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The Death Of Movement Conservatism

Conserve what? The forces of dissolution are overwhelming

If you missed Samuel Goldman’s TAC piece about what comes next for the conservative movement, go read it now. I was late getting to it, and boy, is it good. Here’s the gist:

Of all the illusions Trump has dispelled, however, none is more significant than the illusion of the conservative movement. Rather than being the dominant force in the Republican Party, conservatives, Trump revealed, are just another pressure group. And not an especially large one. In state after state, voters indicated that they did not care much about conservative orthodoxy on the economy, foreign policy, or what used to be called family values.

The poor record of this orthodoxy as a governing philosophy is one reason for this indifference to conservative dogma. Some apologists blame Obama for provoking the Trump rebellion through a feat of reverse psychology. The truth is probably simpler. Many Americans remember the George W. Bush presidency as a disaster. Reasonably enough, they expect that another self-identified conservative administration would bring more of the same.

Demographic changes are also part of the explanation. The conservative movement is disproportionately comprised of middle-class white Christians. There are fewer of those than there used to be.

As the conservative movement approaches retirement age, finally, its rhetoric has become almost unintelligible to outsiders. Rather than making arguments addressed to normal people, conservative leaders invoke limited government almost fetishistically, as if the words themselves possessed the power to convince. Ted Cruz’s reputation as an orator rests on his mastery of this jargon.

Goldman’s speculation about what comes after conservatism is pretty depressing. He considers the libertarian option, but recognizes that most Americans are not libertarians. The only other apparently option is that conservatism becomes an “ethno-class solidarity” movement for whites. There are problems with this too. I don’t want to steal Goldman’s thunder — read his piece — but he is surely right that there aren’t enough whites, and whites who buy into that worldview, to make it successful. Nor is there an actual program to do something serious to help blue-collar whites. Those jobs that went overseas aren’t coming back, no matter what Trump says.

J.D. Vance recommended to me a really good piece in Mother Jones by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who spent five years down in southwest Louisiana, among the proletariat. Excerpts:

I wanted to leave my subnation of Berkeley, California, and enter another as far right as Berkeley is to the left. White Louisiana looked like it. In the 2012 election, 39 percent of white voters nationwide cast a ballot for President Barack Obama. That figure was 28 percent in the South, but about 11 percent in Louisiana.

To try to understand the tea party supporters I came to know—I interviewed 60 people in all—over the next five years I did a lot of “visiting,” as they call it. I asked people to show me where they’d grown up, been baptized, and attended school, and the cemetery where their parents had been buried. I perused high school yearbooks and photograph albums, played cards, and went fishing. I attended meetings of Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana and followed the campaign trails of two right-wing candidates running for Congress.

When I asked people what politics meant to them, they often answered by telling me what they believed (“I believe in freedom”) or who they’d vote for (“I was for Ted Cruz, but now I’m voting Trump”). But running beneath such beliefs like an underwater spring was what I’ve come to think of as a deep story. The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes. It was a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need. Except Trump had opened a divide in how tea partiers felt this story should end.

Here’s the core:

What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories. It was the deep story underlying them—an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (“the line-waiters form a new line”) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You read my mind.”

Hochschild talks about the split even among Tea Party types that Trump has revealed. Some of them think the government should quit coddling idlers. Others who are farther down the totem pole believe that government should quit coddling idlers, but people like themselves are not idlers. They’ve convinced themselves that they deserve government benefits, but others don’t.

Read the whole thing. It’s illuminating. The most important insight I found in it is that the sense of security for middle class people is gone, or at least severely compromised. I can see that in my own life and circles, and not just economic security. There is a pervasive sense that everything is in flux, that everything could change because of economic and cultural forces beyond one’s control. That there are no guardrails anymore, and that hard work and playing by the rules doesn’t guarantee nearly what it used to.

I’ve said in this space before that the debilitation of the white working class is the most important political story of our era. Part of that story is the detachment of educated elites from those people. Here’s a bit from a Spiked Online interview that Sean Collins did with Charles Murray:

Collins: You are a self-described libertarian, and your latest book is robust defence of freedom. Do you believe that Enlightenment values such as liberty are enough to stand up to the strong, often tribal, cultural forces at work today? Can they serve as a counter to those divisive forces?

Murray: A year ago, I would have given you a much more optimistic answer than I’d give you today. The thing about the Trump campaign that has been most disheartening has been the realisation that the electorate on the right, voting for Republicans, has many more people in it than I ever realised who don’t give a damn about freedom. They are motivated by the kinds of tribal instincts that you describe, and they are also populist in an authoritarian sense, in that they don’t want to limit government, they just want to use the powers of government for their own ends. In the short-term, then, I’m very pessimistic. I am very undecided about what will happen, but I suspect the Republican Party is going to go into serious decline. And, insofar as it does not go into decline, it is not going to represent policies that foster limited government and freedom. It will be a party that fosters a different kind of authoritarianism than the left does. The only difference will be in the type, not the authoritarian nature of the policies.

This is the thing that drives me nuts about libertarians. It is a philosophy that works for people who have a significant degree of self-control, or who at least have internalized a social ethic of self-control. That is not most of humanity. When we were a more religious country, there was a certain moral code imposed by the mainstream that, fair or not, kept a lot of people from going off the rails. That’s gone.

Just yesterday I ran into a friend who told me about N., a woman we both know. N. is a white working class woman who, earlier this summer, left her husband and three kids to run off with a guy she met. Now she’s strung herself out on pills, and has left that guy. Some variation on this story plays out over and over among a people that within living memory may have lacked money and education, but had a coherent, binding moral code by which they lived.

At some point, it’s all bound to crash. But there’s a world of hurt for us all to go through before then. Meanwhile, let’s all pay attention to things like this, which Slate calls one of history’s most important crossword puzzles. What makes it so important? It contains the word GENDERFLUID:

“I think that people are going to enjoy this puzzle because it’s sort of a monument to how far queerness has come,” Tausig [the puzzle’s writer] told me in an interview. “And ideas about gender identity that weren’t mainstream 20 years ago or even five years ago.”

Go ask the people in the trailer park what they think of this milestone in the March of Progress.

The forces of dissolution are all but irresistible now. We have to figure out how to ride them out without being destroyed by them. But you knew I would say that.



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