The Need for Futurist Conservatives

Strategic foresight is a way to increase wisdom on the Right

 Nathan Hitchen

Nathan Hitchen

What if the intellectual problems of the organs of American conservatism aren't delivering because conservatives aren’t thinking creatively enough? In that case, what does a wise political movement look like and how does it conserve creativity? The short answer is wise movements think creatively about the future, and the key to conserving conservatives’ creativity is enhancing their foresight.

Now for the long answer.

On my desk is a photograph of me looking in the palms of my hands at my daughter. She is minutes old, stretching out her tiny fingers to touch the face of Dad. The caption underneath reads, “The future isn’t something we enter. The future is something we create.” What a wise thought but easy to forget! In 2014, we live in a time when change is accelerating, everything happens now, and we are always on. We don’t look ahead so much as look down—at our smart phones. The hashtag is occluding our vision of the horizon.

To most conservatives, the wise response is to enrich the poverty of the present by sifting the past for its gold. It’s a natural and valid instinct. As Richard Neustadt and Ernest May write in their classic book on the subject, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, “Persons of good sense are bound to study history in sheer self-interest, reaching out for reference points of likely future relevance and cramming in vicarious experience from each.”1 However, this instinct can foster a blinding nostalgia, as Yuval Levin points out. History can stir the imagination, but nostalgia bewitches it by bounding our vision of the future only to what we have known.

Nostalgic imagination enchants conservatives in particular because it’s an easy out from this dilemma: All we know is the past, but we will spend the rest of our lives in the future. And the future contains novelty.

Actually, novelty is overgrowing the present already, further guaranteeing a future of thorny problems nobody has faced before. Relying on history, precedent, and tradition alone for wisdom to navigate novelty is like racing a car backward along the Grand Canyon and steering by tracing the yellow stripes disappearing in the distance behind you. But what else is a guide to wisdom besides the past?

Listen to Zac '12 and Sally '09 Crippen interview Nathan on their podcast, Vernacular Podcast.

If wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge gained from the past to particular novel problems, wisdom is a bridge to past and future and its keystone is creativity.2 Creativity in this sense is the art of anticipating novelty in order to influence or adjust to it. Creativity is the element of wisdom that, like a keystone, holds the forces of opposing directions—past and future—in constructive tension. It makes wisdom a two-way bridge. Hence, the alternative to reasoning from the past, hindsight, is reasoning from the future, foresight.

Impossible! You can’t reason from the future when there are no future facts. To the contrary, as Nate Silver says in The Signal and the Noise, “Every time we choose a route to work, decide whether to go on a second date, or set money aside for a rainy day, we are making a forecast about how the future will proceed—how our plans will affect the odds of a favorable outcome.”3 Foresight isn’t impossible. It’s probable—the probabilistic thinking we use every day. Hence, the real question is how good is our foresight? This challenge spurred visionaries in the mid-twentieth century to pioneer the discipline known alternately as strategic foresight, futures studies, or futurism.

Futurism is a very fuzzy multi-field dedicated to refining, enhancing, and applying foresight. Its highest purpose is improving human welfare by creating new, alternative images of the future through techniques that explore the possible, investigate the probable, and evaluate the preferable.4 It emerged from expanding interest in long-range planning for the problems of the postwar era, rebuilding Europe from the destruction of World War II and anticipating America’s demands in the Cold War.5 Imagine planning contingencies for losing entire American cities in thermonuclear war and you have a sense of that era’s foresight demands.

A curious mix of visionary idealism and technical pragmatism, futurism at heart is a mindset and a skill set. The mindset is playful and promotes the open-ended, abundant thinking of life as an “infinite game,” a way for human imagination and creativity to flourish.6  With this mindset, futurists (or foresight analysts) at outfits such as California’s Institute for the Future or Virginia’s Alternative Futures Associates apply a skill set of intuitive-speculative and empirical-analytic methods to clarify goals and values for clients, describe trends, develop forecasts, and invent or evaluate alternative future scenarios for problems of discontinuous change.7

Foresight is a skill anyone can develop and many futurists have primary identities in other fields. So, here is a proposal to enhance conservative foresight in 2014 and beyond: We need futurist conservatives.

American conservatives today need to cross-fertilize with futurists, learn what they care about, and adapt their versatility. Futurism shared the twentieth century with postwar conservatism, and while crossover was rare, those who injected futurist thought into conservatism became dynamos of creativity. Two early figures who moved in both circles were Herman Kahn, who founded the Hudson Institute in 1961,8 and Bertrand de Jouvenal, who co-founded the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 with Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman.9 Other futurist conservatives or libertarians known for their creativity to experiment and launch bold ideas followed: George Gilder,10 Newt Gingrich,11 and Peter Thiel.12

Futurist conservatives can be a wellspring for renewing political wisdom by tackling the challenge other conservatives have not proved good at: anticipating novelty on the horizon and preparing creative responses. Here are just three “mega trends” demanding conservative foresight in 2014 and beyond.

  • Information technology is transforming the shape of liberty and the prospect of limited government. One indicator of this trend is the changing meaning of “privacy” in the digital age. Innovations diffusing communication technologies and democratizing the creation of data are giving the owners and users of big data (corporations and eventually governments) novel access to our desires, habits, and lives. Futurist conservatives should tackle the changing relationship of information technology and individual freedom to identify points of change to historic American liberties and map decision options.13
  • Democratic love of equality is triumphing while economic inequality is rising. Analysis of this trend should start with the forecasts of Alexis de Tocqueville—a futurist prototype if there ever was!—about the love of equality defining coming democratic centuries.14 One indicator of this is the outcome of the debate over redefining marriage. Meanwhile, economic inequality is increasing and could fuel a new era of progressive populism.15 Futurist conservatives should contemplate the tradeoffs in multiple issues of piloting the ship of state through the Scylla of equality and the Charybdis of inequality.
  • Unifying political narratives that moved Americans to face the future with confidence are weakening. One indicator of this trend is intensifying polarization in which Americans increasingly inhabit virtual and social enclaves where they depict the other side as an existential threat—creating purer but more segmented narratives about the country.16 A separate indicator is Douglas Rushkoff’s analysis that narrative as a mode of collective communication in America is weakening.17 Americans historically identified more with conservative than liberal narratives, so conservatives have more to lose but can respond with more capital.18 Futurist conservatives should create new unifying visions of the future to break out of enclaves and break through to rising demographic groups, such as Hispanics.

Futurist conservatives are likely to be a small crowd. But their unique value is how they can act like lookouts in the ship’s crow’s nest—not so much to predict what future storms we enter, but to guide others in creating the voyage ahead.

  1. Neustadt, Richard and Ernest May. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 232.  
  2. Lombardo, Thomas. The Evolution of Future Consciousness (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2006), 41.  
  3. Silver, Nate. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don’t (New York: the Penguin Press, 2012), 14.  
  4. Lombardo, Thomas. Contemporary Futurist Thought (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2006), 112.  
  5. “Future Studies,” Encyclopedia of the Future, Vol. 1 (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996).  
  6. Carse, James. Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (New York: The Free Press, 1986).  
  7. Slaughter, Richard, ed. New Thinking for a New Millennium (London: Routledge, 1996), 10.  
  8. “Kahn, Herman,” Encyclopedia of the Future, Vol. 1 (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996).  
  9. See “Mont Pelerin Society,” American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006) and “Jouvenal, Bertrand de,” Encyclopedia of the Future, Vol. 1 (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996).  
  10. George Gilder, a supply-side futurist, was the living economist Ronald Reagan quoted most after Gilder published Wealth and Poverty. Gilder is a polymath with extensive interests, and his style of thinking epitomizes the “infinite game” mindset. See “Gilder, George,” American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006).  
  11. By 1975, after Tulane University minted Newt Gingrich with a PhD in history, Gingrich taught a course based on Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock and then attended a two-day conference in “anticipatory democracy” in the United States Congress. Gingrich described himself as a “conservative futurist” and called on Congress to judge every piece of proposed legislation according to its impact on the transition to “Third Wave industrial society,” a Toffler concept. See “Foreword: Five Billion Futurists,” Encyclopedia of the Future, Vol. 1 (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996). Gingrich’s subsequent political and writing careers, such as his book Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America, highlight his enduring concern with foresight, technology, and the future.  
  12. The New Yorker has a good profile of Peter Thiel’s (at times eccentric) libertarian futurism: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/28/no-death-no-taxes. Thiel is something of a legendary entrepreneur—he founded PayPal and gave Mark Zuckerberg seed capital for Facebook—and financier of a number of creative thinking enterprises. He is also an Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Fellow and recently published, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.  
  13. Robert Wright in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny says information technology is the central factor driving non-zero-sum gains or losses across societies. Non-zero-sumness is a kind of potential for overall gain or overall loss, depending on circumstances, that defines the trajectory of history toward greater interdependence. For example, current trends of globalization are natural outgrowths of non-zero-sum’s unfolding logic, according to Wright.  
  14. Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America to forecast psychological, societal, and political changes to alert readers to future dangers particular to democratic nations. In Tocqueville’s vision, the most formidable and least foreseen problem in the coming democratic age is that a previously unknown form of servitude could reduce the greatness of the human spirit. Love for equality will lead to centralized governments that oversee the affairs of citizens in the name of their own agency. People in this future will abdicate real freedoms by electing “schoolmasters” to administer their lives as they pursue small ambitions and material comforts. Democracy in America (Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 639-676.  
  15. O’Brien, Matt. “The bottom 90 percent are poorer today than they were in 1987.” Washington Post 23 October 2014. 26 October 2014 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/22/the-bottom-90-percent-are-poorer-today-than-they-were-in-1987/>.  
  16. Doherty, Carrol. “7 Things to know about polarization in America.” 12 June 2014. The Pew Forum. 28 October 2014. <http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/7-things-to-know-about-polarization-in-america/>.  
  17. Rushkoff, Douglas. Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (New York: Current, 2013), 9-69.  
  18. Political scientists for a long time have found Americans to be “philosophical conservatives” but “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but unwilling to support policies compromising foundational New Deal or regulatory state programs. See Free LA, Cantril H. The Political Beliefs of Americans (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967). Also see Ricci, David. Why Conservatives Tell Stories and Liberals Don’t: Rhetoric, Faith, and Vision on the American Right (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2011).