March 14, 2009

Well, Ross Douthat got to the top of the greasy pole about as briskly as if it were a step ladder. Just eight years ago, I met him in his college dormroom, where he ran a weekly symposium for campus right-wingers. Now 29 years old, he’s a New York Times columnist.  We all behold with envious eyes / Our equals raised above our size. Still, his ascendance should be welcomed.

For one thing, Ross’s views are sound (at least in my judgment). He’s pro-life, skeptical of mass immigration, and leans anti-war. With David Brooks and John Tierney, he will become the third Sailerholic New York Times Op-Ed columnist in as many years. Though the Gray Lady will never hire Steve Sailer as a columnist, those she does hire rely on him for ideas.

Ross also proves that young conseratives today should eschew a movement career. Douthat edited The Harvard Salient, but also wrote columns for The Harvard Crimson; he interned at NR but then joined The Atlantic. His success has many factors, but one is clearly that he chose not to write just for a movement audience. Take his various opinions on church-state issues. I don’t think Ross would deny that you could glean most of them by reading past issues of First Things. But mainstream liberals don’t read First Things; they read The Atlantic. Ideas that might seem old hat in the former became a revelation in the pages of the latter. Ross tapped an underserved market for conservative ideas.

Not only has Ross reached a wider audience, but he has also enjoyed more freedom of thought than the conventional movement conservative. A junior editor at NR would hardly dare even to mention Steve Sailer, Daniel Larison or Andrew Bacevich, much less (like Douthat) praise him or even entertain his ideas. One doesn’t rise in the movement by betraying the party line set by one’s superiors. Ross has done these things because The Atlantic doesn’t tell him what conservatives are supposed to think.

Inevitably, movement-builders will grumble that Douthat has only gone so far because he makes liberal comfortable. To be sure, Ross hasn’t spent his time dreaming up reasons to hate liberals (or neocons, or whatever), but then it’s unclear what good that accomplishes in the first place. To the extent Ross has been coy in expressing his views, it has often been to preserve his movement loyalties rather than atone for them. I’m fairly certain, for example, that he strongly disagrees with the apologists for Bush’s foreign policies, yet he hasn’t said so, since they control the mainstream movement organs where he is frequently published.  Ross needs not more conservatism but less.

That all said, let’s keep things in perspective. Marc Ambinder writes of Ross:

Ross is a late-twenties-year-old public intellectual with the sensibility of a 60-year eminence grise, the range of a Hitchens, the pitch of a conservative AJP Taylor, the conscience of a Neibuhr and the intellectual honesty of his frequent sparring partner, Andrew Sullivan.

Niebuhr? Taylor Ross isn’t to blame for the compliments he receives and (to his credit) he receives them modestly. Still this praise is fulsome. I reviewed his book Grand New Party here at Takimag. The first half of the volume was almost certainly penned by Douthat, with his co-author Reihan Salam writing the wonky second half. I found, for whatever it is worth, that Ross uncritically boosts the current fashion for Tocqueville and fails to wrestle with even the most basic problems of voter behavior. Instead, he adopts whatever assumptions are convenient for making “working class” voters for Republicans into what African-American voters are for Democrats: a proof of the party’s moral superiority. Grand New Party, part I, is not political strategy but marketing outreach to those otherwise embarrassed by the GOP’s traditional appeal to the wealthy and the white majority.

Douthat’s rapid rise compares to Walter Lippmann’s or William F. Buckley’s.  Is he, like them, a wunderkind, destined for American immortality? Maybe he is. In any case, we won’t have to wait long before we find out.


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