Why smart conservative writing is back

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Back in 2009, Steven F. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, lamented the state of conservatism, penning a Washington Post op-ed, asking: “Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?

“The bestseller list,” Hayward noted, “used to be crowded with the likes of [Milton] Friedman’s ‘Free to Choose,’ George Gilder’s ‘Wealth and Poverty,’ Paul Johnson’s ‘Modern Times,’ Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind,’ Charles Murray’s ‘Losing Ground’ and ‘The Bell Curve,’ and Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man.'”

But now (writing in 2009), Hayward bewailed that, “The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin’s “Culture of Corruption,” Glenn Beck’s new “Arguing with Idiots” and all of Ann Coulter’s well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov’s dogs.”

Fast forward three years, and things look a bit different. Conservatives, in case you haven’t noticed, are churning out some pretty serious and scholarly works.  And they’re catching on with a fairly wide audience, too.

Interestingly, Hayward’s AEI colleagues are making major contributions to this cause. For example, AEI president Arthur Brooks is out with a new book called, “The Road to Freedom” — currently number 28 on the New York Times Best-Sellers list. AEI fellow (and syndicated columnist) Jonah Goldberg’s “The Tyranny of Cliches” is hot on his heels at number 30. And this winter and spring, Charles Murray, AEI’s W. H. Brady Scholar, created much buzz with his celebrated book, “Coming Apart.”

(This, of course, does not account for all of the smart conservative writing taking place of late. But it is perhaps ironic that AEI — where Hayward works — has helped produce three of the authors leading this intellectual renaissance.)

So does Hayward recognize the change since his controversial 2009 op-ed?

When I interviewed him back in February, he sounded a bit more optimistic. “I guess I think things are better,” he said. “My worry then was that too much of the public face of conservatism was simply our attack dogs and celebrities — and books written for a season,” but, he added, things are coming back into balance now.

Indeed they are. And this is no coincidence. From Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek to Bill Buckley, the best conservative writing tends to be a response to dramatic cultural changes and liberal overreach. For this reason, the Bush years — devoted in many ways to fighting terrorism as a response to 9-11 — put this injection of new conservative ideas on hold (and, it’s also worth noting that in some cases, conservative intellectuals were co-opted by the ostensibly “conservative” goals of the administration.)

With a vacuum of ideas, salacious showmen on the right had little competition, and were well-positioned to peddle their screeds to the masses. But the good news is that the dearth of intellectually stimulating conservative books coming out during that era didn’t reflect a coarsening of the political environment — or the “dumbing down” of America. It was a fairly predictable, cyclical phenomenon.

Since 2009, the problem has been rectified. The reemergence of liberal ideas and policies — such as Obamacare — coupled with passive-aggressive class warfare — has again created a market for smart conservative writing. I suppose we have Obama to thank.

Matt K. Lewis