Features of conservative history I: the magazine movement

When studying the history of conservative movements over the past two centuries, one is struck by the central place occupied by political journals.  Imagine trying to write a history of the Right without mentioning Action Francaise, National Review, The Salisbury Review, The Public Interest, or First Things.  There would be nothing left.  True, figures like William Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Richard Neuhaus wrote books too, but it’s the magazines they founded that is the true source of their influence.  Magazine formations are often the pivot points of conservative history.  The Cold War American Right coalesced around National Review.  The neoconservative movement grew around The Public Interest and Commentary.  The paleoconservative reaction organized around The American Conservative and Chronicles.  The religious conservative movement is centered on First Things.

What’s strange is that I don’t sense this sort of journal-centeredness on the Left.  The Left has a number of excellent journals, such as The New Republic and The Gaurdian, but they’re not central to the history of liberalism or Marxism.  Marx, Mill, Marcuse, etc. are remembered for their books.  I can think of no conservative equivalent to the excitement generated on the Left by the publication of A Theory of Justice.  Truthfully, there haven’t been many conservative books published in the past century that would deserve much excitement–Voegelin’s New Science of Politics would be the main contender.  Lenin and FDR are remembered for their deeds.  M. L. King Jr. is remembered for his oratory.  The Right, by contrast, has little to show in the way of public effectiveness or capturing the public imagination.

A successful movement needs three layers.  At the highest layer, there are the intellectuals who rigorously expound the movement’s ideology, defend it, and address any possible internal contradictions.  At the lowest level, there’s public mobilization, which needs to be organized around simplistic ideas and demonization of the enemy.  This requires an army of hack artists, sloganeers, and activists to energize the base and demoralize the opposition.  Between these two levels is the level of political journalism, which by operating at an intellectually middle level can serve as an intermediary connecting the high and low levels.  Historically liberalism has excelled at all three levels.  It completely controls academia, and so it has no lack of intellectual guides and sympathetic experts in every field.  At the lowest level, its success has been exceptional.  Just think of all the famous mindless liberal slogans that have become part of the culture:  “Make love, not war!”, “My body, my choice!”,  “Bush lied, people died!”, “Love makes a family!”, “You can’t give hugs with nuclear arms!”  The Right has produced nothing like this.  Then there’s the trashy popular culture, the whole idiot-chorus made up of works like The Da Vinci Code, American Beauty, Dances With Wolves, and The Mists of Avalon.  Where is the conservative hack-propaganda fiction?  (I realize it’s hard for any faction to produce truely great art, but we can’t even produce our own Da Vinci Code?)

The Left has outclassed us at both the top and the bottom.  In the middle, though, the Right has been competitive.  This, it would seem, is why magazines have been so important to the conservative movement.  Perhaps they’re the easiest thing to do competitively–easier than producing either rigorous philosophical arguments or mindless, crowd-controlling slogans.  Even this weblog fits into this middle category.  I’m sure it has no crowd-agitating capability, and it doesn’t aim for the level of rigor required in peer-reviewed journals.  I do have a day job, after all, and this is all I’m up to.  At some point in the future, though, the Right is going to have to branch out (i.e. up and down) if it wants to be successful.

2 Responses

  1. Does conservatism really need to model itself on the structure used by its opponents?

    Even the notion of a “movement” is something borrowed from the Left.

  2. Hello CorkyAgain,

    That’s a good point. Conservatives approach politics in a fundamentally different way than liberals, so our strategy and tactics will necessarily be different. For example, I think there are reasons that adversarial journalism will always be a more effective weapon for the Left than for the Right. I also think there are strong (Weberian) reasons to expect that bureacracies will always lean Left, so attempts to capture the media or civil service and to use them for our own purposes will probably fail.

    It’s actually a matter of pride to me that conservatives can’t compete with the Left in the area of mindless slogans and stupid propaganda. On the other hand, I think it’s a serious weakness that we can’t compete with the Left’s expertise in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, or history. Properly understood, I think all of these disciplines would lend support to the traditionalist position.

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