If you were to bring forward to our age the cultural and political sensibilities of the founding generation and create a political movement around them, you would find yourself in very serious trouble. The reason is you would be so radical in your aims that even the most enthusiastic of constitutional conservatives would denounce you. The reason for this, is that everything about current year America is at odds with what the men, who drafted the Constitution, intended for the country they created.
Despite this rather obvious truth, modern day conservatives have been calling themselves champions of originalism for generations. In fact, they regularly claim they favor a return to the constitutional principles. It is, of course, just a form of signaling or dog whistling as the Left is fond of saying. The so-called conservatives have no interest in returning to the original political order. In fact, any effort to return to the old order is probably the only thing they would actually fight to prevent.
This is because the Buckley-style conservatism that has come to define the American Right was never about ends. When they talk of originalism, they don’t mean the original intent of the Founders or even the original intent of the law. Instead, they mean and original process. Buckley-style conservatism is a means justifies the ends political ideology, a reaction to the Left’s ends justifies the means approach. For Buckley conservatives, getting the process right is all that matters.
This is how something ridiculous like homosexual marriage can quickly moves from an absurd Progressive troll to a timeless conservative principle in a decade. All it requires was a journey through the courts, where an emotionally unstable judge and four lunatics could make it the law of the land. As long as it went through the proper legal process, Buckley conservatives could hail it as a founding principle. For the Buckleyites, originalism is about obedience to process, not original intent.
This article from a legal journal is a good primer on how this obedience to process plays out in conservative jurisprudence. By any measure, the Federalist Society types have been the most successful tribe of modern conservatism. They get judges appointed to the bench and they get law students interested in their ideas. Given the atmosphere on the college campus, that last bit is no small thing. Yet, despite their operational success, conservative jurisprudence has nothing to show for itself.
This is the story of conservatism in general. Politically, the movement started by Bill Buckley has been a smashing success. It reshaped the Republican Party, put three presidents in the White House and turned the GOP into the majority party from the 1990’s forward. Despite this, the country is further to the Left than anyone imagined possible forty years ago. The epitaph for Buckley conservatism, as it heads to the dustbin of history, is that it conserved nothing.
There is no shortage of reasons for why conservatism failed to provide any resistance to the Left, despite having the better grip on reality and popular support. Radicalism always attracts fanatics and a small group of fanatics can do a lot of damage. The Right is always playing defense, which means their margin for error is smaller. The Left is willing to lie, cheat and steal in order to gain victory. These and many others are all true statements, but there is one main reason the Buckleyites were a total failure.
As you see with originalism, the Buckleyites were never willing to state what it is they sought to achieve as an end goal. The hyper-focus on process allowed them to avoid making clear what they wanted. The homosexual marriage issue is always a great example and it is so here. Instead of saying homosexual marriage is irrational and at odds with civil society, which is certainly true, the so-called conservatives wrapped themselves in legal arguments about contract theory and downstream legal issues.
The Right could never bring themselves to state the obvious. The intent of marriage laws and customs is to encourage baby making. The language of marriage makes that abundantly clear. The only purpose of marriage is reproduction. The additional benefits created by society through laws and rituals is to encourage reproduction. Homosexual marriage is therefore an absurd contradiction. The Right never bothered with these arguments and instead fell into Jesuitical legalism.
All of this traces back to the Civil Right era. Buckley and his fellow founders of modern conservatism started out on the other side of the race issue. They opposed desegregation and they opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s. Once it became clear the Left was going to gain the moral high ground on the race issue, the Buckleyites were faced with a choice. They could attack Progressive morality and risk ostracism or they could adapt and fit within that new morality.
They adapted by switching from an ideology with a clear set of ends in mind to an ideology that makes a fetish over process. It has become so ingrained in conservative thinking they can chant slogans like “we have to return to the founding principles” without noticing modern conservatism opposes those principles. They can champion unlimited immigration, as long as it is legal, but they are incapable of opposing immigration in general. After all, that’s not who we are.
What conservatism under Buckley became is a shaming mechanism to prevent whites, and let’s not kid ourselves about the conservative audience, from stating publicly what they want for their community and their country. Thanks to Buckley, it is no longer possible to say, “I don’t want a bunch of foreigners moving into my town, because we live here and that’s how we want it.” Stating preferences is no longer permitted. Instead, what you want has to have some outside justification.
If there is to be a new Right, it will have to be an ends justifies the means ideology with its own internal morality. Conservatism will have to start with “This is who we are and this is how we seek to live.” The goal of the ideology is to achieve a clear set of ends, not a set of processes that may or may not achieve those ends. The process and principles are means to an end. Put another way, a new Right will oppose Progressive ends for non-Progressive reasons. There can be no compromise.
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