Bill Kristol has made quite the career for himself. Twenty years ago, after stints in government, the academy, and non-profits, he co-founded the Weekly Standard, the nationally influential conservative magazine where he is editor today. Kristol is also the Chairman of the Board of Governors at Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World, which hosted his talk at the Athenaeum last Thursday. At the Ath, Kristol predicted that, like 1980, 2016 would be a foreign policy election. Unlike in past elections, among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton shall inherit the nomination, while Republicans will engage in a great intra-party debate. Whereas usually Republican candidates are older, whiter, and more staid figures as compared to a younger, more diverse Democratic field, again the roles are reversed. Clinton is approaching seventy. The Democratic field trends old, white, and traditional. But the Republicans contenders are mostly 40 or 50-somethings, diverse and dynamic. The Independent spoke with Kristol shortly after his talk. Here’s what we said (edited and condensed for space and clarity):
Bill Kristol: Do people believe, since it’s your generation, the microaggression stuff? It’s just so ludicrous, I can’t even… I don’t know whether to believe the people who are making the complaints are in fact being honest and are in fact extremely sensitive people and don’t know what the world is like. Or is it just a charade to sort of shut up other people?
Claremont Independent: They definitely take it seriously.
BK: So they really think they’re supposed to go through their life never being offended by anything?
CI: It’s kind of like a personal attack…
BK: Even if it is a personal attack on you, like, so what? You’re not guaranteed to live a life without being personally attacked. Someone might tell these kids that some time.
CI: The Independent has made significant changes in recent years to adjust to the changing media environment. It seems the Weekly Standard has as well. What do you think about the ongoing digital disruption in media?
BK: I think it’s a big deal. Most of it is ways to get your arguments out. They shouldn’t really affect the content of the arguments and I think the content is still crucial. You can be very energetic on Twitter and have very effective social media people. If you don’t have something to say, it doesn’t do you much good. So I think people sometimes overstate it in that respect. We started the magazine almost twenty years ago, and we thought we’d be putting out a weekly magazine, and, you know, it would go through the mail and people would read it and it would have its effect. [Now,] everything goes online and a lot of the content is addition online-only content, and as many people read the weekly standard online as read it in print. For us, thank god, we still sell 90-95,000 copies a week of the print magazine. And that’s good because that’s revenue, and it’s reassuring that people are willing to pay for the magazine, but so for us so far we haven’t suffered for the fact that people can read stuff online for free. And of course, it has increased our reach. If people read a post or read one of the print articles online and it gets to an extra thousand people that’s great. And so who knows where it’ll be in five or 10 years from now.
I do think generally, the magazine brand, I say this with some reluctance since I edit a magazine, the magazine brand might be slightly less important than it was twenty years ago. Of course, we still try to put out a good magazine, a variety of articles, short articles, long articles, foreign policy, domestic policy, but people don’t really read it as a magazine the way they used to. In some way the individual authors become more important, the brand of the magazine, less so. I don’t think that’s necessarily good or bad, you know. Editors probably had too much control in the old days. So I’m happy that individuals get more attention, but it probably does mean that the Weekly Standard as a brand isn’t seen to be as distinctive as 30 or 40 years ago. I still think [the magazine] has a kind of certifying or credentialing effect. The fact is, if you submit an article to the Standard and we accept it and print it, it does mean that a bunch of editors have thought it was worth printing.
People often ask, should I submit stuff to magazines, or should I just have a blog? And I’m actually for blogs, you know, I’m not a snob about this at all, but I do think if I were hiring someone, and you were 25 years old, and let’s say you have a great blog, and linked to a lot and people liked it. It would still, I would still give an edge to people who had had articles published in the Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times op-ed page, maybe, because it means that different editors thought his or her stuff was good enough.
CI: Has the new age changed the nature of political talent, in terms of discovering and developing it? And what of political effects of Charles Murray’s fears of America’s Coming Apart thesis?
BK: On the one hand, I worry as Murray does that there is a sort of self-sorting segmentation, where you don’t get the kind of not-so-well-educated city boss of 50, 60 years ago who was a very shrewd politician and in touch with the voters, and a good, very good political leader, he just wasn’t terrifically articulate, wasn’t well-read, didn’t have great manners. And we put so much of a premium now on a sort of superficial sophistication and I think that’s unfortunate. On the other hand, I think the Internet and the general fluidity of things these days allows people to rise pretty quickly, from nowhere. I mean Obama, Rubio, Ted Cruz. These were not people who came from particularly well-off backgrounds or prominent families or anything like that. And they’re pretty important people, so that’s good, I think. I worry, though, a little, that we put a little too much weight on credentials: what college you went to and sort of how you present yourself, as opposed to what you have to say. And there’s a little too much conformism for that reason, intellectually but also socially. Either way, you want people to be idiosyncratic. I do worry that the schools are more conformist than they used to be, less rewards for idiosyncrasy.
CI: Is the new senate class more diverse than normal in terms of talents and backgrounds?
BK: Yeah I think so, and I think that’s a good thing. I mean Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, come from their own backgrounds. A lot of them went to good schools… but yeah I’m very encouraged as a Republican, as a conservative, particularly, of the quality of the younger Republican members, which I think is very much higher than it has been for several years in both the Senate and the House. It’s also true of some of the younger governors.
CI: Does the new tech/media age weaken the importance of elected officials?
BK: Electoral politics is still very important. At the end of the day you need an elected official to carry the ball and to put an idea seriously in play. You can have all the think tanks all the magazines, floating this idea or that, but until some elected official comes along and says I’m going to make this my legislative priority or president try to get this enacted, it’s still sort of theoretical. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of electoral politics. It’s also something about being elected in a democracy that gives you a kind of standing that you don’t have if you’re just editing a magazine or at a think tank. People think, oh it’s nice that you’re at a magazine, but there’s something about the ballot box, about people actually voting for you over someone else, that gives a kind of credibility. So I think for a political movement, you should never ignore elected officials. What really matters is the quality of candidates. I think Republicans and conservatives actually for quite a long time had very good magazines, good journalists, good think tanks, not so good elected officials. I think that’s been changing a little bit.
CI: Among conservatives on campus, there is a strong preference for libertarian politicians like Ron and Rand Paul. Does a more dovish Rand Paul-type stand a chance in 2016?
BK: I’d be very surprised if the Republican Party went with a dovish candidate. [In 2011,] there hadn’t been any obvious repercussions of what [Obama] had done. Of course he had a much more centrist foreign policy team. He had Gates. He had Petraeus. He had General Jones as National Security Advisor. And even Hillary. Now I think we’re seeing some of the consequences of Obama’s policies. And that’s why I think that this will be a foreign policy election. Rand Paul in a way would have been better off running four years ago. He’s much more presentable than his father, but his father actually ran at a time when there was really a mood in the party that was somewhat skeptical of interventionism. The consequences of noninterventionism are looking pretty grim these days, so that’s why I’m skeptical of Rand Paul.
CI: Why are Republicans having such a hard time in California?
BK: The state hasn’t changed that much. So you’d think that some Republican could occasionally win. I do tend to think that part of it is an accident of just candidates and sort of bad luck on Republicans’ part. It is frustrating. You’d think with Boxer retiring, there’d be a chance to have an attractive Republican run for that seat, maybe a different type of Republican, one who is in sync of California. In 2010 they thought that having women run would really helped, and it turned out to not help at all.
CI: Finally, many conservatives see that a lot of the negative trends our political system that Americans are concerned with today seem to be traceable to the late 60s or early 70s. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, for instance, or Peter Thiel’s observation of a switch from “definite optimism” to “indefinite optimism,” originate in that era. What changed? Can we undo that?
BK: Yeah, these things are deep trends, and obviously people like Tocqueville saw that this is kind of the way that democracy is tempted to go almost 200 years ago, so it’s not even something that began in the 60’s, but the good news I think is that all these trends are and often deep rooted but they can also turn around. I think that Peter’s point on indefinite optimism is very interesting, though. To the degree that this is political, I do think that Thiel is onto something in a sense. I do think that the conservative agenda can’t just be anti-government, Hayekian, almost, though I do think that’s an important part of it. But also government is supposed to be limited and energetic, if you read the federalist papers. Lincoln certainly believed in a strong government for doing the things that government should do. And conservatives could be in favor of energy and competence, as well as limited government. I think the two go together. I think big government is bloated government, which is an ineffective government. So I think we conservatives have overdone the critique of government by itself, as opposed to critiquing government for doing things it shouldn’t be doing. But also making the case there are some core government functions we want the government to do them and to do them well.
CI: Newt Gingrich seemed the closest person in the 2012 GOP field to promote that “definite optimism,” but it seems hard for him to reach a broad swath of voters.
BK: I think it wouldn’t be so terrible to look a little bit like Newt Gingrich. I mean he has his flaws. I disagree with him on some things. But he was one of the more successful conservative leaders of modern times.
If the electorate is sort of demoralized, maybe someone with a little different background from Newt, someone military or sort of an organization that people think can get things done needs to step up and say we can get some things done. But I mean Newt ran only once for president, and he was a flawed candidate in many ways, but he did make a run of it against Mitt Romney, who had so much more money. I think there’s more of a market – and I’m glad you mentioned Newt – for a version of Gingrich’s conservatism than people think. I think the mistake of conservatives is [the perception that] we just want to save money. We don’t care about a space program. We don’t care about any major scientific achievement. We don’t care about interstate highways. We don’t care about having great universities, which include public universities.