Imagine you are asked to have some sort of contest with another person. Let’s say it is a manly contest like boxing or martial arts. The person arranging it talks about the fight in a conventional way, allowing you to assume the match will abide by the conventional rules for the sport. Let’s say it is agreed that on a given day, you will show up and box the champion from the other team. You show up on that day to learn that the guy is twice your size and he will be allowed to use a sword or a club with spikes on it in the ring.
That’s a ridiculous scenario, but the point is the only way there can be a fair competition is when both sides abide by the same set of rules. Otherwise you find yourself in the ring with a giant, trying to dodge the club with the spikes on it. This is something most men learn on the playground as kids. The exception seems to be conservatives, who have been allowing themselves to be clubbed by the Left for as long as anyone reading this has been alive. Even at this late date, they still cannot grasp this basic concept.
Michael Anton, who penned “The Flight 93 Election” back when he was hiding behind a pen-name, articulated very well in an exchange with me what millions of conservatives believe to be true:
The old American ideal of judging individuals and not groups, content-of-character-not-color-of-skin, is dead, dead, dead. Dead as a matter of politics, policy and culture. The left plays by new rules. The right still plays by the old rules. The left laughs at us for it — but also demands that we keep to that rulebook. They don’t even bother to cheat. They proclaim outright that “these rules don’t apply to our side.”
I disagree with Anton’s prescription — to surrender to identity politics and cheat the way our “enemies” do — but I cannot argue much with this description of a widespread mindset. Many on the right are surrendering to the logic of the mob because they are sick of double standards. Again, I disagree with the decision to surrender, but I certainly empathize with the temptation. The Left and the mainstream media can’t even see how they don’t want to simply win, they want to force people to celebrate their victories (“You will be made to care!”). It isn’t forced conversion at the tip of a sword, but at the blunt edge of a virtual mob.
Goldberg is not alone in this. Buckley conservatives, neocons and libertarians spend every waking moment prattling on about their principles. This is understandable for libertarians and neocons. The former are outlandishly stupid and the latter are subversively dishonest. Conservatives, on the other hand, are supposed to accept the world for what it is. The starting place for conservatism has always been an acceptance of the human condition. Conservatism is the absence of ideology, in the words of Kirk.
It’s tempting to write-off the Buckleyites as sellouts and grifters. There’s certainly some of that. Being a good punching bag has put Jonah Goldberg into a million dollar home in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on earth. Being wrong a lot pays really well, if you’re willing to be the Left’s footstool. There’s also the dunce factor. Being a pundit does not require a high IQ. That’s why you don’t find too many math majors in the chattering classes. It is entirely possible that many conservatives think they are right.
To continue to play by a set of rules that guarantees failure and failure guarantees a non-conservative outcome is pretty much the antithesis of conservatism. Fundamental to conservatism is the belief in a transcendent moral order. No matter what political mechanisms it may utilize or the rules it relies upon to operate its political machinery, a society of people morally adrift, living at odds with the natural order, is an immoral and unjust society. Ordered depravity is still depravity. Principles are a means to an end.
That’s why the argument from guys like Goldberg, that conservatism is about means, not ends, is fundamentally un-conservative. Conservatives since the dawn of time have understood that it is the ends that matter. The form of government is only useful in achieving good ends. Custom, convention, and continuity are the proven means for attaining a society in-tune with the natural order, but conservatism does not require a mindless fidelity to the past. If the ends require it, novelty is perfectly acceptable.
Of course, you can make a fetish of rules and your own adherence to principle when you don’t have skin in the game. Much of what plagues conservatism, and has for at least two generations, is the modern conservative is a man who prefers to live in imagination land, rather that the real world. Jonah Goldberg can be on the losing side of every debate, because it has no impact on his life. When he loses to the big guy with the spiky club, it is someone else who takes the beating. Most of us cannot afford to be so principled.
The fact remains, the people now claiming ownership of the label conservative are not actually conservative. Even calling them “northern conservatives” is a crime against the language. They are simply guys who say their lines in their role as foil for the prevailing orthodoxy. They have been nothing more than a collection of cartoon villains for the morality play concocted by Progressives. At the dawn of the demographic age, they no longer even work as props in the morality play. They are museum pieces.
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