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The American Conservative’s Next Step

What’s the place of Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative in a post-Bush world?

(Part of the cover of the November 17, 2008 issue of The American Conservative.)

At the beginning of this month The American Conservative magazine, founded by Pat Buchanan, was on the verge of folding. Like so many other publications, AmCon was struggling to stay afloat in an age of Internet dominance. But the magazine’s troubles went beyond that; its raison d’etre seemed to be in question. After all, any print magazine whose subtitle is "The Magazine for the Thinking Conservative" would be having trouble these days. With conservatism in remission and all kinds of non-Internet media dying, The American Conservative‘s life seemed to be near its end. But some last-minute funding gave it a second chance.

The direction of the magazine is unlikely to change. So its survival depends on whether more conservatives can find something appealing about the magazine, either in its criticism of the Obama administration or in its recommendations about the right course for the conservative movement.

Founded during 2002, the magazine was meant to appeal to those on the fringes of the conservative movement—that is, those who disagreed with the neoconservatism and populist conservatism of George W. Bush, Bill Kristol, and Rush Limbaugh. It stood as a stark reminder that Bush’s conservatism was not the only conservatism. The idea of The American Conservatism was that there were enough who disagreed with mainstream conservatism—libertarians, paleoconservatives, and civil libertarian conservatives, among other dissenters—to warrant such a publication.

While other conservative magazines like the National Review and The Weekly Standard marched more or less in lockstep with the Bush Administration, The American Conservative argued for a different course—sometimes with greater ferocity than the major political magazines on the left.

To be sure, the magazine published its fair share of inflammatory anti-immigration pieces and bizarre skepticism of the Federal Reserve. But its criticism of the Bush administration and its critiques of the current shape of conservatism seemed as sincere as its advocacy for paleoconservatism. Reihan Salam wrote of the magazine at The Atlantic.

"The American Conservative, founded by Patrick Buchanan to serve as a voice for anti-war, anti-immigration conservative nationalists, plays an interesting role in conservative politics. Though not as widely read as National Review, which aims to set the tone for the movement conservative mainstream, TAC has gained a devoted following as a sharp critic of the conservative mainstream."

Indeed, those familiar with TAC weren’t surprised when during the last few months of the presidential campaign The American Conservative ran an article referring to Sarah Palin as a "neocon on training wheels."

Even liberals began to read and like the magazine. Having a conservative magazine (one founded by the irrefutably conservative Pat Buchanan, no less) argue against modern conservatism allowed liberals to say, “See! It’s not just us. Your people know the Bush administration is doing the wrong thing, too!”

And so the election of Barack Obama seemed to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, in its presidential endorsements issue, the magazine published its fair share of conservative Obama backers (one of whom was Scott McConnell, the magazine’s editor-at-large) alongside McCain supporters. Some of AmCon’swriters wished for Obama over McCain and definitely over Bush. On the other hand, if Obama were elected, what reason would the various conservative sects and liberals have to read the magazine? Obama supporters wouldn’t need the comfort of a small conservative journal and the various conservative sects that had been pushed to the outer reaches of the movement could return to the mainstream, dissenting against liberalism alongside the neocons and the populist anti-intellectuals once again.

In the last few days before its fund-or-fold deadline, the magazine was able to scrounge together enough money to stay in business. It will be now operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit publication. The magazine has also used some of its money to revamp its website and add intellectual conservative blogs. According to the magazine’s executive editor, Kara Hopkins, the hope now is that people will be more open to AmCon’s proposals for what contemporary conservatism should be, given the movement’s state of disarray.

"It was very chic for a while to do the ‘future of conservatism’ preamble, because basically the right had gotten kicked in the teeth in the last two elections and we’re trying to figure out what to do next," Hopkins said. "I don’t think anybody has settled on an answer, I mean, there are reformers of every stripe now but I still think the definition of what conservatism is is really open for debate."

According to Hopkins, the plan going forward is to offer a conservative magazine that is a place for debate. As long as the writer makes a good, coherent argument, it doesn’t matter whether he is liberal or conservative. This has been the policy of AmCon in the past—a recent example being a book review by progressive blogger (and Center for American Progress employee) Matthew Yglesias. The American Conservative will also apply the same level of skepticism to the current administration that it did to the last.

"We’ve been pretty critical of him," Hopkins said of Obama. "We’ve been pretty tough on him and we’ll continue to be tough on him. But we’ll continue to police our own side of the aisle, just because it’s difficult for conservatives to hear, but when they see that coming from writers they recognize and reputations they respect it’s enough for them to step up and take notice."

Daniel Strauss is a junior at the University of Michigan and a regular Campus Progress contributor.

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