Reflections on revolution in American conservatism, part 1

This blog is not primarily meant for engagement with contemporary electoral politics, but I do agree with Alan Jacobs that blogs are meant, among other things, to hold their writers publicly accountable for thinking out loud. Current events therefore demand a reckoning of sorts.

People who know me well and longtime readers of this blog know that I have been identifying myself with conservatism. I’ve struggled mightily to retain for that label, insofar as it applies to myself, something resembling moral integrity.

To start off, then, I’d like to associate myself with a couple of posts made by Jacobs, the first from his blog at The American Conservative:

We all know what Trump is: so complete a narcissist that the concepts of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are alien to him. He knows only the lust for power and the rage of being thwarted in his lust. In a sane society the highest position to which he could aspire is apprentice dogcatcher, and then only if no other candidates presented themselves.

If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, “Goodbye cruel world.” But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.

And this one, from his personal blog:

As a conservative-liberal-socialist, I don’t fit onto any political maps that I know of, and I am accustomed to feeling slightly out of place — more, out of focus — in any given policy debate. But despite the sizable liberal element in my own personal political constitution, in times of serious conflict — today’s Brexit contretemps, for instance — I am always temperamentally alienated from liberalism. For what distinguishes many (most?) liberals from both conservatives and socialists, as today’s social media torpedoes reveal, is genuine incomprehension that any sane and decent person could disagree with them. […]

And this is why, despite the significant proportion of my political views that is genuinely liberal, I am less at home among liberals than among any other political group. Once their howls of outrage get wound up — and there is no outrage like that of a thwarted cultural elite — I just want to back quietly out of the room, close the door behind me, and get as far away as I can.

What I’ve confirmed over the course of the past year of following national politics is something I’ve come to realize over the last several years—or, rather, in the last decade and a half.

A central tenet of what I call “conservatism” is that the opposite of conservatism is not liberalism but radicalism. Aphoristically: conservatism is a principle of political temperament, not a policy agenda.

Edmund Burke wrote, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” The same is true, I think, of an individual’s political philosophy. There’s no need to retain ideological dogmata if they retain little value over time, but we ought not discard received wisdom lightly.

Within that framework, though, I consider President Obama a conservative. That might get me a “no duh” in countries much more liberal than the U.S. (or from Americans who had persuaded themselves that Bernie Sanders, bless him, was not a chasing a herd of flying pigs on his unicorn), but here, that just doesn’t work. I doubt the president himself would embrace that label in the current political climate. While there are self-identified conservatives who highly prize being anti-radical in temperament, there are few to none who use that as the primary criterion for what constitutes conservatism.

So: either everyone else in America misunderstands what conservatism is, or I do.

Around this time a year ago, I may have been tempted to say that political conservatism of some extant variety was still recuperable. I would have continued to do my part to make it so.

Circumstances dictate, however, that I categorically reject any association with the category 5 flustercuck that has been brewing in the GOP-conservative coalition for the last few decades. I’ve never been a Republican, but my temperamental conservatism has, like Jacobs, led me frequently to identify more with those aligned with the conservative (or classical liberal, if you prefer) tradition than the Left. Much as I tried to distance myself from particular noxious ideas within that tradition, I never thought it necessary to renounce a shared political identity tout court. That’s over now.

You can read my opinion on the Republican Party’s wholesale embrace of bigotry in my commonplace blog. Since I’ve been old enough to vote, I’ve never identified as a Republican, but I have valued my identity as an unaffiliated independent. Until this year, I would have at least thoughtfully considered a Republican before casting my vote. No longer. I will never vote for a Republican for any elected office. Ever. I don’t care how much I like an individual candidate. Whatever happens at the convention this month, the Republican Party has amply demonstrated its commitment to the values of racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and tyranny. Consequently, my vote will never be used in support of that peculiar institution.

Conservatives may point out that “conservatives” and “Republicans” are not isomorphic groups. True enough. There are still several conservative thinkers I genuinely respect and admire (Jacobs among them). They comprise a vanishingly small group. Most of them do not identify strongly as Republican. Even if they are decent, intelligent, and erudite people, I’m afraid that they do not typify, in my view, American conservatism. They are the rare exceptions, and I can’t identify myself as part of a tradition if I selectively edit its roster to include only the handful of good folks who aren’t braying sociopaths or historically illiterate bletherskates.

This is a matter of lex parsimoniae. 1.) A majority of Republicans self-identify as conservative. 2.) A plurality of Republicans has endorsed Donald Trump for president. 3.) Most “movement” conservatives who command the lion’s share of public attention support Trump in the name of conservatism—or, at the very least, in the name of defeating liberalism. Quack, quack, quack. That’s a flappin’ duck, folks. And this foul game* is bigger than one election cycle.

Something is rotten in the state of American conservatism, and I, for one, refuse to follow that shambling ghost to the parapet.

My political temperament is still best described as conservative. That will certainly have influence on my political views, but it in no way reflects my identification with whatever the public discourse calls political conservatism. Let me stress this point. American conservatism has placed Donald Trump, a person in possession of mostly vile and/or dangerous political opinions, in serious contention for the presidency. Conservatism in the United States has led itself to this moment, so I think the time has come for anyone who still wants to call him- or herself “conservative” to reflect critically on what, exactly, they believe and whether the devil has given them a good price for their souls.

Time to rub the scales out of my eyes. Whatever I am, “conservative” apparently no longer applies, at least in any politically meaningful way in the present cultural context.

To be continued.


* Couldn’t resist. I’m so very sorry.

Updated with link to Part 2, 16 July 2016.


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

One response to “Reflections on revolution in American conservatism, part 1

  • Reflections on revolution in American conservatism, part 2 | Catecinem

    […] Previously, I said that I have disavowed conservatism because a majority of American conservatives are aligned with bigotry. It’s a very presentist case to make, and the emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican (read: conservative, or at least “less liberal” than Hillary Clinton) candidate has made it not only easy, but convenient. To be perfectly honest, there’s a little bit of self-defense involved in my sudden deconversion: I don’t want to be associated with the racists and religious bigots on the Right who have made Trump their candidate. Since this blog is public, I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that I’m on board with the Lars von Trier melodrama unfolding within conservative circles. I’m not, in any way, interested in performing the ethical and rhetorical contortions to justify why I’m still conservative that other self-identified conservatives have been performing in order to explain away why they’re still voting for Donald Trump. I’m also not interested in performing the ethical and rhetorical contortions that other self-identified conservatives (the ones with a moral center) have been performing in order to place the responsibility for Trump’s ascendance on the Left. There’s blame enough to go around, I suppose, but I agree with Damon Linker that the main blame lies with the Right. […]

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