For many decades now, conservatives in the United States and elsewhere have faced a dilemma. By disposition, conservatives are inclined to endorse precedent. But since the dominant culture is liberal, conservatives must make their peace with progressive policies or find themselves accused of abandoning the central conservative principle of supporting established precedent.
As James Piereson noted in these pages in 2009, “conservatives, if they wished to maintain that designation, . . . were obliged to endorse all manner of liberal reforms once they were established as part of the new status quo.”
For example, it was said that “conservatives who attacked the New Deal were not acting like conservatives because they were in effect attacking the established order—and, of course, ‘real’ conservatives would never do that.” This embarrassing gambit was applied all down the line. If you opposed a liberal or progressive policy that had become established, you were not acting in a conservative manner but in an extreme or radical manner. “Conservatives, moreover,” Piereson pointed out,
could have no program of their own or, at any rate, any program that had any reasonable chance of succeeding, because any successful appeal to the wider public would turn them into populists and, through that process, into extremists and radicals. Not surprisingly, they viewed a popular conservatism as a contradiction in terms. Conservatives, in short, could only win power and influence by betraying their principles, and could only maintain those principles by accepting their subordinate status. Thus, in the eyes of the liberal historians, conservatism could never prosper in America because, if it did, it could no longer be called conservatism.
This last formulation recalls an observation by the Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?/ For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Mutatis mutandis, conservatism doth never prosper, for if it does, none dare call it conservatism.
This surreal situation was the result of an inexorable process of one-way ratcheting. Progressive ideology makes continuous inroads, gobbling up one institution and one consensus after the next. Any occasional pushback is weathered as a temporary squall, after which the work of expanding the progressive envelope proceeds apace. Last year’s extreme outlier becomes this year’s settled opinion. To oppose that is evidence not of conservative principle but reactionary, even (as we have lately been told) insurrectionary, stubbornness.
The fate of this dialectic has depended upon a certain friction in which conservative conviction appealed to a fund of traditionalist sentiment even as it acceded to ever more extreme moral and political positions. Over the past several decades, however, this dialectic has lost its ballast as the entire apparatus of government has been colonized by an extreme progressive agenda.
In the past, conservatives had been able to regard the fundamental institutions of society—the family, the churches, the military, the corporate world—as natural allies. This is no longer the case. At a time when the Department of Justice identifies ordinary parents as potential “domestic terrorists” because they oppose the insinuation of sexual exoticism and Marxist ideology into their children’s schools and the fbi scrutinizes traditional Catholic parishes for evidence of “extremism,” conservatives face a new dilemma.
In years past, they were asked to accommodate themselves to established liberal policies and the welfare state or forfeit relevance. Today, they are asked to collaborate in their own obliteration as the essential forces of governmental power are enlisted in propagating the progressive project.
What happened? The four essays following the attached piece from The New Criterion on “The new conservative dilemma,” explore that question. They also conjure with its successor question: what, if anything, can conservatives do to respond effectively to their de facto supersession?
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For more, including all four essays mentioned, head over to The New Criterion.