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.
Therefore, a question that’s been vexing me for the last year is whether I’ve contributed to the surge of bigotry in any way simply by offering up conservative apologetics in the past.
This isn’t just navel-gazing; it’s a question of ethical responsibility. It’s a question I think every self-identified conservative ought to wrestle with. What is it in American conservatism (leaving aside other Western right wing traditions) that has enabled Trump, of all people, to be The Guy?
In assaying this question, I hope to make it clear that my disassociation with American conservatism as a political movement is not done purely for convenience, but something that is principled and which has been coming for some time. The truth is that it has been difficult for me for a long time to find much overlap between my own politics and the politics adopted by a majority of self-identified conservatives in this country. The difference now is that I no longer see myself as occupying a neglected corner of a big tent, but a place somewhere outside of it. In some ways, I feel that American conservatism pulled up stakes and left me behind some time ago, but it’s also likely that I simply wandered outside the tent at some point without realizing it until, just recently, I took a big gulp of fresh air and noticed that the circus, with its angry clowns and great heaps of elephant dung, was far, far away.
Most of what I wrote below with reference to historical context is mostly boilerplate summary and in no way my own original argument. As this is a personal reflection and not an academic essay, I’m not going to track down every document that has, for the last several years, nudged my thinking in this direction. Perhaps I’ll cover that in future reflections. At any rate, the historical context is my own words, but not my own ideas. Please read with that in mind.
Russell Kirk is probably one of the most famous twentieth-century theorists of conservatism as a distinct political philosophy. Among other things, he’s famous for enshrining Edmund Burke as a canonical forerunner of what we, in America, now think of as conservative ideology. His essay on the “Ten Principles of Conservative Thought” is one that I’ve returned to at different points in my life as I’ve tried to balance current political circumstances against my own evolving framework. It’s necessary to remember that Kirk’s main body of intellectual work was published in the context of the Cold War. In fact, it’s necessary to remember that what is now mainstream U.S. conservatism was developed in that context. American society underwent a number of social changes in the decades stretching from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For the moment, it’s important to keep in mind that conservative intellectuals contended with three political antagonists that they saw as mutually overlapping (or, rather, in alliance against them): 1.) the radical Left intelligentsia, based mainly in universities and cosmopolitan, mostly coastal, urban centers; 2.) international communism, exemplified by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and, after the 60s, various countries in South America; 3.) the progressive/liberal political movement, dating back at least to Wilson and TR, with presidents like FDR, JFK, and LBJ carrying the torch forward. It’s true that these three traditions have included people who have felt kinship with all of them, and it’s also true that there were people in all of them that utterly despised and disavowed association with the other traditions. Broadly speaking, the only thing these traditions have in common is that they were generally “Leftist.”
Apart from that, there were often sharp disagreements in terms of ideology and praxis between them. One of the more important distinctions is that the radical Left was often deeply critical of the entire European Enlightenment tradition, going all the way back to Locke, Kant, and Smith, while liberals often championed their causes on the principles that the radicals despised: individual liberty and reason. The radical argument (and I’m being quite reductive here) is that the Enlightenment tradition paved the way for the worst excesses of capitalism, which undergirded the material wealth and accomplishments of the West, including the wealth gained through the various colonial projects of the European nations. For radicals, individualism and the celebration of reason were just tools for keeping democratic populations docile and too motivated by self-interest to actually follow through on overcoming inequality. Liberals, by contrast, often achieved their most significant victories—making voting more democratic, civil rights legislation, social safety net programs—by emphasizing the dignity and choice of the individual and her exercise of reason. Few of these progressive achievements actually undermined or attacked the foundations of capitalism itself, which is why the radicals saw those victories as nice but ultimately hollow. Communists, for their part, tended to combine the worst elements of Left agitation for equality and liberal designs for rationalized social equality. Liberals deplored the abuses of communist regimes; radicals were often split, with some simply turning a blind eye to communist horrors, some ascribing communist failures to capitalism’s unending malignancy, and some moving even further beyond the framework of the nation-state, often championing variations on anarchist subversion of convention, whether liberal-democratic, fascist, or communist.
Into this context, the modern conservative movement as such was nursed into being.
The “ten principles” outlined by Kirk were originally delivered to a speech to the Heritage Foundation in 1986, late in his life, and more than three decades after the publication of The Conservative Mind. By this point, “movement conservatism” had become an ideology of its own. William F. Buckley, Jr. had the ear of President Ronald Reagan, and National Review was the flagship publication of conservative intellectual thought. Conservative pundits had also established a significant presence in mass media. Readers could follow writers like George Will and Charles Krauthammer in syndicated newspaper columns or The Weekly Standard, while radio listeners could tune into Rush Limbaugh or Phyllis Schafly. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, in the meantime, had consolidated the so-called Religious Right into what they termed a “Moral Majority,” citizens who tuned intoThe 700 Club or subscribed to newsletters from organizations like Focus on the Family. The Heritage Foundation itself had become a leading conservative think tank by the mid-80s. Organizations like this one were vital to the project of welding a more hardline ideological conservatism, developed among the activist base that had propelled the Barry Goldwater insurgency a generation earlier, to the forefront of the political platform of the Republican Party.
In reading Kirk’s declaration of principles, we cannot afford to ignore this context. The Cold War caused a lot of misery globally, and to consider only the American context, it resulted in at least two wars fought to loss or stalemate (Vietnam and Korea), the support of often horrific dictatorships in South America, and the support of the proxy insurgents in the Middle East (to fight Soviet aggression into South and Southwest Asia) who would evolve into radical Islamist terror groups or theocratic dictatorships. On a more abstract level, it also managed to calcify ideological divisions in the United States—as far as conservatives were concerned—into two groups. On the one side were the three Left traditions outlined above, conflated by conservatives into a single monolithic force. Movement conservatives are as adept at invoking Stalin and Mao when talking about the Left as liberals are at invoking Hitler and Mussolini when talking about the Right. The Right’s calcification of the Left into a single, homogenous entity with respect to the Cold War is significant for my purposes only in that movement conservatives still have not moved on from that (wildly distorted) paradigm. What they have yet to come to terms with is that the particular fusion of political interests developed during the Cold War era—Christian social/religious hegemony, economic libertarianism (free market triumphalism combined with slashing federal programs), hawkish military spending and belligerence, increasing the militarization of police (coupled with extreme positions on individual gun rights), and expanding independent power of the executive branch for national security purposes—were also calcified. Outside the context of the Cold War, the Reagan fusion makes little to no ideological sense. As a coalition of interests threatened specifically by Soviet-style communism, it does. Much as movement conservatism falsely conflated various strains of Leftist thought, it at least responded to a specific real-world situation. That’s not where the world is now, though.
The ten principles outlined by Kirk are not presented specifically as anti-communist resistance. They give the impression that they transcend their moment in time, as principles are meant to do. Kirk’s summation at the very end feels apt to what it is that conservatism ought to be, a recognition of “an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.” That’s almost too transcendent, though. It’s not much different from the affirmation that we ought to bend toward our platonic ideals, rather than bend a mutable universe to our own will. As the foundation for political philosophy, we could do worse, but there have been moments in progressive thought, especially of the Hegelian varieties, that see progress as teleological, which is often simply another form of pursuing transcendent ideals. We do better to consider some of the specific principles Kirk outlines to get a sense of what he means.
I won’t go through all of them, but I’ll highlight a couple that are most pertinent to my reflections.
Let’s start with this one, which is probably the most recognizably conservative in the American political context.
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic leveling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.
You can see the fingerprints of the libertarian strain of Austrian economists all over this principle. More specifically, it is thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, who developed the foundations for latter-day libertarian politics. Leviathan is a synonym for statist totalitarianism in this snippet, and libertarians contend that economic liberty and individual liberty are isomorphic concepts, and that if a single entity (such as the modern nation-state) controls the majority of private property, then the freedom to exercise individual liberty is necessarily curtailed. It follows, of course, that those who posses more wealth have more liberty than others, but this is, in the anarcho-capitalist realm of political theory, acceptable, because it both incentivizes individual striving for more wealth and allows individuals who exercise their freedom irresponsibly to lose it.
I’ve flirted with libertarianism for years, and I think it to be one of the most ideologically consistent political philosophies; the consistency itself is appealing to me. Unfortunately, my interest in libertarian thought led me to read a good deal of it. As with many things, direct exposure to something is the best inoculation against it.
Libertarian social economists have yet to provide an explanation of how statist nonintervention is to prevent a form of corporate oligarchy from replacing a functioning representative democracy, apart from the hazy belief that if a corporation runs its fief inefficiently, it will crumble and be replaced by another. For anyone concerned at all with maintaining social order, valorizing the volatility of free market competition and its fallout strikes me as naïve at best, and malicious at worst. Furthermore, the alleged efficiency of the market in weeding the strong from the weak competitors conventionally draws parallels between the processes of capitalism and natural selection. Natural selection, as a natural process, is amoral. Why, then, would human society wish to acclaim an inherently amoral process as a “good,” especially in contrast to public institutions erected to promote specific social goods? Finally, drawing a theoretical link between the amount of wealth one has and the amount of liberty one may exercise is something that both Marxists and libertarians have in common. The main difference is that Marxists wish to promote relatively more freedom for all, whereas libertarians wish to promote more freedom only for the wealthy. In a world where one’s labors directly correlate with the amount of private property one is able to amass, the libertarians might have the theoretical edge. In the real world, where things are not now and never will be fair, yoking possession of private property to possession of freedom is as much the road to serfdom as state socialism.
Of course, Kirk does not specifically advocate libertarianism per se as a principle of conservatism, nor does he say that it is the highest good. Instead, his emphasis on the benefits of protecting private property ownership, taken in tandem with the other principles, is meant to highlight the benefits of having a society in which individuals are encouraged to reap the benefits of investing their time, effort, and wealth into their own property.
Since this is but one of ten other principles, we might also recall that it takes no precedence over the others. Yet I do not think that there is any other principle in contemporary conservative thought that is held more dear than the idea of “limited government,” especially with respect to state intervention in the economy. Opposition to or critique of unions (public or private sector), state spending on education, welfare programs, environmental protection, and business regulation of any sort invariably falls back onto the notion that “the market” is better suited to mediate virtually every human endeavor, rather than the government.
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was particularly animated by the revolutionaries’ confiscation of private property, which he saw as a precondition for the lawless totalitarianism soon to follow. But even for Burke, a key issue was the balance of power between the landed nobility, the church, and the crown, whose mutually-dependent property relations underwrote the economy of the ancien regime the revolutionaries sought to upend—in short, Burke wasn’t defending private property rights as defined against the state as such, but against the illicit confiscation of property by a particular (in his view, illegitimate) government, judged against the particular historical circumstances of its constitution. That’s not quite the same thing as championing private sector solutions to public sector problems. Kirk’s own position, as stated in the principles, clearly is pitched against total state or communal ownership of property, but in no way does he militate against government intervention per se. What is primarily at stake here, as I see it, is the degree to which private property is the medium of individual liberty. In the context of the Cold War, it makes sense that a conservative would uphold the necessity of private property in opposition to the communist governments of Russia and China, which often used privation tactically to neutralize dissent, or, at the very least, had millions of citizens who had equality but nothing to do with it.
Confiscation is a powerful political weapon, and communist regimes have rarely hesitated to deploy it. (Again, I recognize my reductiveness.) Though Burke had indeed harshly condemned the French radicals’ confiscation and redistribution of property—as well as charged them with economic illiteracy—his eighteenth century view of property rights was much more moderate than late twentieth-century conservatives’ view. Kirk’s argument is favorable to the libertarian-ish Reagan era, but to say that “freedom and property are closely linked” is not to say that freedom depends upon private property. At the heart of Burke’s critique was the state’s exercise of power through the lawless disregard for private subjects’ established claims to their property. Kirk observed a similar operation in the communist regimes of his century, but those were examples of totalitarian state tyranny, not examples of what happens whenever the state is an economic agent. That’s a distinction lost on whomever conflates all Left traditions into a monolithic whole. Despite conservative claims to the contrary, Keynesians are not de facto socialists or communists or totalitarians. Seeking the state’s aid in addressing the consequences of gross economic inequality is not tantamount to seeking complete economic leveling across the board. A close link is not a necessary causal relationship.
There aren’t many communist nation-states left, and arguably none that don’t qualify as failures, dictatorships, or (as in China’s case) quasi-state-capitalist. In 2016, much of the rhetoric surrounding economic justice is directed toward the obvious fact that a relative handful of people control the economic futures of everyone else on the planet. It may be the case that private property and personal freedom are indissolubly linked, but for most people in the world, that only means that most people have less freedom than others, and the structure of capitalist accumulation always works to the benefit of those who have already accumulated more capital. Any speech about infringements on freedom that is related to business or environmental regulation that is made on behalf of people who already have money is therefore a speech about preserving the inequalities that already exist.
I’ll say that again. When conservatives in 2016 talk about defending the free market, they are talking about defending economic inequalities that are part of the current economic structure.
Take that as you will. I’m just trying to put it in historical context.
The conservative principle of yoking personal wealth and personal freedom against economic leveling is not about protecting us from state communism. It is about enabling those who already possess property to get more. Again, in theory, maybe this isn’t so bad. It’s the American Dream to take your shot at prosperity, right? Well, yes, but in a market based on competition, there will always be losers in that competition. And in a market-based competition, the loser loses his property to the winner. The loser loses freedom.
Part of what makes freedom scary is that we have the freedom to fail. In theory. It also means that we have the freedom to succeed, often in amazing, unpredictable ways. In theory. That also means that we can fail in traumatic, unpredictable ways. A free market offers no provision for the losers. For those with a modest amount of private property to gamble, the stakes involved might indeed inspire prudence and innovation. For those with a great amount to gamble, the stakes involved might lead to recklessness. After all, the wealthy can afford golden parachutes. They have that freedom, whereas Joe and Jane Smith, who opened a restaurant with their life savings, will simply lose everything if the economy turns south.
Mind you, I’m not saying that the market is inherently bad. It is not inherently good, either. And having respect for the social benefits of private property ownership is not the same thing as libertarian free market triumphalism. So when I read conservatives prating about the efficiency of the market or how capitalism is pretty much the greatest thing ever or that money equals free speech, or that we can’t have freedom without unfettered capitalism, it grinds me to the core. I happen to accept the analogy that the market functions similarly to natural selection, but, because I have a moral sensibility, I am always inclined to weigh the human costs involved in that proposition. As a result, I don’t think the market deserves protection from state intervention; I think that human beings deserve protection from the fallout of a free market system.
Kirk, of course, was willing to associate himself with the Reagan coalition, which had quite radical ideas. I lack both the knowledge and time to discuss Kirk’s entire corpus as it relates to movement conservatism’s apotheosis in the 1980s. What is fascinating to me in the passage I quoted, though, is how tempered Kirk is, how much nuance he leaves in his contention that property rights underlie political freedom. Not only is this principle just one of ten (clearly not taking precedence over the others), but his presentation of property as foundational to the commonwealth really is fundamental—in the sense that it provides a stable basis for the family, for the community. This is not free market triumphalism. When conservatives valorize the market, with its volatility, its amorality, its blind indifference to reason and human dignity, they embrace the violent chaos of a Darwinist cosmos. It is to this vision of the cosmos that Kirk’s seventh principle stands opposed. Civilization is not built upon the chaos of the market, but upon the investment of human striving into material artifacts. The market is, as Joseph Schumpeter put it, an engine of creative destruction. This kind of instability, of rupture, of impermanence in the natural order is not, cannot be, representative of the transcendent moral order that Kirk declares to be first and foremost in the conservative mind.
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.
Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.
Once more, the context of the Cold War is essential to understanding this principle, and Kirk uses notably Burkean language when he describes “the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.” In the eighteenth century, the “radicals” would have been Jacobins; in the twentieth, they were the Bolsheviks. What’s at stake here is both preserving “custom, convention, and continuity” and rejecting the rupture that revolutionaries often champion when attempting to subvert the old order.
In the American context, this principle is more than a little weird when it’s advanced by conservatives who insist on using the Founding Fathers as pole stars in their rhetoric. Just in case you forgot, the United States formed in the wake of a revolution fought by British colonists against Great Britain. This revolution was founded in Enlightenment notions of natural rights and it pitted the received parliamentary tradition directly against the monarchy, rather than in partnership with it. While I happen to be of the mind that the American revolution was indeed quite radical, and that my nation’s forerunners had just grievances that were unjustly not addressed, I also am fully of the conviction that there was nothing conservative in temperance or politics about the revolution. Historians would be quick to point out that when the Constitution was drafted, it drew upon a long tradition of English common law, and that the colonies already had a functioning civil service apparatus to fall back on once the shooting stopped. In short, the radical break from their colonial overlords was founded upon inherited principles and transitioned (somewhat) smoothly thanks to laws, traditions, and infrastructure that were already in place. In that sense, the American revolution preserved much in custom, convention, and continuity.
But it was still a revolution.
Men, women, and children were killed in battle and as collateral damage. British loyalists were sometimes tortured or killed for their beliefs. Early American history is not my forte, but when I say that the revolution exacted a horrific human cost on both sides, I do not exaggerate.
The Declaration of Independence is, for good reason, one of the canonical documents of American society. In its language, statesmen, philosophers, and everyday people have found a wellspring of wisdom and authority—most often the latter, when invoking the Declaration to frame their own agenda. I return to it each year on or around our Independence Day, and it always strikes me anew as incredible. Mind you, I use that term in a somewhat nominal sense, rather than as praise or condemnation. What people often forget is that the Declaration was not a mere statement of beliefs; it was an argument. Allow me to quote liberally from it by way of illustration:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
All of this is praemunitio for the series of specific charges laid against the British government, the charges that justified the colonists’ secession from their government of more than 150 years. While the lines about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are likely the most-quoted, it is really that last sentence in the above quote that forms the core of the document’s purpose: the colonists had to prove that what England had become to them was really “absolute Despotism,” rather than a constitutional monarchy. A despot, you recall, is a dictator who arrogates all civil institutional power to himself alone. To charge England with reducing them to absolute Despotism was to charge the king with ignoring the rule of law and acting autocratically, outside his prescribed legal authority, to oppress the Americans. In short, to justify their own flouting of all legal authority, the colonists had to prove that the king flouted all legal authority first.
The Americans’ allegations had teeth, of course. What remains outstanding in the introductory remarks of the Declaration is that the authority to make their political rupture was arrogated to themselves as a “people,” somehow no longer quite English, but owing their decision as much to their own “duty, to throw off such Government” as to “the opinions of mankind.” If this feels vague and jazzy-handsy, it is. It’s grounded in a lot of well-established political philosophy (Locke looms particularly large), but it nevertheless hinges on the premise that a rupture between two distinct peoples has already occurred, and this justifies the further rupture between them. It is a document that acknowledges the continuity that previously existed, then alleges that the fault for its dissolution really lies entirely on the other side.
One of the many great ironies of American history is the contemporary resurgence of interest in the Founders among the radical right. Most notably, the grassroots opposition to President Obama that coalesced on or about 2009 dubbed itself the Tea Party. Instigated first by the president’s stimulus programs (intended to spur an end to the recession that started in 2008 with the collapse of the housing bubble and the derivatives market), then really galvanized by the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the latter-day Tea Party’s talking points in the early days revolved around the role the federal government ought to play in its citizens lives and how much it ought to spend toward that end. Basically, Obamacare was to them simultaneously an egregious intrusion upon citizens’ freedom to manage their own health care and a condensed symbol of Washington’s spendthrift waste of taxpayer resources. To hear the rhetoric, you would think that Barack Obama was quartering redcoats in our homes and torching our shopping malls with napalm. Tea Partiers see themselves as fighting to protect long-cherished liberties that are inherent to the American character and necessary to preserving our way of life.
While I think Jill Lepore has written the definitive essay on the Tea Party movement’s appropriation of American history, I do think that the the movement, quite by accident, stumbled into the perfect metaphor for itself. According to the latter-day exponents, the Boston Tea Party of 1793 is a symbol of the people’s refusal to let its government exercise tyranny through unjust economic policy. So it was.
Never mind, though, that England’s coffers were sapped, in part, by the British Empire’s efforts to head off French imperial ambitions aimed at, along with a few other continents, North America. You might recall getting confused back in school about who was on what side in the French and Indian War—American colonists called it that because the French persuaded indigenous people on this continent to fight alongside them against the British. At that point, Americans were still Britons, as was a young soldier named George Washington, who cut his military teeth in the conflict fighting alongside British forces. The French and Indian War, however, was just one part of a conflict that spanned the globe. Fighting wars has always been expensive, and when this particular war of empires ended in the 1760s, that tyrant, King George III, whose armies had killed and bled to protect his American colonial subjects, had to recoup costs. British legislative efforts to balance the ledger that had become stained with red on behalf of Americans (among other British peoples) were the first to stoke the fires of revolution in the thirteen colonies. If I may put it a bit ungenerously, the Americans didn’t want to foot the bill for a war that England had fought to preserve their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
So the Americans were one people with the British when the French were storming their borders, but fifteen years later, they were merely “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
In the space of one generation, a rupture in cultural and institutional continuity had been effected by men who were primarily incensed over taxation without representation, a rupture of such magnitude that they went right back to mass slaughter, this time over the principle of liberty.
Once again, I acknowledge my historical reductiveness, as well as the fact that I’m playing fast and loose in my selection of historical facts, which seem always to conspire in their complicatedness to thwart every easy narrative that we try to make of them. Mea culpa.
What this digression is meant to illustrate is that contemporary conservatism is largely shaped by a spirit of radicalism. It is, furthermore, a radicalism that seeks to sever custom, convention, and continuity on multiple levels. While conservatives are busy embossing their newsletters with quotes from the Founders, they neglect to acknowledge the legally dubious nature of any revolutionary project. They further neglect to acknowledge that the rationale justifying the entire revolutionary project devolved upon a parcel of citizens the authority to decide whether or not any other “people” have a say in the matter who disagreed with them about what form of government is most conducive to the ends of providing Safety and Happiness. The logic of American Revolution, in other words, dictates that you can justify any political action, so long as it is in response to Despotism—and, as luck would have it, those with the authority to identify Despotism usually happen to be the ones proposing the radical political rupture with others who were, until just recently, their fellow citizens.
It is my fundamental contention that American conservatism, as currently expounded by a majority of its self-identified adherents, effaces old customs, derides old conventions, and breaks the continuity of social institutions. And if American conservatives think it unfair of me to say so, they might consider the fact that it is they who nursed the antigovernment, anti-establishment rhetoric for decades which eventually birthed the Tea Party, a political movement that named itself after a bunch of middle-aged white dudes dressing up in racist costumes and committing an act of large-scale vandalism because their parliamentary representatives approved a tax hike.
I’ve no idea what Kirk would have thought of the contemporary Tea Party or its radical politics. At the time that Kirk wrote his ten principles, his counter-revolutionary ideas were adequate to address the manifest failures of the Soviet Union and its offspring to follow through on their own revolutionary ruptures. Perhaps there’s contemporary relevance to the efforts of ISIS to destroy the cultural history of the cultures whose people have been afflicted by the misfortune of residing in territory occupied (however briefly) by the so-called caliphate. (Perhaps.) What strikes me is that we have had Obamacare now for about as long as the American Revolutionaries had King George’s tariffs before they decided to dump tea into Boston harbor. I doubt that many conservatives are making serious plans to secede from the Union. I do see, however, a parallel logic between the Declaration’s division of two peoples and the commonplace call to “Take our country back.” From whom? Our fellow Americans?
If you think that perhaps I’m being unfair to overlay conservatism so isomorphically with the Tea Party, allow me to direct your attention to the all-but-concluded Republican presidential primary. No, not to Donald Trump (although I’ll come back to him in a bit). Indeed, I think it is far more significant to reflect on the fact that the two men left standing at the end of the long march to Cleveland were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Cruz is about as emblematic of the Tea Party as you can get, and he was widely acknowledged as the most conservative candidate running in this election cycle. While Trump is the most overtly noxious of the two, I think Cruz to be much more symbolic of this cultural moment in American movement conservatism, even in his failure to win the Republican nomination.
How many times did Cruz vow in his campaign to “repeal every word of Obamacare”? He offered a list of four cabinet positions and 25 agencies he would fight to eliminate. He said he’d carpet bomb ISIS strongholds, regardless of civilian casualties. When Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslim immigration, Cruz countered by suggesting that we turn Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S. into state-run panopticons. He vowed that, on his first day in office, he would tear up the historic diplomatic deal with Iran. He led the fight in the Senate to push the government into a shutdown rather than fund the Affordable Care Act.
Conservatives call Cruz “principled.” Indeed he is. (Except when he apparently doesn’t tell the truth about his main opponent for eight months, but whatever.) The question is how he goes about applying those principles. It is my view that Cruz is not conservative. He is radical. It is radical to eliminate entire cabinet positions and agencies, just as it is radical to “repeal every word” of a law that is now an integral part of the nation’s health care system. It is radical to violate the constitutional rights of Muslims on account of them being Muslim. What Cruz consistently espouses is the violation of procedural norms for the sake of ideological purity. That’s radicalism. How is the word-for-word repeal of Obamacare by executive fiat any less radical than its creation and passage by duly-elected representatives of the American people? (It is, in fact, more so.) How is Cruz’s open declaration to turn American Muslim communities into de facto police states any less radical than, say, anything the president has said about limiting access to guns designed for efficiently killing mass numbers of people? (Again, I think it’s more so.) If anything, I think the president has largely worked within the institutional norms established by his predecessors, for better and worse. That is de facto conservatism.
Except, to the vast majority of American conservatives, it’s not.
The #NeverTrumpers endlessly repeat that Donald Trump is not now, nor has he ever been a true conservative. Indeed, Trump hasn’t really claimed to be. His supporters are the ones who claim to be conservative. Those agitating for the GOP to modify its rules so delegates won’t be bound to coronate that orange pile of smarm (as my wife calls him) are quick to point out that he didn’t win a majority of votes—just a mere plurality, as if the fact that only winning more primary delegates than any other single person is insufficient reason to nominate him the torch-bearer of the party whose candidate in 2000
was swept into office by overwhelming popular vote barely eked out a victory with a contentious Supreme Court decision that upheld the validity of the electoral college. These same #NeverTrumpers who pooh-pooh Trump’s mere plurality spent four years defending the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s first term on the same principle that Trump’s supporters cite to defend his right to the Republican nomination.
That’s why it’s important to consider Cruz and Trump together. Quite apart from the Republican media machine, the fact is that Cruz and Trump, considered together, do present a snapshot of conservative America. A majority of American conservatives voted for one of these two men. The question is what these two men have in common. Certainly not policy ideas. While they both took hardline stances on immigration, and while they are both bigoted against Muslims (though Cruz talks his way around more smoothly than Trump does), the only thing they really have in common is that their notions about how to go about actually governing the country are fundamentally extreme. Radical.
I do agree that a big part of Trump’s rise is simply attributable to old-fashioned racism. Old bigotry dies hard. I’d like to suggest, though, that there’s a deeper link between the fears of racial contamination and the trend toward polarization fueled by increasing ideological puritanism.
More than authoritarianism, what I think radicalism often does is lead people to place greater and greater faith in the power of ideological purity. Conservatism, as expounded in America for the last twenty years, takes extremism as a litmus test of seriousness.
When an entire political movement vets its candidates based on their commitment to radicalism, it is not difficult to see how a bully like Trump would appeal to its base. His entire shtick is premised on being extreme. It shows that he means business. The real story of the 2016 election is not how Trump got to be the Republican nominee. The real story is how people like John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush—politicians who are already very conservative—were deemed too moderate by the conservative base that turned out for the primaries.
Cruz and Trump were the last men standing because they were the most extreme candidates of the bunch. Despite all their manifest differences, what united them in their electoral successes was that every other conservative in the primary field was insufficiently radical. And when it came to the particular constellation of policy issues on which the conservative movement has staked its claim for the entirety of my lifetime, the conservative base didn’t go with the guy who became the most hated man in Washington for his utter commitment to ideological purity. No. They simply went for the guy who took the most pride in being offensive and amoral.
To me, conservatism is quintessentially a productive, perhaps even progressive, resistance to radical change.
Is there any other conservative in American that you can think of who sees conservatism that way? Oh, aye, I’m sure there are a few. As I said in my previous post, however, a “few” do not a political philosophy make. Not unless they gather adherents; not unless those few are deemed in time to be originators of the discourse, as Foucault might put it.
In the last few years, I’ve found myself gravitating more toward thinkers who openly declare at least some allegiance to the tradition of liberalism, like Alan Jacobs or Damon Linker. My go-to source for news analysis is Vox, and for political scuttlebutt I hit Talking Points Memo. My favorite general interest magazine is The Atlantic. I relish reading Walter Benjamin. I’ve transmogrified into an over-educated, low-income Mugwump. I’ve kept thinking of myself as conservative, even though, apart from a few amateur bloggers, the only conservatives I read regularly publish in The American Conservative, which is notable for the diversity of nuanced, erudite perspectives found among many of the contributors who aren’t named Patrick J. Buchanan, who is a racist ass. The rest tend to be pretty good, which is to say that they did not spend the first eight years of this century circling the wagons around George W. Bush and the past eight years frothing at the mouth every time Barack Obama laced his shoes left side first.
The fact is that, in terms of my opinions on specific issues, I’ve not been conservative for some time now. It feels as though I woke up one day this last year, looked around at the political landscape, and thought, “Have I ever actually been one of these people?” Well, yes. I was, at one point. That much is true. And though I will admit that I feel ashamed of it, I feel compelled to declare that I ought not to be. First and foremost, I believe that every person ought to be granted the right to be persuaded to change their opinions over time. Mine certainly evolve, but very slowly. My current political outlook could only have been formed by the path I’ve traveled to get here. Being able to recognize the moral insanity of American conservatism is a blessing (I think?) that flows from what I’ve attempted for years to call my own conservative political convictions. The fact that my political convictions are not, in aggregate, conservative is the sort of epiphany only granted, I suspect, to those who have the perverse sensibility to luxuriate in disillusionment. What’re those sayings? “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” and, “Reality has a liberal bias.” Here’s one, just for kicks: a liberal is a conservative who has been mugged by radicalism.
At bottom, I don’t really feel that I have a particularly large share of blame to shoulder for American political conservatism’s collective embrace of bigotry and radicalism, because it’s my temperamental conservatism that causes me to regard that spectacle with moral horror. It simply means that, politically, I must formally recognize that I am the loyal opposition to their ranks, not an outlier within them.
As tempting as it is to switch my label, as Linker did years ago, to liberal, or to triangulate myself, as Jacobs has, somewhere within a constellation of conservative-liberal-socialist positions, that doesn’t feel right to me, either. Not at this time, anyway. Given my temperamental conservatism, it’s probably obvious to you by now that such a shift would be a bit too swift, a bit too premature. What I hope that my conservative, liberal, socialist, libertarian, anarchist, distributist, and communitarian friends and acquaintances understand is that whatever our differences, there are some principles to which I will continue to adhere for the time being.
First, I will presume good faith on the part of individual political advocates—just because we disagree on something (or most things) does not mean I must ascribe to you all that is unholy and pernicious, and I hope you will extend the same courtesy to me. Second, I will presume that no individual is beholden to all that is most rotten in his own political tradition—I will continue to refrain from holding each Leftist accountable for Stalin and Mao as I will from holding each Right-winger accountable for Hitler and Trump. Third, I will endeavor to blunt the appeal of radical measures as political solutions, regardless of the nobility and justice of the goal. Fourth, I believe that I have something valuable to learn from all political traditions, and I will presume that interactions with someone from any tradition will teach me something I can reflect on as my own political philosophy continues to evolve.
I believe that each tradition is capacious enough to include someone with those principles. It seems to me that these principles create enough of a foundation for mutual understanding that productive dialogue can take place between us.
That said, I do think that labels have power, and I wish I had one that could accurately capture my political philosophy. As J. L. Austin argued years ago, words do things. To call myself liberal or socialist is to perform some sort of meaningful social act, and consequences follow. Unless and until I have better understanding of what those consequences are, I don’t think it prudent to throw in with you, whatever your political orientation may be. This isn’t because I don’t wish to associate with you; on the contrary, I wish our association to be productive. I wish to test you, and to make myself a better thinker and to clarify my own political ethics as part of the exchange. I just don’t wish to identify with you unless you and I are satisfied that, by doing so, we’re being accurate, and that there is something to be gained for all by having me join your tribe. By all means, proselytize me if you can.
It is my belief that politics ought to be productive. I don’t place my utter and complete faith in politics, but politics ought to serve a purpose beyond establishing and maintaining the hegemony of a radical minority. Conservatism in the United States, at present, is opposed to this conviction, which is why I therefore stand in opposition to American conservatism. ☕