Conservatives In The Mist
As conservatives spend lots of time and energy defining and redefining conservatism, leftists do no such thing. They’re uninterested in self-examination. It’s one reason why they’ve racked up win after win.
— Mark Bauerlein (@mark_bauerlein) June 1, 2022
I think this is generally true, but it’s true in a way that I don’t think the Right can do much about. Here’s why.
The Left in theory wants many different things, but the thing they want above all is the Current Thing. The Left is driven by the Myth of Progress. As Kundera observed, anything that can be made to join the Grand March of Progress, the Left can and will embrace. You would think that there would be a real fight among the ranks of the Left over whether or not class politics are more important than identity politics (i.e., race and SOGI), but there’s really not. Identity politics will win every time within the Left today.
This alienates a lot of voters who would be interested in some form of left-wing economic policies, but who don’t want the pink-haired, pierced weirdo teaching their first graders that men can have babies and white people are wicked. The Left doesn’t care. Or rather: the people who set the agenda in left-wing institutions don’t care. The Educated Race Radicals and the Alphabet People are their constituents, not the workers.
Ezra Klein is a certain kind of thoughtful, earnest left-liberal wonk who writes essays like, “What American Needs Is A Liberalism That Builds.” Okay. It contains passages like this:
I am unabashedly sympathetic to this vision. In a series of columns over the past year, I’ve argued that we need a liberalism that builds. Scratch the failures of modern Democratic governance, particularly in blue states, and you’ll typically find that the market didn’t provide what we needed and government either didn’t step in or made the problem worse through neglect or overregulation.
We need to build more homes, trains, clean energy, research centers, disease surveillance. And we need to do it faster and cheaper. At the national level, much can be blamed on Republican obstruction and the filibuster. But that’s not always true in New York or California or Oregon. It is too slow and too costly to build even where Republicans are weak — perhaps especially where they are weak.
This is where the liberal vision too often averts its gaze. If anything, the critiques made of public action a generation ago have more force today. Do we have a government capable of building? The answer, too often, is no. What we have is a government that is extremely good at making building difficult.
And so forth. It’s an intelligent, substantive point. But you want to say, “Dude, your side wants to cut the balls off of little boys, and train children to hate white people.” That’s a crude way of putting it, but the point is that technocratic liberals (both left-liberals and right-liberals) have a very difficult time wrapping their minds around the significance of cultural matters. I’ve been on Ezra Klein’s show before, and he makes a serious effort to understand, at least I think he does. But he is left baffled by social and cultural conservatism. It’s hard for me to account for this blindness. Most thoughtful conservatives I know well understand why liberals and progressives see the world the way they do, even if we disagree with them. But to the other side, it’s all Conservatives In The Mist.
Here’s another example: a review in the Financial Times (subscriber-only) of new books warning that the US is headed for another civil war. It’s an interesting piece, but the reviewer only looks at forces from the Right that are fragmenting the US. Fair enough — there clearly are right-wing forces at work in this process — but not once does the reviewer consider the role left-wing identity politics and its offshoots play in the dynamic. It’s an astonishing oversight — but a telling one, because it reveals how the neoliberal ruling class (and the FT is certainly a newspaper of the neoliberal ruling class) sees the world.
So, back to Mark Bauerlein’s original point: that the Right ties itself up in knots trying to figure out what conservatism means, while the Left goes from victory to victory. The Left has made its peace with neoliberal capitalism, and focuses instead on cultural revolution — which has been embraced by capitalists, hence “woke capitalism,” hitching the cultural revolution to the most revolutionary force in history, capitalism. (It has been argued that capitalists, recognizing the threat from the sentiment behind Occupy Wall Street, realized that embracing cultural progressivism was a way to short-circuit socialism.) The Left doesn’t really have to worry too much about what it means to be Left, because the answer is always: further destruction of tradition (especially religion), hedonism, and the consolidation of power within institutions (public and private) that guarantee hedonic individualism, even if it costs us certain political liberties. This is what James Poulos means by the Pink Police State: yes to 126 genders and legalized pot, but no to free speech and religious liberty.
But the Right? Which Right? What do we want to conserve? Or do we want to conserve anything? Not all right-wingers are conservatives, remember. Fascism was a Modernist movement of the Right, after all. Is conservatism to be nothing more than “whatever liberalism wants, just slower”? Go to the National Conservatism conferences, and you’ll understand why factions on the Right are struggling to figure this out. How are you going to bring people like, say, the Catholic integralists into the same movement as gay conservatives? Is the movement big enough for Sohrab Ahmari and Douglas Murray? It had better be — the antiwoke Right is too weak against the institutional power of the cultural Left — but it’s hard to see what unites the Right today other than opposing wokeness. That might be enough to bring politicians of the Right to power, but we are going to have to articulate a positive and unifying vision if we are going to deserve power.
This discussion must seem absurd to people on the Left, who are about to see Roe overturned, and who may be looking at a staggering political defeat this November. The great advantage the Left has enjoyed is that Conservatism, Inc., largely exists to subsidize grifters, carnival barkers, and those billionaires who cannot yet incorporate themselves into the Democratic coalition. The American right, as shown during the Trump administration, has little interest in taking on the Left’s monopoly on key credentialing organs or holding them accountable, with the result being that the majority of our non-hereditary aristocracy align with the Left on every issue of question either sincerely or through manufactured consent and enforced conformity. A Trump restoration in 2024 will be just as ineffective, and a lot of conservatives will make a lot of money grifting and shitposting but the outcome won’t change.
This is why I keep going on about the positive future of the American Right being some form of what Viktor Orban and other populist European politicians are doing. We need an American Reagan to Orban’s Thatcher. That is, we need a right-wing leader who has an actual vision of where he wants to take the nation (and of what the nation is), and who is not afraid to use power to realize that vision — even if it pisses off globalists, capitalists, and left-wing institutionalists. Western media simply couldn’t grasp that Viktor Orban is a truly popular politician for much the same reason that the FT reviewer is blind to the role left-wing cultural politics are helping to drive America towards civil war. Orbanism is a good example of what Yoram Hazony means by national conservatism. It’s culturally conservative, but not in an ideological way, and believes the power of the state should be used to shore up the natural family, and the common good as defined by traditions and interests of the particular nation. (That is to say, Hungarian national conservatism will be particular to Hungary; US national conservatism will look different.)
Put another way, we need a Right that will no longer defer to whatever Big Business wants; that has an economic vision that works to support families, and family formation; that will use the state to aggressively push back on woke institutions, including credentialing ones, to defend the liberties of dissenters, and their right to exist in these institutions; and that will be more committed to nationalism abroad and localism (federalism) at home. We need a Right that looks at Davos, and says: these people are our enemies.
That’s what I think. We await a charismatic politician who can unite the disparate factions on the Right behind a positive program. Is Ron DeSantis that man? Is J.D. Vance? The fact is, all the theorizing on the Right, in our magazines, at conferences, and within intellectual circles, isn’t going to matter if we can’t get people elected who are willing and capable of doing things.
In the end, though, culture very much remains in the hands of the Left. There’s not a lot politics can do to change that, except for work to keep publicly subsidized institutions open to a wide variety of voices, not just officially left-wing approved ones. I wonder what this means in light of Auron MacIntyre’s powerful short essay about how anyone on the Right who comes to power must clean out the left-wing permanent bureaucracy. Excerpts:
To be credentialed as an ‘expert’ today, and thus qualify to work within the bureaucracy, you must attend university. The more prestigious, and most likely progressive, the university you obtain your degree from, the higher you are likely to climb in the deep state. What this means is that every boss and coworker who a bureaucrat needs to interact with and impress to climb the ladder was required in his or her formative years to absorb the morality of increasingly radical college professors. In other words, it is in the nature of the deep state to select those who constantly signal the virtues of the woke institution, which will one day inevitably go on to inform all of their day-to-day policy decisions.
Whenever the Left consolidates power and creates a new agency, it is immediately staffed with diehard progressive bureaucrats. In many cases, it is literally required by law that experts be placed in key positions of authority, who are all but guaranteed to be leftwing zealots. And the vast majority of this staff does not rotate out or get laid off when a Republican administration or legislature comes to power. Protected by their status as credentialed experts, the ideological foot soldiers of the bureaucracy stay firmly entrenched in the deep state. That’s why things always seem to sprint left when progressives are in charge and at best grind to a halt when the GOP has its turn at the wheel.
The idea that the Left will pay a cost for centralizing more government power once Republicans return to the driver’s seat, is a myth. The battle the Right is fighting both culturally and politically is an asymmetrical one. Until we understand that, we are destined to keep standing bewildered as the losses for our side continue to pile up. Yes, Republicans have become a lot more optimistic lately about their prospects in upcoming elections. Approval numbers for Joe Biden have cratered, and so many on the Right expect a significant electoral backlash due to the horrific job done by Democrat Party since 2020. But any future leader on the Right who is serious about fixing our problems must start by aiming to dismantle the administrative state, clear out the entrenched bureaucracy, and return power back to an executive who can actually govern the country. Anyone who isn’t planning to do that is only wasting our time.
Yep. Read it all.
I’m not interested in a conservative government that exists only to slow down what the Left wants to do. I’ll vote for it in despair, but without enthusiasm. I also don’t want a Trump restoration if that means little more than tweets, shitposting, and lib-owning, while the Left moves from strength to strength. Bauerlein is right, I think, in that the Left, broadly speaking, doesn’t want to interrogate itself, and that’s why it keeps winning culturally. But this will prove to be a weakness should the public actually elect a government of the Right that actually means to use the power the people give it to change things, as opposed simply to nominally opposing whatever the Left wants next. This is why it’s important for us on the Right to argue among ourselves now, and figure out a program, and a politician, that we can get behind. Me, I have an idea of what I think conservatism should be, but the Trump years, including the Great Awokening and also the effect Trump’s presidency had on shaping the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, compelled me to realize that I can’t let the ideal be the enemy of the necessary.