Over a century ago, Robert Lewis Dabney noted that Northern Conservatism never conserves anything. It makes a show of resisting whatever Progressive fads are currently popular, but in the end it always gives in and eventually, embraces the fad as a principle of conservatism. He was probably not the first to note this, but his description remains the most famous, among those who traffic in taboo thoughts. His description of conservatism as a shadow that follows the Left is a great image that captures their nature perfectly.
The Dissident Right often uses a version of Dabney’s description to describe the modern conservative movement. What gets lost is the fact that Dabney was describing northern conservatives. This geographic split has been erased from the modern mind, as the people who won the Civil War slowly, but surely, erase everything but the history of the North from the nation’s memory. That last bit is critical. One of the distinguishing features of 20th century American conservatism was its Yankeeness.
One reason for this, of course, is that Progressivism is rooted in the North. In fact, it has been pretty much confined to what Colin Woodward called Yankeedom. This map is very useful for understanding the demographic contours of American regionalism. Those dark blue areas are where Lefty walks the streets unmolested. It only makes sense that the loyal opposition would be located in the same areas. The colleges and universities growing the next generation of Progressives, also produce their conservative analogs.
There is another angle to this. There were 15 presidents before Lincoln. Six of them were from Yankeedom or the Midlands. The rest were from the Tidewater or the South. Virginia used to be called the Cradle of Presidents because seven pre-Civil War presidents were from there. Only one post-Civil War president, Woodrow Wilson, has been from Virginia. Of the 30 since the war, 25 have been from Yankeedom or from the Midlands. There have been 19 from parts of the country that fall into the dark blue portion of that linked map.
Since the Civil War, America has been dominated by one region of the country. It stands to reason that politics would be rooted in this region as well. Because Progressives, in various manifestations, are dominant in the North, they have been the driving force in America politics and culture as a whole. Naturally, any reaction to this would be culturally rooted in the North as well. Put another way, politics in America has been a lover’s quarrel between the two halves of Yankeedom since the Civil War.
This arrangement probably would have collapsed a century ago, but world events interceded to lock things in place. The Great War, the Depression, World War Two and then the long nuclear stand-off with the Russians locked things in place. With the nation at risk, any effort to upset the domestic political arrangements would be quickly swatted down. The reason our politics are in a flux now, with the old arrangements collapsing, is there is no longer an exogenous force to lock things in place. Normalcy is returning.
This is why the gap between Progressives and the Buckley Conservatives seems so small all of a sudden. The stand-off with the Soviets was not just a military and political conflict. There was a moral and philosophical conflict. That magnified the differences because it cast them against the backdrop of the larger dispute between Eastern authoritarianism and Western pluralism. Once that back drop was gone, what was left was two sides squabbling over trivial items and competing for the love of financial backers.
It’s also why politics turned into a screaming match after the Cold War ended. There were no big areas of dispute, so they had no choice but to pretend that the trivial differences between the two sides were enormous divides. That was the crucial insight of the Clinton people. Bill Clinton won in 1992 by bellowing about how Bush the Elder did not know how grocery store scanners worked. Clinton, Bush and Obama were basically the same guy, but the political class carried on like like they were polar opposites.
What all this means is that we are in the transition period between the third and fourth phases of American history. The first phase was the Colonial Period that lasted up to and included the Revolutionary War. Then there was the Constitutional Period that lasted until the Civil War. The third period was the Yankee Imperium, that lasted from the Civil War through the end of the Cold War. What comes next is debatable, but it is clear that the rest of the country is going to have a say in the political life of the country.
One thing that is certain is that the political arrangements, both formal and informal, will change as the nation transitions to what comes next. The great centralization of power over the last century to implement the Yankee moral vision domestically and build out the empire around the world is not made for a world of identity politics, regionalization and an empire in retreat. We have legal and political institutions for white people to manage disputes between white people. Those are useless in a majority-minority country.
One final thought on this. These phases of American history have been punctuated by violent conflict. The people who settled and founded the country were not gentle, passive souls. The Colonial Period ended in War. The Constitutional Period ended with the Civil War. It’s not unreasonable to think that this transition period will have its violent elements before we settle into that fourth phase. We live in a low violence time, so civil war is unlikely, but the coming years will most likely feature harsh, regional disputes.