Ramblings on Hyphen Conservatism

Great nouns need no adjectives and good philosophies need no hyphens. In the former case, the word itself conjures all the imagery needed to convey meaning. That’s not to say adjectives are useless. Quite the contrary. The point here is that nouns like lion or lunatic easily stand on their own. Lesser nouns need helpers to get their meaning across to the recipient. If a noun needs help packing a punch or getting the point across, then maybe that speaks to the concept behind the noun.

In the case hyphenated ideas, the hyphen tells you that the old cause is no longer working and this new thing is an attempt to replace it. Neo-Conservatism, for example, was a cosmopolitan revolt against the traditional bourgeois conservatism of the previous era. More precisely and practically, it was an attempt to fuse the worldly liberalism the urbanite with the traditional social conservatism of the ruralite.

It was a complete failure.

I’ve thought for a long time now that the Left will have a free hand until the Right comes to terms with the Bush years. A similar dynamic was in place in the 1970’s after Nixon, but the emerging conservative movement was ready to take the stage, even before Nixon imploded. The overthrow of Nixon was the Old Left’s last gasp, aided by the young Turks from the New Left. In a way, they did Conservatives a favor by discrediting the northern conservatism for a generation.

I think there are a lot of parallels between Bush the Lesser and Nixon. I’m not talking about character or their conduct in office. I strictly mean as far as their impact on the political landscape. Nixon was an inflexion point for the political class. Both parties were different after Watergate and the nation was different. In the Bush years the Left radicalized and seized control of the Democratic party, making it an ideological party, so now it is the GOP’s turn to change itself.

That’s the problem. After Nixon, it was easy for the Conservative movement to sweep in and take over the GOP. Nixon resigned in disgrace and that wing of the GOP was in no position to challenge the highly popular Reagan and his sizable coalition. Bush served out both terms and many on the Right still defend the guy. What’s going on now is a battle over whether this makes any sense, given that most conservative white voters think Bush was a complete failure as president.

Libertarians have been let out of their box and represent one strain of the reformist/reconciliation effort. They have been allowed to mix with the main stream Right lately, only because they keep it interesting. Of course, Rand Paul is carrying the banner of that branch of libertarians that supported his old man. How much influence they have is debatable. It still looks like a fringe groups of weirdos to most people, but they are making inroads into the establishment.

The newest entrants are from within the Establishment Right. Ramesh Ponnuru is pushing something called Reform Conservatism. His old lady is drawing a paycheck from it so you can guess where that is heading. They have a book out which is mostly a bunch of policy proposals that have been kicking around for years. These guys are the folks who learned nothing from the Bush years, but think they can form a new coalition to challenge the Left.

Then we have Post-Modern Conservatism, which seems a bit muddle to me. I get the sense the adherents spent some time reading Mencius Moldbug. It has that vibe.

Postmodern conservatism appeals neither to the foundations of modern rationalism (a technological view of nature) nor to those of classical rationalism (the autonomy and superiority of the pure philosophic life). So in this sense it is skeptical of foundationalisms, which justifies the somewhat playful and retro name “postmodern.” At the same time, it recognizes the responsibility of reason and so cannot concede the adequacy of appeals to History, including Tradition. In this sense postmodern conservatism is neither Absolutist (dogmatic) nor relativist-historicist (skeptical); let us say it has a certain confidence in reason, or, in particular, in politics as reasoning together, but it does not claim to appeal beyond such reasoning to some finished system of reason, either modern or classical.

Starting fresh always sounds good, but you cannot escape the past. In this case, anyone not on the Left needs to reconcile themselves with that version of neo-con rule, particularly in the Bush years. The period from 1994 to 2008, with a heavy emphasis on the Bush years was, allegedly, the time when the people in charge subscribed to all the main themes of the modern Right. The result was a disaster.

If you think that sounds harsh, take a look around at the post-Bush world. Foreign policy is a train wreck. Relations with the world are at a nadir. The Right’s claim to fiscal prudence was forfeited with the Bush spending spree. Any claims to good stewardship were also forfeited when the Bush clan sold out to Wall Street. Before Bush, no one wanted to be called a liberal. After Bush, no one wants to be called a conservative, so there is no way to defend Bush and the neocons.

The old ideologies are spent, but there’s nothing ready to replace them. American Progressivism is a collection of nonsense fads, bolted onto tribalism. It is the faith of one group of whites forever at war with the other group of whites. Despite its Utopian posing, it has no end and no purpose. In that regard, it is purely reactionary. It has been bankrupt intellectually for so long no one even remembers the intellectual history of the American Left. They exist because they have always existed.

For an alternative to form from the wreckage of the American Right, they first must come to terms with the Bush years. I think we’re seeing that in fist and starts. The pending disintegration of Iraq and the general failure of the War on Terror has forced some tough discussion on members of the Right. The growth of the police state is giving libertarians room to land some punches on the Bush legacy.

As far as practical politics, the the party will resist any change, as every comma ion the party platform represents a snout at the trough. That rules out internal options for reform, so it will require an external force. Populism and a rowdy disregard for convention is probably what is needed. Perhaps some one runs for president on a Pat Buchanan type of platform, but with enough money to make it work. Something will happen, as the current state is unsustainable.

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Bill Jones
9 years ago

The defying moment of the Republican Party in the latter half of 20th C was the launching of a CIA tool, William Buckley’s, big government conservative movement, the idea that to combat the Soviet Union, ” Buckley wrote an article for Commonweal which insisted that Big Government and a large U.S. military might be a necessity for the duration of the Cold War.”

It’s been downhill from then on into today’s nightmarish National Security State.

We need to bring back the ideals of Robert Taft that have been crushed and discarded.

9 years ago

Damned insightful, Z. It appears to me that the Tea Party was never anything more tangible than the sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs that the “center cannot hold,” though that in itself is enough to be a factor in politics, present and future. Seems to me that the current administration is not so much an agent for change, but an agent of preparation for the coming unbelievable (and foolish) assault on what remains of conservatism. We live in lands where the left, not knowing where they are going, are making war on the right, who know not… Read more »