By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
Last Friday was a sad day for a certain type of conservative. I say a certain type because there are various kinds of conservatives, with various passions that animate them. For those of us who read and digest conservative policy, ideas, and cultural criticism, the closing of The Weekly Standard is an acute loss.
Though I was in junior high school when the magazine published its first issue, I have been profoundly influenced by the magazine and its roster of talent throughout my adult life. I have wanted to be a conservative pundit for longer than I can remember, and the Standard has been one of my chief inspirations for years. Beyond that is the deeper question of what the loss of the magazine means for the conservative movement and the country.
I realize that, as a nation, we read fewer magazines than before. There is no more Life or the Saturday Evening Post to hold everyone’s attention. We’re not all going to read a stack of magazines cover to cover each month. I get it. Yet, many times, ideas are best conveyed through the written word. This has certainly been true for American conservatism since World War II. It is commonly held, for example, that there would have been no Reagan administration without the work of National Review. That works on two levels: voters read the magazine and shifted their ideas to the right, but so, too, did Reagan himself. So, when I encounter a growing number of professed conservatives who are not at least semi-regular readers of conservative journalism, I think it goes a long way in explaining how we have arrived at this moment.
The Weekly Standard was known for an aggressive stance against the Trump administration. It was arguably the most anti-Trump of any conservative publication, and followers of the President’s Twitter feed will note that he spent this rainy DC weekend taking a victory lap around the magazine’s demise. Yet, reports suggest that, if this position played any role in the magazine’s downfall, it was not the driving factor.
John Podhoretz, co-founder of the magazine, forcefully argued that the magazine was killed off for a weird mixture of business, politics, and personal animus. The New York Times’ David Brooks, a senior editor at the magazine’s inception, said something similar over the weekend. In any case, the loss of The Weekly Standard cannot help but evoke an important conversation about the conservatism in the Age of Trump.
It is true that the the magazine did not make a profit, though as Podhoretz noted in an interview with NPR, its revenues were high. Yet to focus on the revenues alone is to miss the point as to why magazines like this, as well as others on both the right and the left, exist in the first place. They do not exist as pure commercial enterprises. Instead, they exist because everyone involved – ownership, management, staff – believes that certain ideas and policies are worth promoting.
Of course everyone wants to do well and expand their readership, but magazines are allowed a certain long view of issues that are not afforded to the internet and the 24 hour cable news cycle. I think a lot of us have grown so accustomed to the latter that we are unable to sit still long enough to enjoy and profit from the former.
There are two problems at work here; we have forgotten how to sit still and we have forgotten how to think. The rapid fire nature of social media and the continuous news cycle have left us all jittery. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. When I can glean bits and pieces of news and ideas from a couple of tweets and fifteen minutes of radio, it is easy to feel like I’ve got a handle on things without any deeper engagement. To the second point, social media, cable news, and talk radio simply demand something different from us. It’s not necessarily bad. There are excellent Twitter feeds, television programs, and radio shows, but they rarely demand the thought and contemplation that is called forth by a strong piece of journalism or an essay on a serious topic.
This is what conservatives will miss from The Weekly Standard. We are better served by slowing down and reading a thousand words in a thoughtful, challenging essay than by having our ears tickled by another outrage shock jock on primetime television. Ironically enough, Tucker Carlson started out as a very thoughtful writer at the Standard before morphing into whatever he is on Fox News these days.
As we move in to a new year and a new set of leaders take office in Montgomery and Washington, I hope they choose the tougher course. Leaders on the left will be tempted by MSNBC; those on the right will be tempted by Fox News. While there is good stuff on both networks, I hope our leaders keep the mute button in good working order. Instead, find magazines and journals that force thought and contemplation.
I hope my fellow conservatives especially do this. The twenty-three year archive of the The Weekly Standard is a good place to start.
Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.