A New Birth of Intellectual Freedom on the Right

Michael E. Hartmann and Daniel P. Schmidt’s Liberty Forum essay on the history and future of conservative philanthropy is an irenic intervention written in the shadow of the 2016 election. The formal institutions of Movement Conservatism were taken unawares by Donald J. Trump, the celebrity real estate developer who won the presidency on the Republican ticket owing nothing to those institutions—with the single exception, perhaps, of the Federalist Society. Indeed, Hartmann and Schmidt seem to me to understate the true gravity of the situation. It is not just that Trump won the presidency without the conservative movement; it is that he won in the face of Conservatism Inc.’s at least tacit opposition. And in the case of the #NeverTrumpers, of course, not so tacit.

From the point of view of Right-of-center philanthropy, there is a bitter irony here. For as the authors note, over the decades, major Right-of-center funders had grown increasingly political and focused on immediate policy wins. There was an ever greater consciousness of the political preconditions for making policy gains, and greater attention was paid to the electoral calendar. Countless §501(c)(3) organizations spawned allied §501(c)(4)s, and it sometimes became difficult to tell which was the tail and which was the dog. Think tanks, some with more, and some with less plausibility, began calling themselves “do tanks.” Proposals rolled in for projects that were often difficult to distinguish from lobbying. Here indeed was a mighty machine for shaping the American polity!

Hence the irony. Not only did this vast and expensive quasi-political apparatus fail to persuade even Republican primary voters of the party-line policy agenda, the apparatus could not prevent Trump from winning the nomination, and the presidency, while advocating policies often diametrically opposed to the approved orthodoxy.

What, then, is to be done? Hartmann and Schmidt counsel a “rebalancing” between “principles, policy, and patience.” Without quite saying it in so many words, this seems to mean that conservative philanthropists should return to the wisdom of the Volker Fund circa 1956. Such an approach implies a greater emphasis on exploring (new) ideas within a longer time-horizon, as compared with the more recent emphasis on the immediate implementation of well-worn policy solutions. Philanthropic success would be measured in terms of book-length academic works, perhaps, rather than in millions of social media impressions. Rather than contributing to the online political cacophony, philanthropy would deliberately step away from the heated politics of the day and seek to go “deeper” into what lies behind and underneath the current crises.

Treat a Transactional President Transactionally

For some of us, this is an attractive vision. But there is at least one compelling alternative way of understanding the role of Right-of-center philanthropy in the current period. That would involve interpreting Trump’s rise as an entirely contingent matter, a fluke and nothing more. In a few short years his time will be over and, it would be argued, there will be a return to politics as we have known it. In the meantime, conservative-minded philanthropy should stand guard against Trump’s deviationism on the orthodox policy agenda while also exploiting opportunities to secure parts of the orthodox agenda as may arise by happenstance with the notoriously transactional President.

The recent success with criminal justice reform would serve as the exemplar of this approach. Trump campaigned as a “law and order” candidate—and he signed on to a bipartisan proposal (with significant libertarian input and support) that amounts to a “softening” on crime. We should stand back and appreciate what an impressive fact this is. With sufficient effort, might more such policy wins be achievable? Might it be possible, for example, to maneuver the protectionist Trump into signing on to major expansions of free trade? Might “comprehensive immigration reform” even be in the cards?

This alternative way of understanding our current situation amounts to: Keep calm and carry on; it ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it. And that rather takes us to the heart of the question. Do Trump, Brexit, and the rising nationalist populisms in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicate that we are living through a historical inflection point, with one general structure of politics giving way to another? Or does the political turbulence of recent years amount merely to, in effect, the growing pains of the global liberal order? If the latter is true, then what is called for is continued work on advancing and perfecting the (American-led) global order, with palliatives deployed to ease the losers’ pains. If the former is true, however, then we really are confronted with new fundamental questions that will generate very substantial political and intellectual “creative destruction.”

Viewed from the standpoint of American conservatism and its attendant movement institutions—in which Right-of-center philanthropy is the leading investor—a reckoning and reconsideration are long overdue. After all, by every account, the “glue” that held together the various elements of the conservative movement in its classical phase was anticommunism. Whatever their differences, each wing agreed that communism was the summum malum which must at all costs be resisted. It was from this agreement that political friendship was born and grew. But Soviet communism landed on the ash heap of history a generation ago. Who, exactly, are “we” when the “they” against which we knew ourselves is no more?

Intellectual Exhaustion

There were already warning signs that the conservative movement was—overmature, let us say, not long after the turn of the millennium. George Nash, the movement’s most distinguished historian, began including in his talks that caustic and cautionary line from Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Movement leaders prided themselves on the largeness of their budgets, even as questions began to be asked about what, exactly, the conservative movement had managed to “conserve” over the decades. Thoughtful outside observers privately wondered whether it all added up to anything more than a highbrow version of “jobs for the boys.” Decades earlier, a common, self-congratulating contention had been that the party of the Right was the party of ideas, whereas the Left held immense institutional power and yet was intellectually exhausted, “brain dead.” The Right’s institutional power was by the early 2000s significant, but: had it likewise succumbed to intellectual exhaustion?

There is no need to rehearse here the events surrounding the financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009. Suffice it to say that the contours of any politics would be expected to change in dramatic ways after the most catastrophic economic shock in 80 years. In our case, that is not really what happened. Occupy Wall Street quickly petered out and the Tea Party was effectively corralled into the conservative mainstream. As the end of the Obama administration came into view, we might have been through a lost decade economically, but as far as anyone could see, all was in order for the continuation of “normal” politics. What could be more normal, after all, than the expected choice in 2016 between a Clinton and a Bush?

And then came Trump. It is unfortunate that he is so personally distasteful to so many, because this revulsion forestalls the opportunity to learn from the phenomena that surround his rise and form the contours of a policy agenda.

Here are just a few of the things that the Trump phenomenon has brought into view:

  • The relationship between “the elite” (whether the One Percent or the more numerous denizens of Charles Murray’s “super zips”) and “the people” (everyone else) has become a grave concern. Indeed, it is unusual for Americans to speak in terms of an elite. After all, this is (it is said) a self-governing republic, where each citizen’s vote counts equally. That talk of “the elite” should now be common is an indicator of significant alienation. We are therefore in need of creative thinking about ways to recover civic friendship between the elite and the demos.
  • While neoliberal globalization has been an extraordinary boon to consumers, its effect on workers in OECD countries has not been uniformly benign. If the “American dream” is marriage, family, and a meaningful job paying enough to support that family in a home of its own, we need to attend to the erosion of this life path in large portions of the U.S. population. We are in danger of losing America’s character as the great middle-class nation. And it is insufficient to put this erosion down to “cultural” changes only, to which “cultural” responses alone may be mounted. Creative thinking about a policy response reaching to the economic dimensions of the problem is needed.
  • Immigration and demographic change are complex phenomena highly charged with emotion. From a purely economic point of view, increasing the supply of labor means reduced wages. Conversely, one of the least distortive ways to raise wages, especially in the lower half of the distribution, would be to restrict immigration. Indifference to the distinction between citizens and non-citizens, of course, amounts to more than an economic issue. It is a profound betrayal of the social compact. The winking Republican collusion in non-enforcement of immigration laws can no longer be tolerated (11 million: really?), and a resolution which puts American citizens first must be reached.
  • The breathtaking depth and breadth of mainstream media partisanship has been vividly revealed—not only in the aggressive and hysterical treatment of Trump but also, in retrospect, in the extraordinarily protective treatment of Obama. “Media bias” was an issue much discussed in the early 1990s, but with the advent of Fox News in 1996 that issue largely fell by the wayside. New thinking on ways to improve the health of our media ecosystem is needed.
  • By 2015-2016, social media and the Internet had emerged as a zone of discourse for conservatives free of gatekeepers, a kind of end-run around the mainstream media. In most histories of the birth and growth of liberal democratic societies, each new expansion of spaces of free discourse is celebrated as an achievement. In the standard accounts, this begins with the 18th century Parisian salons, where conversation could take place free from the supervision of royal or ecclesiastical authorities. Today, however, the Great and the Good among our progressive classes recoil in horror, like scandalized clerics of old, at what is said in the unsurveilled spaces of the Internet. They applaud the steps taken by the tech giants to silence dissent. The response of virtually all conservative think tanks has been that, as private corporations, the tech companies can do whatever they want. The fact that so weighty a question as the structure of the public sphere can be waved away with an ideological bromide does not build confidence in the “thinking” of such think tanks.
  • Contemporary “liberalism” is no longer beholden to the liberal tradition. It is not about fair processes but rather substantive ends. It does not posit neutrality between conceptions of the good but rather advances quite concrete conceptions of its own, some of which (such as the contention that biological sex has nothing to do with gender) require metaphysical somersaults about the relationship between soul and body that would make a medieval Scholastic blush. It is not about the right to be left alone but rather about the coercive insistence that society conform to the demands of the intersectionally favored. For all practical purposes, this “liberalism” demands the perquisites of a religious establishment. Conservative jurisprudence has not caught up with these developments, and creative new thinking is urgently needed.
  • University multiculturalism, as it arose in the 1980s and 1990s, was greeted by conservative protests against the displacement of canonical works, and how that displacement hurt academic standards. The occasional therapeutic overreach by politically correct university administrations was easily enough ridiculed off the stage. Now, however, as identity politics has grown totalitarian on the campuses and leapt into the broader American society, we begin to see that much more was always at stake. The standpoint of identity grievance means there can be no common good in such a “multicultural” society; a common good is recognized only at the level of the identity group, and for one group to go up, another must go down. Multiculturalism has therefore confected the conditions of a “cold civil war.” We need new thinking on ways to overcome this division and to reintegrate our unraveling American society.

This list is far from complete, but I hope it is suggestive that some of the questions we now face are genuinely new, while some older questions have taken on both a new complexion and a new urgency. Broadly speaking, these issues concern what we might call the “social body” of America, on the one hand, and corrupt and unaccountable leading institutions on the other. They do not primarily concern free markets or economic liberty, the issues that were absolutely central when confronting an ideological power calling for the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.

That is not to say that the classical liberal advocacy of markets no longer matters. Of course it does. But economic actors have a direct interest in market access. The corporate and trade-association lobbyists can do very well on their own. Where philanthropic resources can make the most difference is where broad interests have no ready representation, where unaccountable power must be held to account, and where new historical circumstances must be understood. I hope these societal issues, and others like them, will move to the center of conservative philanthropic attention and organizational energy.

The End of Fusionism

At the conclusion of their essay, Hartmann and Schmidt muse about what might have been had some of the widely admired post-Trump intellectual works and policy organs appeared before the rise of Trump. They wonder coyly why it is they all came after. But there is really no mystery here. Those works could not have appeared before Trump because the conservative movement gatekeepers, defending the Cold War “fusionist” settlement, would have ruled them out of order, with extreme prejudice. There is a reason, after all, why the writers for the short-lived website, the Journal of American Greatness (not to be confused with AmGreatness.com) wrote under pseudonyms in 2016. They knew where the conservative lines were drawn, and they knew they were crossing them—at significant career risk.

We have Trump to thank, then, for a “new birth of [intellectual] freedom” on the Right. But freedom is often uncomfortable. Whether that spark of new freedom—of new questions and new ideas for a flourishing America—is cultivated or is allowed to sputter out will depend to a large degree on the attitude of philanthropy.