“The general public—and not the elite—is, in fact, the primary obstacle to the New Right’s political project.”
here are few right-of-center writers in the United States who attract as much ire in the internecine conservative movement as The New York Times’ David Brooks. Hired by the newspaper in September of 2003, the moderate conservative has been called a “useful idiot” for “progressivism’s thoroughgoing dominance of our culture,” a “scorned lover” in an “isolated, imperious, and condescending leadership class,” and, most memorably, sympathetic to an elite group who “advocated and profited from incessantly trying to destroy everything we cherish, including our communities, as they outsourced jobs while demanding ever more of our tax dollars for the privilege of having them screw us.”
The above examples, all in the past two years, capture the tempestuous relationship Brooks has had with his conservative peers. Although he has had a reputation for being a bit of an iconoclast his entire career, it was the 2015 ascension of then-candidate Donald Trump that was the catalyst for Brooks’ spats with many other contemporary conservatives. The columnist now gravely warns of the Trumpist right’s threat to democracy, the United States, and conservatism itself.
To understand fully the ideological battles between newer conservatives (or the “dissident right,” as some like to be called) and the self-anointed defender of Burkeanism, however, requires more than just following the debates of the Trump era. To comprehend the battleground, one must return to the late 1990s, an era in which a discombobulated conservative intelligentsia tried to navigate the Clinton years. Two young commentators wrote this in The Wall Street Journal:
“But, unpleasant though it is to admit, a barrier to the success of today’s conservatism is…today’s conservatism. Something is missing at conservatism’s core. And the main tendencies that now compete to guide today’s conservative movement can’t fill this void.
The first of these tendencies is the anti-government, ‘leave us alone’ sentiment that was crucial to the Republican victory of 1994…[But] in recent years some conservatives’ sensible contempt for the nanny state has at times spilled over into a foolish, and politically suicidal, contempt for the American state. A conservatism that organizes citizens’ resentments rather than informing their hopes will always fall short of fundamental victory.”
Their piece, “What Ails Conservatism,” makes a compelling case for a conservatism more divorced from libertarianism so as to combat progressivism more effectively. But what is most interesting about it is the byline: William Kristol, another persona non grata in Trumpian circles, and Brooks himself. Funnily enough, Brooks’ recognition of the shortfalls of the conservative movement then rhymes with similar points made by today’s counter-revolutionary radicals.
Sam Adler-Bell, a left-wing writer who often chronicles the history of American conservatism, wrote an excellent profile of the New Right movement in The New Republic this past December. In it, he describes the eclectic band of writers, academics, and activists seeking to conquer the Republican Party. Although there are few issues where they are united in agreement, the through line connecting the New Rightists is a belief that the Reaganite adherence to free markets was short-sighted and that Republicans have, as a result, been ineffective in fending off progressive cultural advancement. They, like the Brooks of the 1990s, do not just want conservatism to win; they want the right conservatism to win.
But despite their similarities, the New Right may face a larger problem than Brooks did previously. In the quarter-century since his Wall Street Journal essay, Americans have moved drastically to the left on virtually every cultural issue other than abortion. These issues include same-sex relationships and marriage, traditional gender roles, divorce, pre-marital sex, racial inequality, and marijuana legalization. This is not just demographic turnover, either. Across age groups, Americans have darted away from the cultural right.
This presents neo-Brookians (a term I coined) with a dilemma: If they want to relitigate the culture wars of yore, then they are starting on the backfoot against strong winds. But if they prefer to fight the new political battles where they have an advantage (e.g., left-wing pedagogy on racial history), then they will essentially be conceding those older cultural issues. The tide of history will have successfully wiped out the men standing athwart it, shrieking “Stop!”
And that indicates perhaps the most foundational folly of the New Right. In considering the best ways to respond to the Left’s conquest of institutions, it is easy to forget that there is a vanishingly small share of Americans sympathetic to their reactionary causes. In this regard, though Brooks is widely considered a heretic among dissident conservatives, his experience offers wisdom for the militant right. The general public—and not the elite—is, in fact, the primary obstacle to the New Right’s political project. And the solution to a sclerotic and decadent conservative movement is to make its cause more attractive to voters—if conservatives are up to the task.
Ahmed Ahmed currently serves as president of the Mission for American Resolve, as well as the managing editor of the Southwest Shadow. He is a former research assistant at the UBI Center and has volunteered for the Nevada Democratic Party.