Should Conservatism Take The Benedict Option?

After Kevin Williamson got cashiered from The Atlantic for having extreme views about the proper legal punishment for abortion, Ben Domenech writes at The Federalist:

For those with views placing them on the right, the only way to win is not to play this game anymore. The only way to win is to build up our own platforms and institutions – our own Hillsdales, our own TV shows, our own Atlantics. And that’s why The Federalist exists.”

Is it too much to call this the “Benedict Option” for conservatism generally?  Maybe.  Having taken a few days to consider it, I guess I’d say that Williamson’s firing demonstrates the necessity of conservative institutions, but it may not demonstrate that seeking to mainstream conservatism into establishment institutions is a lost cause.

Last month, in writing about the successes and failures of the “conservative movement,” however defined, I noted:

[T]he history of the past few decades is one of conservatism being far more a movement of an elite — writers, scholars, activists and officials — than one of the masses.  Voters have gravitated to the GOP as much by an opposition to the steady leftward march of the Democratic Party as any intellectual or ideological commitment.

Some may look at this as a failure of conservative elites (e.g., Tucker Carlson‘s dismissal of the conservative nonprofit establishment).   In fact, conservative elites are responsible for hundreds of policy innovations people like Carlson apparently take for granted now.

But it is fair to say that conservatives lost the battle to remain integrated in larger, formerly more transpartisan institutions in (for example) academia and journalism — and the approach of building counter-institutions (an application of O’Sullivan’s Law) has had its failures, even if it succeeded in making Carlson a populist one-percenter.  Now the debate has shifted toward whether ostensibly conservative institutions — like politicians — are primarily in the business of offering considered judgments or merely representing a political constituency.”

The Right’s current predicament is in part a failure to fight to remain integrated into establishment institutions.  Relying on counter-institutions has been tried, and we should learn from that strategy’s failures as well as its successes.  One of those failures has been to sell casual citizens on conservatism /  libertarianism / etc. as a positive direction as opposed to a reaction against the excesses of the Left.  Another is that giving up on integration has contributed to the sort of vicious cycle of marginalization, victimhood and anger that Megan McArdle foresaw back in 2010.

Also — and perhaps this will be a point of disagreement for some — as Jonah Goldberg and Steven Hayward noted on The Remnant, no matter what strengths a Hillsdale brings to the table, it is unlikely that it will ever have the sort of cultural footprint of a Harvard.  And for better or worse, that still matters.  Non-Leftists have the reaction they do to Williamson’s firing precisely because The Atlantic has a particular history and status that National Review or The New Republic lack (and in the latter case, lacked even before an internet billionaire destroyed its reputation).

This seems like the wrong moment for the Right to be retrenching in this manner.  Even a Trump skeptic should be at least open to entertaining the possibility that his election was the sort of shock that led a James Bennet to hire some more conservative voices for the NYT op-ed page — even if they are not as conservative or as bold as Williamson.  It’s the shock that led Jeffrey Goldberg to hire Williamson, even if he lacked the guts to stick by his decision.  It’s the shock that caused ABC to reboot Roseanne.

Williamson getting fired is a loss for this effort, as are the examples in other fields Domenech cites.  But it’s not a breaking point for the push to integrate.  Rather, it’s a moment to keep the James Bennets and Jeffrey Goldbergs, the corporate HR departments, and the college administrators focused on what Ross Douthat calls “the inability of contemporary liberalism to see itself from the outside.”  They need to be constantly pushed to recognize that their power carries certain responsibilities; if they reject tolerance of diverse thought, they will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for the sort of “explosion” to which Domenech refers because they have the cultural privilege.

Moreover, in addition to fortifying conservative institutions (with vigilance against the downsides McArdle mentions), conservatives ought to be looking to other examples.  Given the current kerfuffle over Sinclair Broadcasting’s local news empire, the Right ought to be asking why someone else with subtler execution and better ideas didn’t try this themselves.  Why didn’t someone like the Koch brothers buy the L.A. Times and turn it into the West Coast’s answer to the WSJ?  Why isn’t the Right doing more work on endowing chairs in Western Civ at major universities?  Or sponsoring film competitions (that don’t involve handing out prizes simply to the most didactic political polemic, but reward artistic efforts to portray the human condition from a non-Leftist perspective)?  Etc. Etc.

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