The defining feature of American Conservatism since the rise of Buckley and National Review is that it managed to conserve nothing. In fact, the movement was largely born out of the Civil Rights Movement, in which the New Right, as they were called then, conceded the right of free association to the Left. From that point forward, conservatism in America was mostly just a modification of Progressivism, often following it around like a shadow from one new radical idea to the next.
The truth is, whatever Buckley imagined for his movement in the beginning, it was soon turned into a partner of Progressivism. In exchange for a free hand in dealing with the Soviets, the Right would allow the Left to dominate domestic policy. It may not have been explicit decision, or even a conscious one, but that was the result. The Reagan years are a great example. The revolution cultivated the seedlings of global finance and presided over a massive military buildup. Domestically, it did nothing.
In fairness, the Buckley project did bring about the end of the Cold War, which few people imagined was possible in the 1960’s. Into the Reagan years, most people in the West thought the Bolsheviks were on the right side of history. The trouble was, this habit of acquiescing to the Left on domestic matters had become a part of the Right’s fabric. When it was time to turn back to domestic policy, they could not do it. Instead they allowed themselves to be tricked into a new foreign adventure by the neocons.
That is a useful way to think of the last thirty years. Buckley and his minions did such a great job of defining conservatism as the sidecar of Progressivism, it was incapable of adapting to the post-war reality. Instead, it put all of its energy into finding a new foreign policy cause to fill the void of fighting communism. Meanwhile, the Left was fully prepared to spend the peace dividend on outlandish social experimentation like open borders and homosexual marriage. The Right just stood by and watched.
The fact that Conservative Inc., the material and monetary manifestation of Buckley’s project, still staggers on, despite losing most of its relevance and audience, is a testament to institutional power. People get used to worshiping at the same place, so even when the place no longer deserves their worship, they return out of habit. For the same reason the Episcopal Church still exists, National Review still functions as a flagship for a movement that is long past its expiration date.
A sign that this hollow institution sits atop an equally hollow movement is this recent exchange between someone calling himself Sohrab Ahmari and David French, of National Review. Ahmari makes a case familiar to most on the dissident right, that conservatism has conserved nothing. More important, its very design is to ensure that it can never win a fight with the Left in the culture war. It is the designated opponent that puts on a good show, but in the end concedes the game to the Left.
The response from David French is an amusing confirmation of the most biting criticism of Conservative Inc., in that it combines a total lack of self-awareness and a dog’s breakfast of empty slogans. The fact that the French essay is heavily decorated with advertisements and pleas for money just adds to the humor. His argument is that making a bunch of ritualized noises about the past, while being rolled in the Culture War, is the definition of conservatism. Everyone agrees with this.
What Ahmari builds his case on is the observation that people like French invest heavily in maintaining a set of rules on the Right that prevents victory. That is, a primary activity is endlessly reminding people that to be conservative is to live by a set of principles. These principles control how the Right engages the Left. On the other hand, the Left is happy to help the Right enforce these rules, as the Left never plays by any rules. It plays to win, so these principles become a road map for winning every battle.
This is a certain type of sandwich, where normal white people are faced with an impossible dilemma. They can lose their moral purpose by breaking their own rules, while beating the Left, or, they can hold onto their principles and lose. That’s the role of people like David French. He’s like the Army chaplain, who convinces the troops to embrace pacifism. Alternatively, he is the Tokyo Rose whispering subversion into the ears of white people, undermining their will to fight.
The response by the rest of Conservative Inc. to the Ahmari post is revealing, in that it is not much of a defense of French or Conservative Inc. Reason Magazine babbles about individual liberty while calling Ahmari names. The fact that the core of the Ahmari post is that the individualism fetish is why the Right keeps losing is lost on the writer. Winning the culture war requires collective action with a collective purpose. There can be no individual liberty without first defeating the Left and retaking the public space.
Probably the most illuminating defense of French comes from Michael Brendan Dougherty in National Review. His post reads like it was coerced. There is a long meandering summary of the recent history of conservatism. The actual defense of French boils down to “he is worthless and his approach is laughably stupid, but hey, he’s a nice guy and is popular with my boss.” Conservatism is mostly just logrolling now, so this “defense” is a good example of why National Review is nearing an end.
The lesson to be drawn from the failure of conservatives, for those who will take up the culture war, is that principles are about what you won’t do. They are prohibitions on your behavior. When you engage the enemy with a long list of things you will not do in the fight, you have provided him with a road map to victory. That’s been conservatism for the last thirty years. Whether conscious or unconscious, their cherished principles have amounted to nothing more than a primer for how they will throw the fight.
The fact is, principles are worthless unless you can enforce them. The whole point of having principles is to legitimize the maintenance of order after the victory. Logically, the first step in a principled agenda is to win. That requires collective action and a willingness to play rough, not individualism and a fetish for tone policing. An army of individualists is a hunting ground for the well-organized. In order to get anything like a conservative order means white people acting collectively and doing what is necessary to win.
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