The Closing of the Conservative Mind

Noah Millman asks today, “Who closed the conservative mind?” It’s a pretty interesting essay written from the point of view of someone who’s a conservative, but not a movement conservative. He offers several possible answers, but I want to focus on just one of them:

Is there a major patron of conservative intellectuals who is a patron primarily because he or she wants to generate new ideas, insights, works of the spirit that do not already exist in the world, as opposed to advancing arguments for ideas that are already well-established in defense of interests that are well-entrenched?

….If a multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I believe that vouchers are the answer, so I’m going to give $100,000 per year to a think-tank to produce pro-vouchers research and advocate for vouchers, well, that’s not really intellectual patronage. If, on the other hand, that same multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I am skeptical of the way the system works now, how we train teachers to how our schools are financed, and impressed with some of what’s been achieved following new models. I’m going to find the smartest, most informed, most independent-minded people I can, who are also skeptical of established practice, and give them money to do whatever research they want. If they can impress me with their independence and intelligence, then I want to know what they can learn with a bit of money to work with — and I want other people to know as well.

….My general impression is that the money going to purportedly intellectual conservative organs is vastly more interested in advocacy than in developing intellectual talent or generating new insights. If I’m right, then that is something that has to change if you want an open conservative mind.

But if I’m right, the question that must next be asked is: has this changed? Were things different in 1975, and if so — why? I think it would be highly instructive to see a study done on the sources of funding for conservative organs and see how these sources have changed over time — is the money coming more or less from individuals over time, from more or fewer sources, from the same or different industries, is the age of donors changing, has the place in American life of donors changed over time, etc.

My guess is that this hasn’t really changed much over the years. It just seems like it. Take vouchers. I imagine that conservative think tanks of the 70s were just as single-mindedly dedicated to producing pro-voucher advocacy as today’s think tanks. But in the 70s, the intellectual superstructure to support that advocacy didn’t exist because the big mainstream center-left institutions like Brookings or the Ford Foundation weren’t studying the issue. So conservative think tanks got busy doing research, writing white papers, developing talking points, writing op-eds, etc. This was responsible for the “intellectual ferment” that Millman associates with conservative advocacy of that era.

Today, that intellectual superstructure has long since been built. So the only thing left is to keep pressing the argument. That means repeating the same talking points, issuing slight variations on the same research, rewriting the same op-eds, and so forth. It’s really the same thing they were doing in the 70s, but without the excitement of actually constructing all the arguments in the first place. That makes it seem duller and more closed-minded than it used to be.

But I suspect it’s not, really. It’s just that things always seem more exciting when you’re doing them for the first time and fighting an insurgent campaign against an entrenched power. But once you win — or, in the case of vouchers, reach a stalemate — it’s not as exhilarating anymore. That’s the real difference between the 70s and today. The goals of the funders, the entrenched interests they serve, the ideas they want to promote, and the desire to construct arguments to support preordained conclusions are probably much the same.

(And why haven’t conservatives been more willing to entertain new ideas over time? Good question. Liberals have retained many of the same goals over the past few decades too, but for some reason have been more willing to consider different approaches and open up whole new areas of inquiry. Global warming is entirely new, for example, and Barack Obama’s healthcare reform was quite different from Teddy Kennedy’s or Bill Clinton’s. I’m not entirely sure what accounts for the difference, though Millman’s essay proposes some fairly plausible mechanisms.)