the ancients” and then freelance a grand new theory of the universe. And you cannot eat a one-pound brick of pepper-jack cheese without paying the piper, but that’s not important right now.

CARRIED AWAY ON THE WINGS OF YOUTHFUL EXUBERANCE

I bring all of this up because on Saturday the New York Times’s resident primatologist of conservatism David Kirkpatrick wrote a piece about young conservatives (if you’re curious about my use of the word “primatologist” see “Conservatives in the Mist“) Considering the genre, there’s refreshingly little that is particularly annoying about the reportage–though where Kirkpatrick got the notion that young conservatives are especially plagued with doubt about the justification of the war is beyond me. Maybe we’ll carry on that conversation in The Corner.

Anyway, Kirkpatrick accurately recounts the fact that young conservatives are conducting a conversation about what conservatism means today and what it means to them. I think that’s great. But as someone who only has eight more months left in the “young”–i.e. the 18-35-year-old–category, let me offer some advice. My first piece of advice–and I mean this from the bottom of my heart–is that we should not get so carried away that we adopt a “Logan’s Run” policy in which conservatives beyond a certain age are twirled around the ceiling of a big stadium and then blown-up to the cheers of younger conservatives.

Indeed, my advice is that we don’t get too carried away at all.

Contrary to the impression some might get from Kirkpatrick, there’s nothing new about young conservatives shaking things up. Nor is there anything new to debates about the meaning of conservatism. Indeed, by my reckoning, there’s been a big brouhaha among conservatives about the impending demise or rebirth of conservatism at least once every seven or so years. The fact is there have been several waves of young conservatives between William F. Buckley Jr.’s founding of National Review and today. After all, Mr. B. is 78 years old and he founded the magazine five decades ago. George Will was a whippersnapper when he started writing for NR. Pat Buchanan was a teenager when National Review was founded and Bill Kristol wasn’t even born yet (though we all know he was plotting the overthrow of Iraq when he was but a mere twinkle in Irving’s eye). And all of those guys are old fogeys compared to most of us at National Review (and The Weekly Standard, and Reason, and even the Wall Street Journal editorial page) these days. Rich Lowry, for example was 31 when he took the helm at NR (though some people believe that he’s actually pushing 90 and that old man in the painting in his office isn’t Randolph Bourne but actually a Dorian Gray deal). And, more important, there is very little you can determine about the views of, say, Kristol, Will, Krauthammer, Brookhiser, Frum, Barnes, Lowry, Steyn, Bork, Kesler, O’Sullivan, Ponnuru, and/or whoever else belongs in your own personal pantheon of conservative heavyweights, from their dates of birth.

Which gets me to my point. The disagreements among conservatives have almost nothing to do with when they were born. Nor should they. Take Andrew Sullivan. He’s been trying very hard to mint some sort of new breed of socially liberal, fiscally responsible, internationally assertive “conservatism” for a while now. I don’t think anyone will fault me for overstatement if I say his desire to craft such a “movement” from the uncooperative clay of humanity is perceived by many to be influenced by his views on homosexuality and the war. Whether that characterization is fair or not, it is fair to say that nobody thinks Sullivan’s age is particularly relevant to his views on public policy. Or take, for example, Pat Buchanan’s attempt to create a movement opposed to free trade, opposed to immigration, opposed to homosexuality in nearly all of its manifestations, opposed to international interventionism abroad and in favor of a Bismarckian welfare state for the middle class at home. He, too, would take his ideological chimera and call it a more authentic conservatism–and yet virtually no critiques of Buchanan have much to do with his place on the secular zodiac.

Indeed, not only does Buchanan’s age have nothing to do with anything. But Buchanan has scads of young acolytes. So does Sullivan. If I had to guess, Sullivan probably has more on campuses, Buchanan has more off them. Buchanan probably has more young devotees in the south and the west, Sullivan in the northeast and on the west coast. It may be interesting sociologically and even politically to know whose views command more young adherents generally, but that would not tell you whose views were more correct. Surely a movement dedicated to the proposition that 2+2 does not equal five no matter how many people say it does, would not amend that dedication upon hearing that the horde of arithmetically challenged are below the age of 30? Indeed, considering all the problems with young people–chief among them gratuitous exuberance and ignorance–you could claim that whoever has the most young followers is more likely to have the worse arguments. For example, I bet you anything I could destroy Milton Friedman in a debate about economics–so long as the audience was comprised of five year olds. He may have a Nobel Prize, but I can make offensive sounds with my armpit. Advantage: Goldberg!

LUGS & UNNECESSARILY REINVENTING THE RIGHT

What it takes to stimulate a college audience is surely more sophisticated than playing “Brickhouse” with your armpit (though you can negotiate such a performance with my speakers’ bureau). But it needs to be recognized nonetheless that some significant portion of what is popular on college campuses among conservatives has less to do with intellectual rigor or first principles and more to do with what is simply popular among college kids. There are many serious libertarians on college campuses today. But there are also a great many kids who–because of intellectual sanity or innate rebelliousness–cannot stomach being part of the liberal status quo, but who also do not want to seem “judgmental” by being conservative or hypocritical by being conservative and partying like rock stars. I certainly can’t throw a lot of stones on that front myself. But let’s recognize that if some future housewives can be LUGs (Lesbians Until Graduation), an even larger portion of students can be Libertarians Until Graduation. To say that conservatism should cater to the instincts of youth rather than work to mold those instincts is to say we should turn conservatism on its head.

For conservatives, an unhealthy obsession with the support of “the youth” should be seen as a brand of power worship, a way of saying the masses may not be on my side today, but given demographic trends they will be on my side tomorrow. For liberals, obsession with the support of “the youth” is power worship too, but it’s something as well. Liberals believe that youth has a moral authority independent of the substance of its arguments. Youth politics is a variant of identity politics which imbues in young people an authority they did not purchase with work or with insight–just as liberalism does with gender, race, infirmity, etc. And identity politics is a phenomenon of the Left emulated by too many on the right these days–including both Buchanan and Sullivan in their own ways.

Let me offer one example of the difference between right- and left-wing youth politics. Did you know that conservatives had a “youth movement” all their own in the 1960s? You don’t hear too much about it because those who control the commanding heights of the popular culture were involved in the other youth movement. The Left’s youth movement, typically, was obsessed with itself. For example, the quintessential statement of the Left’s youth movement was the Port Huron Statement. It begins, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” The authors go on for over 25,000 words, whining about their angst, their worries, their concerns–all of which are rooted less in the merits of their argument and more in the urgency of their feelings. Two years before the Port Huron statement, however, young conservatives gathered to draft the Sharon statement. It begins, “In this time of moral and political crisis, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths.” The Sharon Statement, by the way, runs 368 words.

That’s something to keep in mind as we all go about vacuuming our fingerprints off in a fit of intellectual thumb-sucking about the “new meaning of conservatism” in the 21st century. A movement dedicated to eternal truths shouldn’t stray too far in pursuit of new meanings. The 1960s in many respects represented the failure of conservatism to win in the battle of ideas. And that failure caused conservatives–young and old–to reaffirm their commitments to eternal truths. Surely the successes of conservatism–including the defeat of the Soviet Union–do not give us more license to denounce those eternal truths. Yes, change is inevitable in a free society and conservatism must adapt. But adaptation is a very different thing than reinvention and the young folks bent on reinventing the wheel should understand that if it’s not round, it ain’t a wheel and if it is round, you haven’t really done any reinventing.

Now, none of this should mean conservatives should not or cannot take great joy in the continued rightward drift of young people. But we should be clear about why this is such good news. First, it is good news not so much because there will be more conservatives to pay dues and buy magazines (A VERY IMPORTANT THING: sign up here) but because, as conservatives, we believe that a more conservative society will create a better America. And it is no coincidence that America is getting healthier as it becomes more conservative. Second, attracting young people is better than the alternative and it is a sign that the unfair and irrational stigma attached to conservatism is finally washing off. We aren’t now, and never were, a bunch of racist paste eaters. And then, of course, there’s schadenfreude. The Left feels entitled to young people, and watching them mope like captains of the pep squad when no one shows up at the sign-in table is certainly reason enough for conservatives to celebrate.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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