Jacob Heilbrunn

Conservatism and the Demise of Human Events

It was Ronald Reagan's favorite newspaper. Now Human Events, a conservative stalwart publication for decades, has hit the skids. It will maintain an online "presence," as the saying goes, but no more print. Is it an omen of a larger conservative failure, or, to put it more precisely, the collapse, not just of moderate Republicans, but also the traditional establishment right?

The most comprehensive report has been issued by FishbowlDC. Most of the staff has been let go. Subscribers, the FishbowlDC report indicates, won't be left in the lurch: "An internal email at Eagle Publishing obtained by FishbowlDC indicated subscriptions to Human Events will be replaced by subscriptions to Forecasts & Strategies, an investment news letter published by Eagle." An interesting form of compensation, but perhaps Eagle knows its market after all. Younger, more aggressive conservative websites have captured much of the audience that might once have thronged to Human Events, which used to be a lodestar of what conservatives were thinking—a kind of tip sheet to the mind of the right. In the end, it couldn't move fast enough to keep up with the morphing of conservatism into its current incarnations. Human Events was no shrinking violet, but on a more elevated plane, the end of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review suggests some of the dilemmas of conservatism as a calming rather than a raging intellectual force.

The truth is that it is becoming more difficult to discern what the right wants, or whether it even knows what it would really like--where the movement, in other words, would like to move, other than remaining stuck in reverse gear. In a bracing analysis, the redoubtable Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University suggests that conservatives are actually winning many of the political battles in Congress, partly because of the filibuster, partly because of the existence of conservative Democrats. He argues that "the polity is not gridlocked, but instead produces the policies and insitutional changes sought by the conservative majority of voters."

There is something to this. But, as a lengthy piece in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza on the House GOP and Eric Cantor illustrates, it is hard to avoid the sense that the movement is lurching into incoherence. Demographic changes and the emergence of younger voters who view government more favorably are conspiring to render much of the GOP's program otiose. Indeed, Lizza observes that the GOP faces a big stumbling block into trying to reinvent itself:

The House is rarely the source of renewal for a political party. In the nineteen-eighties, during a low point for the Democrats, it was Democratic governors like Bill Clinton, not the unpopular Democratic-controlled House, who pointed the way out of the wilderness for the Party. Major change almost always comes from a party’s aspiring Presidential candidates, and almost never from the House.

Though Cantor expresses the hope that he can reach a compromise with President Obama, it's a feeble one. Lizza adds, "Days after Cantor told me that he wanted to rise above the budget squabbling, he was back in the thick of the fight over the sequester—a policy that, whether he deems it a sideshow or not, will have a more immediate impact on real Americans than any of the issues he mentioned in his think-tank speech" at the American Enterprise Institute.

The refusal to invite New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is now being deemed a pseudo-conservative, to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference is another sign of the tensions roiling the GOP. He may be the most popular GOP Governor, but he is coming into bad odor on the right because of his support for a bailout for the victims of the Hurricane Sandy flood. How long the party can continue to ostracize the moderates in its ranks—and Christie is, at bottom, a conservative—without courting further electoral peril is a question that it seems reluctant to address. Perhaps the most remarkable quote in Ryan Lizza's essay comes from Congressman David Dreier, who is stepping down. Dreier calls himself a "Reagan Republican" which, he says, "makes me left of center in my party."

It can't get any stranger than that. Or can it? The Gipper, it seems safe to say, would not be pleased.