In the 1970’s, the National Basketball League was close to dead. Most of the arenas were empty and the games were rarely on TV, due to a lack of interest. It turns out that white people were not all that interested in watching drug-addled black guys with giant afros dunking a basketball. Even playoff games were often not televised due to a lack of audience.
Then a couple of guys came along who captured the public’s attention, first in college and then the pros. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made for a perfect pairing as they were opposite in so many noticeable ways, yet nearly equal in talents. When they ended up on the two great franchises of the sport, it saved the NBA and ushered in a decade of growth for the league.
David Stern, the commissioner of the league, managed to learn the one lesson that was 100% wrong, in every way imaginable. That is, his takeaway from the Bird – Magic era was that he, David Stern, was a genius and responsible for saving the NBA. He then spent the rest of his career destroying the league and the sport.
This is relevant only in that is shows how easily people can believe things about themselves and their cause, even when the data points in the opposite direction. David Stern was a terrible commissioner, but he thought otherwise and his tribesmen in ownership mostly agreed. That was mostly due to the externalities that disguised the cost of incompetence, by kicking them down the road or passing them onto others.
Something similar happened with the conservative intellectuals over the same period. In the 60’s and 70’s, conservatism was an intellectual critique of the welfare socialism of the post-war West. But it was a tin-man movement because it lacked a leader with the personality to rally the people to the cause. That changed when Thatcher and Reagan emerged. It ended when they passed from the scene.
The intellectual movement, however, staggered on as a movement without a heart, but convinced that it had all the answers to the great questions. Waves of conservative intellectuals have come along like sharks’ teeth to lecture us on the finer points and nuances of conservatism. To be an authentic conservative in politics now means an avalanche of policy papers on how to fine tune the leviathan.
Like David Stern and his coevals running the NBA all those years, these conservative intellectuals, and I am being generous here, convinced themselves that Reagan and Thatcher rose to the top because they stood on the mountain of policy papers generated by the conservative industrial complex. They are blissfully unaware of the repeated failures by them and their political surrogates since Reagan left office.
The fact is, conservatism, as we have been taught it over the last half century, is an answer to a question that is no longer being asked. Forty years ago, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation demanded an intellectual counter to welfare socialism. America had to be economically, militarily, and culturally up to the challenge of international communism. Conservatism was the backstop to prevent Progressive from caving into the commies.
That’s no longer the world in which we inhabit. The Russians are driving Bentley’s and buying sports franchises. They love capitalism. While the threat of nuclear annihilation will always be with us, there’s simply no credible threat facing the West, beyond the self-inflicted. Further, there’s no need for an intellectual defense of the western culture as the Left has won all the battles, taking command of all the high ground in the culture.
Intellectual conservatism is no longer the razor wire defending the trenches of the middle -class. At best, it is a tangled mess left over from the battle. Increasingly it is seen as the top part of the fences the managerial class has erected around us. America is no longer a self-governing republic under assault. It is a custodial state, a nation-scale version of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
To some extent, this is why the Old Left is collapsing in on itself, resulting in the black hole that is Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The great intellectual battles of the 19th and 20th century are over. The fractured ruling elites of individual countries are being replaced by the global ruling class. When elections lose their meaning, what’s the point of having parties anyway?
The conservative movement is dead because it no longer has a reason to exist. Whether or not something replaces it is debatable, but if that does happen, it will not be a defensive crouch. it will be an ideology appealing to insurgents and revolutionaries. It will be the credo of those who take joy in throwing sand in the gears of the big machine.