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The Death Of Movement Conservatism

If you missed Samuel Goldman’s TAC piece about what comes next for the conservative movement, go read it now. [1] 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 [1] — 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 [2], 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. [2] 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: [3]

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. [4] 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.

168 Comments (Open | Close)

168 Comments To "The Death Of Movement Conservatism"

#1 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 6, 2016 @ 12:58 am

I’d argue that you have the causality turned around. There’s a fair bit of evidence from the twin and adoption studies that we’re about 70% nature and 30% nurture

As written, this isn’t all that meaningful. Heritability is different for different cognitive and behavioural traits, and as far as I can tell, it’s usually closer to 50% than to 70%.

Then again, the contribution of ‘parenting’ or ‘family’, if that’s what you mean by ‘nurture’, is usually well below 30%, and more on the order of 10% for most traits. (The breakdown that Razib likes to quote in his off-the-cuff, informal manner is “50% genes, 10% parenting, 40% other things that we can’t explain, or that we write up to ‘noise’.)

or the woman newly admitted lawyer who could perhaps become a Supreme Court Justice, but it’s told she can’t be anything more than a secretary.

Given that the median person (man or woman) isn’t and couldn’t ever be a lawyer, and given that ‘people who could potentially be a supreme court justice’ are such a marginal and, well, trivial proportion of society, who cares if someone is denied the ability to be a supreme court justice? Are you seriously arguing that we should judge the health of a society on whether people of every race and gender has an equal shot at being president or supreme court justice or not?

While Black people have indeed become happier as a result of the social changes in America over the last few decades, women really haven’t: female happiness has declined relative to men since the 1950s. You can certainly argue that this doesn’t matter, because subjective happiness is a terrible way to judge someone’s real well being, and I’d even mostly agree with you. But then you’re making a separate point about what kinds of life are intrinsically higher or better than others, not one about “would you rather, subjectively, be a woman in America in 1960 or in 2016.”

#2 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 6, 2016 @ 1:09 am

Similarly, I know of few conservatives who would choose poland or Russia c. 1950 over the same in 2016.

Well, not in America. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union though, cultural and temperamental conservatism tends to correlate with nostalgia for communism. (Which really underscores that temperamental conservatism and ideological conservatism are two very distinct things. The elderly, working class rural Russian who longs for the stability and stasis of the Brezhnev era is a temperamental conservative, but the kind of past society he’d like to restore was a very left wing one. If the term ‘left wing reactionary’ means anything, it would probably be a good fit for people like that.)

#3 Comment By JonF On September 6, 2016 @ 3:28 pm

Re: I don’t see an easy solution. Moreover, as Robert Kaplan recently noted in his National Interest piece, we’re moving into era not unlike the early-modern era, when city-states predominated over national and provincial interests.

I haven’t read the original piece but the early modern era was precisely when kings consolidated their power over kingdoms, in effect limiting (at the very least) the traditional privileges of the nobility and the Church– and cities. The only place where this did not happen was Germany– or rather, the Germanies because imperial power there had decayed so badly there was no way it could be revived.

Re: For example, the “bathroom bill” kerfuffle in North Carolina has little to do with which bathroom transgender people should use. Rather, it’s an effort by the state’s pro-Utah majority to push back against the pro-Netherlands policies of the Yankees and Midwesterners who rule the state’s major cities.

Which of course is problematic because it is a denial of the localism the SoCons complain is being stripped from them by the federal government– but I guess when they have power they are perfectly happy to strip local control from anyone they disagree with.

Re: . So the genetics of the Dutch made them a good fit for Calvinism, but their genetics remained the same even after they lost their religion.

MH, the genetics of the Dutch are not significantly different from the genetics of their immediate neighbors (with whom their have been mating for millennia). One of my many beefs about attempts to apply genetic determination to narrowly realized and often highly contingent (on history etc.) cultural traits.

Re: Conversely, liberals view these positive changes with hatred. The Left despises Putin’s Russia and wants to wage war on it

Oh, good grief, the war-mongers on the Right are quite happy portraying Putin’s Russia as the USSR risen from the cesspit of history like some sort of dire zombie. This is not a Right vs Left thing, but an Imperialist vs Non-Interventionist thing. You can find people in either camp across the ideological spectrum. I have zero use for Comrade Putin and his thinly veiled neo-tsarism— but I also see no necessary conflict between the United States and Russia and perhaps there are even areas where cooperation would be beneficial.

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 6, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

Conversely, liberals view these positive changes with hatred.

No, no. It was LIBERALS who flooded into eastern Europe to teach the benighted former ideological slaves of communism how to do freedom right. I was amused from the beginning to see them advocate that Poland’s small family farms were terribly inefficient units of production, and simply must be organized into larger enterprises.

That’s when I began to realize that both the US and the USSR collectivized agricultural in the 1930s. (The US experience was recorded in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.)

#5 Comment By Oakinhou On September 6, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

@hector st Clare

“Given that the median person (man or woman) isn’t and couldn’t ever be a lawyer, and given that ‘people who could potentially be a supreme court justice’ are such a marginal and, well, trivial proportion of society, who cares if someone is denied the ability to be a supreme court justice? Are you seriously arguing that we should judge the health of a society on whether people of every race and gender has an equal shot at being president or supreme court justice or not?”

You should stand up and say that to Sandra a Day O’Connor, who was the woman that was denied employment as a lawyer (even though she had completed law school) but told she could be a secretary in the firm she applied to.

I’m sure she didn’t care at all about being denied the job she trained for just because women aren’t supposed to be lawyers. Is so uppity of her to even dare to apply.

Of course, the sign of a healthy society is when the inferiors know their place and remain there, and trust the jobless of the superiors to take care of them, after they have finished their polo games. I mean, can you imagine, a woman lawyer?

#6 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 6, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

@JonF, Google temperament and heredity. There’s been a fair amount written about it.

For example some nations (e.g. Denmark) tend to have higher happiness indices, but that rate persists if a person with similar genetics (e.g. a descendant of expats) lives in another nation.

tl;dr It may be a pet peave, but that doesn’t mean it was false.

#7 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 6, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

MH, the genetics of the Dutch are not significantly different from the genetics of their immediate neighbors (with whom their have been mating for millennia). One of my many beefs about attempts to apply genetic determination to narrowly realized and often highly contingent (on history etc.) cultural traits.

Genetics aren’t all that clearly separable from culture. Example: if you have two societies next to each other, Country A and Country B, and Country A offers better opportunities for highly educated professionals, you’re going to see high IQ individuals moving from Country B to Country A en masse, and if this continues over a matter of decades and centuries, sooner or later national IQs are going to diverge. A German acquaintance of mine thinks this is the reason that for a very, very long time, people from the eastern parts of Germany have been stereotyped as ‘dumber’ than people from the western parts, even though on paper they’re all one ethnic group. (This trend accelerated between 1945-1961 when the two parts of Germany had both relatively free migration and also very different socioeconomic structures: all the doctors in some eastern cities moved west).

#8 Comment By JonF On September 6, 2016 @ 9:34 pm

rE: Google temperament and heredity. There’s been a fair amount written about it.

If Google had existed in the 18th century I could have googled “phlogiston” and learned all manner of interesting things from the science of that era. Problem is, it would have been wrong. And so is this crap, and in two or three centuries learned folk will shake their heads over our age’s willing credulity before ideas that confirm our own biases (though doubtless that time will be no more free of that tendency than we are).

#9 Comment By Nate On September 6, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

“This is not a Right vs Left thing, but an Imperialist vs Non-Interventionist thing. You can find people in either camp across the ideological spectrum.”

I don’t consider the GOP interventionists to be anything other than revolutionaries. The fact the GOP succumbed to their madness doesn’t make them any less creatures of the Left. Their values are those of revolution, regardless of the label they wear.

#10 Comment By JonF On September 7, 2016 @ 10:19 am

MH – I was more absolutist last night than I should have been. As I have posted before, I do believe that heredity plays a top-level role in many aspects of human behavior– but while it may create certain predispositions, whether these are brought to rfuition and exactly how they are is very much a contingent matter determined by circumstances. As I always like to point out we humans have genes for language use– but what language we speak is determined very crucially by what language(s) we experience in early childhood. Just as there is no gene for speaking Russian, there is also no gene for Calvinism (but there may be genes for religiosity in the general sense). Rerun history with a few minor details altered and there would be no Dutch Calvinists– maybe no Calvinists at all anywhere.

#11 Comment By JonF On September 7, 2016 @ 10:21 am


You are redefining “Left” and “Right” in ways that suit your own personal agenda. This is fundamentally dishonest and I have zero respect for it.
Since you are simply going to change the terms of the discussion to mean whatever you please there is no point in my continuing to engage with you here.

#12 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 7, 2016 @ 11:11 am


Problem is, it would have been wrong. And so is this crap,

Do you have any actual, well, evidence for that claim?

Blank-slate theory took a big hit when Bouchard’s twin studies strted coming out in the 1990s, and took even more hits once we started learning more about the relevant neurobiology in the 2000s. If you have issues with the methods of of these studies, or with their fundamental assumptions and first principles, explain what your issues are.

The difference between 18th century science and our science is that ours, well, works, and makes testable predictions, and actually explains more than theirs does. I remember that you’re a scientifically trained guy, so you know this.

For what it’s worth, the massive mountain of evidence in favour of high heritability did not ‘confirm our biases’, quite the contrary: at a very deep level, the kind of classical-liberal worldview from which modern liberalism and conservative both draw their origins is very deeply undermined by the idea that our fates are very heavily affected by heredity and other accidents of birth and early childhood. Elite opinion in the 1970s, either liberal or conservative, was definitely not expected that heritabilities for most traits would turn out to be as high as they are. Most mainstream conservatives and liberals (Rod included) are still quite resistant to these arguments to this day: liberals prefer to explain things in terms of institutions and conservatives in terms of values and culture.

#13 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On September 7, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

@JonF, I agree that there’s no genes for Calvinism, but temperament should make someone more positively disposed to certain ideas or behaviors over others. For example shyness is heritable, and a shy disposition is observable in infancy. A person with such a temperament is unlikely to seek out a career in public relations.

When enough people in a specific community share genetics, then behaviors favored by that temperament should be more prevalent in that community as a whole. For example Denmark is a community of generally happier people, so they’re more likely to adopt optimistic worldviews.

So if the Dutch on average have a more restrained disposition, then it might make ideas more compatible with it more prevalent.

@Hector_St_Clare, I agree the twin and the adoption studies killed the blank slate hypothesis, and this has implications for our society.

#14 Comment By JonF On September 7, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

You likely posted before my own post of 10:19 had been approved by Rod. It sums up my position less absolutely than my post of last night (I’ve been under a lot of stress recently and was on the verge of full on scenery chewing over something that had nothing to do with anyone here last night).
That said, one of the most neglected but important virtues is humility. In intellectual terms that should take the form of a certain skepticism about any and all “certainties” of our time and place. Leave open always the possibility that the future will have cause to regard us as foolish just as we do those who advocated Ptolemy’s astronomy, Aristotle’s physics, and the Four Humor theory of medicine.

#15 Comment By Nate On September 7, 2016 @ 9:45 pm

Sorry JonF but your view that Right and Left can only be discussed in terms of American party lines is what is wrong. Nobody who advocates the violent spread of ”democracy” across the world is a conservative or member of the Right as historically understood. The fact that many of whom that pass for a conservative in America hold this interventionist view is an indictment of how intellectually bankrupt 21st Century America is and not an attempt by me to change definitions.

#16 Comment By Evan On September 7, 2016 @ 11:25 pm

Holland is actually not very genetically homogeneous. The caucasian population in Holland is divided between people of Frisian descent and people of Frankish descent. Amsterdam northward is dominated by the Frisians, while the southern cities are dominated by the Franks. My family is from southern Holland, and we all look very stereotypically French. Even so, the stereotypical “Dutch” cultural ethic is pretty consistent across both ethnicities.

I have no explanation for this. But it rings true. I grew up in a very Dutch subculture, and that subculture knows very few of the social problems of the broader Republic, and that includes those who’ve stopped attending church. The Dutch subculture–even in the US–places a high value on self-restraint, personal responsibility, even-temperedness, directness (and even bluntness) in communication, and honesty. It’s a culture that places a high value on only three of Haidt’s six moral foundations: harm avoidance, fairness, and liberty. Things like sanctity, authority, and loyalty play a marginal role in Dutch subculture. For example, we Dutch will generally not err in favor of our friends; loyalty must be constantly earned.

#17 Comment By JonF On September 8, 2016 @ 6:17 am

Re: Holland is actually not very genetically homogeneous. The caucasian population in Holland is divided between people of Frisian descent and people of Frankish descent. Amsterdam northward is dominated by the Frisians, while the southern cities are dominated by the Franks.

Bear in mind that the Frisians and Franks were both late comers to the region. Especially on the matrilineal side the genome of the region (in common with the whole Atlantic fringe of Europe from Spain northward) has a high degree of consistency over many millennia. The Frisians and Franks brought their languages and probably their Y chromosomes, but they mixed with people, notably the women, who had very deep roots already.

#18 Comment By Stephen Weng On August 11, 2017 @ 2:14 am

In the book Existence by David Brin it mentions a Renunciation Movement which is effectively escapism from any change in the human civilization. This Movement in the mid to late 21st century justifies that humans have committed enough mistakes already and so they must reconstruct the good old days. The sticker is that they admit the past is a hellhole compared to modern times, but they still want to allow aristocrats to lord over them. (The leaders of this Movement ARE the aristocrats) They reason that 99 percent of human civilizations had chosen to let an assumed elite rule over them so why not imitate what their wise ancestors did. (How could 99 percent be wrong?) A slight problem with this is the fact that 99 percent of human civilizations died out due to the faults that were always there. Rome didn’t stagnate in a day. Their elites never let the mob actually rule over them and one day too many members of the aristocrats found that their empire is deteriorating while they were lazing away. This Renunciation Movement was developed by the aristocrats of the period in the setting. Several paradigm shifting disasters have happened and humanity has grown up just a bit. Climate change is seen as primarily humanity’s fault and the people of this age generally accept that disasters are often caused by humans. More responsibility equals more morality. The Great Filter Theory is mentioned since it relates to the Fermi Paradox. If aliens exist then why isn’t their presence blatantly obvious? Some Great Filters must therefore exist to weed out entire civilizations. Aliens come and become an affront to the Renunciation Movement. They reject the future for the sake of blatant ignorance and lo the future has really come. In the end the most recent Great Filter really was the one that had been staring at them all along. Stagnation from an inability to translate mankind’s controversial imagination into action. The human civilization in this story almost committed suicide simply to maintain the illusion that their geocentric affairs really mean anything on any real scale. The nostalgia that conservative conservatives have is awfully similar to this fictional movement. Let’s hope WE don’t fall into this moratorium.