At the end of the Cold War, Progressives pointed out that conservatism no longer had a purpose, so it was probably going to follow communism into the past. Of course, the Left had its own problems in this regard, but conservatism in America had largely been about opposing the Soviets. They had conceded all the important points in the cultural war and the Left was ready to embrace corporate control of the economy, so there was no longer any purpose to conservatism.
This was a fair analysis, but one conservatives could not accept, as it would mean getting real jobs and doing honest work. Instead they tried to define conservatism as green eye-shade bean counting in the 1990’s. That was no fun as they like spending borrowed money as much as the Left. Then they tried to define conservatism to mean dropping high explosives onto Muslims. That worked for a while, but then the public soured on the pointless flag waving and hollow patriotism.
In the Obama years, conservatism entered the darkness and it has not been able to find a way out of it ever since. They tried to rally people around hating Trump, but that just underscored the bankruptcy of modern conservatism. Since then, various writers have been trying to figure out what conservatism is supposed to mean in the age of post-national globalism. The one enduring feature of the Right has been its roots in nationalism, so without that, it has no anchor.
This summer, the American Conservative has been running pieces on the topic from various writers. Here’s one from July doing the old constitution bit. Here’s one relying on historicism to define conservatism. A couple of Israelis contributed a piece claiming conservatism is a big shopping mall. This one makes the Straussian argument that conservatism is rooted in natural rights. Along the same lines, Yoram Hazony posted a long piece at Quillette about the dangers of Marxism.
The main take-sway from all of this is that no one in conservatism has the slightest idea how to breathe life into the corpse of their project. If they are unwilling to reject universalism and egalitarianism, they cannot embrace nationalism, other than as a shallow rhetorical device. Yoram Hazony has turned himself into a pretzel trying to promote a nationalism detached from biological reality. Everyone else is too afraid to go near anything that contradicts Progressive dogma on biology.
The truth is, the closest America ever came to having a genuine conservative alternative to Northern Progressivism ended in the Civil War. Since then the dynamic in America has been the Left innovating and the Right implementing. The Left, needing to exercise its reform impulse, finds something to break with novel ideas. The Right then comes in to clean up after them, finding some way to normalize it. The Robert Lewis Dabney observation is has never ceased to be true.
This is why whatever replaces conservatism as the alternative to the Progressive orthodoxy has to free of conservatism. It must be a clean break with that failed tradition of accommodation and obedience. A genuine alternative, a real competitor to the Left, has to be a stand-alone moral framework, rather than just a collection of criticisms and critiques of the liberal moral order. A critique is just a conditional agreement. That’s always been conservatism, agreement with conditions.
This may prove to be easiest in Europe, as Europeans have a genuine conservatism in their past they can pull out of storage. It may have failed under the pincer assault of Marxism and liberal democracy, but it offers a foundation to build on. Like an old house with good bones, it can be rebuilt with modern ideas and understandings. The failings of liberal democracy now make it a weaker foe than in the past. Liberal democracy is no longer about promise, but about practice.
For Americans, the task is difficult, as it means jettisoning most of the American story, maybe even the very concept of American. The frontier culture that has always been at the root of American mythology no longer makes a lot of sense in the demographic age with high-density urban areas. Rugged independence is suicidal when facing a demographic assault. There’s also the fact that the past has been rewritten to support the egalitarianism and universalism of the Left.
Then there is that American creed that starts with the assertion that all men are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights. The rejection of universal equality is a rejection of the core component of Americanism. This is the trap that devoured Buckley style conservatism in the last century. It is simply impossible to forge an alternative to Progressivism without first rejecting universal equality. To American ears, that sounds like a rejection of their very identity.
It is not impossible though. Events are what forge ideologies and the demographic changes sweeping North America will forge new political constructs. Organizing civil life in a world where the government is no longer willing or able to control the frontier or police the violent elements will require new ideologies. Most likely that means a return to the oldest form of social organization, which is relatedness. The large society problem will be solved with racial and ethnic identity.
Ultimately, that is the project facing the West. Liberalism, communism and to a lesser degree fascism, were all solutions to the large society problem. Liberal democracy is the current experiment in solving the problem. The real alternative to the prevailing order starts with accepting that these experiences have all failed. They failed because there is no solution to the problem, other than a passive ethno-nationalism organized around group identity and rights.
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