Ross Douthat’s Fantasy World

The New York Times’ wunderkind columnist is on a quest to save intellectual conservatism.

Illustration: Steve Brodner

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Ross Douthat doesn’t know what to say. The 30-year-old, whose elevation to the New York Times op-ed page last spring makes him one of America’s most visible conservative columnists, sits across from me at a Thai restaurant near the Times‘ Washington, DC, bureau. He is struggling to explain his position on gay marriage—to me, to himself. “Gay marriage? I’m…” He pauses, groping for the right words. “I’m opposed to gay marriage but do not…” He pauses again, looking genuinely vexed, as if anything he says will come out wrong.

Which may be why Douthat (pronounced “DOW-thut”) has opted not to write about the subject. Not in the Times, anyway, and only in passing during his stint as a researcher, editor, and blogger for The Atlantic—his only other employer since he graduated from Harvard College in 2002. “You either intuitively believe certain things about cultural change or you don’t,” he finally says. “And it may just be I intuitively believe those things”—that marriage is between a man and a woman—”because they dovetail with my own theological premises about the nature of sex.” And so, in this important cultural debate, Douthat has chosen silence: “One way to think about this is, I am not comfortable making arguments against gay marriage to my gay friends,” he says. “And if you’re not comfortable making arguments against gay marriage to your gay friends, you shouldn’t be comfortable making them to anybody, probably, so I don’t tend to make them.”

And so we know at least three things about Ross Douthat—the devoutly Catholic, anti-porn, pro-abstinence, pro-life prodigy of punditry. First, he’s not always sure that he’s right. Second, he has gay friends. Third, he cares what they think. Which is consistent with what I have learned in conversations with Douthat, his parents, and many of his friends and colleagues, and in reading nearly everything he has ever published. His comfort with complexity, and with those who disagree with him—along with his somewhat unconventional upbringing, his unorthodox ideas on abortion law, and his embrace of both popular culture and highbrow literature—make him a surprising conservative writer. More surprising than most of his Times readers would ever know, and compelling in ways his fellow conservatives may not like to admit.

Last April 28, Douthat’s debut weekly column, provocatively titled “Cheney for President,” appeared on the Times‘ op-ed page. He’d been hired the previous month to succeed William Kristol, whose tenure as resident hard-right pundit had lasted barely a year. Douthat had written two books, but his only regular gig outside of The Atlantic had been reviewing movies for National Review. He had never been a beat reporter, nor worked in politics, nor been employed anywhere outside Washington. And he was the youngest op-ed columnist the paper had ever hired. He’s still a bit stunned, in fact. “My worries tend to revolve around getting a dream job so young and then falling flat on my face,” he admits. The opportunity was “enormously terrifying.”

Douthat’s new editors, David Shipley and Andrew Rosenthal, were clearly seeking something besides experience. Their other finalist was Ramesh Ponnuru, another young (then 34), Ivy-educated conservative Catholic whose résumé was dominated by a single employer—National Review. Call it affirmative action if you like: On the Times editorial pages, youth and conservatism were underrepresented qualities.

In choosing Douthat, the editors got a peculiar specimen of both. He first gained attention for Privilege, a bittersweet 2005 memoir of his years at Harvard, where the drinking, partying, and hooking up left him feeling alienated. Of one alcohol-fueled fling, he wrote: “Whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered—’You know, I’m on the pill.’…On that night, in that dank basement bedroom, she spoke for all of us, the whole young American elite. Not I love you, not This is incredible, not Let’s go all the way, but I’m on the pill.”

Yet despite Douthat’s austere moral sensibilities, he is often critical of fellow conservatives—particularly the Limbaugh-Beck-Hannity talk culture. He’s also amenable to progressive taxation and large-scale government intervention, and, of course, he’s conflicted over gay marriage.

Ross Douthat has the hair of an older man—thinning on top, a trim beard below—and the air of one. He’s had only one girlfriend since college, and they are now married. He’s astonishingly well read but in conversation lacks the brashness of a precocious DC wonk. He gets just as animated about the Red Sox, action movies, fantasy novels, and television as he does about policy. And even when his passions—for G.K. Chesterton, the novelist Anthony Powell, and conservative Catholicism—seem more appropriate to a desiccated English squire, they are born of a childhood that, more than most, shaped the man.

“It was unusual,” Douthat says of his Connecticut upbringing. Although he was privileged—his parents sent him and his sister to private day schools—his mother’s severe chemical allergies made his home life profoundly different from his friends’. “She’s infinitely more functional than the extreme cases you hear about, where people barricade themselves in vacuum-sealed homes,” he says, but “she has a very hard time with perfumes and pesticides and dyes and all the stuff of modern life.” In the 1980s, before Whole Foods mania and the Internet, finding perfume-free detergents and pesticide-free foods was an all-encompassing project. “We lived in the world of creaking health-food shops in back alleys run by aging hippies with endless copies of, well, Mother Jones running up the magazine stand.”

As part of her quest for relief, Douthat’s mother, Patricia Snow, until then an Episcopalian, attended a sermon by Pentecostal faith healer Grace James. “I went and had an amazing encounter with Jesus Christ,” Snow told me over lunch at Claire’s Corner Copia, a vegetarian mecca in New Haven. From then on, the family followed James around New England, from high school cafeterias to Elks lodges to church basements. The family later began sampling church after church in what Ross calls “a tour of American Christianity.” There was home schooling, too: Snow, an erstwhile English major, thought Ross’ school lacked rigor, so she withdrew him for a year before junior high to read Shakespeare and diagram sentences at home. But that didn’t trouble Douthat; nor did having to meet his friends at the park because the detergent traces in their clothing aggravated his mom’s symptoms. Snow recalls how her introverted son would read voraciously in his room, or pace their backyard for hours, throwing a baseball against a backstop while talking to himself and making up stories. The one thing he resented about his upbringing, he says, was “in the evangelical phase, when someone would put us in a prayer group and you were holding hands and it was like, ‘Oh, do I have to make up a prayer?'”

After all the church hopping, Douthat was happy when the family finally settled on Catholicism. “I was 17, a socially awkward teenager, and I was relieved to join a church where no one asked you to pray spontaneously,” he told me. His reading had prepared him well: “You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic. I knew a lot of people who did that in their 20s—I just did it earlier, and with a different incentive structure.”

A certain kind of cerebral Christian will recognize the young Douthat’s reading list, especially the prominence of English apologetic writers like Lewis, the mid-20th-century Anglican who penned The Chronicles of Narnia, and Chesterton, an English Catholic who, prior to his death in 1936, promoted an agrarian, anti-modern agenda and is now beloved by fantasy writers like Neil Gaiman. Douthat was also a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, another anti-modern conservative Catholic.

Boys with eccentric parents—not to mention boys who love fantasy fiction—tend to develop a sense of empathy, partly because they know what it’s like to be the weird kid at school. Douthat fits the mold. “There is at the heart of him this enormous tolerance,” says New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro, who was Douthat’s best friend in high school. “I was the best man at Ross’ wedding, and the whole point of my speech was that two people can be as different as can be and still be friends. He is conservative; I’m certainly not as conservative as he is. He is straight; I am not. We would get in these bruising arguments, but every year, even in college, we would go to midnight mass at St. Mary’s. I think he enjoyed bringing me in there, so I would cease to be a sinner for one night every year.”

After Harvard, Douthat lived with Reihan Salam, who became his coauthor on the 2008 book Grand New Party, a set of prescriptions for the embattled GOP. Salam, a secular Muslim from working-class Brooklyn, related easily to Douthat. “He, too, came from a marginal place,” Salam tells me. “He didn’t have the classic upbringing you’d expect from an Ivy League student. It has given him a kind of outsider take.”

Harvard seemed to bring out a contentious side in Douthat. It’s not hard to find ill-considered writings by campus politicos, and the day after he was hired by the Times, unearthed his undergrad chestnuts. In a 2000 column in the Harvard Crimson, for example, he concluded that a “sudden and artificially induced increase in voter turnout would only mean an increase in the number of ill-informed, poorly thought out and just plain stupid votes. To be blunt, most of the people who don’t vote, shouldn’t vote.”

Douthat also attended a conservative salon in a dorm room in Eliot House; other participants included Roman Martinez, now a clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, and Austin Bramwell, a New York lawyer and a frequent contributor to conservative magazines. Bramwell has reservations about Douthat’s writing, which he says contains a “sloppiness and imprecision combined with strong assertion…Once you start noticing it, it will drive you crazy.” But he also allows that Douthat has been a positive force for conservatism, in part because he has chosen to work in mainstream institutions. “He could have easily become a movement hack,” Bramwell told me via email. “Instead he became a Crimson columnist and worked for The Atlantic. That was smart.”

Douthat does have a Catholic’s profound sense that sin is real, and he is always on high alert for the perversion of virtue. In a 2006 blog post, for instance, he expressed dismay that Jennifer Aniston’s character in The Break-Up gets a Brazilian bikini wax: “As with breast implants, it’s another instance of modern women taking their sexual cues from pornography.” Indeed, his writing often exhibits a tension between the contemporary, culturally engaged, tolerant intellectual and the moral rectitudinarian. Even his moralizing has two sides: that of the peace-loving Catholic, nourished by the mysterium tremendum of the Mass, and that of the crusader, certain that abortion is murder and masturbation is a vice.

Millions of Americans share those beliefs. What made Douthat so unusual was how those tensions played out in his essays and blog, which moved from the American Scene—a group blog Douthat founded after college—to The Atlantic in 2007. In those dispatches, his takes on conservative heroes like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn feel at home alongside his critiques of The Bourne Ultimatum, Stephen King, and The Wire. And in Douthat’s cultural criticism, one senses a preference for lost communities—the Old West, prewar England, isolated villages—but never a heavy-handed, New Criterion-style disgust for mass culture.

As a blogger and essayist, Douthat was so careful to qualify his statements, and so congenial, that he frequently charmed opponents into a respectful truce. He has his critics, like feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte, who has called him a “wild misogynist, an anti-choice nut who flirts with hostility to contraception.” But Douthat has also demonstrated that he truly cares about problems like income inequality. “I would say he differs from mainstream American conservatism in not having a ‘la-di-da’ attitude toward the continued existence of serious social problems in the United States,” liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias said in an email.

But in his new, 750-word op-ed format, Douthat has not found a voice for the iconoclasm that characterizes his best work. “I am an idiosyncratic conservative writing a column for a majority-liberal readership,” he explains. “And that has to make a difference in the topics you choose. My audience is presumably already convinced the Republican Party is irredeemably corrupt.” While Douthat has, in his column, charged the right-wing radio talkers with “inflexibility, grudge-holding and eagerness to evict heretics rather than seek converts,” he usually just ignores them. “The constructive stuff has much more chance of getting you where you want to go,” he says.

The problem, of course, is that right now there isn’t much constructive stuff to be found in conservatism. In Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam propose a positive vision that includes wage subsidies, class-based affirmative action, and cuts in payroll taxes for the poor and middle class, paid for by means-testing Social Security. Their program may sound center-left, but their motivation is classically conservative: supporting the two-parent nuclear family. But you won’t find such hopefulness in Douthat’s column, which tends to err on the side of pragmatism. Sure enough, Douthat can’t name a single lawmaker, in either house, who embodies his vision of social conservatism and middle-class fair-dealism. He offers, without enthusiasm, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is pro-life and favors a carbon tax. (He neglects to mention Corker’s sleazy, race-baiting 2006 campaign against Harold Ford Jr.) In the end, he admits the intellectual life of the GOP is pretty bleak. “We haven’t seen very many Republican politicians who are interested in moving beyond slogans.”

Seeking to be constructive rather than destructive, yet allied with a party that doesn’t share that predilection, Douthat has hung columns on Dick Cheney, senators Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin. He finds things to like in all but Specter, “a consummately unprincipled figure.” Last July, Douthat wrote a column acknowledging Palin’s “missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues.” But he also defended her as a victim of gender and class prejudice.

Some of his columns contain what blogger Yglesias calls “a characteristic Douthat-ian error…a powerful desire to believe, contrary to the evidence, that some or another Republican Party blowhard is secretly an ambitious policy wonk.” It is this faith in people that trumps his sense of sin just when we need it most—to call to account a dissembler like Palin or a warmonger like Cheney. In fact, Douthat can be almost Unitarian in his agnosticism. Sometimes that’s a virtue: He quit blogging for a time after concluding he was unqualified to comment on the Iraq War. Other times it’s a shame: The bumbling, touching candor he brings to the subject of gay marriage would make for a memorable, important column.

Maybe he will write that column one day. And maybe he’ll write another one reflecting what he said when I asked what he’d do about abortion if he made the laws. (Douthat’s writings tend to extol a culture of life without suggesting what that might look like, so I was curious.) He began with the boilerplate position: “It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.” He went on, however, to say such a ban would require “radical experimentation with the welfare state” and likely “a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another,” plus orphanages and an expanded “network of crisis pregnancy centers.” Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as “it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third degree…it’s like seventh-degree murder or something.”

“But,” he quickly noted, “those things aren’t on the table.”

No, they’re not. What Douthat envisions falls into the realm of the utopian—it’s magical, Tolkien-like thinking. Few of today’s Republicans would be so concerned with the welfare of those babies after birth, or be so lenient with the doctors. Still, it provides a glimpse of the real Ross Douthat, a young man who is still very much interested in the impossible.


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We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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