One of the subplots to the ongoing crisis in America is how various voices within official conservatism are struggling to come to terms with it. In the last years of the Obama administration, they were sure they had a good read on things. Their turn to run the system was coming up and they were busy getting their resumes ready for jobs within the next Republican administration. Then their plans took a direct hit from their own voters in 2016 and their thing has been taking on water ever since.
The neoconservatives, with their vermin-like rapacity, continue to focus on their project, regardless of what is happening. That means infiltrating the Biden administration through the foreign policy establishment and promoting the old-time religion through proxies like Liz Cheney and Lindsey Graham. It also means rooting out populists from the Republican ranks. From their perspective, the chaos is just another opportunity to warp the political process to their advantage.
The other side of official conservatism, the civic nationalist wing, finds itself a stranger in its own movement. The people they were sure they represented turned on them in the 2016 primary and remain hostile. The big stars of “right-wing” media now sound like Pat Buchanan, rather than Bill Buckley. Tucker Carlson is the biggest voice in official conservatism and he sounds like the people Conservative Inc ran out of their thing back in the 1980’s. Conservatism has an identity crisis.
Part of that identity crisis is the collapse of intellectual capital. The best minds on the Right are either in the grave or outside of official conservatism. Look around the organs of official conservatism and it is mostly kids repeating the old clichés. The rest are time servers who made their career by avoiding anything difficult. Part of the crisis is that there is no one around with the courage to question the orthodoxy or the grounding in political history to contextualize the current crisis.
The result is weird analysis like this from guys like David Brooks, arguing that the solution is to attack the people now abandoning conservatism. “Republicans and conservatives who believe in the liberal project need to organize and draw a bright line between themselves and the illiberals on their own side.” Those “illiberals” he claims, will “eventually turn to the strong man to salve the darkness and chaos inside themselves.” That’s paranoid madness, not analysis..
A less deranged analysis comes from fellow Times man, Ross Douthat, who seems to have spent some time listening to the swelling ranks to his Right. He points out that conservatives don’t conserve anything. This is an old observation of dissidents, going back to before Trump ran for president. Douthat repeats many familiar claims by dissidents about how liberal democracy destroys family, tradition and community, before it then consumes the ancient liberties it is supposed to defend.
Then Douthat inadvertently reveals the nature of the crisis within conservatism by framing what he thinks is the list of currents tearing through the Right. “What are we actually conserving anymore? is the question, and the answers range from the antiquarian (the Electoral College!) to the toxic (a white-identitarian conception of America) to the crudely partisan (the right to gerrymander) to the most basic and satisfying: Whatever the libs are against, we’re for.”
You cannot help but note that the one item on the list with any intellectual and popular vigor is identified as immoral. He uses the language of the Left to describe demographic realism as off limits. Maybe it is the need to signal his obedience to the Left or a genuine embrace of progressive morality, but the default position of the modern conservative is to treat demographics as automatically immoral. They rule out the problem when discussing the solution to the crisis.
The specter haunting conservatism is the specter of demographic reality, the same specter that is haunting America and the West. So-called conservatives like Douthat refuse to acknowledge it. In fact, they say it is “toxic” to point out that America will soon be a majority nonwhite country. The reason this bit of observable reality is toxic to professional conservatives is that the Progressives say it is toxic. They have anathematized any discussion of demographics.
The conservative political theorist Russel Kirk wrote, “A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.” The only way there can be a “people’s historic continuity of experience” is if the people actually exist. At its core, conservativism has always been about preserving the people, not their stuff. Once you stop conserving the people, conservatism is just an ornament in the liberal democratic garden.
Modern conservatives, rather than defending the historic American nation, defend the liberal democratic process. No matter the ends that result from that process, conservatives believe they must defend the process. The result has been a couple of generations of politics where one side defends the process while the other side works to subvert it for short term gain. Conservatives end up defending those subversions and the perversions they create become conservative principles.
Both Brooks and Douthat wonder if conservatism can exist within liberal democracy, but neither is willing to consider both answers to that question. They just assume the answer is it can, so the project is to figure out how. That blindness shows that conservatism cannot exist within liberal democracy. It must yield to the morality of liberal democracy, which will always be controlled by those who are able to muster fifty percent plus one in favor of the morality they favor.
The crisis of modern conservatism is that conservatism must begin and end with the conservation of the people. What conservatism has become is a conservation of a system that is literally destroying the people who created it. Worse yet, it has become a defense of a moral framework that is the enemy of the fundamental conservative tenet that there is an enduring moral order. Conservatism is either the opponent of liberal democracy as practiced, or it is the tool of it.
The death of modern conservatism, and its morally ambiguous traveling partner libertarianism, is a necessary step toward a genuine alternative. It is only when the fight steps out from the prevailing moral framework of egalitarianism and the blank slate that politics can return to a debate about what is in the best interest of the people. At that point, liberal democracy recedes, and the role of leaders is to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
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