The Corner

A Long Reply to the Epistemic Closureites

Okay, on the matter of this epistemic closure business. It seems to me it’s a stalking horse for several different but deeply overlapping arguments of varying merit.

The first argument comes from a bunch of younger conservatives.  They have convinced themselves that the older establishment conservatives have become corrupt, oblivious or coopted by the Republican-Fox News machine. These younger, smarter, savvier more nuanced thinkers have been locked out of what they see as ideological wagon-circling and groupthink (“epistemic closure” has become the high-fallutin’ misnomer for the “problem”).

Let me offer a counter theory. When I first came to Washington, I hung around in very similar circles of young eager-beavers. I may not have been as smart as many of them, but I was just as determined to get my articles published and make my mark. We had many gripe sessions conversations about how hard it was to break-in at places like NR, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal etc. But, because Al Gore hadn’t gotten around to inventing the internet yet, there was no place for me to vent these complaints in print, never mind work them up into a meta-narrative about the decrepit state of conservatism.

That’s not the case for today’s 20-somethings who have the luxury of translating their frustration with “the business” into long cri de coeur blog posts and essays that tend to bounce off one another for reinforcement. Instead of late night griping at the Toledo Lounge, the way we did things in the 1990s, the conversation has gone public. Indeed, so public that it has become something of an intellectual grievance culture all its own.

Now that is not to say that some of these grievances don’t have merit. Such grievances almost always have some merit. What these grievances don’t have is much novelty of substance.

Let’s look at the younger conservatives. Ramesh Ponnuru has been described as the elder statesmen of the “young turks” – the supposedly heterodox  youngsters trying to pry-open the closed conservative mind. Well, Ramesh is a pretty influential Senior Editor at one of the supposed bastions of conservative closed-minded orthodoxy. Ross Douthat, arguably the most famous of the Young Turks, is the film critic for NR and co-author of the young Turk manifesto, Grand New Party. The other co-author, Reihan Salam,  is an NRO blogger concentrating on policy ideas. That book received massive support from the conservative establishment. It stemmed from an article in Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard and was feted by the American Enterprise Institute. Then there’s Yuval Levin, another Young Turk, who is not only a conservative think tank star, regular contributor to National Review and the Weekly Standard, but who is also the editor of his brand-spanking new magazine largely dedicated to new ideas. Other young (or youngish) “new ideas” conservatives have prominent places at places like AEI and the Heritage Foundation. James Capretta, Nicole Gelinas, Brad Wilcox, Andrew Biggs and numerous others have been welcomed into the fold and celebrated. There are more conservative publications publishing high-end conservative wonkery and philosophy than there have ever been – and that’s in print! Throw the web into the mix, and at least according to one metric it is a conservative golden age.

So, forgive me if I don’t take too seriously the complaint that younger conservative intellectuals have been locked out by the old guard. I’m sure there’s some talent out there deserving more attention and exposure (just as I’m convinced that there’s some young talent out there that maybe could have spent some more time in the minors). But that is hardly a new story. And, for the record, I’ve edited a book of essays containing only young conservative writers most of you have never heard of, so I’m trying to do my part. More on that later.

The second “epistemic closure” argument is aimed at talk radio and Fox News. A lot of folks think conservative Big Media are too powerful and define the debate too much. Okay.  I don’t think this is an unreasonable position on its face. But whenever I hear it, I always have to ask “compared to what?” Would conservatism be in better shape if conservatives had to rely on the mainstream media? Isn’t the fact that Fox News and talk radio are so popular a sign of conservative success instead of conservative weakness? Does that success bring new challenges? Sure. Can it breed the laziness that comes with preaching to the choir? Absolutely. But I see little evidence of that among the best and brightest on the right. Does that climate make it harder at times to express more nuanced arguments? Yep. But that’s a problem not with conservatism per se but with the media landscape generally. 

Indeed, for all of the lamentations about the “professionalization” of conservatism, I have to chuckle when I hear so much nostalgia for what Ross calls the  “lost early-1970s world of Commentary and The Public Interest.” Indeed, to listen to Sam Tanenhaus this was a golden age for conservatism. As someone who has a collection of old issues of the Public Interest and Commentary going back to around that time, I am as sympathetic to such nostalgia as anyone. But that’s what it is: nostalgia. For while conservative intellectuals were having a rip-roaring time back then, conservatism itself was at arguably its weakest point. The Republican Party had crushed the Goldwaterites, the Republican President loathed the Buckleyites and the Reagan-revival still seemed like a pipe dream. It seems to me that what many of these nostalgists really miss is a time when conservative intellectuals were more esteemed by liberal intellectuals and liberal institutions – a climate made possible solely by conservatism’s political impotence.

Last, there’s this notion that Republican politicians are lacking ideals and intellectual creativity. Too true. But not entirely true. Marco Rubio is young and full of tough-minded ideas for fixing our problems. Paul Ryan is a rock star because he has tough-minded ideas for fixing our problems. If you read about the intellectual landscape Newt Gingrich, and before him Jack Kemp, had to navigate, you would know that this is hardly a new problem. 

Indeed, as someone who thinks being the “Party of No” was a perfectly appropriate stance for the GOP to take during Obama’s first year, I think it’s arguably been less of a problem than it was in years past. But as the political climate is changing, I think the GOP needs to start rolling out real alternatives to Obamaism. Fortunately, there’s a lot of intellectual talent out there for the GOP to rely on.


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