Right Needs New Public Intellectuals

In Saturday’s post “Talk Radio Killed Conservativism?” I observed parenthetically that “most of the best analytical blogs are on the center-left” and promised to elaborate. It’s something that has struck me for quite some time (see, for example, February’s “Rational Conservative Blogs“) and that was brought to mind again with two links at Matt Yglesias’ place Thursday.


First, an Economist piece on the role of public intellectuals exclaims that “a rising generation of bloggers is terrifyingly young and bright: expect to hear more from Ezra Klein, Megan McArdle, Will Wilkinson and Matthew Yglesias.”  I’ve met all of them and they’ve all been among my favorite reads for years.  With the possible exception of Will, they’re all well to my left.

While somewhat amused by Matt’s observation that, “I think it would be strange if the main qualification for becoming a high-profile public intellectual in the future is that you had to start a personal blog in 2002 or 2003,” he’s got a point.  Then again, a lot of us started blogs then and only a handful have reached the level where book deals, prestige magazine gigs, and regular invites to be talking heads on radio and television have ensued.

I’d add that it really helps to have an Ivy League degree and work at a think tank or upscale opinion journal.   Only Will went to truly “normal” schools (Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, and Maryland); Klein went non-Ivy, too, but UCLA is an elite institution.


Second, at The Next Right, Jon Henke argues that the Right needs a counterpart to the Center for American Progress.

  • They realized that information and ideas already existed, and action – the organization and application of information – was what the Left needed.  So they created a Marketing Tank.
  • They realized that a think tank was two different organizations – policy (501c3) and communications (501c4) – and those two organizations required structural separation to be most effective.
  • They realized the Permanent Campaign was reality, so they built infrastructure to construct the permanent campaign outside of actual campaigns – to ensure the permanent campaign would be both permanent and ideological (rather than merely partisan).

What’s particularly interesting here is that this is an area where the Right had a decades-long head start.  While liberals have dominated academic think tanks like Brookings for years, those places are genuinely non-ideological; they’re universities without students and, like those with students, they tend to lean left for a variety of reasons having to do with culture and selection.  But conservatives pioneered ideological think tanks like Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, which brought together extraordinarily talented people to formulate ideas and policies that would be passed on to Republican politicos, lobbying efforts, and so forth.

Yet, we long ago reached a point where those places became more known for carrying the water for their party or for a monolithic, unchanging ideology.   Heritage and AEI both still employ very smart people and still do excellent work but they’re seldom cited outside the circles of those already predisposed to agree.   Places like CAP and dozen counterparts whose names are less familiar are still treated as serious institutions by the press.


Part of the reason I’m drawn to the center-left blogs, including those cited above, Kevin Drum, Steve Benen, and others despite disagreeing with them while finding it increasingly difficult to find center-right blogs worth my time is that the former are much more likely to get beyond the debates of the 1980 election.  There’s almost no serious analysis of health care reform, urban planning, education, and many other issues that regularly crop up on the best lefty blogs on their conservative counterparts.   If we read about those issues at all, they’re framed as if Ronald Reagan were still aspiring to high office:  Say No to socialism! Abolish the Department of Education!  Government IS the problem!

While traditionalist grand theory is still valuable and worth discussion, it doesn’t work as a blanket response to micro-level issues.  And defining conservatism solely by “What would Reagan do?” is a political non-starter in a world that simply looks much different than in did twenty-eight years ago.   It would be as if Reagan constantly droned on about the evils of Harry Truman.   Time marches on.  Debates must, too, in order to be interesting.

So, where are the right-of-center counterparts to Yglesias, Klein, and company?    Perhaps the ever-moving James Poulus (now with a mixed bag of co-bloggers)?  Pejman Yousefzadeh, perhaps, but his writings are not handily consolidated.  All the others who come to mind are my age or older.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Yet, we long ago reached a point where those places became more known for carrying the water for their party or for a monolithic, unchanging ideology. Heritage and AEI both still employ very smart people and still do excellent work but they’re seldom cited outside the circles of those already predisposed to agree. Places like CAP and dozen counterparts whose names are less familiar are still treated as serious institutions by the press.

    How is citing of the CAP by the press any different than Heritage an AEI being “seldom cited outside the circles of those already predisposed to agree.” In short, the press is already predisposed to agree with the left, so citing them is no different.

  2. JT says:

    One of the ways the right and left can help themselves is coming up with creative solutions to problems. For example, the way current drug policy is run and enforced in this nation leads to tens of thousands of jailed individuals who are no real threat to society. Coming up with a better criminal policy on drug related offenses will win fans and stir the minds of those who listen to their opinions.

  3. Teh Sadly says:

    Not to mention the humor gap. It’s only necessary to Photoshop a Devo energy dome onto Glenn Reynolds’s head in order to achieve a small but genuine spark of comedy. On the other hand, making fun of Atrios would require some knowledge of light rail and urban planning.

  4. odograph says:

    Take Global Warming. Senator McCain has acknowledged it, and offered a response. The White House has acknowledged it, though seemed more interested in running the clock than proposing responses. One of the Bush Administration economists (Greg Mankiw) has even built a Pigou Club around it.

    Going forward, what will the Right’s bloggers and pundits do?

    If they create continue an echo chamber of denial, I don’t expect much more progress on any other issue.

    This is all about how we engage the world, based on fact, or based on a perception more obviously filtered by ideology.

  5. Derrick says:

    Good post. Although more left of center, I really do love a vigorous debate, but unfortunately the voices on the right are just absent at the moment. It is just sad to see so few engaged on the vast number of issues at the expense of “talking points” on taxes and guns. I know that David Brooks is Enemy #1 on the right, but they would do good to listen to his criticism of the intellectual rot that has seemed to set in. I don’t doubt that some on the right are incredibly smart, but they just don’t seem to be willing to use any of the intelligence other than to fight decades old and inconsequential fights about “socialism” and the like.

  6. Drew says:

    “the former are much more likely to get beyond the debates of the 1980 election. There’s almost no serious analysis of health care reform, urban planning, education, ……… If we read about those issues at all, they’re framed as if Ronald Reagan were still aspiring to high office…”

    A fair point, if the issue is selling and marketing your views.

    But perhaps the repetition of old themes is because certain principles are enduring, and because the empirical results of left-of-center advocated government approaches are so poor. See: Social Security (in constant need of tax increase triage) Medicare (going broke) “War on Poverty” (a costly and endless war, to coin a phrase)…….education (how many shot in Chicago schools today?)

    Drab as it might be, the principle of conservation of momentum is still taught in any first year physics class, too…..because it continues to be correct.

  7. Teh Sadly says:

    But perhaps the repetition of old themes is because certain principles are enduring, and because the empirical results of left-of-center advocated government approaches are so poor. See: Social Security (in constant need of tax increase triage) Medicare (going broke) “War on Poverty” (a costly and endless war, to coin a phrase)…….education (how many shot in Chicago schools today?)

    Yeah, those institutions of liberalism have really been breaking down in front of our very eyes lately.

    For instance, we totally ought to have listened to the free-market fundamentalists back in 2005, when they wanted to drop the Social Security fund into the stock market. Those private accounts would be doing really well right about now.

  8. Ottovbvs says:

    The problem with all the right wing think tanks is they are totally locked in a paradigm that history has left behind. Read the WSJ ed page for a couple of weeks and the same old people from AEI, Heritage, etc like Hassett and company keep popping up. The problem is there is a body of record from these folks that is so incredibly wrong (Hassett’s 35,000 Dow, We’ll be greeted as liberators, the examples are legion) that they are totally discredited with anyone outside the choir of believers. The problem is that as keepers of the flame these think tanks are going to ensure these paradigms remain at the heart of conservative thinking. Bolt on the noise machine of talk radio, tv and publishing which serves as an echo chamber and you have a movement that is in a cul de sac and can’t get out. I’m not sure how long this is going to take to play out, years and years probably, and there’s not much that can be done about it. The US is in a huge economic crisis at present, anything Obama and the democratic congress does is going to look good. A big chunk of Republicans in congress are going to have to go with the flow both because in many cases it’s the right thing to do but also because they just cannot look as if they are obstructing pragmatic policy making or they are going to get destroyed in 2010. I really don’t know what the answer is. Conservatism and the GOP is suffering from a brain fever which is just going to have to play itself out.

  9. Drew says:

    That’s really a simple minded view, teh, even for the left.

  10. Simp says:

    I think part of this is the rights years long assault on intellectualism. Pushing the sophomoric headline and sound bite meme’s that are laughable in the face of complex problems.

    The right’s base has been conditioned that there is a simple black and white answer for everything.

    The right as treated nuanced and measured debate as nothing more than a nuisance. Anyone on the left that pointed this out was treated as weak or hit with ad hominem attacks.

    The right is extremely good at pushing their message in the media and doing it in a way that completely (and intentionally) boils it down into yes/no arguments and is able to rile the base.

    “Obama is a socialist!”
    “Up or down vote!”
    “Voted for it before he was against it!”

    A perfect example is “Joe the Plumber.” Here is a guy, embraced by the right base that wasn’t really a plumber (or was performing work illegally), wasn’t really “getting ready to buy a plumbing business,” and had a lein for unpaid taxes and there is now talk of him running for congress?!? He isn’t particularly bright, plays by his own rules, yet the right loves him because He is an “average joe”? He is an opportunist and a political prop, nothing more.

    Sorry, but I don’t want to have a beer with my elected representatives. I want someone smart as hell that is legislating on my behalf.

    I realize there are lot on the right like Mr. Joyner that see this, but how can you fight it when the bulk of your base is more Walmart than intellectually curious.

  11. eyelessgame says:

    Ultimately you seem to have a party of people who want to run government while simultaneously believing there is nothing for government to do. And that is not a recent development; that is the entirety of Reagan’s message. Cut taxes, spend on big-shoulders militarism, create huge deficits for someone else to clean up, and pretend that the free market will solve all other problems.

    There are no “conservative” solutions to global warming, crumbling infrastructure, health care, increasing wealth disparity, shrinking manufacturing base, or unregulated corrupt markets — because those things cannot be solved by a free market or tax cuts, yet a free market and tax cuts are all that conservatives ever had.

  12. eyelessgame says:

    To ameliorate that – you’re correct that Reagan was a different era. There were many problems that could be solved by tax cuts and a free market. And thanks to Reagan, we solved them. So we are now left with those problems that conservatism cannot solve.

  13. jibeaux says:

    Joe the Plumber didn’t even fit the point they were trying to make. A slightly more intellectually rigorous campaign might have preferred, I don’t know, maybe a plumber (or pseudo-plumber) who actually was going to be taxed MORE UNDER OBAMA’S PLAN. Instead they stumbled across a guy who wasn’t named Joe, wasn’t a licensed plumber, wasn’t actually going to buy the business, didn’t seem to be in any danger of approaching $250k/yr., and all of a sudden he’s a campaign surrogate/mascot. I realize this is pretty much consistent with the “hey, she’s a girl” strategy they employed to find Sarah Palin, but eventually the Republicans are going to have to realize that not everyone is dumber than a bag of hammers inside a box of rocks. I mean, a lot of people are, don’t get me wrong, a quarter of this country would vote for Bush again so you’ve kind of always got a certain voting block, but it just isn’t going to be enough.

    There aren’t any “conservative” solutions to income disparity, the lack of health insurance, environmental degradation, etc. because conservatives, unlike voters, do not see these things as problems. The fact that 99% of American incomes are stagnant while 1% have increased over the last 8 years is a feature rather than a bug to these guys. Global warming doesn’t exist because, wow, it’s chilly today! It’s not a philosophy that exactly thrives on rigorous critical thinking. I mean, try to imagine the extent of the hostility to science and objective evidence you would have to maintain to deny evolution.

    Whereas I will always remember Yglesias’ analysis of how the economy does better under Democratic presidents, complete with fairly striking graph, followed by his questioning of why this should be, since the executive shouldn’t really have as much control over the economy as that would imply, and what other factors could be at play. Just try to imagine a right-wing blogger confronted with favorable statistics stepping back for a moment and looking at them dispassionately and less favorably.

  14. charles johnson says:

    The problem is the southern strategy. Now, I’ve lived in the south all my life. I like the south. Parts of it. I don’t hide my southern accent and I can drink out of a Ball jar and watch auto races and live in a trailer and all that.

    But there are a lot of dumb people here too, and people who are culturally backwards and don’t like blacks and think gays should be arrested and so forth. I’m not believing a stereotype, I’m basically just describing my relatives. For instance when my younger brother was 16 he said he wanted a t-shirt of Michael Jordan, and one of my relatives said “Why do you want a shirt with a n***** on it?” That was only like 10 years ago. And in the wave of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s a bunch of whites were really pissed off by the whole thing and started making more noise in politics and Nixon and Buchanan and those guys started cultivating them. And the more you play to people like that, the more you drive young educated urban people away and it becomes a self reinforcing thing and after several decades your policies are totally retarded and out of touch and when your party gets total control like it had from 2000 to 2006 you make a complete mess of everything you touch. I used to consider myself something of a conservative, when I thought of conservatives as George HW Bush and William Buckley. The more I got to see, the more I saw that that’s not the modern conservative movement. The modern conservative movement is stocked with people who think that gay people will somehow threaten straight people’s marriages, Paying for tax cuts with deficit spending is a fantastic idea, and global warming is just a conspiracy of several thousand scientists. This isn’t simply wrong or out of touch, it’s (expletive) crazy. Serious conservative Wick Allison recently called the GOP the “Party of Stupid”. Even the intellectual conservative places have been crazified. I went to National Review’s “The Corner” a couple of months ago and counted 28 mentions of ACORN on the first page. National Review! Lots of educated people like myself have been pushed away. I would like to read intelligent conservative blogs, because all I read pretty much these days is Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly, Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman etc.

    I just have a hard time finding intelligent conservative blogs. Any time I venture to a right-wing blog I start seeing Obama is a terrorist! Obama is a socialist! Nancy Pelosi wants your kindergartener to watch gay porn! or whatever and I’m not going to read incredibly dumb junk so I stop going. And then they lose humongously and they say Hmm….we should have been even conservier! More base! McCain was too liberal! That was clearly the problem! Ronald Reagan! Ronald Reagan!

    No dude. Ronald Reagan was not the problem. The problem is you’re appealing to a bunch of uneducated Christianists and so you’ve lost young educated and tolerant people. Put them together with blacks, women, and Latinos, and you lose. Since the GOP reaction to the loss seems to want to be to get extra basey, I expect them to lose again for the next several years. Once they get tired of losing, they’ll start reaching out to tolerant and educated people again and eventually be competitive again. But for now I just expect them to retreat further into the Fox / Freep / Rush / Hannity collective of the clueless. They need some time in the wilderness. After they lose 2 or 3 more elections they’re going to start wondering if pandering to the shrinking demographic of older white southern uneducated men is such a good idea moving forward. And time out of power will let the public forget that their management of the economy and the federal budget is distinctly poorer than the Democrats, all rhetoric to the contrary.

  15. charles johnson says:

    I see from the bio above that Mr. Joyner is actually Dr. Joyner. James, with that Ph.D, YOU might not be welcome on the right much longer. You’re probably an Elitist. I bet you even like arugula. To prove that you’re not, please write a few blog posts on why Sarah Palin is the Third Greatest American to run on a Presidential/Vice Presidential ticket, behind, obviously, Pat Robertson and Ronald Reagan.

  16. angullimala says:

    I agree with you completely.

    One serious practical problem with getting the movement back on track is that it’s spent so long telling it’s members that they can have their cake and eat it too and that anyone who tells them otherwise has ulterior motives. Its going to be hard to convince them that they can’t.

  17. Bob Campbell says:

    I don’t know where to start.. I read the article and many of the comments and it is mind-boggling.. simply intellectual gar-baggggge..

    Why don’t you guys start beating your gums about how liberalism is going to work over the next 4 years instead of trying to tell us Conservatives how to reprogram. Heck, 18% of the registered Republicans stayed home.. we put a moderate in the race that turned most of us off.. and of course, we couldn’t overcome the freaking aura of electing the first Black President and a Messiah at the same time.

    From my stand point I am waiting for you folks to prove that liberal politics, spending, and government dependency will turn things around. Until you do you have no business telling us Conservatives what will work and won’t work. We know what will work. Reagan knew what worked. Of course what he did is too simple for the liberal thinker to intellectually understand.

    Personally I am happy the Liberals won.. they are going to own ALL the wonderful crap happening in America now. Of course they will blame everything on Bush, but what the hell, that is how the Liberals operate, it is always someone else’s fault, including this article on how the Conservatives need to change.. remember CHANGE is the Obama slogan, not ours.

    I’m done.. if you post this I will never believe you had the guts.

  18. KevinA says:

    ^:sigh: And this thread was going so well.

    James, while purely one lone anecdote on this thread, Mr. Campbell might be evidence that for the current base of the GOP, having few new ideas/being anti-intellectual is a feature, not a bug.