Matthew Continetti On Conservatism
His new history traces the evolution and devolution of the GOP when it comes to the struggle between conservatism and populism.
Matthew is a journalist who worked at The Weekly Standard and co-founded The Washington Free Beacon, where he served as editor-in-chief. Currently he’s a contributing editor at National Review, a columnist at Commentary, and a senior fellow and the Patrick and Charlene Neal Chair in American Prosperity at the American Enterprise Institute. We discuss his wonderful book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). For two clips of my convo with Matthew — on whether the GOP is destroying the Constitution, and debating how conservative was Obama was — pop over to our YouTube page.
A listener looks back to last week’s episode:
I enjoyed your discussion of friendship with Jennifer Senior, particularly your observation that a friend is someone we don’t want to change. It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Love is blind, friendship closes its eyes.”
And here’s some insight from Jesus on the subject:
Another listener grumbles:
Another woman talking about friendship? How novel. How about finding some guys to talk about it? Because it sure is tough for straight men to find new friendships. The old ones fall apart for much the same reason that women's do, but the straight male psyche seems particularly resistant to making new ones.
The Dishcast, in fact, recently aired an episode with Nicholas Christakis that covered quite a bit about the nature of friendship between straight men. Much of it centers on taking the piss out of each other:
Another listener remarks on the part of my convo with Jennifer about the evolving nature of newsrooms — basically that they’re boring now, ensconced in Slack:
I agree about the dead quiet in newsrooms these days. I started out in broadcasting in the early ‘80s, with a stint at NPR in the late ‘80s early ‘90s. People would shout and yell and ask questions on spelling, grammar and facts about previous stories, all while rushing to meet the deadlines.
Then a few years ago, I worked in a major public radio newsroom and it was dead quiet. The editor sitting behind me would type a question to me via top-line message and I’d just turn around and answer him. It was a major sin! So boring!
Thankfully now I work for a small nonprofit newsroom and I’m the head of our tiny audio division. Sadly COVID made our newsroom virtual, but oh how I miss those early, pre-internet newsrooms with people arguing and talking and joking with each other.
Here’s what Jennifer and I have to say:
Another listener wants more:
I just finished last week’s Dishcast with Jennifer Senior. I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your conversation. It made me wish I were friends with you both! But at the outset of the show, you said you wanted to talk about her recent essay on Steve Bannon. Unfortunately, the end of the episode came and you’d not broached the topic. I read the piece and it was fascinated, so I wanted to hear more. Please have her back!
We do have repeat offenders on the pod, like David Wallace-Wells and Jamie Kirchick, so stay tuned. After the Continetti convo this week, here are a few requests for more conservative guests:
Sometimes I feel like you’re a friend of mine, since I’ve been reading you for so long — God, since the ‘80s. The thing is your intellectual honesty, and changing your mind when facts change. So please, please, get Rod Dreher on to talk with you! We love it when you talk to someone who’s in the same area but looking in another direction. What Dreher is going through is just beyond the pale — embracing a strongman authoritarian regime and calling it conservatism. It’s the same as the left embracing CRT and calling it liberal.
Yep. I just need to summon up the emotional energy for him. Another asks:
Have you ever considered getting Ben Shapiro on? I think he might be a more fun guest than Ann Coulter (even though I enjoyed listening to your interaction with her), and he’s honestly more capable of learning (i.e. I’m hoping it’d be a educational interaction for him).
Always open to your guest recommendations — and your commentary on the episodes: firstname.lastname@example.org.
More dissents. First up, from one of the readers who most frequently criticizes the Dish’s coverage of crime:
Last week you highlighted Scott Alexander’s column on the 2020 murder spike, calling it “devastating.” In fact, it’s wildly off-base. I’m sure Scott is a smart guy, but he’s wading into an incredibly complex subject with very little respect for or understanding of the work of others.
His argument rests on timing. Murders began spiking around the launch of Black Lives Matter protests — the “structural break” mentioned in the Council on Criminal Justice’s report he cites — so, he says, it follows that one caused the other. This is a version of the “Ferguson Effect” theory, and it’s fared very poorly in the academic literature — though you wouldn’t know it from Scott’s selective citations.
That doesn’t mean protests are irrelevant to crime, but the best research on the subject points out something that Scott, in his rush to judgment, misses: people don’t protest for no reason. Instead, protests tend to be caused by external factors, like police brutality. That’s why Rick Rosenfeld, who serves on the Council on Criminal Justice and did much of the descriptive work that Scott cites, argues that crises in police legitimacy, not protests, are what drive increases in violent crime and murders.
The distinction is subtle but important, for methodological reasons that needn’t detain us and theoretical ones that should. Specifically, blaming protesters for rising violence is essentially an elaborate way of “blaming the victim.” If protests cause murders to rise, what else are people to do when police terrorize or kill their neighbors — as happened to George Floyd and so many others? Looking further upstream places the blame for degraded police legitimacy where it belongs: on the police force itself.
What really irks me about Scott’s column, though, is its certainty in the face of an unbelievably complex social crisis. There’s a reason criminologists (not the most liberal bunch, trust me) haven’t settled on protests as the sole reason for a 30% nationwide murder spike, felt in rural communities as well as cities. Sometimes things really are complicated, and that’s ok.
Scott followed up his post by replying to the best dissents from his readers, including Matt Yglesias, who began his reply, “I agree with almost everything in this post except for the media criticism parts.” You rarely see this kind of debate in the MSM. Check it out.
Next up, abortion. First, a dissent from the right:
Your wrong characterization of the rejection of Roe v. Wade is another example of your conversion to the Left. No mention of the 63 million babies who were murdered in the last 49 years, but oh how well you stand up for women and their right to have as many one-night stands as they want without consequences, guilt, or their morality even being questioned.
Instead you should be praising the Supreme Court for finally beginning to bring our democracy back to the original standard — that only the legislature makes laws — not the president and not the courts. You should be rejoicing over the fact that abortion rights are forced back into the hands of the state legislatures, and ultimately (to some extent) into the hands of the voters. It should have been this way for the last 50 years, but a radical leftist cabal took over our Supreme Court and made decisions with very little legal support or logic.
If it really is a fundamental right of women to control their bodies and ignore the consequences of killing the babies they produce, 50 years of debate and voting would have proved it to be so, and abortion would be largely legal throughout the US today. But instead, the Supreme Court dictated the law from out of nowhere, dictatorially legislated the law of the land, and the cost has been the unjust murder of some portion of 63 million babies. You should be sickened by it.
So today I leave your blog. You’ve transformed from my favorite writer, defender of liberty and “explainer” of the evils of CRT and the transgender movement, to just another gay leftist parroting the lies of immoral people who have no concept of what makes our country different from all the rest. Your conversion is sad and twisted because you have the ability to reach out to the citizens who have no idea how important liberty is or what is required to safeguard it.
I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. The entire piece was a defense of abortion as a subject for democratic deliberation and not judicial fiat. That’s been my view for years. In this fraught and complex topic, I think a compromise on the European lines is the least worst option. I also believe — and have said so on multiple times — that I share your view that abortion is a moral evil, and the taking of human life. I could never be a party to one.
But many disagree with me and you. And we live in a pluralistic society. And the question of when human life becomes a human person is a highly debatable one. Banning all abortion would be a disaster. Limiting and regulating it is a far better option.
As for sexual freedom, you’ve got me there. As long as it’s between adults, and consensual, I have no problem with it, and lots of experience with it. I truly don’t think it is intrinsically wrong. Human beings’ sexuality is far more expansive and diverse than most other species’, and if children and marriage are not involved, I see no reason to curtail it, and many reasons to celebrate it.
Next, a dissent from the left:
You seem to argue from the perspective that Roe was not a compromise. It was. It was a politically failed attempt to pick a middle ground. Culturally, Roe succeeded. If you check Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans favor unrestricted abortion early in pregnancy, allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy for any reason. Americans favor restrictions later, allowing for life of the mother and viability of the fetus concerns. This is the compromise between no abortions even for pregnancies of non-consensual sex and abortion on demand for any reason.
In vitro fertilization remains a corner case. Generally, fertility clinics have legally binding contracts saying what should be done with unused embryos if a couple separates. However, if state laws regard all embryos as human beings, this raises important questions. Can a couple discard viable embryos when their family has reached the size they desire? If there is a dispute, does the party who wishes to bring an embryo to term have a right to do that over the objection of the party who does not? If a couple is conceiving through IVF to avoid a serious genetic anomaly, will it be legal to discard a viable but non-normal embryo, such as one with trisomy 21?
What to do about pregnancies conceived through non-consensual sex continues to be the biggest challenge for the right-to-life movement. If the State can compel a woman to carry a pregnancy to term, even if the sex act was non-consensual, what other things can the State compel regarding our bodies? Surely states could compel mandatory vaccination, which is much less invasive and less likely to result in negative outcomes.
Following that, what about states that forbid abortion but do not engage in good-faith efforts to catch and convict rapists? The map at End The Backlog does not correlate well with states based on their abortion laws. The map shows Alabama as “unknown.” A quick Internet search of “rape kit backlog Alabama” pulls up articles about backlogs of over 1,000 kits. One article talks about a community that can’t gather evidence anymore because they don’t have any specially-trained nurses. Texas is listed as having over 6,000 backlogged kits. Oklahoma has 4,600. (To be fair, California’s backlog is almost 14,000 and New York’s is unknown.) Ancestry DNA websites have made even very cold cases possible to solve. Yet, our society continues to let rapists repeat.
You wrote: “I also believe that the Court could approximate your vision, in defending minority rights. But women are hardly a minority, and many women — at about the same rate as men — want abortion to be illegal.” You also wrote: “Those rights are related to minorities who cannot prevail democratically — not half the human population.”
Rights are defensible when they belong to the minority — but if the right belongs to the majority, it doesn’t need to be defended? I know you are a fan of George Orwell, but this is sounding a lot like, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I thought rights were rights regardless of how many or which people have them. Isn’t that the point?
I'd love to see you engage with what should be the conservative argument for widespread access to contraception and abortion in the first trimester. If the conservative goal is a society where everyone contributes and rises or falls on merit, then access to reproductive health care should be a conservative priority. We know from developing nations one of the best ways to improve standards of living is to improve family planning. Most women will size their families to match the resources at hand. If conservatives want to reduce the welfare state, affordable and accessible family planning would go a long way toward doing that. Instead, the poorest states and most conservative states in our country are the ones who make it difficult.
Conservatives are the ones arguing for limited government. Getting in the middle of one of the most difficult decisions anyone will ever make does not look like limited government.
As always, thank you for an engaging read, even when I disagree.
I truly don’t think Roe is in line with public opinion, or a compromise. Here’s where Americans stand on the question from a recent Marist/PBS poll:
Nearly seven in ten (68%) support some type of restrictions on abortion. This includes 13% who think abortion should be allowed within the first six months of pregnancy, 22% who believe abortion should be allowed during the first three months of pregnancy, 23% who say abortion should be allowed in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the pregnant person, and 10% who say abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the pregnant person.
Even 52% of Democrats think limits should be put on abortion.
Roe mandated the most expansive abortion regime in the West. A democratic adjustment to the Western norm does not seem to me to be an outrage — as the polls suggest.
Yes, I do think that rapists should be brought to justice; that a complement to abortion restrictions should be much more accessible healthcare for pregnant mothers before and after birth; more distribution of contraception; greater availability of adoption options; and medical exceptions for late-term abortions where the mother desperately wants the child but deformity or genetic disease makes delivery traumatizing, and the child’s life almost certainly short. Which is to say: in that situation, it should be up to mothers and doctors.