Something the old paleocons recognized in the 1980’s, was that the new conservatism of Bill Buckley was doomed to fail, because it started from the premise that the current political arrangements were legitimate. Since the Left had defined those arrangements in the 20th century, it meant the New Right was going to become corrupted by its willingness to operate within the Progressives rules. For example, if you agree that segregation is evil, there are only a narrow set of policy positions you can support with regards to race.
That is, of course, exactly what happened. Instead of being a moral philosophy that stood in opposition to Progressivism, it became a foil. Conservatives were the controlled opposition, who gave legitimacy to left-wing ideas by opposing them and then ultimately embracing them. If you embrace the premise, you inevitably embrace the ends. The debate is about the middle part. It’s why conservatives have spent decades trying to accomplish the goals of the Left, without embracing the means of the Left.
In the context of the Cold War, this debate between the Left and Right, was mostly about economics and foreign policy. As much as the conservatives tried to paint the Left as a bunch of Bolsheviks, the Right never seriously challenged the Left on socialist policies like public pensions, socialized medicine and anti-poverty programs. Similarly, the approach to the Soviets was a debate about how to best manage it. The exception was Reagan’s talk of roll back, but that was mostly rhetoric. He was more than willing to bargain with them.
That’s something to keep in mind with the battle over what will come to oppose the latest iteration of Progressivism. The Ben Shapiro types who are endlessly punching Right by demanding America be defined as an idea, rather than a place and people, are embracing the main argument of the Left. They have different notions of what those ideas mean and how they should be implemented, but fundamentally Ben Shapiro agrees with the Left that America, or any nation for that matter, is just a set of ideas, not a place and people.
This new conservatism must end the same way as Buckley conservatism ended. That is, as an amen chorus for the Progressive state. If you agree that the new definition of a nation is post-national, as in not being defined by borders, language and people, then the debate is what defines the new state. If you further agree that the new state is defined by ideas and a set of values, then the only thing left is to figure out who defines those ideas and how will they be enforced. Eventually, an agreement is reached.
This notion of the state as a post-national, post-Christian theocracy is not without real consequences. It may seem ridiculous, but when the people in charge believe in something, no matter how absurd, the people pay the price. You see that in the Kavanaugh fight. Big shot intellectuals are starting to notice what people on this side of the great divide have been saying for years. If society is defined by “who we are” then someone who dissents must be excluded from that society, by force, if necessary.
In that context, splitting the difference could no longer be passed off as moderation. It was cowardice. Any Republican who voted against Kavanaugh (and, of course, any Democrat who voted for him) would thereby exit his party. Just as the congressional vote in 1846 on the so-called Wilmot Proviso revealed that the fault-line in American politics was about slavery, not party, the Kavanaugh nomination shows what American politics is, at heart, about. It is about “rights” and the entire system that arose in our lifetimes to confer them not through legislation but through court decisions: Roe v. Wade in 1973 (abortion), Regents v. Bakke in 1979 (affirmative action), Plyler v. Doe in 1982 (immigrant rights), and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 (gay marriage). The Democrats are the party of rights. As such, they are the party of the Supreme Court. You can see why Ted Kennedy claimed in a 1987 diatribe that the Yale law professor Robert Bork would turn the United States into a police state. For Democrats, an unfriendly Supreme Court is a threat to everything.
That means the country itself. The general Democratic view that has hardened since the 1960s is the one expressed on many occasions by Barack Obama. The United States is not a country bound by a common history or a common ethnicity—it is a set of values. That is an open, welcoming thing to build a country around. But it has a dark side, and we have seen the dark side during the hearings. If a country is only a set of values, then the person who does not share what elites “know” to be the country’s values is not really a member of the national community and is not deserving of its basic protections, nice guy though he might otherwise be. Such people “belong” to the country in the way some think illegal immigrants do—provisionally.
Back at the founding, opponents of the new Constitution argued that the new political model would inevitably result in the supremacy of the court. Anti-federalists argued that the Supreme Court, as defined under the Constitution would become a source of massive abuse. Beyond the power of the executive, the court would eventually come to dominate the legislative branch. This is exactly where we find ourselves today, where both sides of the ruling elite view the court as the only source of legitimate moral authority.
That’s why the Kavanaugh fight was so vicious. Progressives fear the court could define “who we are” in such a way that excludes them. It’s also why guys like Ben Shapiro are not just wrong, but dangerously wrong. By going along with the general premise of a country being just a set of values, he is committing suicide on your behalf. He has a place to go if things don’t work out here. If the definition of “who we are” turns out to not include you, where are you going to go? More important, where are they going to send you?
That’s why this new notion of the state can only end in horror. Since the Greeks, political philosophy has assumed that a society is a group of related people, with a shared history and shared space. The debate was over how best to organize society, to match the temperament and character of the people. This new model allows no room for debate and no tolerance of dissent. Like every totalitarian ideology, it has to end in a bloodbath as the fight to define “who we are” results in the pruning of those who are deemed “not us.”