Ross Douthat: Two conservatives who left their mark on liberals

Ross Douthat

Published: Wednesday, March 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

President Gordon B. Hinckley, left, shakes hands with James Q. Wilson after Wilson delivered the inaugural Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair Lecture at the Spencer W. Kimball Tower on BYU campus Thursday, February 10, 2005. Wilson is the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and spoke about marriage and commitment to the standing room only crowd that included many of Sister Hinckley's family. Photo by Jason Olson (Submission date: 02/10/2005)

Jason Olson,

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THE right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart and the neoconservative scholar James Q. Wilson, who died within 48 hours of each other last week — Wilson at the age of 80, Breitbart so unexpectedly at 43 — had one important thing in common: They were both prominent conservatives who arguably left their most enduring legacy in the lives of affluent, cosmopolitan liberals.

For Wilson, that legacy is the low crime rates that have made urban areas from Portlandia to Brooklyn safe for left-wing hipsters and Obama-voting professionals alike. There are entire worlds of brunches and brownstones, Zipcars and urban mommy message boards that only exist today because of the work that Wilson and others did, in the shadow of the post-1960s crime wave, to better understand policing and prisons and criminal behavior, and to usher in the current age of urban peace.

For Breitbart, that legacy is the media landscape that greets those same hipsters and professionals whenever they settle into their local coffee shop and fire up their laptop or iPhone. Breitbart's politics were right-wing, but his digital media achievements were entirely bipartisan.

Their bequests to liberal America aside, of course, Wilson and Breitbart were completely different animals, who embodied different eras in public discourse and different models of political engagement.

Wilson was a scholar's scholar — learned, careful, rigorous and disinterested. His books and essays built bridges between the academy, the federal government ("Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States," Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly counseled Richard Nixon) and the well-informed readership that subscribed to journals like The Public Interest and magazines like The Atlantic.

Wilson thrived, in other words, in precisely the kind of media-intellectual ecosystem — institutionalist, high-middlebrow, genteel — that Breitbart spent his career putting to the torch. Whether Breitbart was working for Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington or building his own empire, his first loyalty was always to the sensational scoop, the wild-and-crazy stunt, the overcaffeinated public feud with whichever enemy happened to be hating on him. He was a P. T. Barnum figure, at once lovable and deplorable, who embodied the online media landscape like no other figure on the right or left.

It's easy to see the shift from Wilson's old-media conversation to Breitbart's new-media circus — from public intellectuals to talking heads, from social science to showmanship, from The Public Interest and Commentary to blogs and tweets and gossip — as a straightforward story of cultural decline. But what looks like decline is also in some sense a return to normalcy for the United States. What we think of as the "old media" era — the years from the 1950s through the 1980s, when Wilson came of age and made his most important mark — was really an unusual and inevitably fleeting period in American culture. For a few decades, the consolidation of the newspaper business and the outsize power of the big television networks combined to create a genuine media establishment, capable of setting standards, policing debates and keeping troublemakers and provocateurs on the outside looking in.

Prior to that period of consolidation, though, the nation's media were much more, well, Breitbart-ian: more partisan, more sensationalistic, more attuned to scandal and celebrity and less concerned about accuracy and rigor.

This doesn't mean that we need to lionize Breitbart's frenzied style of political engagement. But his world has virtues as well as vices: it's less high-minded than the old-media era, but less stifling and conformist as well. More important, the circus is here to stay.

The higher challenge is to encourage and celebrate work like James Q. Wilson's in an Andrew Breitbart world. The more basic challenge is to prevent the pressure of a sleepless Internet and a furious partisanship from taking the kind of toll that probably helped cut short Breitbart's life, long before what should have been his time.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist.

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