Tag Archives: Alan Jacobs

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.


This is what I see this morning.

A quick impression for you:



With some exceptions (and God bless them), this appears to be the state of the electorate right now. Full disclosure: even though I’m apparently a one-percenter, I’m glad that Romney lost because I think a Romney presidency would have been slightly more disastrous than four more years of Obama, and the Republican Party has, in my view, pretty much been in the process of a slow-motion implosion for the better part of the last decade. (And what the Tea Party movement became was a contributor to that implosion, as opposed to the galvanizing revival, as many conservatives have painted it.) What I had hoped — but not expected — is that, after a Romney loss (not to be confused with an Obama victory, which isn’t quite what happened last night), Americans would wake up and realize that they actually have to work together to find common ground and goals once the dust settles; that they are not enemies, but mere opponents. Alan Jacobs put it brilliantly:

I have seen (we all have seen) more and more articles, blog posts, and comments premised on the assumption that the writer’s political enemies really are enemies — wicked people bent on the destruction of all that is good and right in the world.

As for me, I don’t think people who disagree with me — about abortion, politics, religion, literature, whatever — are, on balance, any more wicked than I am. I just think that on the points where we disagree they happen to be wrong. That shouldn’t be such a difficult distinction to keep in mind.

After the North won the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln was re-elected president, the United States was probably in the most fragile position in its entire history. Some historically ignorant partisans may wish to claim that we’ve almost never been so divided, but until states start seceding from the Union and booting federal employees from their borders by force of arms, I call B.S. any such sentiment. To say that political tensions still ran high at the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration would be a fundamentally idiotic understatement. To their credit, both Romney and the president struck conciliatory notes in their respective concession and victory speeches. I don’t think either one put it quite as succinctly and eloquently as Lincoln, for whom, and for whose country at the time, the stakes could not have been higher:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The United States hasn’t literally been at war with itself these last four years; the politics of this election cycle (or the last several) haven’t literally created widows and orphans, and the nation’s wounds are metaphorical. Yet to judge by the rhetoric I’ve seen on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and video clips this morning, you’d think that Obama had just kneecapped grandma with a tire iron, or that Romney’s evil minions had been dragging people out of their beds at night and slapping them facedown on the guillotine. This is not a war, people, and just as losing losing political ground in an election does not mean losing the soul of the country, winning ground in an election does not equate to a unilateral endorsement of a monolithic (partisan) vision of progress. What it means is that, for the next two-to-six years, this particular set of people has been elected to debate, discuss, compromise, legislate, administrate, and generally do the hard work of running this country on its citizens’ behalf. That’s it.

So if you’re out there gloating or sulking, put a cork in it. Put on your big boy/big girl pants, wipe the spittle from your mouth, shake hands with your opponent, and get back to the business of being good neighbors. If you can’t do that, then it means you’ve never been interested in democracy, but domination. Show a little charity, please. ☕

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