The weather outside Washington, D.C.’s District Chophouse may be frightful, but the conversation inside is insightful. On a blustery winter evening, 55 young professionals and graduate students have gathered to listen to Michael Pakaluk discuss “Theology and (Political) Sanity.” Not a minute into his talk, Pakaluk has already breached the staid rule of polite company—never to talk about religion or politics—by asking the politically incorrect question “Does belief in liberty in some sense require belief in God?” and providing a philosophically rigorous answer in the affirmative.
This is Conservatism on Tap, just one of the regular Washington gatherings that belie the idea that conservatives are altogether consumed with elections and policy change. Young alumni of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) formed Conservatism on Tap in 2006 to continue ISI’s work promoting education and cultural institutions. Each month, 50 to 100 people come to the program’s discussions and happy hours to hear such speakers as Pakaluk, Ed Whelan, Wilfred McClay, Ross Douthat, and Alfred Regnery. Though some might mistake “conservative” for “Republican,” several speakers have been outspoken critics of both parties. During the Bush administration, for example, it wasn’t unusual for a speaker—such as Bill Kaufmann, author of Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists—to take jabs at the White House. Discussions at Conservatism on Tap inevitably delve into current political issues, but their great achievement is continually going beyond them and addressing the core cultural questions that underlie a free society.
Another Washington-based organization for culturally minded conservatives is the Young Associates of The New Criterion, the New York–based journal that prides itself on challenging the vacuities of pop art and literature and encouraging the best of the humanities. Young Associates offers Washingtonians the opportunity to appreciate high culture—for example, a performance of Hamlet, a classical concert at the National Gallery of Art, or an architectural tour of the city. “Culture is the handmaiden of politics,” says Mike Fragoso, the group’s cofounder. “Political life cannot be understood without reference to the cultural institutions which shape it.”
Similarly, the National Civic Arts Society (NCAS) responds to the disaster of modernist fads in public architecture, encouraging students to be more vocal in promoting great public edifices (such as the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building) and criticizing Brutalist disasters (such as Boston’s City Hall). Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, NCAS board member Catesby Leigh described how the new Visitor Center detracts from real appreciation of the Capitol. Though NCAS isn’t aimed at any particular demographic, it has built a strong presence among young people eager for aesthetic renewal.
The last few years have also seen a blossoming of conservative book clubs and discussion groups on topics ranging from the Great Books and Tocqueville to Shakespeare and film noir. Many such clubs have been promoted by center-right think tanks, which understand the importance of addressing the full experience of human life—not just the realm of public policy. These colloquia often hold their meetings at pubs or at least provide spirits at their gatherings. (Likewise, in New York, the Manhattan Institute’s own Young Leaders Circle has been known to supplement its schedule of speakers with the occasional bar trip.) No matter how gloomily young conservatives view their policy prospects for now, their ideas are far from dead, so long as the neighborhood tavern continues to be a willing accomplice.