When I was a young man, starting out in the world, I took a graduate class on proto-Marxism. I was just a freshman, but the professor was satisfied that I could handle the material, so I was waved into the class. My main interest in taking the class was to get a look at real communists. The Cold War was in its denouement, so I thought I’d better get a look at some real Marxists before the whole thing collapsed into a carnival of finger pointing and embarrassment. It was one of the best courses I had in college.
The two big lessons I carried away were that ideologues always believe their thing transcends time and space. They cannot imagine that there will be a time when their tool set of ideas is no longer relevant. The other thing that seemed obvious, is that observable reality is not enough to shake someone from their ideology. The professor was well aware of the problems inherent in Marxism, but he had committed his life to it. To abandon Marxism, to even seriously question it, would be like erasing himself from life.
I’m reminded of that every time I scan conservative sites like National Review, the Federalist or even The American Conservative. They continue to talk about what they call conservatism as if it is a timeless set of truisms that are universally applicable. The fact that the conservatives of today would have been viewed as alien weirdos by the conservatives of just 30 years ago, is completely lost on them. The fact that the world is an entirely different place than 30 years ago goes unnoticed.
Read a post like this one from National Review, and the thing that jumps out is the fact that these guys still don’t know what’s happening to them. Conservatives have convinced themselves that Trump is Nixon and the current tumult is just a replay of the years between LBJ and Reagan. Rather than look at what is happening in the world, they are treating this period as an interregnum. The Progressive tide that peaked with Obama is receding. Next comes the conservative wave to carry them to the promised land.
There’s no mention of immigration or the changing demographics of America in the article, so that means there is no mention of race either. Look through the source document and it reads like a policy paper put out by people who have been asleep for the last 30 years. It also is written in the grad school jargon that sounds convincing to men who have had no exposure to the dreaded private sector. Apparently, conservatives are convinced that the “way forward” for their thing is to pretend that nothing has changed since 1988.
Conservatives keep getting up on the same horse, an image of Reagan on their shield, prepared to dash into the nearest food co-op, in the name of ordered liberty. The fact that the food co-op closed down years ago and their horse and shield are paid for by a 501(c)(3) tax shelter, supported by a billionaire oligarch, makes no difference. Even the fact that their trusty side kick, the libertarian Sancho Panza, is now hanging out on Gab, posting identitarian and Pepe memes, has had no effect on them.
When Prophecy Fails is a classic work of social psychology, from which we get the concept of cognitive dissonance. It is the study of a UFO cult in the 1950’s led by a charismatic named Dorothy Martin. She predicted the end of the world would occur on December 21, 1954. That did not happen, obviously. The study is about how the group handled this reality. One of their observations is that the group drew closer together and became more committed. They even began to proselytize about their beliefs being correct.
Conservatives seem to be going through something similar. They went into the final years of the Obama presidency with a narrative about how the next phase of their thing would unfold. Their “principles” said they needed to embrace multiculturalism, globalism and open borders. That was the future. Then Trump came along running on the exact opposite of those things. His victory was the nullification of the narrative. Instead of accepting it, they seem to be committing themselves to an renewed version of the narrative.
It’s tempting to write off Conservative Inc as just a bunch of cynical grifters. There’s certainly an element of that to it. Guys like Jonah Goldberg are living one percent lifestyles peddling outdated nostrums and ideological nostalgia. Most, maybe even all of them, don’t see themselves as useful idiots of the donor class. They really believe the conservative jibber-jabber. They think the world has not changed a bit and it is the same old fights over the same old issues. All they need to do is repeat the magic words one more time.
Conservatives, like the dinosaurs seeing the comet streaking across the sky, do not understand what is happening to them. Even as the signs of change become more obvious, they cling to the old ideology. They have a lot in common with those old Marxists of the previous generation. Even when the futility of Cold War conservatism is explained to them, they just can’t accept it. To accept that politics and economics are downstream from culture, means erasing themselves from the ideological map. They just can’t do it.
So, it will be done for them.