In a democracy, all political debate is a debate over morality, as what holds democracy together is a civic religion. The people agree to a set of political arrangements because they agree those are the right way to organize society. That’s right as in morally correct, not empirically correct. Democracy has been sold as the best form of government, because it achieves the most happiness and opportunity for the most amount of people. That’s a moral argument, not an empirical one.
This is why the ruling class is endlessly talking about what is good for democracy or what is a threat to democracy. This is all code for morality. When they use the word democracy, they don’t mean the mechanics of selecting people for public office. They mean the expression of the general will, that magical force upon which modern liberal democracy is built. The general will is the expression of the general morality of the people, the framework that defines society and the lives of the citizens.
It’s why rational arguments rarely carry the day in democracy. Debate in democratic systems is about what is the right thing to do in terms of morality, rather than what is best for some practical reason. Even economics, which should focus on base concerns like making money and overall prosperity, ends up sounding like a mystery cult, where adherents worship the economy. The so-called conservatives are willing to excuse the most monstrous things, if it is good for the economy.
The moral marketplace is the only marketplace that matters in a modern liberal democracy. Even someone like Ocasio-Cortez understands this fact. She famously said in response to criticism of her many factual errors, “If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
It should be noted that the conservatives love mocking Cortez for this statement, but it is self-mockery. Unlike them, she actually understands the nature of political debate in a modern liberal democracy. Facts and reason are not all that important. If they were, the Athenians would never have agreed to attack Sicily. What matters is moral persuasion and emotional resonance. Politics in a liberal democracy is theater, not science. The fact that conservatives don’t get that helps explain their demise.
This truth about liberal democracy is why Buckley-style conservatism has been a failure since the end of the Cold War. In the one area it held the moral high ground against radicalism, the fight over communism, it was able to carry the day. The conservatives could control the moral framing with regards to the Soviets. America abandoned all of its republican ideals, becoming a global empire, in order to defeat global communism. That shows the power of morality in a liberal democracy.
In all other areas, however, the so-called conservatives were happy to give way to the radicals, allowing them to define the moral framework. This is why the Official Right has been such a failure since the 1990’s. The Left controls morality, so the Right must always find some way to fit into that morality. That either means abandoning the field by joining the libertarians on the sidelines or embracing yesterday’s radicalism as today’s timeless conservative principle. The Right is the toady of the Left.
It’s also why Buckley conservatism is in a crisis. You can see it in this Kevin Williamson piece on who are the real racists. Like David French, Williamson is one of the clown princes of modern conservatism, regularly declaring nutty things on-line to the amusement of dissidents. In this case, he is doing the old DR3 gag, claiming that those segregationist politicians from the last century were not real conservatives. After all, everyone knows that they were Democrats! That means they could not be conservatives.
Like all of today’s conservatives, Williamson believes anti-racism is the highest conservative virtue. In fact, what’s left of the Buckley crowd has embraced the egalitarianism of the Left to the point where they are to the left of the Progressive on the race issue. The modern conservative cannot hold a single position until they find a black guy to endorse it. They seem to have decided that the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance is a documentary on the lost writings of Edmund Burke.
The point of that Williamson article is not to make some factual or even moral argument against the Left. It is all about displaying the anti-racist plumage of the writer. It’s the same game you see with left-wing comedy shows. The performer shows off his moral superiority and the audience is flattered, so they cheer. It’s moral peacocking. The difference between conservatives and a peacock is that when a peacock displays his plumage, it is sign of courage. When conservatives do it, it is a sign of obedience.
This is why Buckley Conservatism is in a crisis, headed for the dustbin of history. In order to be in opposition to the ruling orthodoxy, you have to be at odds with at least some of its moral foundation. That means having an independent base of morality. In America, the Right used to rely on Christianity, tradition and America’s frontier culture, but those were abandoned as the Left anathematized each one in turn. That leaves the Right arguing from the same moral basis as the Left, which is why they are nothing but an echo now.
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