Conservatism Is Over: A New Vocabulary for a New Right

The establishment right-wing commentariat spent the week in internecine bickering on Twitter about whether it was wise for Turning Point USA to demand a 48-year-old female porn “star” leave a political action conference aimed at late adolescents and college students. Apparently, there is no more pressing matter for their intellectual energies: as if a single winnable vote for a candidate on the Right would be lost because a prostitute was treated poorly at an event almost no one had even heard was happening. 

“We need a ‘big tent’ conservatism,” the usual suspects insisted—we’d be fools to alienate porn enthusiasts, who as a group, obviously are “Natural Conservatives.”™

Nonsense ideas about a nonevent. 

So I was grateful when I saw American Greatness’ managing editor, Ben Boychuk, had written the much-needed retort to anyone who thinks that “openness” to porn must be a strategic concession of right-wing politics. Even more to the point, Boychuk zeroed in on the problems inherent in the term “conservative” at this particular impasse in American life:

“The present dispute . . . exposes the inadequacy of the term ‘conservative.’ It is one of many reasons the editors of this journal are ambivalent-bordering-on-hostile to the word. As ever, the question boils down to what exactly ‘conservatives’ are trying to conserve.”

I suspect that Boychuk—like me—has a sense that whatever the conservative movement was once trying to conserve, has long been lost. The recognition of this loss is the core experience people on the Right are reckoning with today. The reformed sensibility of those of us who, until recently, had considered ourselves “conservatives” was forged through a process of awakening to this loss over the last 10 years. 

We now face two questions that must be resolved before any meaningful political action can begin. The first is, “What did we lose?” which is synonymous with “What were we trying to conserve?” The second is, “What should we do about it?” 

We Lost the America of 1776

In answer to the first question, it’s not difficult to see what we’ve lost. We lost the America of 1776.

It’s an open debate as to when it began coming undone. It is difficult to pinpoint when the battle was lost decisively because we fought valiantly and our defeat was incremental. For some time, it was clear that we were losing, but it seemed we hadn’t yet lost. Put differently, we knew we had surrendered some key positions in the fight against the “fundamental transformation” of America, but we labored under the assumption that if we continued to fight hard enough (and the chips fell in our favor), we might regain the advantage in the ideological tug-of-war and recapture what we had lost. 

Surveying American life and government in 2021, the failure of American conservatives cannot be denied. What we lost was precisely the vision of American governance and virtues that Benjamin Franklin warned us would be a struggle to maintain.

Equality under the law? Despite successes in recognizing the humanity of previously oppressed minority groups, the free market has enabled a crass commodification of legal representation that ensures many Americans must routinely settle for inferior counsel. Another sign of bias in the legal institutions is that informed citizens who aren’t lawyers can reliably predict the outcome of key cases merely by learning the number of the circuit court before which they will be argued.

But the betrayal of equality under the law isn’t only evident in formal court proceedings—it can be seen in things like the increasingly discriminatory affirmative action policies in higher education, or the Biden Administration’s overt racial favoritism in allocating COVID relief funds.

What about the doctrine of natural rights, the “inalienable” ones with which we are supposed to be endowed by our Creator? We need to begin with the status of that Creator in 2021: fewer Americans than ever profess a religious faith. The acolytes of one of our two ruling parties boo the mention of God at their conventions. Statues to Satan and George Floyd are erected while monuments to Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and the Ten Commandments are removed, defaced, or toppled. Is it any surprise that in the current vacuum of religious faith natural rights have been supplanted by “civil rights”? 

Civil rights are rights created and bestowed upon us by the state, and as such, are quite “alienable.” The rise in the emphasis on civil rights removes any limit on the emergence of new rights and the nullification of old ones. In the last 50 years alone, healthcare has become a “civil right,” the natural right to life was superseded by a civil right to abortion (guaranteed under a dubious expansion of the right to privacy), and a right to marry has expanded into a civil right to same-sex marriage. Soon, that expansion will be followed by a “right” to polygamous and polyandrous marriage.

Limited government? By almost every metric the United States has the most complex, most expensive, most expansive government in the history of the world—a political apparatus that some commentators have rightly called a “megastate.” And sadly, the unprecedented scope of the bureaucracy insulates the megastate from any substantial reform imposed through democratic proceduralism. 

When they talk about the “deep state,” opponents of the existing order are not referring to anything clandestine or conspiratorial: they mean only that the expanding caste of lavishly funded government employees ultimately results in an administrative bureaucracy that rules in the interest of the regime itself and not on behalf of citizens. Of course, a government cannot prioritize both the public interest and its own interests. This means that when conflicts of interest inevitably arise, the interests of everyday Americans come to be seen as a barrier to the objectives of the state.

Free and fair elections? Leave aside the irregularities and anomalies of the 2020 election. Key states leveraged a global pandemic to justify rule changes that assured an advantage for Democratic candidates—in some cases without securing the legally mandated legislative approval of said changes. These violations were of no concern to our courts, which dismissed nearly every suit that came their way, often on procedural grounds. 

The Supreme Court’s claim that Texas (along with nearly 20 other states) had no standing to file their suit was characteristic of the Roberts era which has delivered sweeping win after win to the cultural Left. But even if we ignore Election 2020 as a whole, can we honestly call any election “free and fair” in a context where the reach of the corporate media is unlimited and where the overwhelming majority of it works tirelessly to advance the prospects of the ruling class and their statist ideology?

The Ascendance of the New Order

In short, all of the values of the founding have been banished, compromised, or forgotten. There is no clear means by which to “reclaim” or “restore” that earlier state of affairs: the confluence of corporate interests, state power, and globalist ideology has neutralized the ability of the American people to dictate the terms of their governance. Only two years ago, I asked whether we could still call ourselves “conservatives.” Today it is undeniable: conservatism is over.

The order that displaced the one founded in 1776 was brought into being through incremental usurpation. The new order privately disdains the values of the old regime, with its in-built limitations and divisions of powers, maintained through a deference to an antiquated, unchanging document that is rendered obsolete by the cultural sophistications of modernity.

Effective resistance to the new regime is greatly complicated by the fact that its representatives justify their rule by mobilizing the symbols and the rationalizations of the America they annihilated: equality, justice for all, stars and stripes, and the rest of it. But in the current dispensation, these words and ideas have been imbued with new meanings and associations. Equality has become state intervention to address “inequities.” Justice has become institutional favoritism as revenge for past suffering. The flag is just a symbol of the power structure that imposes the new values.

And—in response to all of this—some of the biggest names in Conservative, Inc. spend their time criticizing those erstwhile “conservatives” who lack the vision to see how Pornhub can be turned into an asset for a politics grounded in traditional American principles? It won’t do.

Right Politics in a New Idiom

So, what to do? Others are much better positioned than I to answer such a question. As a rhetorician, though, I do know that articulating any viable answer will first require a new way of talking—about America and about ourselves. This is because (to echo the nagging harpies of the Left) the words we use really do matter. The vocabulary that we have for speaking about ourselves as political actors and describing the current realities of political life extends from certain presuppositions that determine the scope of political action. 

I submit that much of the language the American Right uses in talking about politics presumes certain things that are just no longer true, given the extent of the loss that I describe above. If I am correct—if the way we talk about politics takes for granted a state of reality that no longer exists—then using the old words and an obsolete vocabulary will only reinforce our commitment to forms of political action that are not viable in our new reality. This means developing effective forms of resistance will depend on formulating a new political idiom.

For starters, then, we need to abandon conservative and conservatism. These terms tend to obscure the fact that what we were trying to conserve already has been lost. Put differently, we can’t reclaim them simply by recruiting more friends to take our side in an ongoing ideological tug-of-war. We lost that game. We need to start playing a new game—a different one with different rules. Calling ourselves “conservatives” just conditions us to employ tactics that were suited to the old game.

Other words that we probably need to start avoiding are ones like restore and reclaim. These terms also encourage us to underestimate the decisiveness of our opponents’ victory. Further, they subtly imply that some kind of comeback is possible—that if we come out of the locker room in the second half (of the same old game, using the same old strategy) and play our hearts out, we can still win the game. But that game is over. There are other games in which we might compete. But we can’t start training for them until we understand the implications of our loss and how it happened. That kind of reckoning will be critical to achieving a different outcome in future contests.

We should also stop referring to ourselves as citizens. Citizenship is an important concept, and the creation of citizens should be chief among our future goals. But we must learn to talk about citizenship as a condition of certain people in relation to their rulers. Of course, our government still identifies us as citizens, but the practical realities of our political agency as it now exists do not merit that title. 

Citizens, after all, take on some privileges as a result of that status. In the new order, however, noncitizens are granted many of those same privileges as citizens—and in some cases, non-citizens are given extra privileges precisely on the grounds of their non-citizen status. Viable citizenship, embodied by exclusive rights, is the root of civic engagement, which in turn is an indicator of a healthy participatory democracy. It follows, then, that very few Americans today engage in any form of civic life. We can call a life lived on these terms many things—but subject is probably a more honest description than citizen.

I know. Giving up this vocabulary will not only be difficult—it will hurt. It will be difficult because we are habituated to talking about ourselves and our nation in certain ways, and habits are hard to break. It will hurt because the ways we talked about ourselves and our nation were reflections of a happier political reality that no longer obtains. Learning to use a different terminology means constantly reminding ourselves of the lamentable characteristics of our new reality. But because finding more effective means of political action in the future will depend upon an honest assessment of this new reality, we need to learn to talk in ways that implicitly acknowledge it. 

Until we reject the old idiom, our forms of political action will be directed by an erroneous set of assumptions. And this will mean our efforts will fail. We need to find a way to institute a new founding, as the Claremont Institute’s Matt Peterson has recently observed. I echo that call. But before we can make it a reality, we will need to learn a new language.

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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