Daniel McCarthy

2020 Lincoln Fellow

What is your current position?

DM: I’ve been director of the Novak Journalism Fellowship Program, and the Joseph Rago Memorial Fellowship for Excellence in Journalism, at The Fund for American Studies over the last four years—two projects that support some of the most promising journalists of the next generation while they are early in their careers, when getting to write a book or to work on the Wall Street Journal editorial staff can be a decisive turn in their professional lives.

I’m also the editor of Modern Age, the conservative quarterly journal founded by Russell Kirk and Henry Regnery back in 1957. Today it’s published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, under the leadership of another recent Lincoln Fellow, John Burtka. Modern Age is a mainstay of the traditionalist wing of conservatism but has always sought to feature some of the most penetrating writing from other viewpoints on the right as well.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

DM: As a kid in the ’80s I read a lot of comics, and I think that hooked me on periodical literature. Also, because they were serial fiction, when you first picked up a series you’d be entering in medias res. That always made me curious about the backstory, what had set up the conflicts I was reading about. When I got interested in politics and political ideas around high school, in the early ’90s, I was interested in learning the backstory of those conflicts, too. I didn’t just read National Review, I wanted to know where its storylines were coming from. I enjoyed writing and was good at it from an early age, so getting into political journalism was natural. I’ve been a reporter at times, but my interest in the battle of ideas always pointed me toward the editorial side, where I could express my own conclusions while exploring the topics that I didn’t have the time or inclination to pursue myself by commissioning others to write about them.

I started a student conservative paper in my undergraduate years, and when a job opened at the fledgling American Conservative in 2003, I left grad school to take it. I spent most of the next 13 years there, eventually becoming the editor in chief. Since then I’ve worked to provide resources to the next generation of journalists, while extending my engagement with ideas through Modern Age.

What are you currently working on?

DM: I’m just wrapping a five-week course on the roots and branches of American conservatism that I’ve been teaching for Renegade University, an independent, online educational venture. The course started with Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke and has worked its way back around to Leo Strauss and the question of historicism and natural right. The final lecture looks at the battles East Coast and West Coast students of Strauss have fought with each other and with the paleoconservatives—and whether populism and nationalism might effect some surprising reconciliations.

How did you hear about the Claremont Institute?

DM: I’d heard the name during my undergraduate years, and I had a general sense of what Claremont was about. But what made a lasting impression on me was my first encounter with the Claremont Review of Books around 2002—in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, at CPAC. I think CRB had just been redesigned, and it stood out for its elegance as well as intelligence.

What is your fondest memory of the Claremont Institute?

DM: I have nothing but fond memories of my time as a Lincoln Fellow, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. Poolside conversations on deep topics, stretching late into the night, are up there, as are the week’s classes which, because of the pandemic, were on a covered patio outdoors. Golden sun, the hazy outline of Catalina Island across the water, at the same time as you’re learning from the likes of Angelo Codevilla and John Marini—it’s just incomparable. You can see why the ancient schools of philosophy were known by the names of their open-air settings: grove, path, porch, or garden. We had the patio!

There are all sorts of educational programs out there for current and rising conservative professionals. What do you think makes the Claremont Institute’s Fellowships unique?

DM: Claremont’s fellowships strike the right balance between a clear body of thought that’s being taught, which adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and a broad selection of fellows who have perspectives of their own. The fellowships are not just preaching to the choir, and they’re not evangelizing children with Sunday school stories, either. They’re a model of philosophical discourse of the sort that universities once aspired to.

Who would it be, why, and what would you discuss, if you could have a conversation with an American Founder, or any great thinker?

DM: I’ll stick to the Founders to keep the selection manageable. While none of the obvious answers would go amiss, I’ll choose someone overlooked: Charles Thomson. He was secretary of the Continental Congress for its duration but made too many enemies to win a glorious place under the new Constitution. He wrote a history of the American Revolution that he burned because it cast too many prominent names in a bad light. He’s also the classicist responsible for the Latin on the Great Seal of the United States, most of it adapted from Virgil. I’d ask him about all of the above.

Who was more important for their time, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? Why?

DM: In his own time, Washington. Without him the American Revolution might still have succeeded, but it would have been messier, and another triumphant general might have chosen the way of Napoleon or Bolivar rather than resigning his commission to Congress. Certainly no other American could have given the Philadelphia convention and Constitution the prestige that Washington conferred. Without Washington, America as we know it would probably not exist.

The Civil War, on the other hand, would have happened without Lincoln, and the North still would have won. Lincoln’s principles were not always well-received in his own time, as the outcome of the Lincoln-Douglas debates suggests, and even the Gettysburg Address fell on many deaf ears. Half of Lincoln’s work was left undone because of the assassin’s bullet—yet his murder made him the symbol of American tragedy and only made him larger in posterity.

What would the artifact be, if you could hold one piece of history from the early founding of our country and why?

DM: The sword that General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at the end of the Revolution would be a wonderful artifact to hold, and tell others about afterward. Nobody knows what became of it, though. A leading theory says that Washington only held it momentarily before returning it to the British.

Looking back on history, in which one of the original 13 colonies would you have wanted to live and why?

DM: I’ve lived in Virginia most of my adult life, and it would be inspiring to see in colonial times the seeds of the Commonwealth’s later greatness during the revolution and early republic—to share the cultural soil of Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and so many more.

Yet curiosity leads me to say instead that I’d have wanted to live in colonial New York, which also had fascinating politics, but which I know much less about. And who could pass up the opportunity to see New York City itself in its infancy?

What qualities do you believe will make outstanding statesmen/women in this century?

DM: Empathy for those Americans who are not part of the educated and self-admiring classes is one necessary trait for good leaders in our century. So too is the ability to disregard ideological formulas that have a tight internal logic but no relationship to the real world. Moral imagination, both in conserving order and in confronting evil, is also indispensable.

What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing the United States today?

DM: We have a leadership class that is socially, economically, and spiritually divorced from the people, and the interests of the elite are antithetical to the well-being of the people.

What are your thoughts on a classical education?

DM: We are heirs to the most impressive record of human thought and feeling that has ever existed, yet few Americans are aware this patrimony is available to them. Ideologues have done everything in their power to displace, distort, and trivialize this supreme human treasure, for reasons that Aldous Huxley and George Orwell conveyed clearly in the last century’s most famous dystopian novels. The civilized order depends upon classical education; eliminate that education, and you build a regime suitable not for men and women, but for meat and machinery.

What do you believe has led to our established culture redefining itself in the 21st Century?

DM: Bad leadership and the miseducation that leadership has inflicted on almost everyone. Our business leaders are spiritually hollow, espousing slogans rather than ethics. Efficiency, not justice, is their milieu, yet they recognize that justice is too powerful to ignore. The progressive left burns with a zeal for justice, as they understand it, and the left has by steps redefined justice even as most religious believers and mild cultural conservatives conceive of it. The progressive left today wishes to bring about a moral, spiritual revolution, and the utilitarians of corporate America draw upon that fervor to add a simulacrum of humanity to their basically dull materialistic system. The older, healthier Christian and patriotic culture was always self-critical, and that virtue has been turned against the very sources of virtue.

Do you believe we are slowly becoming a country of political will or still a nation of law and order at the government level?

DM: There’s a lot of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith said. The surprising thing is that the rule of law holds up as well as it does, or holds up at all. But clearly a certain political and cultural will has decided to suspend the rule of law in many urban neighborhoods, and this same will works to promote racial classification over legal equality in curricula at every educational level, including in the human resources departments of corporate America and within the U.S. military. If this infection is not treated with strong medicine, it will spread until it kills the patient.

What process do you follow when writing something that requires a great deal of research and thought?

DM: Before delving too deeply into research I like to get what’s in my head onto the page, to see what I already know and what interests me enough to press further. I’ll repeat this process, sometimes too many times, as I conduct the research—stopping to jot extensive notes about what I now think I know. Unfortunately, at the end of this you can wind up with too much material, some of it superseded by later research, but a lot of it quite good, yet too voluminous to distill easily. Then one just has to write from the top, using your imperfect memory of how you formed your thoughts along the way, rather than panning to retrieve golden nuggets from earlier notes and drafts.

What will it take for people to believe the field of journalism still has legitimacy as a purveyor of truth (who, what, where, when, why) vs. opinion?

DM: Journalists will have to stop treating matters of judgment and opinion as matters of fact. It used to be that opinion magazines were a place to get facts mixed with clear judgements and opinions—it was all out in the open, and nobody resented the fact that The Nation or the New Republic had a certain slant. Today almost all major newspapers are as ideologically committed as the most partisan publications of old, even as they insist upon their legacy status as something notionally centrist or objective. It’s fine to say that the stakes are so high that you have to be committed, but if that’s the case, you’re not just a reporter anymore, and, broadsheet or tabloid, you’re not a newspaper, you’re an opinion magazine.

What book, speech, or movie has left a lasting impression with you and why?

DM: Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honor” novels about World War II—Men at ArmsOfficers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender—have left a lasting impression on me as documents of war at several levels. The first book begins in idealism and includes humorous episodes that are something of a parody of a boys’ adventure book: war as a camping trip. But it gets more serious, and the second book is about the chaos of the battlefield and the chaos that threatens to engulf the personal lives of soldiers and their families even at home. In the third book the chastened protagonist works to salvage some nobility from the war (which has defeated Hitler but empowered Stalin) and the wreck of his domestic life. The trilogy offers a degree of insight into the experience of war—Waugh was a combat veteran—but it’s also about modern civilization as a whole and how a man of honor conducts himself amid all its betrayals.

What books are you currently reading?

DM: I picked up a used copy of Democracy and the Student Left the other day: it’s a 1968 volume that begins with a speech George Kennan delivered against the student radicals of that era, “Rebels Without a Program.” The New York Times ran the speech and received a flood of letters from student leaders, as did Kennan himself. The book includes about 30 of those letters, plus a few by significant non-student commentators (W.H. Auden, for example). It wraps up with a long response by Kennan to the students. And Kennan yields no ground: he is devastating to these ignorant, self-righteous vandals, describing them and their psychology in terms that apply perfectly to the radical left of today:

            “Here, then, is today’s radical student. He is, as he might be expected to be in an overwhelmingly urban society, a distinctly urban creature. He is anxious, angry, humorless, suspicious of his own society, apprehensive with relation to his own future. Overexcited and unreflective, lacking in confidence in anyone else, impatient and accustomed to look for immediate results, he fairly thirsts for action. Romantic and quixotic, he is on the prowl for causes. His nostrils fairly quiver for the scent of some injustice he can sally forth to remedy. Devoid of any feeling for the delineation of function and responsibility, he finds all the ills of his country, real or fancied, pressing on his conscience.”

We really are still living with the counterculture or anticulture of the ’60s.

What is the most distinctive attribute/character of the people in the state where you grew up that you genuinely admire?

DM: Although I didn’t spend most of my childhood there, my home state is Missouri, and I do admire the “Show Me” mentality—the practical, appropriately skeptical bent in this Midwestern character.

What is your favorite cultural/recreational pastime (or hobby) and why?

DM: Though I haven’t had season tickets for a few years, I take in a few performances of the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera most seasons, as well as making the occasional trip to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I’ll see as much Shakespeare as the two main venues in Washington, D.C., the Folger Theatre and Shakespeare Theatre Company, care to put on. And I see a good many of their other productions as well. These are the rewards of civilization, the fruits of centuries of creative genius, and they’re there for you to enjoy.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

DM: I suspect I’ll be doing broadly the same kind of work, but hopefully more of it: more teaching, more long-form writing, plenty of journalistic commentary, and helping new journalists and thinkers to advance. I’ll be editing, and I’ll have considerable experience with podcasting by then, if everything goes according to plan.

Just because …

What is your favorite refreshment after a stressful day?

DM: My favorite refreshment on a relaxing day, when I can knock off early, is a cucumber gin martini at the Mayflower Hotel here in Washington. On a stressful day, anything cold will do!