For Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it was the racism charges that broke the camel’s back. His famous 1965 report on the pathologies of black culture landed him in a hornet’s nest. “I was not a bigot,” he wrote later, “but the good guys were calling me a racist, while here was this fellow Buckley saying these thoughtful things. Glazer and I began to notice that we were getting treated in National Review with a much higher level of intellectual honesty.”
Moynihan was just one of many erstwhile-liberals who was startled to find a rare bastion of sanity in National Review. That trickle of refugees from liberalism would prove critical to getting William Buckley’s fledgling conservative movement off the ground. Having once regarded themselves as liberals, many neoconservatives had managed to attain influential mainstream positions that traditionalists of Russell Kirk’s persuasion would likely have found difficult. They were invaluable for raising the movement’s profile. At the same time, their experience and background made them savvy to policy. They would lay the groundwork for conservative policy developments over the next several decades.
As today’s conservative movement braces for four years under a corrupt, autocratic president, we should note this silver lining: As in Moynihan’s time, liberalism is in terrible shape. Present-day progressivism enjoys a cultural dominance that is somewhat reminiscent of 1960s liberalism. Despite that, the Left is demoralized, paranoid, and intellectually exhausted. Despite legions of high-profile supporters, the Democrats seem unable to win the loyalty of the most anti-traditional generation in American history.
The time is ripe for recruiting a new crop of ex-liberals. Who’s ready to get mugged by reality?
As liberalism declines, conservatives need to make sure that our doors are open to refugees from the other team. It might also be helpful to extend a few feelers to people who show some sympathy to conservative ideas. Where left-wing ideology is the only game in town, one or two persuasive arguments might sometimes be enough to instill deep doubts. The Left may be especially vulnerable to this kind of offensive precisely because they are so dominant in the academy, the mainstream media, and many of the professions.
How can we draw liberals and progressives into a new coalition? The original neoconservatives were drawn together especially by their ardent opposition to the Soviet Union. No international threat in our own time is quite equivalent to that. Nevertheless, there are a number of issues on which skeptical liberals might be open to persuasion.
First and foremost, our nation is drowning in debt even as our entitlement and pension commitments are becoming dramatically more onerous. The 2016 election has driven this issue out of sight and mind, as both major candidates lure voters with promises of still more goodies. Regrettably, fiscal problems on this scale never consent to stay in hiding for very long.
Owing to irresponsible and dishonest promises made by mostly retired politicians, many aging Americans have dramatically under-prepared for their retirement years. They’re betting that taxpayers will somehow find a way to bail them out. This will be possible only up to a point. What we’re facing, over the medium term, is a significant re-negotiation of the social contract. As longtime advocates of localism and fiscal discipline, conservatives are in a much better position to generate helpful insights and reasonable compromises. Those could serve as recruiting calls for liberals who are broadly sympathetic to the stated aims of union negotiations and Great Society reforms but who ultimately are honest enough to acknowledge the mess that those initiatives have created.
As in Moynihan’s time, race is becoming a defining cultural fault line, and once again, the Left has committed itself to unstable movements with questionable agendas. Black Lives Matter has at least some sympathetic concerns, and many conservatives are already at work on them, looking for ways to improve police transparency and prudently reduce our reliance on incarceration. Those goals are not advanced when protesters seize on any excuse to start torching police cars and smashing shop windows. Given that violent uprisings like the one in Charlotte almost certainly help Donald Trump more than they do Hillary Clinton, it seems clear that the Left, in whose self-interest it would be to control the activities of Black Lives Matter, is unable to do so. Just as Moynihan was repelled by the Left’s obtuseness in denying glaring pathologies in black culture, so today’s progressives may eventually be attracted to a political movement that offers more than racial pieties.
For many Millennials, conservatism is like a foreign language. They lack even the foundational concepts that would enable them to grapple with the arguments.
What we offer must be more than just a redux of the war-on-crime narrative. In the 1970s, conservatives could plausibly argue that laxness in the justice system was facilitating cultural collapse. That’s a much harder sell today, and it’s certainly not a promising starting point for recruiting disaffected liberals. The good news is that we can offer compelling solutions to crime and racial tensions; we do not have to resurrect anachronistic memes. We should point out repeatedly that crime and social collapse are especially egregious in longtime Democratic strongholds such as Chicago. Blue states including California have reformed their penal codes in haphazard ways that precipitated crime spikes. Meanwhile, red states including Texas and Georgia have had much greater success on the reform front, launching new initiatives that address over-incarceration without sacrificing public safety.
In short, conservatives are well equipped to reform our justice system reasonably, to everyone’s benefit. The Left is not, because Democrats are hopelessly beholden to surging social movements and hysterical interest groups. This argument might prove compelling for many disaffected liberals as they arrive at the (classically neoconservative) conclusion that reality is more complicated than they once believed.
This leads us to a further consideration, which might prove compelling particularly for younger progressives who have been inundated with leftist memes from childhood onwards. For many Millennials, conservatism is like a foreign language. They lack even the foundational concepts that would enable them to grapple with the arguments. What is “free trade”? Are there really people who still believe that men and women are fundamentally different? What do we mean by “limited government”?
As young liberals sour on what is to them the old world of the political and cultural Left, conservative ideas might have a real allure. For younger generations, tradition often has the benefit of feeling simultaneously time-tested and novel. We might generate considerable momentum by daring young radicals to embrace conservatism, a truly countercultural move that promises to drive their teachers (and parents?) crazy.
This list of suggestions is by no means exhaustive. The past eight years have treated us to a veritable parade of liberal-progressive failures. Barack Obama’s passive-aggressive foreign policy has left us with a host of burgeoning geopolitical threats. The president’s signature policy initiative is rapidly failing. Corruption and graft have increased, and civil liberties are eroding, even as two Caesari candidates vie for the Oval Office. If we’re looking for arguments to prove that the Left has failed America, we are truly spoiled for choice.
No argument, of course, will convince everyone. That’s not necessary. An infusion of neo-neoconservatives could make the difference between a fading political movement and one that blossoms into new life. Let’s open some recruiting posts.