A guerilla war has broken out on the right. One side has institutional support; the other, intellectual energy. At stake is the future of the Republican Party, and perhaps the country.
The institutional right controls the largest think tanks, grant-making organizations, and magazines. It gives sinecures to some and denies them to others, thus punishing dissent and rewarding loyalty. Its network is extensive, its ideas are polished, its internal divisions regulated. It has every apparent advantage—and may be losing.
The insurgent new right has magazines and think tanks, but they tend to be smaller and of more recent vintage. They certainly have a more subversive spirit. The institutionalists praise free markets, individual liberty, and civil society with sober, lofty, and comforting words. The insurgents issue stinging polemics and cutting remarks as they champion postliberalism, integralism, national conservatism, and other strange new terms.
The movements these words represent diverge from each other and frequently clash, but the various elements of the new right share more than a common enemy. They all stress consolidation over dispersion, force over persuasion, communal belonging—national or religious—over individual autonomy.
Even as the new right has gained wide attention, some have questioned its relevance. Drawing on Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s study of American folkways, Tanner Greer has argued that the new right suffers from a contradiction that will hobble it politically. In their habits and beliefs, Greer says, the new right’s leaders stand in the tradition of the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay, who stressed the common good and social authority. But the voters it hopes to enlist for its project—the kind of people who voted for Trump in the Republican primaries—are a very different sort of American, often descended from Scots-Irish borderers and sharing their love of freedom. As Greer puts it, the new right “hope[s] to build a post-libertarian national order on the backs of the most naturally libertarian demographic in the country.”
A similar argument was recently offered by Sam Adler-Bell in the New Republic. He describes the electoral base of the Republican party as “fratty libertines dedicated primarily to scandalizing overbearing libs and flouting their social norms and niceties”—not likely foot soldiers for integralism or other attempts to advance the common good. He therefore concludes that the new right can only be anti-democratic.
In every political formation, there is bound to be distance, sometimes very great, between the masses and the elites. But Greer and Adler-Bell overstate the new right’s contradictions and understate its potential appeal. It has a deep and abiding base of popular support in what Sam Francis called the “post-bourgeois proletariat,” people who live in, but are not fully part of, our managerial regime. Their outlook—described by Francis as “working-class anti-liberalism”—chimes with new right themes.
Post-bourgeois proletarians hate political correctness, not because they are principled defenders of free speech but because they resent the managerial class that creates and enforces the current speech codes. They resent the HR manager’s faith. They do not reject all pieties.
Like all classes, this one has characteristic habits and beliefs. A regime that reflects its preferences will enforce definite orthodoxies. (Centrist commentators who present “right-wing political correctness,” as a threat equal and opposite to “left-wing political correctness” understand this perfectly.) Post-bourgeois proletarians prefer shows of force to subtle forms of manipulation. They are Jacksonians on foreign policy and law-and-order voters on crime. They probably do not read the Bible or consult the Catechism, but they honor flag, faith, and family.
Francis described the beliefs of the post-bourgeois proletariat in ways that will seem familiar to any follower of abstruse debates over postliberalism, integralism, and the like. They show “little attraction to bourgeois conservatism and its emphasis on laissez-faire economics, the rights of property, [and] the minimal state.” These ideas supported and were supported by a bourgeois order that the rise of large organizations—the so-called managerial revolution—has displaced.
There are scattered remnants of the bourgeois order—small businesses, family farms. I was raised in the midst of those ruins and cherish their memory. But America’s residual class of owner-operators cannot stand against the managerial class. Those who champion classical liberalism today are like the post-revolutionary monarchists who hoped to restore the ancien régime. Their quest, however noble, is not likely to succeed.
The much larger and more potent source of resistance consists of wage-earners who depend on managerial organizations but do not subscribe to managerial conceits. Unlike bourgeois conservatives, these post-bourgeois proletarians want to preserve the managerial state. Unlike the dominant managerial class, they want to turn it toward solidaristic ends. As Francis put it, “post-bourgeois needs for economic security as well as post-bourgeois attraction to coercive mental and behavioral patterns … point toward a political organization that is colossal, centralized, and active in the protection and enforcement of post-bourgeois economic interests and cultural aspirations.”
This is why the health of the right depends on the insurgents winning. Bourgeois conceits do not correspond to the realities of life under a managerial regime. Opponents of managerialism must give voice to working-class anti-liberalism, mobilizing their base of support, or they will be no more effective than Don Quixote.
Whether one supports or opposes the various ideas on offer the new right—and it is impossible to support them all, for their internal divisions are real and deep—it would be foolish to dismiss them out of hand. Theories like integralism and post-liberalism may at times take on fantastical form, but they track the movements of real bodies. Like shadows in a film noir, they are distillations and exaggerations, expressing in stark terms truths that otherwise go unseen.