Boy, am I glad I read Eric Levitz’ recent piece in New York magazine all the way through! Not that the author sprung any pleasant surprises on me. Based on the headline, I was expecting just another example of arrogant, intolerant liberalism, and Levitz’ certainly didn’t disappoint in this respect. His main argument: that major liberally oriented opinion publications and op-ed pages should no longer seek left-right ideological and political balance nowadays because the only American conservatism in the age of Donald Trump that has any influence is yahoo-ism in various forms. Instead, these liberal referees of the national political debate generally should keep their forums open almost exclusively to voices from more responsible and rational the left of center.
But within this laughably tendentious claim is a point that’s entirely valid, and that in fact has been bugging me for many years. It concerns the – long-time – practice of either liberal or even nominally neutral opinion forums (i.e., most of the national media) for publishing viewpoints, from whatever perspective, that obviously have no notable constituencies outside the bounds of the interlocking and increasingly hidebound ranks of America’s chattering class elites.
And in my mind, the viewpoint that sticks out more than any other in this respect is neoconservatism. This branch of conservatism began as an interesting hybrid of (a) the kind of Big Government-oriented liberalism that since the New Deal era has dominated the views of Democrats on domestic issues, and (b) the kind of aggressive anti-communism and, more recently, broader global activism that many Democrats have rejected since the Vietnam War began going bad. In addition, much neoconservatism was animated by what its pioneers considered the Democrats’ abandonment of the goal of racial integration in favor of various programs of racial preferences and forms of racial pandering.
As documented in this insightful article by Michael J. Lind of the New America Foundation, the neoconservatives steadily became more conventionally conservative on domestic issues – including a strong enthusiasm for standard free trade policies and mass immigration. But something that still hasn’t changed has been their stunning talent for attracting media attention – a record that genuinely qualifies as stunning because there’s never been a shred of evidence that neoconservatives have any significant following among the general public.
Of course there are many Americans who support the low-tax, small-government positions now taken by neoconservatives these days. There are many fewer who support their brand of foreign policy activism, but at least this position hasn’t completely disappeared from the electorate. Yet have you encountered many friends, neighbors, and relatives who believe in slashing federal spending and shrinking the national tax base on the one hand; sending American troops to the furthest, least important corners of the world to nation-build, spread democracy, fight extremism etc on the other; and opening the national doors wide open to imports from places like China and immigrants the world over? In fact, have you ever met anyone fitting this description?
Just as important (and not unrelated), can you identify many national politicians or office-seekers who embody this set of views? After Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona (the former of course afflicted with aggressive brain cancer and the latter deciding to leave office before suffering certain defeat in his state’s Republican primary), and their South Carolina GOP colleague Lindsey Graham?
Until recently, you could have added Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio to this short list, but in recent months, he’s definitely been reading the handwriting on the wall. Just look at his new stances on confronting China both militarily and economically, and complaining about important aspects of the latest tax cuts passed by Congress.
All the same, however, the neoconservative presence in the national media remains impressive. Writers from neoconservative publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary appear constantly on the nation’s talk shows, and they’re frequently joined by neoconservative colleagues from less doctrinaire publications and from think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. Maybe most revealing, when the proudly mainstream liberal New York Times chose the latest columnist to add to its roster of regulars, it picked card-carrying neoconservative Bret Stephens – a Wall Street Journal alum.
Now it’s true that President Trump, who generally is loathed by neoconservatives, has chosen two of their leading lights as major foreign policy aides – John R. Bolton to serve as his White House national security adviser, and former Kansas Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo to serve as his Secretary of States (after a year of running the CIA). And some important Trump foreign policies look awfully neocon-y, most prominently his approach to countering the influence of ISIS-like terrorists and the Iranian government in the Middle East (combined so far with a loudly stated aversion to massive American boots on the ground). But Trump as a neoconservative-in-the-making? Talk about a wildly premature judgment at best.
So why is the mainstream media still so enamored with neoconservatives? Four main reasons. First, many are still strongly anti-Trump, so featuring them on the air, on-line, and in print enables Trump-hating news organizations to pretend that most opposition to the President remains bipartisan. Second, the United States was governed by a largely neoconservative administration as recently as 2008. And since former this-es and that-s are so skilled at finding post-government careers in Washington, neoconservatives make up an abundant supply of voices with governing experience on which journalists can rely for right-of-center analyses. Third, neoconservatives are still so easy to find in Washington (and secondarily in New York City) largely because although this faction has almost no grassroots, it’s generously funded. So think tank perches and related jobs (including a wide variety of non-tenure university appointments) in the two cities tend to be readily available for individual neoconservatives, and their publications tend to be at least adequately funded.
Fourth, precisely because neoconservatives have been so numerous in the nation’s two main media centers for so long, they’ve become thoroughly familiar to the media. In addition to their widespread and easy availability to newsmen and women as sources of information and analysis, neoconservatives can socialize routinely with their journalistic counterparts. Not only is there no shortage of conferences and receptions at which these segments of the chattering class can socialize (many of which are sponsored by neoconservative or neoconservative-leaning organizations). But neoconservatives (along with other think tankers and the like) and journalists tend to live in the same small group of affluent neighborhoods and send their children to the same first-rate public schools and exclusive private academies.
And as is common with people who hang out a lot together, neoconservatives (and other think tankers) and journalists often become very chummy. The more so if they’re college buddies, or went to the same school, and took the same kinds of courses from the same kinds of professors. The latter of course increases the odds of media types finding themselves in broad agreement with the neoconservatives, and thus regarding these figures as doubly appealing.
New York‘s Levitz argues that conservatives generally shouldn’t be shut out of the news media entirely – and decidedly deserve to appear if they have something new and/or especially interesting to say. I believe the same about neoconservatives. But no doubt largely because these thinkers have had such easy access to the mainstream media, and enjoyed all the associated glistening economic and status prizes, they’ve had little incentive to change their fundamental tune, and surmount this hurdle. So given their predictability and lack of influence, maybe news organizations could at least dial down the overexposure?
Incidentally, for the same reasons, I’d favor treating libertarians the same way. Their funding is impressive, indeed lavish. (Doubt me? Check out the Cato Institute‘s Washington, D.C. headquarters sometime, along with its wide-ranging agenda of conference and similar events). But where are their grassroots? In particular, which noteworthy portions of the electorate share their enthusiasm for unilaterally opening America’s markets no matter how protectionist trade rivals remain, erasing U.S. borders and requiring American workers to compete against an immense new influx of very low-wage foreign counterparts even for high-skill jobs, trusting the private sector (including Wall Street) to regulate itself, and eliminating the major entitlement programs? Even individually, these stances command precious little popular support. Taken together, they comprise a modest minority. That’s surely why Americans have elected exactly zero libertarians as President, and why even Republicans have resoundingly rejected them in presidential primaries even well before the Trump phenomenon appeared. Moreover, read libertarian writings on any of the above issues from decades ago, and you won’t see much difference in terms of their analytic framework with libertarian writings today.
Of course, simply ostracizing neoconservatives, or neoconservatives plus libertarians, from major opinion forums, or at least sharply limiting their presence, would leave the national political debate nearly as narrow, and phony, as following a Levitz-type approach. So what the media referees need to do is work much harder to find contributors who represent not only reasonably coherent emerging schools of thought (like populism’s conservative and liberal variants) but who are trying to turn American politics less rigidly formulaic and exploring various combinations of positions that have never, or not recently, been combined before, along with those who are seeking wholly new answers to pressing national questions. Moreover, it should go without saying, important new factual findings should always be welcome, no matter how they cut politically.
The op-ed editors and talk show hosts will face a formidable challenge in achieving this goal. After all, success would require exercising judgment, rather than flipping through their familiar (electronic rolodexes). But success is urgently needed – for it would mean a national opinion universe that looks much less like the tiny, inbred communities in which they’re embedded, and much more like America.