Today’s conservative intellectuals appear to be splintering, over Trump, over Cruz, over questions like immigration and America’s proper role in the world. If they scatter, the loss of conservative intellectuals as a somewhat unified force could mean the end of the era of the GOP as the party of ideas. The battle of ideas is already an uphill battle for Republicans, especially given Democratic advantages in the faculty lounges and in the mainstream media—and without a reliable phalanx of intellectuals to help defend it in the larger marketplace of ideas, the Republican Party would eventually lose the respect of conservative-minded voters as well, potentially dooming it to suffer long-term electoral damage or outright disintegration. This could mean that the Democrats would take the initiative in shaping the country’s policy directly for years or decades to come.
Another scenario, one that may be emerging already, is that GOP intellectuals split, and go in different directions. We have already seen some of the most adamant #NeverTrump folks suggest that they would vote for Hillary—it’s possible that Democrats take advantage of this defection and recruit some of the top foreign policy intellectuals who signed a letter pledging never to back Trump into their party for the long-term. Such an effort could mirror the way Republicans drafted Democratic neocons like Kirkpatrick and Bennett in the 1970s and 1980s. Some “liberal-tarians”—libertarians who care about social issues more than economic ones and thereby sympathize with the Democrats—have already moved in the Democrats’ direction. Under Trump, even more could follow. Other libertarians might stick with the smaller, purer libertarian party, recognizing that while it will not win elections, it represents a purer exprehssion of their beliefs. We might also see the development of an independent conservative party that is also more concerned with policy consistency than with electoral viability.
If there is a full-blown exodus of conservative intellectuals from the GOP, the policy experts who remain will risk being seen as more party-based than ideology-based. To remain relevant, they will have to reshape the GOP’s issue mix toward more working-class issues, an effort that has proven elusive until now.