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Mainstream conservatives, sometimes rightly mocked as Conservatism, Inc.™, have managed to conserve very little. Instead, during the Bush years and through to the present, their rhetoric and policies demonstrate that they function chiefly as the palace guard for yesterday’s liberalism. The rot of Conservatism, Inc. is so profound, that a great many younger people of a rightish persuasion prefer the term “nationalist” or, in what has proven to be a dead-end, the “alt-Right” label.
At least one reason that official conservatism has done so poorly is that its spokesmen speak in slogans that ignore the expressed concerns of their voters, often devolving into maudlin sentimentality. George W. Bush labeled himself a “compassionate conservative.” His brother Jeb famously said, “Immigration is an act of love.” Jeb and most of the losers from 2016 showed no willingness to affirm that the country is more than a mere idea, but a place that is supposed to further the good of its people.
Similarly, this week, Marco Rubio tweeted a kind word for nationalism that ended up being a cheer for open borders: “American Nationalism isn’t racial nationalism because American isn’t a race. As Reagan said, unlike other nations, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’ Our identity is [the] belief that all people are created equal, with God given rights.”
Is this the conservative view? Of course, there are some true things in this statement, but to say that others can become Americans does not mean that we are not a people with certain commonalities of origin, history, religion, and language. Other nations have also had immigrants, who, in time, became part of the fabric of the existing nation.
More important, no nation is about a race, but rather the much smaller subgrouping of a “nation.” No nation can take in a million people a year from countries radically dissimilar to itself without watering down the combination of shared habits and history that define a nation.
Finally, the unexamined belief in equality is hardly the defining quality of America, not least for so-called conservatives; indeed, the Soviet Union had a lot to say about equality too!
What Rubio and Jeb have said is typical of the state of Conservatism, Inc. It’s abstract, has a strong whiff of the Enlightenment wing of the American Revolution, incorporates the liberal value system more generally, and it does not provide a way forward that preserves the culture, livelihood, and security of actual flesh-and-blood Americans.
Conservatism, Inc. Misunderstands Politics In General
Conservatism’s departed éminence grise, Russell Kirk, famously described politics as the “art of the possible.” There is much to be said for this elegant and economical expression. Today’s conservatives do not appear to understand politics, which involves the intersection and ordering of many dimensions of life. It includes ideas, no doubt, but it is also must account for public opinion, that is to say, the received wisdom of the people, along with their consent. Politics is mostly about power, the translation of ideas into policy and action, coupled with a decision about who will benefit and lose. Thus, in democratic regimes, politics requires, above all, the assembly of a majority coalition.
Conservatism, Inc. is mostly about ideas, proceeding as if politics consists solely of assembling intellectually coherent arguments. Given enough time and energy, surely the people can be persuaded. This is not how people pick a team, as they care at least equally for how the ideas benefit themselves and whether the speaker is someone credible, that is, “one of them.”
Worse, the preferred ideas of mainstream Republicans are liberal in origin, often watered down into slogans. “We’re an exceptional nation.” We believe not in “equality of outcome, but equal opportunity.” We’re a “nation of immigrants.” These sentimental abstractions do not persuade and, frankly, are not the main concerns of people who actually vote for Republicans.
The party built on the ideological foundations of Conservatism, Inc. has come to resemble the Republican Party of old, a vaguely liberal and patrician vehicle of the business class, exemplified by New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Modern day conservatism began as the Goldwater-Buckley insurgent movement, and reached its zenith during the Reagan presidency. Over the years, however, it ditched its winning issues and failed to adapt to new problems.
The enemy then was big government at home and abroad: the Welfare State and the Soviet Union. They could both be opposed by the unifying principle of limited government. Even then, however, it was not all Laffer Curves and tax cuts. The war on the welfare state was also a war on the type of person it rewards: the surly bureaucrat and the parasitical “Welfare Queen.”
Unlike today’s slogan-based conservatism, the Goldwater wing of the party had a constituency: the middle and working classes, who defined themselves by their patriotism, self-reliance, and desire for law-and order. They had realistic aspirations for themselves and their families and did not want or need much help. The Democrats were for everyone else, not least the unproductive, the criminal classes, and those who manned the machinery of wealth redistribution.
Over time, Goldwater conservatism lost its nerve and its focus. After the end of the Cold War, at least half of its raison d’etre had disappeared, and the attempt to pivot to foreign adventurism in the 1990s under the banner of “national greatness” mostly fell on deaf ears.
In addition, conservatism seemed to adopt tactics designed to lose. Unlike the winning strategies of Lee Atwater and Ronald Reagan, each of whom connected their ideas and policies with voters’ more visceral fears and concerns, Conservatism, Inc. began to counsel abandoning “divisive” stances on everything from abortion to gay marriage and gun control in order to woo an alleged key group for winning elections: socially moderate, economically free-market oriented voters. Over time, the strategists lost touch with the concerns and anxieties of the American people, which became more nationalistic and wary of mass immigration after 9/11. At the same time, after the financial crisis of 2008, their sense of common interest with large corporations had withered, and the blind embrace of free trade and laissez faire seemed more and more a sucker’s game.
Conservatism, Inc. forgot that economics used to be called political economy because it is concerned not only with economic growth, but the good of a particular community, and the cultivation of the institutions, laws, culture, and human types that would sustain such growth. Aristotle and our Founding Fathers all knew that a stable, large, propertied middle class—none too powerful, nor too rootless—is the key to a sustainable majoritarian government. The axiom-based free market thinking of the Paul Ryans of the world proved largely indifferent to the decline of the middle class as a consequence of trade with China and immigration-driven wage declines.
Prior to Trump (and even after him), mainstream conservatism failed to adapt to these new threats to national flourishing, including the aggressive multiculturalism that defined the Democrats under Obama in particular. Conservatism, Inc.’s well-heeled opinion makers began to resemble their neighbors in the nation’s capital: a highly educated, socially liberal, and cosmopolitan group that shares little in common with the people in “flyover country.” By 2016, Conservatism, Inc. had gone from being out-of-touch to positively hostile to the Republican electorate energized by Trump’s populist message.
The Conservative Classics Remain Relevant
Although it has become fashionable on the dissident right to question the label “conservatism” because of the failures of Conservatism, Inc., there is much to recommend in the tradition and in the label itself. Trump has stumbled upon a winning formula for political victory, but the victory may prove evanescent if his supporters fail to deepen their understanding. Good policy does not flow merely from instinct or well-placed concern, but requires proper foundations. An acquaintance with this tradition would teach that nothing in “true conservatism” requires the rejection of border controls, indifference to the destruction of domestic industries through trade, or wars to “spread democracy” as an expression of American Exceptionalism.
This long preface leads to me to two small book recommendations, one recent, and the other a perennial. The first used to be promoted in National Review when the magazine took itself more seriously, but one hardly hears today of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. This is unfortunate, as the work opens the door to Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Sir Henry Maine, Patrick Fitzjames Stephens, John Randolph, and others whom it may be hard otherwise to have encountered.
In this work, Kirk traces a steady strain of American conservative thinking stretching back to the founding generation. While we are wont to think of the Founding Fathers as having a single, shared set of ideas, in which the Declaration of Independence looms large, he reminds us of other less exuberant strains of thinking, including the cautionary thoughts of John Dickinson and John Adams. By tracing the intellectual history of American and European conservatism from Burke through the present, he describes a more nuanced and flexible tradition of thought, the understanding of which casts immediate doubt upon any rigid or ideological belief system.
Second, of more recent vintage, is Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. The Englishman Scruton is a perceptive student of the modern scene and reminds American conservatives that our country is fundamentally a product of the British Isles, themselves a part of the larger tradition of the West. At least part of the schizophrenic attitude of American conservatives to the Enlightenment derives from America’s own roots in the more moderate and free-market oriented Scottish Enlightenment. Almost immediately after our success, the country was alternately dazzled and horrified by the fruits of the continental enlightenment, the French Revolution, along with its anti-clericalism, hostility to tradition, and desire for remaking society according to a scientific plan concerned with “equality” and “progress.”
Scruton reminds us of the conservative point of view on these events. The “French revolutionaries went into battle with a slogan that promised liberty and equality together. Subsequent history might be taken to suggest that the goals are, in practice, incompatible, or at least in radical tension with each other.” He says much more, providing a useful brief on a range of conservative thinkers, and the changing responses of conservatives to social and economic changes over the preceding two hundred years. Above all, he explains that while issues and challenges vary over time and place, conservatives everywhere must “adapt to change in the name of continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have.”
The two works together reveal that much from the old conservatism is missing from the “true conservatism” supposedly desecrated by Trump and the nationalists. Namely, conservatism is a broad perspective that includes much more than low taxes, free trade, and a strong military, but respect for tradition, the need for order, skepticism of abstraction, the recognition of economics as one among many social goods, the importance of hierarchy and, thus, the prioritization of liberty over equality as a political good. In other words, conservatism is fundamentally an expression of a general skepticism and hard-headedness.
This last point is critical. Encounters with these classics, far from being an amusing pastime, is fundamentally practical. These works contain a careful descriptions of how society and individuals operate and function as a warning against those who would disrespect the inherent logic in this organic process.
The tradition of conservative ideas, while perhaps not capable of unifying a majority coalition in a degraded, disunified, post-modern America, may at least inform those on the right of what is possible. After all, there is not much new under the sun, and most of the Left’s ideas have either been tried and failed or have been thoroughly refuted by our predecessors.
More important, an education in the best of conservatism would unmask the core liberalism of Conservatism, Inc., a defect that is far more corrosive than its mere inability to win elections.
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