Someone once asked Henry Luce, the most successful American magazine publisher of his day, why most of his editors and writers on Time, Life, and Fortune were Democrats or even socialists. After all, Luce was a Republican and a friend of big business. Why didn't he hire his own? He had his answer ready. "Because," he said, "Republicans can't write."
That was an entirely credible remark in the era of his greatest success, the 1950s. Conservatives were too busy making money to worry about expressing themselves, and the Republicans were known as the stupid party. They spoke in cliches when they spoke at all. Persuasive political commentators were usually liberals. The exceptions, including contributors to William F. Buckley's National Review, were so few that hardly anyone noticed them.
Today, precisely the reverse is true. Whether ruefully or gleefully, nearly everyone who follows American politics has noticed that the best political writers are now usually conservative. Ideology aside, journalistic talent has changed its home address. Style, originality, and the ability to formulate a thought and state it -- these journalistic virtues have become increasingly associated with conservative writers. Canadian journalism also has shifted, but the change here has been less pronounced. Canadians traditionally avoid expressing sharp distinctions in politics and journalism. Besides, we have relatively few outlets for political writing.
In the U.S. the transformation has been astonishing. Conservative magazines, like the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and the American Spectator, are full of urgent prose and lively disputation. By contrast, the Nation, once a commanding voice of left-liberalism, seems to be in mourning for ideals it can barely remember. The New Republic has moved steadily rightward since the 1970s and recently The New Yorker, once reliably liberal, has been sliding gradually toward the right.
Political quarterlies are even more lopsided. The conservatives have half a dozen journals, including The National Interest (on world affairs) and The Public Interest (on social policy) for which there are no liberal equivalents. Among writers there's no contest. The United States has many liberal columnists, but not one of them can compete with Charles Krauthammer, George Will, or Andrew Sullivan. The writers contributing to the conservative comment pages of The Wall Street Journal have far more to say, and say it far better, than the liberals on The New York Times.
To understand how this affects politics, consider the air of pathos that surrounds the Democrats as they stumble toward the 2004 election. They have no significant plans for dealing with what should be their best issues, notably health care, poverty, and education. On Thursday in The New York Times, Matthew Miller of the Center for American Progress suggested that his fellow Democrats have ceded the policy battlefields to the Republicans. Liberals have mislaid their ability to formulate ideas and argue for them.
In a fit of absent-mindedness, Democrats have moved to the right of their traditional position and even to the right of positions that Republicans once held. As Miller put it, "No serious Democratic contender today would endorse Richard Nixon's plans from the early 1970s for universal health coverage and a minimum family income: Nixon's package was far too liberal."
This tendency became clear in 1994 after the defeat of the last great liberal policy offensive, the Clinton health plan. Its failure was, in an important sense, journalistic. It died because Democrats didn't understand it and couldn't explain it. Words failed them. Ever since, they have been terrified of complicated or even slightly radical ideas. Now they have nothing left but enemies: If you believe their rhetoric, the main and perhaps only function of a Democratic politician today is to keep Republicans out of office.
The shift in journalistic thinking goes back to 1972 and George McGovern's presidential campaign. His policies alienated many fellow Democrats, who abandoned the party, argued against its policies, and slowly attracted converts to their new perspective, which eventually acquired the name "neoconservatism."
This development was literary as well as political. Irving Kristol, often called the founder of neoconservatism, came out of magazines heavily focused on literature, notably Commentary and Encounter. Norman Podhoretz, neoconservatism's most eloquent propagandist, first made his reputation as a literary critic. They had learned to value precise statements and clear distinctions; now they came to believe that American liberalism was devoted to blurring distinctions and avoiding clear thought. Some of the new thinking turned on the failure of liberals to support Israel, but more of it formed around attitudes to communism.
Certain intellectuals, having learned from George Orwell and others that hatred of communism is the beginning of political wisdom, awoke to realize that many of their fellow Americans didn't understand that the Soviets were their enemies. As Kristol wrote recently, "The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing." What Kristol and his friends saw all around them was intellectual murkiness produced by a few vaguely understood and largely sentimental ideas about human progress. The neoconservatives set out to bring clarity to American politics, and by their example redefined American journalism.