[This article appeared in the February 1981 issue of Universitas, the national publication of University Professors for Academic Order, p. 1.]
Conservative Intellectuals and the Reagan Years
Dwight D. Murphey
Recent issues of Universitas have reflected a concern that is vaguely disquieting while at the same time delightful and truly unique: How conservative academicians can become involved in the new presidential administration in policy-making positions where they can actually put their thought and expertise to use in formulating the various aspects of the conservative renaissance.
The disquieting aspect comes from the possibility that the Reagan movement will consist of “acting men” who are totally unaware of the existence of conservative academicians, who will then continue to languish in isolation even during the years of conservative political ascendancy.
The Reagan administration needs conservative intellectuals if for no other reason than that it needs good people. But the need goes far deeper than that: It would be tragic for the Reagan administration to take its place in history as one of energetic programmatic activity with only a transitory impact, rather than as one that created the beginnings of a fully rationalized and articulated conception of government and of society that established the format for the politics and philosophy of the entire ensuing age. For the latter purpose, conservatives must capture the hearts and minds of the public and of the society’s intellectual culture.
Conservatism must the thoughtful, sensitive and articulate. Otherwise, the world intellectual community will be enabled to point derisively to these years as having been just another “Bourbon restoration” or “era of bourgeois vacuity.” We ought to deny them any justification for that.
Despite the importance of the Reagan administration’s active inclusion of conservative intellectuals, however, it is important that we be conscious also of the other vital roles that must be performed, whether from inside or outside of government:
1. The years ahead should for all thoughtful conservatives be years of prolific writing. We need to frame the issues, create the patterns of perception, and popularize concepts. Liberal intellectuals have monopolized this function for most of the twentieth century, but we must no longer leave it to them.
2. Conservatism must enrich and widen its intellectual base. It must become the predominant intellectual culture of the Western world.
3. To this end, cross-fertilization should occur with the “neoconservatives” who have emerged from modern liberalism. During the past decade, many erstwhile liberal intellectuals have moved sharply to the right. This has been caused by the splintering of the liberal movement. The New Left saw the repudiation of modern liberalism by intellectuals (and others) who were more alienated and socialistic. This left the others behind, and since that time these others have been seeking a new identity.
4. If a powerful new intellectual synthesis is to occur, we will need to learn everything we legitimately can from the neoconservatives. It won’t by any means be entirely a matter of their learning from us. Modern liberalism, especially as conceived by those who have been less alienated from commercial culture, has indeed seen “a certain fraction of the truth,” to paraphrase John Stuart Mill. To the extent that their insights are compatible with a market economy and the limitation of governmental power, they will have ideas to share with us.
5. This means that we should begin writing more often for such neoconservative journals as Commentary, Public Interest and The American Scholar.
6. In addition, we should devote our energies to starting new journals and expanding those that already carry our message. And we should constantly increase our openings for the articulation of our values in all of the media of mass circulation.
7. At the same time, American social science and the humanities need to be turned around. We see the importance of this when we consider that for a century the American Left received the benefit of work by thousands of graduate students who turned out basic research that supported the social agenda of modern liberalism. We can imagine the possibilities if conservatism were to enjoy a similar staffing!
The list could go on and on. The point is that for conservatives this is a time of great opportunity and challenge—the chance of a lifetime. Those who do not find places, if they wish them, in the Reagan administration still have plenty to do. In fact, it would be a shame if even a Reagan administration were to absorb us all, leaving little time for reflection and articulation.
Those also serve who simply think and write.
[Note in 2006: This article, written on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president, shows the optimism generated by his victory. It also shows how open Dwight Murphey was to the presence of “neoconservative intellectuals,” who had come over from the Left. The ensuing twenty-five years have, however, given much reason for dismay over the neoconservative contribution, which has carried the
ever further into a slavish devotion to the radical minority viewpoint in United States and into a foreign policy of American “benign imperialism” (necessarily not perceived as benign by those many foreign cultures and interests upon whom it presses). The result has been not only the debacle in Israel , but also the wholly unnecessary enmity of much of the world.] Iraq