The End Of Conservatism? Or Birth Of A New Right?
In Budapest this evening, the Danube Institute hosted the English historian and television host David Starkey for a talk about British conservatism. By happenstance, the lecture happened only a few hours after Liz Truss resigned as British prime minister. Starkey, an arch-Tory, was merciless in his pronouncement: "This is the dusk of the Conservative Party."
Well, I don't know about that, but it certainly doesn't look good for the Tories. They don't seem to know what they believe in. Thatcherism is as dead as Reaganism. Do they stand for national sovereignty? Well, they got Brexit done, but immigration is still a massive problem. They never stand against wokeness. Crime is out of control, but the Tories don't seem to care. Radicals who hate Britishness are running rampant in universities and institutions that form British culture, but the Conservative Party seems unable to muster much of a fight. Meanwhile, home buying is out of sight for many young people. At some point, "Vote for us, because we're not the Loony Left" is not going to convince enough people to keep the Tories in power.
It strikes me that much of the institutional decadence afflicting the Tory Party is also there in the GOP. True, the Republicans had the shot in the arm of Donald Trump, but four years of Trumpism, which was high on red-meat rhetoric but low on red-meat accomplishments (the federal judiciary being a great exception), hasn't revitalized the party and given it the kind of intellectual heft and confidence that Ronald Reagan did. We are certainly going to keep having the GOP with us, as Britain will continue to have a party of the Right. But what kind of parties will they be?
I don't know enough about UK politics to say what should happen there, or what is likely to happen there, but the American situation is clearer. Writing in The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson says it's time for Americans on the Right to stop calling themselves conservative. Excerpt:
Why? Because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach. Conservatives have long defined their politics in terms of what they wish to conserve or preserve — individual rights, family values, religious freedom, and so on. Conservatives, we are told, want to preserve the rich traditions and civilizational achievements of the past, pass them on to the next generation, and defend them from the left. In America, conservatives and classical liberals alike rightly believe an ascendent left wants to dismantle our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia. The task of conservatives, going back many decades now, has been to stop them.
In an earlier era, this made sense. There was much to conserve. But any honest appraisal of our situation today renders such a definition absurd. After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.
Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing.
Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion are, at best, being preserved only in an ever-shrinking private sphere. At worst, they are being trampled to dust. They certainly do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.
Davidson cites Jon Askonas's excellent recent piece in which he said that conservatives failed chiefly because we had no idea what to do about technology. Excerpts:
As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards. They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behavior, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry. If the institutions that shepherd traditions aren’t regenerated, and if no one adopts their practices, traditions will fade into nothingness.
[T]he movement failed because it neglected the true revolutionary principle: technological transformation. Conservatives “lost the culture” not because they lost the battle of ideas, but because they lost the economy. Communists sought to transform society by transforming the organization of the household (the oikonomos, the etymological origin of “economy”)—but in the end, the efforts of political revolutionaries and party apparatchiks paled beside the impact of the Pill and the two-income trap.
When you descend from lofty rhetoric about “Traditions” and “Values,” it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology. For decades, sociologists have charted the decline of two-parent families, hobbies, local newspapers, churches, stable employment, women’s clubs, libraries, amateur sports, political rhetoric, neighborhood barbecues, Boy Scouts, small businesses, classical music, credit unions, and on and on. Even studies that catastrophize about the rise of loneliness, fatherlessness, economic precarity, and suicide, miss the bigger picture, which is that the social infrastructure conducive to human flourishing has shifted even for those fortunate enough to piece together a semblance of the average American life 50 years ago. A tradition is at an end when the wisdom of yesteryear no longer obtains.
A living tradition teaches its participants what it means to be good (a good farmer, a good policeman, a good violinist), aligning their own desires with what sustains the tradition. These virtues aren’t merely moral ideas: They are materially and socially rewarded, and their opposing vices are punished. As time goes by, a conversation within the tradition emerges about how best to achieve its purposes, whether to change its practices or adopt new ones, how to honor what has come before while embracing the best of new developments. But this link to the past is also a link to the future: To put in the years of effort and loyalty required to master a tradition, one has to believe that the institution will continue to live on and reward its disciples, changing in some of its particulars but steadfast in the pursuit of its ends.
Read the whole thing -- seriously, it's powerful and provocative. Askonas, who teaches politics at Catholic University of America, says that if conservatism wants to survive, it is going to have to figure out "how to build technologies to fortify tradition and advance human flourishing." That should be the thing that conservatives should most want to conserve -- but in order to determine what counts as "human flourishing," we are going to have to be clear about what constitutes human flourishing (something far more meaningful than "the freedom to do what you want to do"), and that's going to mean having to advocate for a clear and substantive idea of what it means to be human.
I actually believe it's an exciting time to be on the Right. The old structures and institutions are falling down; the new ones are waiting to be built by creative thinkers who once were on the fringes of the mainstream Right, but who are quickly moving towards the center. Nobody really thinks that the old-line right-wingers are the future. We don't yet know what the future of the Right is, but there are lots of people working now to create one. Not all of us agree, and some of us have better ideas than others. We need all hands on deck. Personally, I favor the Christian Democracy of the Viktor Orban-Giorgia Meloni school -- a conservatism that values localism, sovereignty, the natural family, and religion, and that is anti-woke and market-oriented, but sees the market as necessarily limited by a broader conception of the common good. And, crucially, this is a pro-family right-wing governing program that is not afraid to use the power of the state to push its own priorities.
John Daniel Davidson writes:
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Put bluntly, if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible. One need only consider the speed with which the discourse shifted on gay marriage, from assuring conservatives ahead of the 2015 Obergefell decision that gay Americans were only asking for toleration, to the never-ending persecution of Jack Phillips.
The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about “small government.” The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.
He's right. It will enrage libertarians and cause the small-government conservatives of the Reagan era to fall and not be able to get up. But what choice is there? The Left does this all the time. We have gone in a short period of time from an era in which the Right saw the State as the enemy, to an era in which the only major institution of American life where the Right can exert any influence is over, yes, the State.
Too many of us conservatives are like Lot's wife: looking back with fondness on a place we used to call home, but which no longer exists. I don't think anybody on the Right really has a foolproof path to the future. But thinkers like Jon Askonas and so many others thinking outside the tired old conservative lines are going to get us there.