Mark Lilla, an essayist, historian of ideas and professor of the humanities at Columbia University, is best known for his books The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. He is interviewed here by Dean Ball, a student at Hamilton College and former intern at Manhattan Institute.
Q: You wrote an article several years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the treatment of conservatism as a pathology on college campuses. As a historian, particularly an intellectual historian, what intellectual currents do you think have contributed and are contributing to that happening?
Mark Lilla: The stock answer, which is half the answer, is that ever since the 60s there’s been a leftward turn in the university that makes it unsympathetic to conservative ideas. Left-wing scholars reproduced themselves, kept conservative graduate students out and didn’t give jobs to those who did obtain PhDs. That’s part of the story, but increasingly less of the story I would say. There’s actually growing academic interest in American conservatism, especially in the historical profession. It’s a real growth area, with interesting books coming out on conservatism as a social movement. There are books from non-conservative scholars on everything from Phyllis Schlafly and the fight against the ERA to the rise of the Goldwater movement and conservatism in the Southwest to the role suburbs have played in the growth of the right. So academics are definitely more interested in conservatism.
The study of conservative ideas is less advanced. One reason is that it’s never been clear whether there is such a thing as American conservatism; in a classic Burkean sense we’ve never been a conservative country. Instead, the term conservatism is applied to a bag in which we throw all sorts of ideas from time to time. But basically, yes, there is a kind of studied ignorance of serious conservative ideas. And that’s one of the reasons that this term I’m doing an undergraduate seminar on American conservative ideas with Alan Brinkley at Columbia. It was way oversubscribed, so students are interested in this.
But the main change since I wrote the article has been astonishing dumbing down and infantilization of American conservatism, and a declining importance of ideas as such, due to the obvious factors: Fox News, shock radio, the belligerency of the party in Congress, and so on. The fact, too, is that the conservative world of ideas, to the extent it exists, has become hermetically sealed. It is a world in which a young writer or scholar enters but never leaves, and spends his or her intellectual life always talking to the same people. There’s also complete job security in the conservative world, which leads to intellectual flabbiness. In the 70s and 80s, if you were serious about political ideas, you just had to look to conservatives, especially neoconservatives; that’s where things were happening. But those people did not reproduce, intellectually speaking. Instead they created institutions that have easy sources of funding and never have to go out and argue with people who disagree with them. It’s made their world inbred, lazy, and self-satisfied. It gets harder and harder to find serious conservative books on the major issues of the day. Unless they are books about the death of conservatism or problems with conservatism: everything from David Frum to David Brooks to Andrew Sullivan to Ross Douthat to Sam Tanenhaus. But they’re all eulogies, essentially, for what was not too long ago (the 70s and 80s) a quite lively intellectual scene. One of the most frustrating things about a person in my position, who has learned a lot from conservatives but no longer considers himself one, is that so many so-called conservative intellectuals are playing right into the hands of left-leaning professors who have always argued that there’s nothing serious out there. They’re playing exactly to type, which makes it harder to take their writings seriously in the university. That’s how I see the situation right now.
Q: So you think the problem is the lack of a leader, like Bill Buckley or Whittaker Chambers or someone like that?
Mark Lilla: It’s not that. What’s changed is that once the neoconservative constellation was full of interesting people who were simply curious, who were driven not by empire building or the desire to win the next Congressional election, but wanted to get our public policies, domestic and foreign, right. They genuinely wanted to know the answers. For me, coming upon The Public Interest and Commentary was a revelation when I was in a very left-wing university environment in the 70s. It wasn’t so much that the people who wrote for them were conservative; it’s that I felt myself in the presence of the most serious kids on the block. And when that stopped being the case I left.
Q: Do you think that there’s anything conservatives can do to repair their status, and would this have anything to do with colleges. Do you think that our colleges need have students engage with conservative ideas on a more serious level?
Mark Lilla: Yes, I suppose that would help. But the main thing is to stop thinking about the conservative movement. That’s putting the cart before the horse. The thing is to encourage young people to get interested in the issues at hand, and see them in the broader intellectual context in which especially the neo-conservatives used to put them — in the context, say, of a comprehensive view of modernity like Leo Strauss had, or an insight into the nature of democracy and individualism as Irving Kristol in the 70s or Daniel Bell did, or a perspective on the development of modern art back like Hilton Kramer had when he was still engaged with the present. If that’s all you do is think about the movement, the movement, you’ve already marginalized yourself.
Q: You talk about libertarian populism in another article. I assume you think that’s not contributing positively?
Mark Lilla: Not at all. The fact that people I knew back in the day, who were engaged in this serious kind of work, would today share the stage with someone like Ann Coulter, I find astonishing. It’s just beyond me. It’s incredibly short-term thinking to try to play the populist card. If I were to put it in a formula, I would say that, back in the 80s when Irving Kristol started promoting the notion of neoconservatives becoming back-handed populists, the idea was that they would be exoterically populist, but esoterically highbrow. But with anyone who lives double-minded like that, eventually the exoteric message becomes the esoteric message, too. That’s why, today, the intellectual children and grandchildren of that generation are simply populist. They don’t know anything else; their horizon has been constricted. Which is regrettable, given that the classic conservative intellectual tradition defends the need for elites, well trained elites, even–and especially–in a democratic society. It’s good to have people who know stuff. But today’s conservatives, who wouldn’t think of going to a doctor who didn’t have a medical degree from a top university, are somehow willing to hand over the deed to their country to people who know nothing about public policy, nothing about history, have never been abroad, speak no foreign languages, and think they see Russia from their windows. It’s scandalous.
Q: Everything you’re saying about the conservative movement, as I see it, can be roughly applied to the liberal side as well. Do you think that the cheapening of American politics is more just a symptom of political discourse right now, or do you think that’s it’s specific to the right?
Mark Lilla: It’s specific to the right. And you have to beware this kind of equivalency. There’s no media outlet on the left that has the influence of Fox News, where people state blatant untruths all the time, where washed-up journalists or political hacks who know nothing about nothing pose as security experts, immigrations experts, and the like. There’s no comparison right now between left and right, just as in the 1980s there was no comparison between the intellectual milieu of the neoconservatives and that of the McGovernite left, which was ignorant, sometimes willfully so, of the realities of many public policies. Yes, you can find your MSNBCs and your Huffington Posts and so on, but these are imitations and not terribly influential. Yes, most professors are liberal today, but most of them just go about their work within the academic establishment; there is no sense of belonging to a movement, or the kind of aggressiveness and intolerance I experienced as a student in the 70s. Conservatives, on the other hand, still have this sense that they’re in the minority facing an all powerful adversary culture, when the larger culture is in fact conservative today on a great many issues, thanks in large part to the political and media power of the right. (And even within elite culture. An example: NPR, which used to be pretty left-wing in American terms in the 70s, now devotes half an hour a day to business news now. That would have been unthinkable thirty or forty years ago.) Conservatives can’t seem to see that the Reagan revolution is exhausted because it has achieved most of what it set out to achieve. Now should be a normal time, where we’re debating ideas about the genuine problems that face us. Debate even among conservatives seems to have dropped out, too, which is a change from the 80s. It’s just a different situation right now.
Q: One final question. If these institutions you’re talking about, these media institutions, and things like AEI, Cato, obviously not all conservative organizations but a lot of them, if those are the primary institutions that conservatives have to work with and work through to get their message heard and be funded to do policy research, is there a point when you have to just be pragmatic? Do you think we should try to improve the institutions we have or do you think that we need to somehow start anew?
Mark Lilla: That’s a very good question. It’s not a question of principle, it’s a question of where we’re at right now. I saw this firsthand when I was at The Public Interest and watched Irving Kristol operate; he tried to educate the people who gave him money. He went in and convinced tight fisted businessmen that serious ideas mattered. And, what do you know, they actually did give money to set up a little magazine, say, that would just be about religion, or fund some Straussian conference about the Constitution. And in those meetings Irving had with business people it was clear who was running them. I learned then that you have to educate your paymaster. Now it’s all backwards: everything’s being driven by a know-nothing populist media empire rather than by intellectuals, who stir up rich people who give money to anyone who claims they can help win the next election, not to smart people who might agree with them on much but also might be open to debate and could complicate things. Their horizons, too, are so constricted. Even the people who are friendly critics of the movement like Frum, Sullivan, Brooks, and Douthat point out that no one is paying attention to the long-term interest of conservatism and its ideas and values. If you’re constantly trying to win the next election, and are focused on satisfying a few donors who have uninformed ideas about, say, immigration or the Muslim world, that’s a long term losing proposition. To put it in a phrase, what conservatives most need to do today is build better millionaires and billionaires. And you can do that.
Q: Thank you very much for your time, Professor Lilla.
Mark Lilla: Thank you.