If you listened to the Republican candidates this year, you heard a conventional set of arguments. But if you go online, you can find a vibrant and increasingly influential center-right conversation. Most of the young writers and bloggers in this conversation intermingle, but they can be grouped, for clarity's sake, around a few hot spots:
• Paleoconservatives: The American Conservative has become one of the more dynamic spots on the political Web. Writers like Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison tend to be suspicious of bigness: big corporations, big government, a big military, concentrated power and concentrated wealth. Writers at that website, and at the temperamentally aligned Front Porch Republic, treasure tight communities and local bonds. They're alert to the ways capitalism can erode community. Dispositionally, they are more Walker Percy than Pat Robertson.
Larison focuses on what he calls the imperial tendencies of both the Bush and Obama foreign policies. He crusades against what he sees as the unchecked killing power of drone strikes and champions a more modest and noninterventionist foreign policy.
• Lower-middle reformists: Reihan Salam, a writer for National Review, E21 and others, recently pointed out that there are two stories about where the Republican Party should go next. There is the upper-middle reform story: Republicans should soften their tone on the social issues to win over suburban voters along the coasts. Then there is a lower-middle reform story: Republicans should focus on the specific economic concerns of the multiethnic working class.
Salam promotes the latter. This means acknowledging that working-class concerns are not what they were in the 1980s. The income tax is less burdensome than the payroll tax. Family disruption undermines social mobility. Republicans, he argues, should keep the social conservatism, which reinforces families, and supplement it with an agenda that supports upward mobility and social capital.
Similarly, Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute has argued for a Republican Party that listens more closely to working-class concerns. Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review has argued for family-friendly tax credits and other measures that reinforce middle-class dignity. Jim Manzi wrote a seminal article in National Affairs on the need to promote innovation while reducing inequality.
• Soft libertarians: Some of the most influential bloggers on the right, like Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok and Megan McArdle, start from broadly libertarian premises but do not apply them in a doctrinaire way.
Many of these market-oriented writers emphasize that being pro-market is not the same as being pro-business. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago published an influential book, A Capitalism for the People, that took aim at crony capitalism. Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner does muckraking reporting on corporate-federal collusion. Rising star Derek Khanna wrote a heralded paper on intellectual property rights for the House Republican Study Committee that was withdrawn by higher-ups in the party, presumably because it differed from the usual lobbyist-driven position.
There are a number of unpredictable libertarian-leaning writers, including Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic on civil liberties issues, and Eugene Volokh on legal and free speech concerns.
• Burkean revivalists: This group includes young conservatives whose intellectual roots go back to the organic vision of society described best by Edmund Burke but who are still deeply enmeshed in current policy debates.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs is one of the two or three most influential young writers in politics today. He argues that we are witnessing the fiscal crisis of the entitlement state, exemplified most of all by exploding health care costs. His magazine promotes a big agenda of institutional modernization.
The lawyer Adam J. White has argued for an approach to jurisprudence and regulatory affairs based on modesty, but not a doctrinaire clinging to original intent. Ryan Streeter of Indiana champions civil-society conservatism, an updated version of the Jack Kemp style.
By and large, these diverse writers did not grow up in the age of Reagan and are not trying to recapture it. They disdain what you might call Donor Base Republicanism. Most important, they matured intellectually within a far-reaching Web-based conversation. In contrast to many members of the conservative political-entertainment complex, they are data-driven, empirical and low-key in tone.
They are united more by a style of feedback and mutual scrutiny than by a common agenda. Some politically unorthodox people in this conversation, such as Josh Barro of Bloomberg View, Meghan Clyne of National Affairs and Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, specialize in puncturing sentimentality and groupthink.
Since Nov. 6, the GOP has experienced an epidemic of open-mindedness. The party may evolve quickly. If so, it'll be powerfully influenced by people with names like Reihan, Ramesh, Yuval and Derek Khanna.