On this side of the great divide, it is popular to bang on about how Buckley-style conservatism is dead. Alternatively, people like to go on about how conservatives have systematically betrayed their supporters. It is also common to explain both trends in purely personal terms. For example, conservatism died because it became a business, perhaps even a racket, rather than a political movement. The sellouts are doing what they do because it gets them media and think tank jobs.
Reducing politics to personal squabbles and motivations is a way to justify supporting or opposing something, without thinking too much about it. This is the preference of the simple minded, who struggle to understand events in the larger context of general trends or the ideas driving those trends. In reality, it is ideas, events and people that come together to shape our present reality. More often than not, the things we see today largely came about by accident or chance played a big role.
You see this with Buckley-style conservatism. It was never an ideology or even an independent agenda. It existed, as Buckley himself often said, to “stand athwart history yelling STOP!” The whole point of the Buckley project was to slow the roll of the Left in mid-century America. That became such an intense point of focus it made impossible any consideration of what to do if they succeeded. The whole point of the exercise was to slow down the Left without ever expecting to win.
Put another way, it was like a dog that chases cars. It was never expected to catch the car and if it did catch the car, it had no plan for what to do when that great achievement was attained. As a result, conservatives have never been able to plan for victory or take advantage of their successes. In fact, the very framework for thinking about winning has been eliminated from the thought process of the Right. Whenever they manage to trip up the Left, the hunt is on for some new car to chase.
This article in the American Conservative is a great example. The short version is that the author thinks Trump missed a golden opportunity to advance his agenda and fundamentally change politics during this virus crisis. He could have used the event itself and the fallout to become this century’s FDR. One notable aspect of the post is that it is posted months after the crisis began. Maybe if conservatives had thought about catching that car a little bit, this would not be an issue.
One of things that drives conspiracy theories about 9/11 is the neocons and the war machine were the primary beneficiaries of the event. The Left, which is always ready for a crisis, got very little from it initially. They have since taken over the surveillance state, but they initially opposed its creation. The simple minded assume that 9/11 must have been a neocon conspiracy, as how else could they have been ready to make such good use of it? The answer is, they planned to catch that car one day.
Another reason for the failure of Buckley-style conservatism is the mistaken belief that virtue is a useful weapon against the ideologue. In reality, ideologues think the adherence to principle is akin to falling for superstition. Ideologues on the Left are at their core anti-tradition. Therefore, they see the defenders of tradition as madmen, obstacles to be cleared from the path. Those lunatics from the Buckley cult standing on the train track need to be mowed down, not respected.
This post in National Review is a good example of the problem. The Buckley crowd is arfing like seals at Bill Barr’s assertion that there will be no criminal investigation of Obama and Biden over the FBI scandal. It is hard to know if Barr is unilaterally ruling it out as a possibility or he is simply stating that at the moment there is no reason to think such a thing will happen. Either way, Buckley-style conservatives are soiling themselves in ecstasy over this development. Here’s the money quote.
Having watched the hardball that investigators played against Trump associates, Trump partisans want comeuppance. It is natural, especially for the non-lawyers among them, to maintain that there is no satisfactory form of accountability other than criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind, no matter how difficult doing so may be, that we react so negatively to the use of investigative processes as a political weapon because it is wrong.
On the one hand, it is tempting to explain this as the lunacy of someone unable to come to terms with the fact that they are defending rules that no longer exist. The writer still thinks he lives in a world bound by mutually agreed upon rules. He’s like a boxer thinking the crooked referee is on the level. The other fighter has a bat and a length of chain as weapons, but the clean fighter is convinced this cheating will be stopped by the referee at some point, so he sticks to the rules.
On the other hand, a core feature of Buckley-style conservatism is it was never designed to go on offense. It has no mechanism to advance forward, because it was designed as a fixed installation. it would be like the castle walls moving outward when the besieging army falls into disarray. Such an idea cannot exist even in fantasy, as it is beyond all possibility. Instead, to continue the analogy, the Buckley-style conservative dreams of repointing the mortar after the battle.
This reticence to go on offence has become such an integral part of conservatism that the use of it has become a weapon of the Left. This post is pretty typical of what happens whenever the Left wrecks themselves with scandal or overreach. They are quick to warn the Right that they better not think about taking advantage of this situation or there will be hell to pay. Put another way, the Left has evolved to use the fundamentals of Buckley-style conservatism to their advantage.
There’s no doubt that many of the people living well in Conservative Inc. understand their role is to be the eternal loser. Maybe they started out as a real culture warrior, but sold out for a good life in the Imperial Capital. Make no mistake, it is a great life that surpasses everywhere else on earth. Rich Lowry makes close to half a million a year running National Review. He knows he could not make that doing anything else, so he is not rustling any jimmies in his role.
The thing is though, such men dominate conservatism because conservatism was by design intended to be a foil for radicalism. It was never intended to defeat it or even stop it, but as Buckley said, merely slow it down a bit. Inevitably such a worldview must boil off fighters and replace them with the accommodating. Buckley-style conservatism did not lose every fight because conservatives are losers. It lost because it was born to lose and therefore it attracted losers.