Purity or Influence? Confessions and Realizations of a Frustrated Political Thinker

Luke Phillips

As anyone who knows me or follows this blog can attest, I am an idiosyncratic thinker (like my great influences Michael Lind and Ross Douthat, among others.) I remain a Republican because I know to forfeit that title is to forfeit any influence over any political debates, because for better or for worse, no one really listens to Independents or Third Partiers.

However, despite that once-begrudging decision of practicality, I’ve hitherto made a point of loudly protesting it and bemoaning my circumstances routinely. I’ve made a showy spectacle out of my multiple failed attempts to cobble together a “new movement,” none of which ever went past the blogging stage. I’ve written piece after piece after piece decrying the stagnation of the Republican Party and conservative movement’s intellectual apparatus, and have always remained on the sidelines of any real influence over anything.

I don’t reject any of the views and perspectives that have led me to make these decisions, but I’ve recently realized something important that will probably shape a lot of my decisions moving forward. And that is this: the game of politics exists, and has its own rules about playing. We can stand on the sidelines and stay pure, or we can get in to play and de-purify our thoughts, but we can’t change the rules of that game (no matter how much revolutionaries in every age want to.) At a certain point, in politics, one must work with people and organizations one disagrees with on fundamental issues, in order to accomplish what might be practical (and, it must be noted, in line with one’s original principles.)

I certainly haven’t been a paragon of prudence in this regard, having made various decisions in recent years that go against this ethos. (I stand by those decisions, but acknowledge my hypocrisy, which is the proper way to deal with what hypocrisy can’t be avoided or corrected.) But I’m slowly realizing that such a strategy is the right strategy for any trite “practical idealist” who wants to get into public life and make real change. I need only look at two people I look up to, both policy thinkers with significant influence on the center-right.

TWO INFLUENTIAL INTELLECTUALS

joelkotkin

First off, Joel Kotkin, my employer and one of my early intellectual and professional influences. A respected and, in some quarters, despised scholar and journalist of urban planning and demographics, Kotkin writes frequent reports and weekly or biweekly columns on various issues from a center-right perspective, with a strong emphasis on class struggles and issues. He’s developed a lot of interesting ideas on urbanity and suburbanism, the status of families in late modernity, and contemporary manifestations of the class struggle. A former Democrat, he’s often found in conservative and libertarian institutions and footnotes. Libertarians in particular love his emphasis on decentralization and the quantitative skills he brings to classic libertarian arguments.

But Joel Kotkin is not a libertarian.

robertdkaplan1

Second off, Robert D. Kaplan, great journalist and geopolitical analyst and a thinker I’ve had the honor of speaking with a few times. A respected and, in some quarters, despised strategist and international affairs analyst, Kaplan writes books every year or two melding literature, IR theory, history, and various trends in military, political, and economic analysis, with a strong emphasis on conceptual geopolitics and the tragic view of history and human affairs. He’s developed ideas on, and called attention to, practical theories of geopolitics and great-power competition, and is hard to pin down ideologically. He tends to populate hawkish center-right circles, including among thinkers associated with neoconservatism, who in turn appreciate his analysis of the enduring nature of conflict in human affairs. Neoconservatives tend to cite his arguments on the need for strength in foreign policy and the persistence of great-power rivalry.

But Robert D. Kaplan is not a neoconservative.

Kaplan is respected and influential among the neoconservatives whose views and policies he has at times written against, while Kotkin is respected and influential among the libertarians whose views and policies he has in turn written against. Why is this? Why are these thinkers whose instincts differ from those of the circles they inhabit so influential among them?

I’d have to interview either of them on this, but I suspect it’s because Kotkin and Kaplan both realize that in order to hold influence over center-right domestic or foreign policy, they need intellectual capital among the intellectual groups popular on the center-right. And they probably realize that despite their disagreements they might individually have with thinkers in those spheres, there is enough commonality that it is worth their time to cash in their chips with the dominant intellectual factions dominating Republican foreign and domestic policy.

And they maintain their intellectual individuality while working with people they disagree with, perhaps becoming even more respected because those who consult them know that they aren’t mere lock-step yes-men who will parrot neoconservative or libertarian ideological screeds when prompted.

As such, Kotkin and Kaplan are some of the most innovative thinkers on the center-right. They are in the center-right intellectual sphere, without necessarily being of it. And in the contemporary GOP apparatus- which, incidentally, looks very much like the Pre-Trump GOP apparatus- that kind of flexibility to work with those you disagree with for the sake of higher ends is important.

WHY IT MATTERS NOW FOR YOUNG CENTER-RIGHT THINKERS

Now, back when Trump won the Presidency, I published on my blog two essays I had planned to publish “when” Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. That didn’t happen, but so I argued, the analysis I had developed up until November 8th, 2016, was still valid.

Looking back, I’m not so sure. I certainly think I was right that there were and remain growing factions in the GOP willing to buck conservative orthodoxy, but I no longer am convinced that they are or ever were a major force that could be harnessed towards intellectual policy reformations.

For all intents and purposes, the American Enterprise Institute remains the primary institution of elite conservatism, and the Heritage Foundation remains the primary institution of grassroots conservative populism. When Congressional Republicans, none of whom are really “Trumpists,” want policy, they ask AEI. When the Trump Administration wants policy, it recycles Heritage’s ideas. This was more or less true before the election, and remains true now. The Reformicons over at the Conservative Reform Network are maybe a little bit more influential, and the “softer, gentler Trumpism” types over at the new journal American Affairs are a little bit more well-known; but these two sides of center-right reformation are going nowhere fast. The old guard of conservative policymaking, centered around the three stools of social conservatism, economic libertarianism, and foreign policy neoconservatism, continues to define policymaking and policy-thinking on the center-right, and hence in the Republican Party.

I did not foresee this. With so many mentors and fellow travelers of mine, I thought the 2016 election would be the tsunami sweeping the decadent shell of “Conservatism, Inc.” out to sea. But the institutional heft of AEI, the Manhattan Institute, and friends, as well as the staying habits of mind that have informed Buckleyite conservatism for generations, proved too strong for the semi-cataclysm of the Trump Presidency to break. I’m usually wrong when I make predictions, but I’d bet that the old tri-stool of conservatism remains the main force on the center-right, regardless of how effectively Julius Krein and Pappin Gladden run American Affairs.

So, there’s a couple of potential routes for young centrist Republican reformers. We could cash in our chips with the faction most amenable to our personal opinions, and fight to influence the future of, say, the Cato Institute, or the Conservative Reform Network, or American Affairs, or the American Enterprise Institute, or whichever center-right faction stimulates our personal fancies.

The main alternative is to ingratiate ourselves in the power structure of the AEI-style libertarian neoconservatives, and work to gain respectability among the people who actually hold power- as decentralist Joel Kotkin has done among libertarians, and realist Robert D. Kaplan has done among neoconservatives. This would entail working for neoconservatives and libertarians, or working for people who work for them.

Some combination of these two routes is probably best- affiliate with like-minded thinkers, to maintain fidelity to your own principles and further develop your ideas; but simultaneously be willing to work with the heretics and barbarians of other intellectual heritages and conclusions, for the sake of having your own ideas have some kind of influence over policy and perhaps shifting the debate ever so slowly to something you can find more to like in.

I think that third way is really the only way forward. In the long term, it may be that neoconservatism and libertarianism are in relative decline. But that’s the long term- in the short term (that is to say, the “policy-relevant” term,) neoconservatives and libertarians do still control the levers of power and the outlets of discourse in intellectual conservatism. The National Interest and The American Conservative might be more correct than National Review, but more people read National Review. Best not to burn bridges with those who control the debate, and instead be as the chameleon- capable of sliding between different groups, in all but of only the one you choose.

I don’t particularly like libertarians or neoconservatives, as it should be clear already. I’ve tried the whole start-a-movement, start-a-think-tank, start-a-blog thing, and as most people who’ve succeeded in founding think tanks and blogs professionally can attest to, the progress in that field is always slow and confined to particular issues rather than general worldviews. If you’re looking for a personal rather than institutionalized influence on public discourse and want more real results over a broader field of policy, I think it’s probably better to hold your nose and debate with and advise the movements that actually have influence over elected officials, donors, and bureaucrats- because competing directly with those movements over said influence is certainly only going to end in defeat.

Fortunately in my case (and I’d advise my fellow Hamiltonian Republicans to follow this same route) I already do some work for libertarians through Joel Kotkin, and have been in various gigs working for neoconservatives through The American Interest and The John Hay Initiative. It’s uncomfortable, sure- but it bears the fruit of knowing that people will actually read and think about your work. It also tempers you to political-intellectual reality, steeling you to the language of modern power-brokers so that you can learn that language and speak it to powerful people in time.

And you can always keep your own intellectual eccentricity and speak it bluntly under the proper circumstances- nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with fighting for it, either. But you need to fight for it strategically, rather than in a direct, head-on, “Stand for what you think is right and block the streets” kind of way.

I’ll give two examples. First, look at the various protest movements on the left, and how successful they are at doing anything other than calling attention to particular issues. They’re inept at anything else.

Second, look at the various “goo-goo” reformist movements- The Independent Voter Project, The Centrist Project, all the major and minor third parties, No Labels, etc.- and think about them. Just think about them.

Where are the results?

I hate to say this, because I was once involved in No Labels, and count as personal contacts several members of the Centrist Project’s board and staff. But frankly, they’re not going to get anywhere, no matter how much they advocate for reasonableness and political independence of the major factions and technocratic focus on public-interest problem-solving, because they all fundamentally break too many of the aforementioned rules of playing the political game. If you don’t pick an important side, you won’t get anywhere. (One of these days I might write a comprehensive list of the problems I find with the Centrist Project, but that is a piece for another day.)

But I was just as impotent when I was working on The Hamiltonian Republican and The New Hamiltonian and The Progressive Republican League. I’m none to throw stones.

WHAT TO DO MOVING FORWARD

In any case, I hope I’ve learned, and moving forward, though I will still prefer to work for thinkers closer to my views, and eschew working with the dogmatic purists whose views I simply cannot find any commonality with, I’ll probably make a point of being more open to working for, say, the neoconservative thinkers at the Alexander Hamilton Society, or the libertarian thinkers whose donations fund the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. They’re the team I’ve chosen; I’ll be better off working with them than not working with them, and perhaps I can influence them closer to Hamiltonian foreign policy and economics. We shall see.

But given that Joel Kotkin and Robert D. Kaplan have been my career models for quite some time, I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that they are this pragmatic and that I should emulate their pragmatism.

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