Ross Douthat, born in 1979, became in 2009 the youngest regular op-ed columnist in the history of The New York Times-and he's a conservative! Here are edited excerpts of an interview in front of Patrick Henry College students.
Growing up in New Haven, did you want to go to Yale University? Absolutely not.
So, wanting to be away from home, you went to Harvard, 130 miles away. The perfect distance? There's the laundry factor: You want to be able to have it done at your original home. There's the second laundry factor: You don't want your mother knocking on the door to your dorm room unexpectedly when it's completely carpeted in laundry.
Your dad is a lawyer and a poet, your mother a writer. Lots of books around? Yes, and a very old black-and-white TV that I didn't watch very much. But over the course of my childhood, we became involved in different forms of both Pentecostal and evangelical ministry. During the week I went to a private school, where every day was Diversity Day, and then on the weekends my parents spoke in tongues. I've tried to continue that tradition by being the token reactionary Catholic at The New York Times.
Were there difficulties in connecting those dots? There were huge advantages to having different kinds of cultural exposure as a child: having all of your high-school teachers be liberal Democrats, but then reading C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton on the side.
Did you have some adolescent rebellion? My parents became quite religious but never that politically conservative. Reading National Review was my act of rebellion.
Some kids from Christian backgrounds go to a liberal college and try to hide their experience and beliefs, trying to fit in, but I ran across a column you wrote in college about your Pentecostal background, with mentions of faith healing and "slaying in the Spirit." You were flaunting this in front of the Harvard audience. Yeah. I'm an argumentative person, and all my friends are argumentative people. Having late-night arguments is part of the college experience: "But wait, what if the world is all just a dream that a butterfly is having?"
You wrote for The Atlantic, National Review, and other publications-and then comes your courtship by The New York Times ... A courtship implies that both parties are equal. I always knew that if the Times offered me a job, I would take it. During the interviews I was so nervous that I can't really remember what was said.
You got the job, and now you're speaking to an audience that shares few of your own convictions. Where do you find traction? Sometimes I don't. If I'm about to disagree with liberals about something, a lot of times I will concede something to them.
Example? I wrote a column saying Occupy Wall Street protestors have a point. The last three years of American economic history have been better years for people who work in finance than they've been for the middle class. But then I asked, what are we most concerned about? Are we most concerned about absolute measures of equality? If that's all you're concerned about, you can tax the rich, take their income down a notch, and you have created more equality. But if what you're concerned about is social and economic mobility, which I think is more fundamental to the American dream, then you need to recognize that raising taxes right now does not necessarily serve the cause of socioeconomic mobility.
So if you raise taxes to avoid reforming Medicare ...Medicare redistributes income from working age people to retirees. The system pays out much more money to retirees than they ever paid into it. That's going to go up and up and up. If you're looking for a system where you want to turn your working class 25-year-old into an upper- middle-class 45-year-old, Medicare is cutting in the opposite direction.
As are some other major expenses? The same is true to a lesser extent with how much money states spend on long-term commitments to public sector unions. Our educational system: We have doubled the amount that we spend over the past 20 years without getting better test scores. Essentially, you can see what I tried to do. I said, I agree with you, but you have to recognize that the government liberalism built isn't necessarily doing a good job of achieving the ends that we both agree would be positive for America, so you should consider reforming that government before you throw more money at it.
What do you want to communicate to conservatives? Conservatives remain in a certain amount of denial about the nature of the challenges facing the middle and working classes in the United States. Upward mobility has slowed down. Wage stagnation has been a real and significant problem for middle-income Americans. Republicans, in reacting against the Democrats' "It's all the fault of the rich" have swung too far in the opposite direction, where they're unwilling to talk about the struggles of lower-middle America.
Don't these economic problems have cultural roots? A lot of those challenges are cultural. They're rooted in the decline of marriage and the decline of church-going among the working class.
Examining culture is necessary but not sufficient? Conservatives have sold themselves on the idea that lower-middle America keeps voting for bigger government because they aren't paying income taxes anymore: We need to make them pay more income taxes so they'll have more of a stake in government. That's basically crazy. It's out of touch with the economic realities for blue-collar families of four. Because of various exemptions and deductions they may not pay income taxes, but they're still paying state taxes, other federal taxes, excise taxes, sales taxes, you name it.
From that vantage point ... They're making $41,000 a year and healthcare costs have eaten up their wages. Republicans have boxed themselves into a corner where capital gains tax cuts and a flatter tax code is their only policy proposal for the middle class.
Turning to journalism: Do a lot of your Times colleagues mourn the time when liberalism was unopposed in American media? For various economic reasons, there was a period of heavy consolidation in journalism, where cities that used to have three or four papers suddenly had two or one, which made it possible for a newspaper to take an authoritative view of the world. You had only three or four television options. Walter Cronkite was a weird historical anomaly. Right now we're returning to the journalistic and political norm: more non-professional, partisan, ideological, freewheeling, less-rigorously sourced. We need to recognize what's lost-the sense of certainty and authority-but also recognize what's gained.
The professional road for journalists has more potholes ... That doesn't mean the news-consuming public has it worse. ... It's hard for journalists to separate the loss of that upper-middle-class paycheck from the overall landscape of journalism, but it's important to say that even though we have to hustle a lot more, like people did in the 1920s, it's not so bad.