Starting in the 1990’s the neocons started to talk about conservatism as a process, a means justifies the ends approach to politics. This was not a change in how conservatism defined itself but it was a change in how it sold itself. You were supposed to support conservatives in order to achieve certain ends, like rolling back abortion laws and curtailing the welfare state. By the Bush years, this means justifies the end claim was front and center in the pitch from neoconservatives.
The reason for this, of course, is millions of conservatives had voted for Bush and the Republicans thinking they would do what they promised. The GOP had both house of Congress and the White House. They expected conservative governance. Instead, they got Lyndon Johnson. They had to accept this result, you see, because conservatism is a process, not a set of end results. As long as conservatives were defending the process, people needed to shut up and be happy.
The main reason for this rhetorical sleight of hand was to trick rank and file conservatives into supporting a president that was the opposite of what conservatives expected from a conservative president. The neocons wanted to continue their bloody war against Islam and they needed a second term from Bush. In the 2000’s, they had started to infest the other side of the political class but the take over of the foreign policy establishment was not complete.
This was possible because of a flaw within conservatism. From the beginning, the Buckley people focused on defending the constitutional order. They were the guys talking about interpreting the Constitution as written. They were defending the system against both distortions and changes from the Left. They magnanimously accepted adverse results as long as the constitutional order was followed. This fetish for defending process is what the neocons exploited.
This points to a much larger problem with conservatism. They were never willing to appeal to authority to justify their claims. The closest they got was originalism in the law, which claimed the written constitution as authority. This has two problems. One was that the Left rejected this claim in favor of a living constitution. The other is the Left kept tinkering with document through judicial rulings which became precedents. The result of originalism was a defense of left-wing gains in court.
This is why conservatism is in collapse. In fact, it is fair to say that conservatism is dead as hardly anyone bothers with the term. The only people using the term are those still working the hustle on their aging donor class. Otherwise, the only people considered to be on the Right use the term is when criticizing the old conservative movement for not having conserved anything. It turns out that winning the process war meant nothing to those conservative constituencies.
The elephant in the room is authority. Fundamental to any human organization is a clear understanding as to who decides. Iran is an Islamic state with laws based in the sect of the ruling class. It is the religious elite that is the ultimate decider. The Russian people are the leaders of the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin is the leader of the Russian people, so he is the final authority in the Russian Federation. This is clear to everyone who lives within the Russian Federation.
In the case of Iran, authority for this arrangement, the thing that legitimizes it in the minds of the people, is the Koran and their religious traditions. The text of their holy book, the traditions of their people and the moral hierarchy is the authority for their political arrangements. In the Russian Federation, it is the long history of these people and their relationship to one another that forms the basis of authority. Its perseverance through communism is proof of this natural order.
This is where we see “common good conservatism” trying to fill the void left by the collapse of Buckley conservatism and the departure of neoconservatism. They want to move away from individual rights as the center piece of conservatism toward a vague sense of collective interests. Instead of focusing on what provides the individual with the least amount of government coercion, they want to focus on what provides the most amount of common good.
In simple terms, disputes over rights will be decided in favor of the interests of society as a whole, rather than abstract principles about individual liberty. If someone complains about prayer in school, the courts should ignore their complaint because prayer in school provides more social benefit than that one person’s desire to be free of the religious sentiments of the community. Homosexual marriage would be banned, because it harms marriage, which harms society.
This may sound good and feel like a step in the dissident direction, but it suffers from the same defect as Buckley conservatism. That is, there is little mention of who decides and upon what authority they make these decisions. Some talk about the Church providing authority and others mention the administrative state. Mostly this is just a way to avoid speaking directly to the issue of authority. It is just assumed that once people think in terms of the common good, everything falls into place.
This is the same error conservatives have always made. Their chanting of the phrase “ideas have consequences” was mostly about the belief that all they had to do was win the argument and the rest would take care of itself. History makes clear that force and determination can conquer the soundest logic. The Bolshevik program was nonsensical and dangerous, but they wanted it more so they carried the day and controlled Russia for three quarters of a century.
Human society is based around a series of questions. Who we are? What are the rules that define us? Who decides? What is the process for enforcing the rules? It is only the last question that conservatives bothered to answer, which left the other questions to whoever wanted to answer them. This is why conservatism failed and any alternative will fail if it refuses to address the questions that come before debating the process by which rules are enforced.
The great trick of liberal democracy is in convincing people it exists. The narrow elite that controls Western societies decides because they control the managerial class, which in turn controls the administrative state. Their authority rests on their will to power and the delusions of the people, who steadfastly insist they decide public policy through the ballot box. It is a devilish trick by a devilish people, but until an alternative questions this arrangement directly, it will persist.
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