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The 10 Best Conservative Columnists of 2013

Who are the most valuable pieces on the chessboard?

by
Dave Swindle

Bio

December 26, 2013 - 8:00 am
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This is Week 12 of Season 3 in my 13 Weeks of Wild Man Writing and Radical Reading Series. Every week day I try to blog about compelling writers, their ideas, and the news cycle’s most interesting headlines. This Top 10 list is the series’ climax for this year, a project I’ve been planning since first asking the question December 5, 2012.

What is the future of conservatism? Which voices should define the priorities of the movement in the coming decades? Who are its most skilled proponents today? How should the movement evolve to face the threats most endangering America?

This list is my effort to advocate for both my favorite writers contributing to answering these questions and the ideas they champion.

5 quick ground rules first:

- I’m being strict with the “columnist” title – no bloggers, journalists, or feature writers. A “columnist” is one who writes a 700-1400+ word polemical article on a regular basis for an established publication or syndication.

- I’m likewise being strict with the “conservative” title – other various right-of-center ideologies (neoconservatism, libertarianism, Christian theocrats, and paleo-con conspiracists) warrant their own lists. (Which perhaps they might get next year as I continue mapping out today’s most important ideological advocates in the contests of politics, ideas, and culture…)

[UPDATE: Confused why some of your favorites aren't on this list? See: 3 Basic Differences Between Conservatism and Neoconservatism]

- In selecting these individuals, I am including them and the ideas they champion in what I’m calling Conservatism 3.0. This isn’t just a stand-alone list, it’s part of the bigger, ongoing project of my attempt to encourage ideological debate and dialogue. The columnists on this list each write books too and I’m adding their titles to my reading lists at the Freedom Academy Book Club. In next year’s installment of my “radical reading regimen” I’ll blog through their titles too.

- I’m excluding writers that I edit. All of PJM’s columnists and freelancers have been going on a separate list of my favorite writers, which I’ve been accumulating over the last six months and you can read on the last page of this post. And as an extra mention I have to go out of my way to recommend Instapundit Glenn Reynolds’s USA Today columns too. Blogging isn’t the only medium that Glenn’s mastered.

I’m including excerpts from some of my favorite columns. Fair warning: this article today is over 13,000 words, highlighting some of the year’s best op/eds. (UPDATE: And apparently that means it’s too big for the view-as-single-page or print-this-post feature to work. I’m sorry. I assure you that was not intentional.) It’s really more of a free online e-book — a late Christmas present to all the readers, writers, activists, and patriots who have inspired and encouraged me in my own journey across the political spectrum…

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10. Ross Douthat

Back in 2009 the New York Times editorial page made the very rare great decision. They replaced corporatist neoconservative baby boomer William Kristol (born December 23, 1952) with cultural conservative millennial-leaning Gen-Xer Ross Douthat (born November 28, 1979.)

Gone was the D.C.-insider establishment man, symbolic of — and in some ways a contributor to — the Republican Party’s and conservatism’s failures todays, and in was a sunny National Review writer with a film critic background and religious interests to reinvent center-right arguments with a fresh, optimistic voice. A few highlights from this year, on Reza Aslan’s Jesus recycling, the celebration of tribal criminality in Breaking Bad, and lessons for the JFK cult:

August 3, “Return of the Jesus Wars“:

The fact that Aslan’s take on Jesus is not original doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. But it has the same problem that bedevils most of his competitors in the “real Jesus” industry. In the quest to make Jesus more comprehensible, it makes Christianity’s origins more mysterious.

Part of the lure of the New Testament is the complexity of its central character — the mix of gentleness and zeal, strident moralism and extraordinary compassion, the down-to-earth and the supernatural.

Most “real Jesus” efforts, though, assume that these complexities are accretions, to be whittled away to reach the historical core. Thus instead of a Jesus who contains multitudes, we get Jesus the nationalist or Jesus the apocalyptic prophet or Jesus the sage or Jesus the philosopher and so on down the list.

There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith.

October 1, “Walter White’s Dream”:

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The knights on the conservative chessboard are writers, editors, bloggers, and activists capable of moving in creative and versatile directions.

The allure for Team Walt is not ultimately the pull of nihilism, or the harmless thrill of rooting for asupervillain. It’s the pull of an alternative moral code, neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian, with an internal logic all its own. As James Bowman wrote in The New Atlantis, embracing Walt doesn’t requiring embracing “individual savagery” and a world without moral rules. It just requires a return to “old rules” — to “the tribal, family-oriented society and the honor culture that actually did precede the Enlightenment’s commitment to universal values.”

Those rules seem cruel by the lights of both cosmopolitanism and Christianity, but they are not irrational or necessarily false. Their Darwinian logic is clear enough, and where the show takes place — in the shadow of cancer, the shadow of death — the kindlier alternatives can seem softheaded, pointless, naïve.

Nor can this tribal morality be refuted in a laboratory. Indeed, by making Walt a chemistry genius, the show offers an implicit rebuke to the persistent modern conceit that a scientific worldview logically implies liberalism, humanism and a widening circle of concern. On “Breaking Bad,” that worldview just makes Walt a better kingpin, and the beautiful equations of chemistry are deployed to addict, poison, decompose.

November 23, “Puddleglum and the Savage“:

What exhausts skeptics of the Kennedy cult, both its elegiac and paranoid forms, is the way it makes a saint out of a reckless adulterer, a Camelot out of a sordid political operation, a world-historical figure out of a president whose fate was tragic but whose record was not terribly impressive.

But in many ways the impulses driving the Kennedy nostalgists are the same ones animating Lewis’s Puddleglum and Huxley’s Savage — the desire for grace and beauty, for icons and heroes, for a high-stakes dimension to human affairs that a consumerist, materialist civilization can flatten and exclude.

And one can believe J.F.K. is a poor vessel for these desires, and presidential politics the wrong place to satisfy them, without wishing they would disappear.

“It is a serious thing,” Lewis wrote, describing the implications of his religious worldview, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship.”

It is obviously a serious mistake, from this perspective, to deify someone prematurely or naively, as too many of Kennedy’s admirers have done.

 ”To deify someone prematurely or naively…” – in continuing on this list, picking writers, activists, and thinkers who have influenced my thinking for years, I want to emphasize that this is not a list of conservative heroes. These are not the gods of right-wing writing circa 2013, but rather something more mundane: a chessboard. Both in specific arguments and in tactics they each simply model the methods for how to do battle.

Douthat is a knight. His approach of leading with deeper discussions of religion and culture then eschewing cliche ideological talking points is a great way to begin the discussion with skeptical or even hostile non-conservative friends and family. As the dialogue gets deeper into specifics — as you make progress in provoking others to rattle their chains in Plato’s cage by taking politically incorrect ideas seriously — it’s time to get focused on the facts about the nature of the enemies who most threaten our ability to have these free debates about God and life. I suspect that over the coming years more will make the journey from Left to Right as I and many other post-9/11 conservatives did: through recognizing the nature of the jihad declared against us and then responding in the same way that previous generations vanquished Nazism and fascism.

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Next: 2 Voices for a hawkish foreign policy.

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Top Rated Comments   
Charles Krauthammer ?

This column alone should catapult him to #1 in terms of "valuable pieces on the chessboard."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-obama-the-oblivious/2013/12/12/67acc91c-6363-11e3-a373-0f9f2d1c2b61_story.html

30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Steyn is pretty much always my #1, mainly due to his constant willingness to fight back against the Left Wing "tolerance" brigade and the Islamic "shut up" brigade.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't know about Anne Coulter being number one. Personally I find her far too abrasive on some matters, while simultaneously embracing characters like Chris Christie (remember Christie's comment about Shariah, and his judge appointments? I think Christie is as pro Islamist as Obama). I would put Charles Krauthammer in my list (I recall a column he wrote shortly after Obama was elected -- 2009? -- and he predicted Obama's takeover of certain industries. I also recall the howls from the Left about how wrong he was -- yet all that Charles predicted about Obama in 2009 has come to pass. Even though one can find areas of disagreement in some of his stances, he has a keen insight which I believe is unmatched).
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (130)
All Comments   (130)
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love your list. My favorites are Kevin Williamson and Richard Fernandez. Every column they write is thought provoking. Also, Megan McArdle at Bloomberg is interesting.
21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
A "10 Best" list of conservative columnists? Now that William F. Buckley, Jr. has departed this vale of tears, the field is wide open. By and large, I agree with Mr. Swindle's ranking, with a quibble or two...

Ann Coulter at number one? She brings not peace but a sword. I find her highly entertaining and provocative, and her pen drips acid. But conservative political philosophy is also about, well, philosophy. Liberals and conservatives advocate different political prescriptions not because one side is smart and the other stupid, but because they start with different assumptions about Creation and about human nature. It's like an algebra problem: a poor assumption, or a mistake made early on, will carry you to a poor, mistaken solution no matter how finely crafted the logic connecting them happens to be. As much as liberals and conservatives quarrel over policy preferences, the underlying issue is, simply, whose world view most closely reflects reality? I'm not convinced Coulter ever digs into it that deeply; she seems content to score points, and score them she does. For a polemicist, that's terrific. For the honors of being the number one conservative columnist, I expect more.

I'm not sure Thomas Sowell belongs as number two on the list, though he is my sentimental favorite; he's my favorite author of all time, but I think he comes across better in book form than in a column -- it gives him more elbow room for developing his arguments, and his arguments are such that they need the additional space. Sowell is a genius who has a gift for drawing important distinctions. Columns cramp his style.

Mark Steyn, Jonah Goldberg, and Dennis Prager absolutely belong on this list. In fact, they would have been my top three picks.

I have trouble believing that Rich Lowry belongs on this list at all. Maybe if the list is expanded to the top 500. I find him as boring as Ben Stein looks... who, by the way, should have made the list. Right...? Anyone...? Buehler?

Also conspicuously missing from the list is James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web" column, and the venerable George F. Will. Also: Richard Fernandez, quite simply the best read on the Internet.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Love it. Ann Coulter is the last Alpha Male us conservatives have left to guide us. Her gender is a mere technicality.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Stupidest column I've ever seen on PJ Media. Ever.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
You should read some of the comments.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for your constructive criticism.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Such good work. Thank you. Personally, I was so happy to see Coulter and Sowell at the top. Sowell's A Personal Odyssey is one of my favorites. I made my 13 year old read it one summer a few years ago. Basic Economics is also a go to book of mine. I think Breitbart described Ann Coulter as a warrior of the highest order (or something close to that). I concur. I admire her so much. She is so brave. As a former bleeding heart liberal, your reason for putting her at the top resonates with me. I can remember listening to her book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America a few summers ago while jogging in the morning. It was hard because I found myself laughing and tearing up. She is amazing.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks so much for your support, Sharon! Sounds like we see things similarly. Please drop me a line sometime with more of your book recommendations DaveSwindlePJM @ gmail dot com
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ann Coulter! Number 1! Get outta here. For real? Not Sowell for Number 1? I am 100% sure Coulter will shoot me first and ask questions later. That's because I know 'what I appear to be' to someone like Coulter. Sowell is the kind of person who will ask questions first. If he chooses to shoot me after, so be it. Nah, Mr Swindle. Sowell is number one for me - his range of topics outweigh Coulter's many times over. His books on economics and race should be gospel to generations who are interested in living in civilized societies. Queens need not be female. :)
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Keep in mind too that this is specifically a list of columnists and that also factored into my rankings is how they perform as column writers. Yes, Sowell has 30 years more of life experience on Coulter and his books are foundational for Conservatism 3.0. But as far as writing mind-blowing columns Coulter is stronger.

And don't be so sure about how Coulter would react to you. She talks and writes tough but when she's not wearing the armor and waving the sword she's a very kind, compassionate, Christian woman.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Douthat is the most expendable on the list although he is a very good communicator.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Kevin D. Williamson = must read.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm planning on him being on the next installment of the list. I need to read his books and his columns more regularly to wrap my head around what he does best and what others should draw from him.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great list Dave. I am no expert but make a point of reading Ann Coulter, Mark Steyn, Thomas Sowell, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Totten, Walter Williams and Michelle Malkin. Peggy Noonan, Michael Ledeen and Victor Davis Hanson occasionally write brilliant columns. I will enjoy expanding my horizons by perusing from your list of columnists. Cheers!
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
Goldberg and Lowry are fair weather conservatives, ready to throw in the towel at the slightest hint of confrontation. In fact, your intro paragraph to Lowry is bizarre. Your choice of Ann Coulter and Steyn is at odds with your professed admiration of reasonable and what, non confrontational conservatives?

As for the Bircher document you included...substitute progressive, or Islamic, for communist, and there may be more prescience in this document than conspiracy. We are living under the rule...not governance...of a radical who has pledged to fundamentally transform the United States. A common theme many of these pundits? They complain a lot about what Obama is doing, but not about what the GOP is not doing.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Your choice of Ann Coulter and Steyn is at odds with your professed admiration of reasonable and what, non confrontational conservatives?"
I don't think it's an either/or choice. I think multiple approaches are necessary because there are so many different kinds of people out there.
30 weeks ago
30 weeks ago Link To Comment
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