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On Conservatism and Conservative Voices

Jessica Margolin, who blogs at Solvation on topics that I would broadly call “political economy” and emergent trends within the moderately liberal, techno-VC–silicon valley – futurist-“social capital”, business culture, writes in to me:

“Hi. As an educated and articulate libertarian person, could you PLEASE point me to conservative points of view that aren’t espoused by retarded ranting weirdos? I know there must be some. Help”

This cri de coeur caused me to ponder. 

Compared to my more leftwing blogfriends at ProgressiveHistorians or NewsHoggers, Margolin does not seem to me to be more than mildly liberal liberal/progressive but, she lives, if I recall, in an area not noted for a high proportion of conservative residents. If all I saw of conservatism were the bombthrowing personalities in 30 second MSM clips, I’d think the Right was composed of wingnuts too.

It isn’t, of course, any more than the Left is exclusively populated by Hugo Chavez worshipping, Cindy Sheehan clones. I think the problem in the mutual perception of respective Left-Right wingnuttery comes down to three factors:

1. Partisanship

2. Ideology

3. The Infotainment Media Business Model

Number three is the most significant factor. Bombastic clowns draw an audience. Reasoned discourse puts viewers to sleep. The media is a business, not a charity organization or even a totally one-sided political machine. Basically liberal broadcast networks will air a few conservatives who bring in ad revenue. Period. This model is a driver to propagating corrosive, demonizing, political rhetoric in the public discourse and it garners attention far beyond the actual numbers of people who genuinely support such positions

The most aggravating figures in political life are really more partisan than ideological. Something about the intrinsic one-sidedness of partisan rhetoric, I suspect.  Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were not very conservative in their policies but they were aggressive partisans. Bill and Hillary Clinton are partisan Democrats as was Jimmy Carter (the much maligned Carter enraged stalwart liberals among the House Democrats). By contrast, LBJ, Obama and Reagan are/were more ideological than partisan presidents. Eisenhower, JFK and Ford were neither sharply partisan nor ideological but epitomized pragmatic consensus politics.

Ideology is the bedrock of political conviction. Certain people though prefer purism to policy “wins” and are willing to go down with flags flying rather than compromise their principles. We can even find this praiseworthy, in retrospect; men like Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey appear far more admirable in the eyes of history than the opponents who beat them for the presidency. By contrast, others appear to be a little cracked, impractical and unreasonable tilters at windmills and political ass-clowns who only injure their own party with buffoonish antics.

Returning to Jessica’s question, conservatism is a coalition and not a movement, like liberalism. There are real and important philosophical differences between factions on the Right – neocons, paleocons, libertarians, moderates and the religious right – that do not have counterparts on the Left. The Right tends to stick together based more upon what they are against than what they are for.

Here are some voices in the different conservative factions that I find to be “reasonable”, most of the time. It is an imperfect and admittedly arbitrary list composed of pundits, media personalities, philosophers, bloggers and historical figures. I do not claim to have read every word each person has ever written or that I endorse all of their views. I am using these labels very broadly ( Ayn Rand rejected the term “libertarian”, John Adams was also a radical because he was a republican revolutionary, etc.) and my familiarity with religious right figures is very weak. I did not include a category for “moderate conservatives” – something that probably describes most GOP general election voters who often do not bother to vote in the primaries.

All I am saying is that these individuals are among the better representatives of different kinds of conservatism in the Anglo-American sense of the term, the a couple of figures are probably borderline, depending where you stand.


Arnaud de Borchgrave, W. Pat Lang, Bernard Finel, George Will, Fabius Maximus, Milt Rosenberg, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, George Kennan, Robert Taft, Whittaker Chambers, Edmund Burke, John Adams


Amity Shlaes, Virginia Postrel, Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, Stephen Chapman,  Ayn Rand,  Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek Murray RothbardLudwig von MisesBarry Goldwater Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine


Max Boot, Fred Kagan, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Richard Pipes, Donald Kagan, David Horowitz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Constantine Menges, William J. Bennett, William Kristol

The Religious Right:

Cal ThomasRichard John Neuhaus, Dinesh D’Souza, Reinhold Niebuhr

Comments, criticism, complaints, suggestions. Open fire in the comments…..


By acclamation from the learned gents in the comments section, 20th century American political theorist James Burnham and 19th century French philosopher Frederic Bastiat, are officially added to the list.

I have not read either, though I’ve seen Bastiat frequently quoted by libertarian writers. Joseph Fouche of The Committe of Public Safety blog did an excellent series on Burnham which you can access here.

35 Responses to “On Conservatism and Conservative Voices”

  1. Steve Hynd Says:

    I’d suggest James Joyner (OTB) and Stephen Taylor (Poliblog) as good, sane, conservative bloggers to add to your list.

    Regards, Steve

  2. zen Says:

    Thanks Steve – very good suggestions. Dr. Joyner is on my blogroll already. Taylor is a nice add.

  3. Fabius Maximus Says:

    Very insightful.  I had not thought about this, but the glove fits well.  Thanks for pointing this out.
    Wikipedia on paleoconservatism:

  4. A.E. Says:

    On Joseph Fouche’s advice I would say add James Burnham to the list.

    As long as we are going far back as Burke I would say Kautilya and Machiavelli.

  5. Steve Metz Says:

    I think you have to place conservatives along two axes: economics/fiscal policy and social policy.  I consider myself fiscally conservative and socially liberal.  In terms of names, I was surprised you left off the head "paleo"–Pat Buchanan.  Being most interested in national security policy, I’d also add two of my favorite authors–Andrew Bacevish as a "paleo" and Chris Preble in the "libertarian."  Oh, and throw Tom Donnelly into the "neoconservatives."

  6. toto Says:

    If you’re ready to cite dead people, why not suggest the easily readable, devastatingly effective < ahref="http://www.econlib.org/library/Bastiat/basEss1.html#Chapter%201">Frederic Basquiat</a>? Certainly he would be much more representative than the entire Austrian roster, whose theories are rejected by pretty much everybody else from Krugman to Friedman.
    Also, I’m pretty sure Dinesh "MTV caused 9/11" D’Souza fits within what your friend would call "retarded ranting weirdos". YMMV.

  7. toto Says:

    Ooops – of course that was Frederic Bastiat, not Basquiat.

  8. Schmedlap Says:

    "If all I saw of conservatism were the bombthrowing personalities in 30 second MSM clips, I’d think the Right was composed of wingnuts too."

    Great example of this nonsense on Abu M’s site. He urges the "extreme right" to not kill the President and then follows it up with an update expressing befuddlement that people would view this as a mild breach of protocol. Urging someone to not do something insane conveys that you think the person actually is insane (otherwise, why urge him to not behave in an insane manner?). I really need to remove him from my blogroll so that I am not prompted to keep reading his blather.

  9. Eddie Says:

    While I can’t pinpoint where they are exactly on the conservative ideologue chart (and that’s the refreshing part, because they’ll seem libertarian one minute and Spirit of ’94 the next), these are excellent conservatives worthy to read:

    Rick Moran of Rightwing Nut House
    Reihan Salam at National Review
    Peter Suderman at Reason
    Rod Dreher
    Yuval Levin
    David Frum
    Luigi Zingales
    W. Bradford Wilcox
    Daniel Larison

    I think what the above people represent above all is a return to pragmatism. They want and propose sharper, more pragmatic and realistic conservative policies. All are well-worth reading. 

    The problem with some of the people on your list is that since the ascendancy of Obama, they’ve joined the echo chamber and actively lie and support lying in discourse and debate to an extent that they are a mere mirror image of once-respectable liberal thinkers/writers who did the same once Reagan or Bush came into office.

  10. Lexington Green Says:

    Buckley was not a Paleo.
    Buckley was no-prefix-Conservative.  So was Reagan.
    There is a problem with doing it this way.  Using labels from 2009 and projecting them back into time does not lend clarity.  American Conservatism is an evolving and mutating phenomenon.
    It is a long and complicated tale. 
    Your friend could get some good ideas about non-hysterical conservatism from many sources.
    Unfortunately, those sources are not on television or the radio.
    I would suggest reading three books.  Milton Friedman, Free to Choose (simple and clear statement of conservative / libertarian economic thinking),  Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square (simple and clear statement of the role of religion in public life in America) and James Burnham, Suicide of the West (a Conservative realist look at national security, somewhat dated, but excellent on the ideological underpinnings of the American Left).  
    If she only has time for one, read Friedman.   You can get inexpensive used paperback copies on Amazon.
    For the history of Conservatism, George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America is very good.  John B. Judis, William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, is also very good. 


  11. Lexington Green Says:

    Also, not to be carping, this is a good post and a good list and a great set of links.
    I just have some problems with the nomenclature. 

  12. zen Says:

    No worries Lex – these terms are casual/loose for introductory purposes rather than precise or formally. You’re right, Buckley was a "eucumenical" kind of conservative like Reagan, NR was basically a "home" for all the conservative factions. The only group
    Buckley cound not much tolerate were the loons, the ones who thought Eisenhower was a Communist.
    Big Steve,
    I thought long and hard about adding Pat Buchanan for the reasons you offered. Pat’s charismatic and has written a lot of books promoting paleoconservatism but his past comments on Nazi-related subjects tend to cause nutcases to come out of the woodwork and visit my comment section. Great suggestions on Bacevich and Preble!
    Excellent examples gents, much appreciated!

  13. Bernard Finel Says:

    I am fascinated and flattered to be included on this list.  I would propose that it raised serious questions about the utility of the conservative label at all. 

  14. T. Greer Says:


    I suggest that you add Frederich Bastiat to your group of "libertarian" thinkers. Certainly the man shaped a great deal of subsequent libertarian thought. His work, The Law, is one of the best expressions of limited government I have yet to read.

    I am curious — would you place Alexis de Tocqueville in any of these categories?

  15. Seerov Says:

    "Pat’s charismatic and has written a lot of books promoting paleoconservatism but his past comments on Nazi-related subjects tend to cause nutcases to come out of the woodwork and visit my comment section. " (Zen)
    This is true, Buchanan’s nuanced view of WWII does seem cause nutcases to have  temper tantrums.  Unforchunately many of the people having these tantrums can be found on your list.  If Ms. Margolin wants a good place to start with Pat Buchanan’s writings I would suggest "The Death of the West."  Its importance will be even more evident in the future.

  16. Lexington Green Says:

    Another book which I have not read yet, but which is new and is supposed to be good is The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History by Patrick Allitt. 
    Reviewed here:  http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/51579192.html
    and here:  http://www.aei.org/article/100866

  17. Bob Says:

    I’m on what most would call the far left. And like this blog. Agreed, there’s way too much demonizing. Some liberal blogs seem to delight in attacking any conservative simply because they are conservative. And vice versa, of course. No one is listening. That’s dangerous. Yes, someone can oppose health care reform because they favor small government, and not because they are knuckle-dragging racists who think Obama is a CommuNazi.

    Here’s some of the main groupings on the left as I see them.

    – Liberals
    – Progressives
    – Non-socialist radicals (as typified by Saul Alinsky)
    – Anarchists (the G20 protesters in Pittsburgh)
    – Socialists (the alphabet soup of Marxist parties, some of whom have considerable influence via front groups.)

    The first three are mostly friendly with each other. Anarchists and Socialists are antagonistic, with anarchists seeing socialists as authoritarian buttheads and socialists seeing anarchists as undisciplined loose cannons – this split has been going on for, oh, 100 years or so.

    BTW, the very first car bomb was set off on Wall Street by an anarchist in 1921.
    Socialist groups of course split and re-split due to doctrinal differences. Monty Python’s skit on the Judean People’s Front is dead on target.

    Anyway, I hope we of various political views can listen and discuss issues, and not just scream at each other. There’s way too much of that going on now.

  18. Clay Barham Says:

    Want to define "conservatives" and "Libertarians?"  Then, go to the source, those who actually were conservatives and libertarians in the 19th century, such as the Democrats from Jefferson to Cleveland and compare them to the 20th century Democrats who follow Rousseau, Compte and Marx.  It is in THE CHANGING FACE OF DEMOCRATS on Amazon.com, and a synopsis in http://www.claysamerica.com.  So, there!

  19. zen Says:

    I yield on Burnham and Bastiat. 🙂  Post amended.
    I’ve read Right from the Beginning, A Republic not an Empire and Death of the West . Unlike most ppl, I’ve read no small number of Buchanan memos to Nixon when Pat was a young but influential WH aide when I was researching Nixon’s administration. I like some of Buchanan’s points and his style but demur on others where I think he’s wrong. I’d post on it but thanks to SEO, writing on Pat Buchanan is often like blogging about Israel and the Palestinians. I might as well just punch myself in the head instead; the results would be less aggravating.
    Thank you very much. I agree, there needs to be a lowering of the volume and more civilized exchanges where both asides make a effort to assume good motives. I liked your typology of the Left and I pretty much agree. I’ll add though, that the non-Marxist radicals like Alinsky are a greatly understudied group. Their pragmatic lack of ideological baggage makes them more interesting and usually more effective political actors.
    Good point. The political spectrum that we are familiar with arcs from 1789 to 1991 in terms of maximum utility. To an extent, right now these positions represent legacy thinking but we really do not have a new vocabulary yet to express how the 21st century’s politics organize differently in a world where economies are globalized and societies are networked. There’s still a substantial intellectual carryover from the Cold War but that will fade very soon when Gen Y hits mid-career.
    T. Greer,
    Great question. De Tocqueville is somebody I usually pair up with de Custine when teaching students rather than focusing on Democracy in America alone.
    Judging him by the standards of his own time and country, de Tocqueville is a conservative classical liberal. It’s a difficult position for de Tocqueville to be in because France never really fully processed the agonizing experiences of the French Revolution and Bonaparte’s empire until, probably, the institution of the Fifth Republic (!).  De Tocqueville was caught between Bourbon reactionaries, Bonapartist imperialists and the the revolutionary socialist Left, the magnitude of threat of which he correctly identified. Basically untenable, much like the liberal democrats of Weimar or of Spain in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.

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  21. democratic core Says:

    I’m still not a fan of the left/right spectrum, and ideological traditions in the US seem way too complex to be pigeon-holed like that.  For example, what do you do with "civil libertarians"?  Most people put them on the left, but why does that follow?  Support for drug legalization – is that left or right, there seem to be supporters on both ends.  I like Walter Russell Mead’s categories (Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jacksonian), which although he uses them in a foreign policy context, seem applicable to other issues and each category has left and right aspects.  I tend to identify myself as something like a Keynesian New Deal Democrat – pro-capitalist but also pro-activist government and pro-union, pro-free trade, internationalist, moderately pro-law enforcement, pro-tolerance and diversity (i.e., racial and "social" issues), more pragmatic than ideological.  It’s sort of a Wilsonian/Hamiltonian, but I trace this strain in US history back to Ben Franklin (and Francis Bacon before that).  One of my favorite "what ifs" – suppose Franklin had been younger, would he have been the first President, and if so, how would that have shaped US history?

  22. Lexington Green Says:

    Because of the peculiarity of our Constitution, which forces election in which one candidate has to get 50% + 1 to win, we cannot have lots of parties or coalition governments.  This forces everyone to get into two big parties, which are in turn fractious coalitions of people who have disparate interests but must march together on election day to get anything at all.  This is one more stroke of the Founders’ genius.  It forces the existence of big, centrist parties.  I think the founders figured on alliances of factions, not parties, but the idea of forcing centrist outcomes by forcing centrist positions to get majories, was embedded on purpose.  Hence we always end up with actual political alliances that are binary — and we then find ourselves trying to come up with some ex post facto intellectual or philosophical for these unprincipled (in the non-pejorative sense) aggregates that combine in the major parties.  So we end up with liberal/conservative, right/left descriptions that are not wholly satisfactory.  But we always end up with actual binary splits, because our system is built to force binary splits near the center of the political spectrum and marginalize extreme or minority opinions.  This is the only way to keep a country the size of a continent together. 
    Unsatisfactory right/left divisions are permanent features.
    Each voter has his own personal odyssey to recount.  But on election day it all boils down to: D?  Or R? 
    Feature, not bug. 

  23. democratic core Says:

    The American two-party political system is not the same thing as a classification of American political ideologies, which again, I don’t think can be easily classified as either left or right.  Through most of American history, the two parties did not break down along ideological lines, often combining groups that would seem to be ideologically strange bedfellows (e.g., the New Deal coalition or McKinley’s combination of midwestern farmers and Wall Street).  Our political system is at its worst when the parties become ideologically polarized, because this results in elections becoming zero-sum competitions, as in 1860. 

  24. Lexington Green Says:

    My point is that classifications of the American political system always fall into paired groupings.  Of course the two parties did not break down along ideological lines.  Most voters are not concerned with ideology.  They are concerned with tangible benefits.  Hence, strange bedfellows are always going to find themselves in the sack together under our system.
    The attempt to come up with some kind of ideological blanket to cover all that up is a perennial effort.  It is part of trying to keep everyone in the coalition on the ranch.
    The attempt to classify everyone as Left or Right may be intellectually incoherent, but has the practical utility of sorting people into bins: Will they vote for my candidate or not, yes, no, maybe, not sure?
    So, we agree, I think. 

  25. T. Greer Says:

    Recommended Reading:

    Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?
    Steven F. Hayward. Washington Post.  4 October 2009.


    — The article reminded me of this post. Hayward’s point is twofold: intellectual conservatism has largely been replaced by punditry, and, there is no strong intellectual foundation or an intellectual leader (ala Buckley) to pull conservatives through today.


    It leaves me with a question: Can we (average conservative leaning citizens) change this, or do we just have to wait until a 21rst Century Buckley sprouts up?

  26. dave anderson Says:

    Zen — thanks for the mention, but to really strengthen your list, please remove Amity Shales as someone to recommend, as her books are case studies in selective quotation to argue a pre-determined point.  Look at how she defines "unemployment" as anyone working in the private sector, thus excluding from the count of employed individuals anyone who was working in any of the relief programs on the grounds that those jobs were temporary and therefore not work counting. 

  27. A.E. Says:

    The thing, is, though, I wonder really whether "ideas matter" anymore in politics. The nostalgia for Buckley is a nostalgia for a time when literary transmission of ideas was more prominent in American life.

  28. onparkstreet Says:

    Hmmm, I am going to gently disagree with the ‘ideas are dead and pundits have taken over,’ meme. I have no data for the thesis, so, rather than disagreeing, perhaps I should say I have questions about the above sentiments and don’t know the answer.
    Yes, that is better and more accurate: I don’t know the correct answer.
    Does social media replace the ‘literary transmission of ideas’, today? As an anecdotal case study, which likely means absolutely nothing, I will use own introduction into the world of ideas via social media to make the point! I will use my own experience on chicagoboyz, abu muqawama (where I comment under my name, Madhu) and other sites, specifically, to make the point.
    So, I’m terribly educated. I have a medical degree, but I wasn’t intellectually curious as a young person and ignored the humanitiess. I wanted to have a ‘trade’, a good one, to be independent financially and ‘make a difference’, and so I chose medicine. I ‘came to conservatism’ the way many adults make that realization – living and interacting in a world of work, complicated human relationships and behaviors, paying taxes, home ownership, dealing with bureaucracy, etc.
    And, so, with time and the advent of social media, I started to read ‘conservative’ blogs such as Instapundit. I migrated to chicagoboyz. I migrated to abu muqawama where I post under my name, Madhu. I started reading articles on Hayek, essays on Friedman, I bought some (hey, I have a day job and responsibilities) the basic books I should have read when I was younger. I lurk on swj threads about COIN and CT and ROE, for heaven’s sake, because I have questions arising from newspaper articles and want to explore them.
    In the past, I likely would have been the kind of person who participated in the popular literary transmission of ideas by watching Buckley, subscribing to NR – what have you. I think a lot of education and transmission of ideas happens online, and it is more sophisticated than many would credit. Take Hot Air which is partisan and rambunctious and full of Glenn Beck watchers to judge by the threads. If you read the threads, you will find, peppered amongst the more rambunctious comments, occasional links and quotations from more traditional sources. Quite good links and quotes. Serious words, serious ideas. That is meaningful. That is powerful.
    I also don’t know how one would study it, and how one would compare it to the supposedly more serious ideas of the past.
    If one wanted to change things, well, I don’t know how to do that, exactly, but I suggest that the more well-read of you think of commenters and participants like me. By having forums like this, by taking our, sometimes shy, venturing into your world seriously, you yourself become the Buckley of the moment.
    I am quite serious. Make fun, if you must, but I am absolutely serious 🙂

  29. onparkstreet Says:

    Okay, that all came out creepier and weirder and more self-serving than I meant. Eeek! I only meant to say that I’ve been introducted into a world of ideas by social media, and that introduction began at more partisan, pundity sites.

  30. A.E. Says:

    Madhu, I see your point, but this sentence is key "In the past, I likely would have been the kind of person who participated in the popular literary transmission of ideas by watching Buckley, subscribing to NR – what have you."

    There are many people who are interested in having substantive conversation, and you’ll often find them posting at blogs like Zen’s. But the vast majority of the blogosphere, like cable TV, is screaming and howler monkeys and such. I also think that to some degree that the blogosphere overestimates its influence to drive the national agenda compared to the "traditional media"–which still has a far wider remit.

  31. Lexington Green Says:

    I don’t think that there was any golden age in the past.  At most a few thousand people subscribed to National Review in its heyday — including my father. 
    If you think people were less irrationally partisan in some golden age in the past, you need to dig down a little more on the history.  Look at the 1980 election, the 1972 election, the 1964 election.  Look at the response to FDR — some of it was totally unhinged.  And you go back into the 19th century, it gets really crazy.
    Democracy is demotic.  It is supposed to be.  It is not a bunch of bewhiskered gents engaging in genteel repartee whilst puffing their pipes and nodding sagely amidst the leather bound tomes in the Athenaeum reading room.  It is rather a bunch of mostly ignorant yobs and yahoos carrying signs, marching, chanting and dreaming of a patronage job as assistant city smoke inspector.  
    I have met and gotten in touch with people who have massively expanded my intellectual horizons, as well as finding books and articles I would never have learned about via the Net.
    OPS is exactly correct that if you cull through the debris, there is gold to be found on blogs, and in comment threads.  
    From what I can see, the whole thing is strongly net positive. 

  32. democratic core Says:

    I thought you folks were from Chicago.  Why aren’t Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom on your lists?
    LG: You are certainly right about American historical partisanship.  Doing my thesis, I spent months pouring through newspapers from the 1820s on microfilm (in the olden days before the internet).  Politics was really a blood sport then.

  33. zen Says:

    Leo Strauss begets an argument of how to classify him ( conservative, neoconservative, neither. The Left sees Strauss as the godfather of neoconservatism because of his theory of reading texts coupled with having had Wolfowitz as a student. Frankly, Wolfowitz was more influenced by Albert Wohlstetter than by Leo Strauss) and I have not read him so cannot make a good judgment. His disciple, Bloom, OTOH, I have read and simply forgot about him when I was composing this list.

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