The other day, this Ross Douthat column was sent to me and posted here in the comments. The reason is Ross appears to be riffing on some of my themes, particularly with regards to the managerial elite. It’s rare that anyone uses the language of James Burnham, much less his ideas, so I can see why people would assume some connection. I doubt Douthat reads this blog, but I’m flattered nonetheless. I know he reads Steve Sailer, so maybe he has run across this site too.
The thing is, Douthat is a scribe for hire and the people paying his rent are not much interested in a bare knuckled critique of the status quo. There’s that and the fact that he falls into the same trap as the rest of the Conservative Industrial Complex. That is, he has spent too long getting high off his own supply. By that I mean he largely accepts, as gospel, the marketing materials that have spewed out of conservative media for the last three decades. Specifically, that Official Conservatism™ is a mass movement.
Mass movements appeal to those seeking to shed their individual identity and take on that of the cause they admire. A practical organization, like political party or an issue group, appeals to those seeking to increase their status by attaining practical goals like winning office or pushing through some policy change. Somewhere in the Reagan years, the people leading the political fights on the Right began to think they were “happy warriors” leading a quasi-religious movement, putting principle ahead of achievement.
At the same time, they were taking advantage of the expanding opportunities for self-enrichment that comes from rising to the top of political organizations. Many members of the conservative commentariat have become fabulously rich, while the lesser lights enjoy six figure incomes and comfortable lifestyles paid for by non-profits and the tax payers. John Kasich, one of those happy warriors, is worth north of $20 million, despite working in government jobs his entire life. Not bad for the son of a milkman.
Douthat and the other “reformers from within” can’t bring themselves to face this reality. The closest they come is when it comes to the Bush years.
The first failure was a failure of governance and wisdom, under George W. Bush and in the years that followed. Had there been weapons of mass destruction under Iraqi soil and a successful occupation, or had Bush and his advisers chosen a more prudent post-Sept. 11 course, the trust that right-wing populists placed in their elites might not have frayed so quickly. If those same conservative intellectuals had shown more policy imagination over all, if they hadn’t assumed that the solutions of 1980 could simply be recycled a generation later, the right’s blue-collar voters might not have drifted toward a man who spoke, however crudely, to their more immediate anxieties.
This sounds remarkably similar to the excuses made for Soviet communism, by Marxist academics in the West. They could not excuse the murder and squalor that were the inevitable end of communism, so they argued that the Russians had simply done it wrong. If they had only listened to the academics, things would be different. That’s Douthat’s claim with the Iraq invasion. He can’t admit it was a horrible blunder and the natural result of elite “conservatism.” Instead, he says it was just a good idea poorly executed.
The bulk of his brief is just an extended rant about the horribleness of the Dirt People.
The second failure was a failure of recognition and self-critique, in which the right’s best minds deceived themselves about (or made excuses for) the toxic tendencies of populism, which were manifest in various hysterias long before Sean Hannity swooned for Donald Trump. What the intellectuals did not see clearly enough was that Fox News and talk radio and the internet had made right-wing populism more powerful, relative to conservatism’s small elite, than it had been during the Nixon or Reagan eras, without necessarily making it more serious or sober than its Bircher-era antecedents.
I’d offer a more sober interpretation. What happened in the late 80’s is that so-called conservative intellectuals figured out they could get as fabulously rich as their liberal buddies by slapping the word “conservative” on just about anything and selling it to decent people, claiming the proceeds were going to finance the fight against the Left. The reason the Dirt People are pissed off is they have finally wised up to the fact it was all just a hustle. They’re pissed because they were made to look like fools by people they trusted.
The somewhat comical part of the column is in his conclusion.
So it is that today, three generations after Buckley and Burnham, the academy and the mass media are arguably more hostile to conservative ideas than ever, and the courts and the bureaucracy are trending in a similar direction.
Reflecting on this harsh reality has confirmed some conservatives in their belief that the managerial order is inherently left wing, and that the goal of a conservative politics should be to sweep the managerial class away entirely. This is part of the appeal of Trump to a small cohort within the right’s intelligentsia, who imagine that his strongman approach can unweave the administrative state and strip the overclass of all its powers.
This idea strikes me as fatuous and fantastical at once. But is there an alternative? Continetti’s essay hints at one: to make intellectual conservatism a more elite-focused project, to seek “a conservative tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition.”
This path seems considerably more appealing (and more republican) than the dream of a Trump-led Thermidor. But is it any more plausible? To begin anew, at such steep disadvantages, what amounts to missionary work?
This is the heroin addict saying the cure is more heroin. This is the head of a company in bankruptcy saying only he can lead the company back to profitability. This is the nobleman, trapped in his castle, offering to lead the peasant revolt. It’s also an offensively idiotic characterization of what’s happening. Exactly no one imagines Trump as a strongman sent to sweep away the over class. That’s the sort of thing guys like Ross Douthat tell themselves so they can feel like heroes for supporting Clinton.
The fact is, democracy inevitably leads to one party rule. This is the lesson of history. If there is going to be an alternative to the dominant orthodoxy, it is going to be an alternative, not an echo. That means it will be anti-managerial, anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian. It will be opposed to the cornerstone beliefs of the ruling class. You can defend it or oppose it, but there can be no compromise. That’s the lesson of Conservative Inc’s failure. They sought compromise where there could be none, so they just sold out instead.