Electoral defeat tends to spawn bouts of ideological tinkering—when the Democrats lost the presidential election in 2004, a clutch of books soon emerged, bristling with prescriptions for the ailing left. Last year’s resounding losses for the GOP, from John McCain to dog-catcher, will no doubt produce a similar outpouring of what-now books. For some on the right, though, the revolution has already begun, and their catalysts for rethinking conservative politics are a handful of new, online publications.
These new outlets, all of which have cropped up in the last year, are varied in their focus: Big Hollywood examines the nexus of politics and pop culture; The Next Right is a group blog run by political consultants that counsels Republicans on how to run modern campaigns; and The New Majority, launched by David Frum, is a magazine of ideas designed to lead conservatives out of the political wilderness. A fourth new outlet, Culture11, was built for narrative nonfiction and arts criticism, but it folded on January 27 (five months after it launched), a victim of the sharp drop in its investors’ stock portfolios.
So each has its niche, but all share certain important features: they are online-only, more engaged with popular culture than traditional conservative media, and, except for Big Hollywood, eager to challenge conservative orthodoxy whenever necessary. They may make the conservative opinion journalism of tomorrow look a lot like the liberal opinion journalism of yesterday.
For roughly the last twenty-five years, conservative opinion journalism has generally followed Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Liberal magazines, on the other hand, prized diversity of opinion, even contrarianism. The Nation, you may recall, invited Christopher Hitchens to endorse President Bush for reelection in its pages.
Conservative publications, both in print and online, have generally competed to be the farthest right and the most extreme in their denunciations of “liberal treason.” National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The American Spectator—the three most influential conservative print magazines (not counting more academic quarterlies such as Commentary and City Journal)—have consistently backed the policies of the Republican Party and its leaders in Congress and the White House, even when those leaders seemingly betrayed their principles. Those publications didn’t complain, for instance, when George W. Bush abandoned his campaign pledge to advance a “humble” foreign policy to launch the Iraq invasion. And when they have criticized Republicans, it has usually been from the right. The Weekly Standard famously demanded that Donald Rumsfeld resign for not having committed enough resources to winning in Iraq. Conservative Web sites, such as David Horowitz’s Front Page and Townhall.com, are even more strident. When National Review dropped Ann Coulter’s column after she wrote, “We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” Front Page welcomed her.
Frustration with such orthodoxy boiled over in the final months of the ill-fated McCain campaign, and Sarah Palin became a major symbol of the divide between tradition and evolution on the right. When Palin, who excited the Republicans’ social-conservative base, was criticized for her lack of gravitas by National Review contributor Kathleen Parker, it provoked such an outcry from readers that another NR contributor, Christopher Buckley, took his Palin-bashing to a mainstream publication.
David Frum, who was one of Palin’s detractors, quit National Review to start The New Majority, which he hopes will do for conservatives what The New Republic did for liberals in the 1980s. Frum says his goal is “changing the nature of the party,” and “creating a reformist message.” Specifically, he advocates that Republicans define solutions to problems like health care and the environment, which are typically Democratic territory, and “dial back the social issues.”
“Until yesterday, it was unheard of for a new right-wing organization to be attacking the party from the left,” says David Weigel, a reporter at the Washington Independent who covers the conservative movement. But The New Majority has exactly that purpose.
The Next Right, a group blog started by young Republican political consultants in May 2008, draws frequent comparisons to Daily Kos, the hugely popular left-leaning group blog. “There’s a legitimate criticism that [the right] has not fully embraced modern ways of communicating, including the Internet,” says Patrick Ruffini, one of the site’s founders. “We’ve become a little sclerotic and bureaucratic. We need new blood. The Web is a medium for activism. It’s National Review for a new generation.”
The growth of centrist heterodoxy and engagement with culture in conservative publications are linked by more than their resemblance to their liberal models. Both spring from the recognition by a younger generation of conservatives that trends in popular culture, such as an expanding tolerance of homosexuality, favor Democrats.