One of the unique features of the current year is the very large gap, the great divide, that separates conventional wisdom and its critics. On one side, the conventional side, people still operate inside the moral framework that formed up in the 1960’s and blossomed in the 1980’s. On the other side are the critics and dissidents, who are operating under an entirely different framework. Not only is there no overlap or areas of agreement, there’s little contact between the two sides.
This is a new thing. In the 1980’s, as the neoliberalism was coming together, critics and enthusiasts occupied the same physical and cultural space. On TV chat shows, old school conservatives could challenge new school conservatives about trade and immigration policy. Paleo-libertarians could challenge both sides of conventional politics on money, economics and social policy. Newspapers would run columns by columnists, who questioned the emerging orthodoxy.
That’s not something you see these days. For example, read conventional conservative websites and they are nothing but the same dull mush they have been churning out for the last few decades. There are no lively discussions about immigration or the impact of the demographic changes. National Review hardly bothers to cover Trump. They just seem to be waiting it all out, hoping the bad man goes away. Otherwise, they carry on like 2016 never happened and that mob to their right does not exist.
The Left is actually much worse. Take an evening and watch the left-wing cable chat shows and you will find yourself in a world of make believe. It’s a useful only in that it is a glimpse inside the very weird world of the Washington chattering classes. Again, the days of having on contrary opinion are long gone. Instead, these shows and the print publications that fuel them are like choirs. They sing familiar tunes to the faithful in order to drive away all doubt. The one true faith is all you see.
This strange insularity is, in part, what is driving the dissident right. Every day refugees from the other side turn up on this side, looking for answers. After the six millionth recitation of the catechism, even the timid start to wonder why things never seem to get better for the bulk of Americans. The funny guys with the frog things at least offer some comic relief. Traditional Christians find themselves on the same side as racists, because the people on the other side made it so.
An illuminating example of this hard divide between orthodoxy and dissent is this post by Steve Sailer, reviewing a book by conservative thinker Christopher Caldwell. Sailer describes his book as “an explosive rethinking of history since JFK’s assassination that comes to the reactionary conclusion that the only salvation for American conservatism is to repeal the sainted 1964 Civil Rights Act and restore the constitutional right to freedom of association.”
Right away, that should cause most dissidents to stop and wonder how it is possible that such a conclusion is novel in anyway. As recent as the 1980’s, critics could openly talk about the negative consequences of the Civil Rights Act. Into the last decade, legal scholars could publicly question disparate impact, which is one of the deformities that has arisen from the arguments behind the civil rights. Today, none of this is possible on the other side. Those things can only be spoken of on this side.
That’s why Caldwell’s book will be treated like an original document by the people on the other side of the great divide. The sorts of topics and modes of thought increasingly common on this side of the great divide are completely forgotten on the other side of the great divide. So much so that many people on that side, even the smarter ones, are barely away such thinking exists. It is as if they live in a universe that now operates by a different set of natural rules. It truly is a great divide.
Now, it must be noted that Caldwell probably does pay attention to what happens on this side, as best he can. He has to dodge the morality police, so perhaps that is why he chooses to frame his critique as he does. Still, it has the feel of someone, after having done everything they could to get their way and silence their critics, discovering they were wrong all along. Instead of rehabilitating their critics, however, they proudly claim their arguments for their own.
That’s not what’s at work here. Caldwell, as far as anyone can tell, has not been standing with the harpies, as they drive out the unbelievers. He’s always been a skeptic of the prevailing orthodoxy. He is, however, an insider, a house approved critic, who speaks to that audience. His book is not aimed at dissidents, but at the sorts of people he socializes with at book parties and conferences. He is one of them, not one of us, even if he does not share their loathing for us.
This does reveal a truth about any possible reform movement that could arrest the decline of the West. If the other side is to regain their wits and begin to turn back from the abyss, they will have to do so believing they are the ones sorting this all out. They will not credit the people they drove away, for the crime of questioning what turned out to be a defective orthodoxy. Reformers need the legitimacy of insiders, which means maintaining the gulags for the old heretics.
Even so, what Caldwell’s book suggests, however, is that there is some leakage between the dissident right and the prevailing orthodoxy. It is not a one-way mirror that divides the two sides. Some of things on this side are slowly making their way over. For those hoping for a peaceful transition back to normalcy, there’s the white pill. One book here, one speech there and before long, the other side has their Khrushchev. It is a thin reed, but it is some hope for a soft landing.
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