A popular topic on the dissident right is the failure of Buckley-style conservatism, often with an emphasis on the perfidy of particular conservatives. The focus is on the people or particular political events. For example, gay marriage is a popular example of how the so-called conservatives failed to conserve anything. People like David French are popular punching bags, as they are examples of the way in which main stream conservatives spend their time currying favor with the Left.
The underlying assumption is that conservative ideas are not the issue. The issue is the perfidy of conservatives and their unwillingness to fight for those ideas. Compounding it is the assumption that conservatives are intellectuals, who know the material and have mastered their arguments. It is just assumed that Buckley-style conservatism was mostly right on the ideas and that their people were smart enough to understand those ideas and argue for those ideas in the public square.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that conservatism, the Buckley form that was once called the New Right, was never an intellectual movement. Whatever the first movers of Buckley conservatism set-out to do, their movement never rose above the personal and the political. It was never an intellectual movement. Instead, it was a political enterprise that decorated itself with the trappings of political theory, history and philosophy. It was just a set of poses, masquerading as ideas.
That comes through in this very long review, in the Claremont Review of Books, of George Will’s very long book on conservatism. Early in the review, there is this quote from George Will. “If there is no sense in which there is an eternal human nature, there cannot be eternal principles—certainly no self-evident truths—of political organization and action.” That is the type of line that will strike the conservative reader as sensible, but it is complete nonsense. It is pseudo-intellectual babble.
For starters, it is sloppy logic, the sort of thing that one would expect from a freshman coed, not someone who fashions himself an intellectual. There may be principles that are contingent upon human nature, but he does not bother making that point. In fact, conservatives never bother to connect human nature with the axioms of human organization. Instead, it is broad assertions like that, which violate Hume’s law. Taken together, that sentence is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Human nature is the realm of biological truth, as in people desire sex, social status and security from danger. These are true things about humans everywhere humans can be found in nature. A principle is a rule about how people ought to behave or how a society should organize itself. These are found everywhere, as well. The thing is, one does not follow the other, which is why rules of behavior vary widely among humans. If there were eternal principles, they would show up everywhere.
Putting that aside, the assertion that there is an eternal human nature, at least with regards to politics, which is Will’s focus, is absurd. If that were true, human society would look pretty much the same everywhere. It does not, which means there is a great deal of diversity in man. While all people will share basic biological necessities, like the need for food, shelter, sex and so on, how they organize themselves to attain those things varies a great deal, owing to the natural diversity of man.
In other words, human nature does not lead to eternal principles. It eliminates the possibility of eternal principles. The morality of the Bushman, with regards to how they distribute food or access to females, will reflect their nature. In Siberia, where the people will have different natures, they will have different principles. Sure, both have rules against murder, but the principles they have created to deal with this eternal part of human nature are completely different, owing to their different nature.
That may seem like a quibble, but it is a good starting place when examining the anti-intellectualism of conservatives like Will. The book itself, as the reviewer later explains, is actually a rebuke of Will’s past arguments about the nature of conservatism. In the past, Will claimed to be a European conservative, which he was always careful to define as Burkean, rather than those bad guys on the European Right. In this book, he claims to have changed teams and become a Madisonian conservative.
The problem with that is Burke and Madison are not two faces of opposing views on human organization. Burke was certainly a critic of the bloody radicalism of the French Revolution, but he was never an enemy of American liberty. That’s because there was never anything all that radical about the American Revolution. Someone familiar with the material would have understood these differences, but that was never really George Will or any of the so-called conservatives.
Amusingly, the one element of the American Revolution that could be classified as radical was the Declaration. This is why Progressives have made it the foundation of their thought and the basis of the second founding theory. Will now embraces the Declaration as the cornerstone of conservatism, while in the past he rejected it as a “highly charged declaration of a political philosophy.” Will now calls it the most important political document in human history. That’s quite a change.
This is, of course, a great example of what was always wrong with conservatism. It was never an intellectual movement. Just as Will can come to oppose what he formerly supported, swinging around to embrace yesterday’s radicalism as today’s eternal principle, conservatism was always ready to make the same journey. Buckley-style conservatism was never an intellectual movement, it was a pose or what Will prefers to call a sensibility. It was whatever fashion worked in the moment.
This is why there has never been much thought given as to why conservatism, as a political project, was a total failure. They won elections, but never won the resulting policy fights. A true intellectual class would have compared theory to reality and noticed the many contradictions. Even today, when so-called conservative intellectuals convene to discuss the state of their racket, they just end up quoting dead men and promising to do more of the same. It’s nostalgia masquerading as introspection.
In a way, this was always true about Buckley conservatism. Even as a purely political operation, it always functioned as a cargo cult. If they could dress up as the Founders, repeat what they said, the spirit and constitution of that generation would magically appear in this generation. The Buckleyites could never understand that the America of the Founding was a different country. They did things different back then, because the people, their very nature, was different from modern America.
This is why conservatism was a total failure. The Left, for all of its faults, recognized that the America of the 20th century was nothing like the America of the Founding. It needed a new political framework and a new set of principles. The second founding idea was more than just a recasting of history to include the new arrivals. It was an effort to create a new foundation to support the new political orthodoxy. The Buckleyites were never smart enough to get that and were no match for the Left.
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