Editor’s Note: Above “Left wing parliamentarians dressed in the colours of the rainbow pose in front of the Polish Parliament (Sejm)”
In the New York Times, I think David Brooks has a good summary of the present moment.
“For decades conservatives were happy to live in that paradigm. But as years went by many came to see its limits. It was so comprehensively anti-government that it had no way to use government to solve common problems. It was so focused on cultivating strong individuals that it had no language to cultivate a sense of community and belonging. So, if you were right of center, you leapt. You broke from the Reagan paradigm and tried to create a new, updated conservative paradigm. …
Bannon and Trump got the emotions right. They understood that Republican voters were no longer motivated by a sense of hope and opportunity; they were motivated by a sense of menace, resentment and fear. At base, many Republicans felt they were being purged from their own country — by the educated elite, by multiculturalism, by militant secularism.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump and Bannon discarded the Republican orthodox — entitlement reform, fiscal restraint, free trade, comprehensive immigration reform. They embraced a European-style blood-and-soil conservatism. Close off immigration. Close trade. We have nothing to offer the world and should protect ourselves from its dangers.It would have been interesting if Trump had governed as a big-government populist. But he tossed Bannon out and handed power to Jared Kushner and a bunch of old men locked in the Reagan paradigm. We got bigotry, incompetence and tax cuts for the wealthy. …”
There is zero energy behind Trump in the 2020 election cycle.
In the 2016 election, Trump articulated a new vision that seemed fresh and exciting and it mobilized a swath of voters who do not normally vote for Republican candidates. He rode that wave into office. Once he got there though, he sold out to the donor class, the GOP establishment and empowered Jared Kushner in the White House to pursue an agenda that had nothing to do with the forces that got him elected. The only thing saving Trump now from a total wipeout is that the Left has gone insane.
As for the GOP though, Zombie Reaganism lingers on. It is futile to vote for Republican candidates. It is a complete waste of time to give them power. We know what they are going to do with power. They are going to pursue the same agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, military spending and championing Israel that the donor class purchases from Republican office holders. They will combine their real agenda with their usual performance art of token gestures and giving lip service to other things voters care about.
There is no reason to believe the GOP actually cares about the immigration issue. It has gone absolutely out of its way to block Trump and destroy anyone within the party – Steve King, Jeff Sessions, Kris Kobach – who champions the issue or who wants to push the party in a more nationalist and populist direction. There are only populist outliers in the GOP. The mainstream of the party is committed to Zombie Reaganism. Even though Trump was elected president, he remained an outlier within his own party and could only do so much without the cooperation of Congress and the Supreme Court.
The GOP is committed to its own vision, values and priorities which were set in stone in the 1980s. It is impervious to reform and will destroy anyone who tries to reform it.
“Levin’s thinks the prevailing post-Trump viewpoints define the problem too much in economic terms. The crucial problem, he argues, is not economic; it’s social: alienation. Millions of American don’t feel part of anything they can trust. They feel no one is looking out for them. Trump was a false answer to their desire for social solidarity, but the desire can be a force for good. …”
The millions of Americans who believe this are correct. The definition of Modernism which is the dominant ideology and value set of the American establishment is the liberation and expression of the self, rejection of the past and the celebration of the other. Nothing could be more foreign to a Modernist than the backward notion that they owe anything to anyone else particularly their own ethnic group. Being a Modernist is about rejecting the past, dismantling your own culture and chasing after endless novelties. Social alienation and distrust comes from the accurate perception that the self absorbed elite has abandoned the masses. Modernism inevitably leads to sharp cultural polarization between urban professionals and the rural masses.
In order to grasp this, it is necessary to look back at the previous age and the values of its elite, which were the opposite of the Modernists. The Romantics were nation builders who celebrated the masses and what was particular about each European nation. They celebrated nature and the countryside and disdained the city. They were a creative, not a critical elite. Strangely enough, Romantic nationalism sustained liberalism and was generally seen as a progressive and liberal force in the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, Modernists embraced cosmopolitanism and began the long process of dismantling their nations. The educated and professional classes came to see themselves as at odds with the masses.
In the 1920s, H.L. Mencken railed against the booboisie, which reflected the growing influence of Modernism in his time. A century before, G.F.W. Hegel was celebrating the Volksgeist in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, which reflected the influence of Romanticism in Europe. The educated and professional classes who once championed the nation have shifted to wanting to destroy it. How do we explain this radical difference? The Zeitgeist changed in the 20th century and became Modernist.
In The American Conservative, Julius Krein describes American conservatism as a federation of unimaginative losers who are incapable of wielding power.
“Despite this obsession with theoretical inquiry, however, conservatives have been nearly banished from the academy, prestige media, and cultural institutions. The leading “conservative thinkers” of the last 20 years have influenced hardly anyone beyond the next generation of downwardly mobile graduate students.
As Gladden Pappin, deputy editor of American Affairs, has argued, contemporary conservatism is an attempt to articulate the role of non-state institutions rather than a serious approach to wielding political power. The result is an abundance of platitudinous books on Tocqueville and treacly essays on civility, but little serious study of how today’s economy actually works or how to coordinate diverse interests across complex institutions. Thus, even when conservatives happen to win office, typically all that they can imagine doing is reducing their own capacity to exercise power. Conservative foundations and donors have plowed millions into producing mind-numbing Adam Smith documentaries—last year, they even created a virtual pin factory, along with an absurdist farce featuring the Dalai Lama—but they have shown little interest in, say, planning for economic and technological competition with China or understanding the effects of financialization. In part, this may be owing to the fact that conservatism has become nothing more than an ideological gloss retrospectively applied to the machinations of lobbyists and grifters. Yet on a deeper level it seems that the conservative corpus is simply no longer capable of anything but reflexive spasms.
In the 1964 anthology What is Conservatism?, Friedrich Hayek contributed an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Almost 60 years later, it is fair to say that Hayek’s neoliberal vision largely triumphed, while the alternatives included in that volume basically failed. For those who genuinely wish to learn from history, then, the only sensible response to the question “What is conservatism?” is, at this point, “Who cares?”
As Krein seems to admit, this isn’t entirely accurate. Conservatives have been fairly successful in politics. The people have given them electoral mandate after electoral mandate and billions of dollars to reverse the decline of America. They currently control the White House, Senate and Supreme Court. They recently had control of the House of Representatives. They are more dominant at the state level too.
The failure of American conservatism isn’t due to voters who have more often than not rewarded them at the ballot box. It is a failure at the level of vision, values and beliefs which are reflected in public policy. As I described above, this is at least partially structural and due to the material interests which are behind mainstream conservatism and determine its agenda, but it is also due to the almost implacable opposition of the professional and educated classes. Conservatives are shut out of the nation’s culture forming institutions which is a point that was recently driven home by the suicide of Mike Adams.
So, to repeat:
1.) Vision – At the level of vision, beliefs and values, the governing philosophy of mainstream conservatism is conservative liberalism. It is about conserving liberalism and free-market capitalism which are utterly destabilizing. When conservatives arrive in office, they see their job as unleashing the animal spirits of capitalism and standing pat and refusing to push a positive “big government” agenda. As a matter of sacred philosophical principle, they are above using government to advance the cultural and economic interests of their base, which they reserve for their donors.
2.) Structure – Even when they run on various popular social causes and voters reward them with electoral mandates like when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, conservatives always pivot in office to their real agenda. They move on the priorities of the donors, lobbyists and most powerful interests. This is why Donald Trump spent his political capital on tax reform and criminal justice reform. In such a polarized political environment, the priorities of voters end up not being served.
3.) Elites – America’s educated and professional classes are in the grips of an idea that is totally opposed to conservatism and marginalize conservatives within culture forming institutions. This is certainly the most important of the three factors. Modernism defines progress as the liberation of the self, the celebration of the other and the rejection of the past which inexorably leads to the solidarity crisis within Western nations between urban elites and the governed. White Nationalists like Andrew Anglin would explain this as a Jewish conspiracy. It is true that Jews practice nepotism and are massively overrepresented among the educated and professional classes, but they are all in the grips of this idea and worldview. It is just as true in other Western countries like Britain or France as it is in the United States.
Even if the vision, beliefs and values of conservative elites were retooled to become more nationalist and populist and the structure of the conservative movement was changed so that the priorities of donor class were served last, the third problem would continue to vex conservatives. The idea that animates the educated and professional classes and forms the elite consensus has to change for conservatism to succeed and that will only happen after a rival is created and our current social order destroys itself.
In Tablet, Zach Goldberg charts the rise of hyper Modernist “Woke” language which has lately conquered the institutions of progressive liberalism.
“In 2011, just 35% of white liberals thought racism in the United States was “a big problem,” according to national polling. By 2015, this figure had ballooned to 61% and further still to 77% in 2017. …
Whatever it used to mean, “white supremacy” is now everywhere and applicable to any context. Consider that until 2015, terms related to “white supremacy” almost never registered at more than 0.001% of all words in a given year in any of the above newspapers. With the exception of The Wall Street Journal, whose upswing was less consistent, this ceiling has been comfortably breached in every year since. By 2019, the Times and Post were respectively using these terms approximately 17 and 18 times more frequently than they were in 2014. Incidentally, white liberal readership of the Times and Post saw marked growth across this same period. …”
What are we looking at here?
Why is there such a huge disconnect between the rise in perceived racism among educated White liberal professionals and lack thereof among non-Whites?
As I have argued, each age of history is dominated by an idea that shapes the elite consensus which determines the values of its culture. This dominant idea in each age of history goes through a natural cycle that ends in an Unraveling era and climaxes in a Crisis era. Romanticism ended in the World Wars between nation-states. The growth of wokeness represents the climax of the idea of the current cycle which is Modernism. Woke people are militant Modernists who want to completely destroy the oppressive past and in doing so precipitate the total collapse of solidarity within their nations.
In National Review, Mathis Bitton attempts to explain where populism comes from and why there is such an enormous divide between the elites and the masses, which he attributes to globalization.
“Naturally, the fears that populism inspires are far from unjustified. In a classical-liberal framework wherein rational discourse underpins the practice of politics, those who sacrifice the civil exchange of ideas on the altar of indignation seem to threaten the established order. In fact, they explicitly do: Populists focus their engagement upon the malfunctions of the status quo, whose architects they promise to punish. To put it simply, they are not for as much as they are against. In this sense, populism as a mode of politics need not be ideological. While most commentators associate the term with nationalist resentment or Jacobin fury, every kind of populist discourse is but an iteration of a wider, malleable, diffuse conception of public life. In fact, the contours of specific populist movements depend upon the elite they aspire to combat: against cosmopolitan liberals, convinced chauvinists; against a disconnected bourgeoisie, enthusiastic socialists. In every case, the frustrations of the moment lay the foundations of the movement — which, without these frustrations, would be meaningless. Ultimately, populism first and foremost characterizes a resentful request for popular representation and recognition, a sense of disenchantment so significant that it distills an often-incoherent set of demands into a single political cry: Enough. …
An electoral map of Europe would reveal this cultural clash with utmost clarity. During the 2017 French presidential elections, the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron won in Paris and other major cities by extraordinary margins, but his nationalist opponent Marine Le Pen captured the rural vote without effort. In other words, while Parisians supported a pro-globalization, pro-gay-marriage, pro-free-trade, and pro-EU candidate, their fellow citizens in rural villages cast their votes in favor of an anti-globalization, anti-gay-marriage, anti-free-trade, and anti-EU candidate. This kind of ideological Grand Canyon has become so common as to be unsurprising, but let us think carefully about the implications of having a country whose inhabitants have very little to share culturally. In the U.S., the autonomy of individual states allows these differences to coexist. But not anywhere else. When the arch-conservative president Andrzej Duda won the Polish elections two weeks ago, his reelection generated a sense of trauma in large Polish towns. Had his liberal opponent been chosen instead, the exact same phenomenon would have been observed in the Polish countryside.
This divide is nothing new. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the narrator laughs at those Russian aristocrats who speak French, dance to Italian music, recite English poetry, and have long forgotten the suffering of their people. In many ways, the aristocracy of the 18th and 19th centuries was already made up of detached “citizens of the world.” When Louis XIV launched the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702, for instance, he knew that his attack would serve the interests of the transnational aristocracy at the expense of the French people — many of whom died in this conflict in which they had no share. He nevertheless chose to go ahead, as would other monarchs who saw the nation-state as an instrument of private power. The problem, of course, is that the populace ultimately responded to the disconnect of this aristocratic elite by launching a series of revolutions all across Europe. And we should not want our civil order to collapse because of ever-expanding cultural gap…”
Something has created the “ideological Grand Canyon.”
It is not as simple as attributing it to race or ethnicity. If race or ethnicity were the cause, why would it exist in a homogeneous country like Poland? Why have countries which were previously fairly homogeneous like the United States made a conscious effort to become heterogeneous? Why is there such a growing divide between White liberals and non-Whites in their perception of racism?
Once again, what is the idea driving the culture?
What might come after Modernism?
“A spectre is haunting the liberal West: the rise of the “civilisation-state”. As America’s political power wanes and its moral authority collapses, the rising challengers of Eurasia have adopted the model of the civilisation-state to distinguish themselves from a paralysed liberal order, which lurches from crisis to crisis without ever quite dying nor yet birthing a viable successor. Summarising the civilisation-state model, the political theorist Adrian Pabst observes that “in China and Russia the ruling classes reject Western liberalism and the expansion of a global market society. They define their countries as distinctive civilisations with their own unique cultural values and political institutions.” From China to India, Russia to Turkey, the great and middling powers of Eurasia are drawing ideological succour from the pre-liberal empires from which they claim descent, remoulding their non-democratic, statist political systems as a source of strength rather than weakness, and upturning the liberal-democratic triumphalism of the late 20th century. …
It is only when we see Macron struggling to rally European civilisation for the coming age of empires, or observe European strongmen like Viktor Orban, hailed by many Anglo-Saxon conservatives as the saviour of Western civilisation, railing against the West with all the passion and fury of an anti-colonial revolutionary, that we see glimpses of a future stranger and more complex than our current political discourse allows. When we see Poland mandating the study of Latin in schools to imbue pupils with an understanding of “the Latin roots of our civilisation,” or the young rising star of the Dutch radical right Thierry Baudet asserting that we are living through a “European spring,” “contradictory to the political spectrum that has dominated the West since the French Revolution,” which will “change the direction that all our countries are going to take in the coming two generations,” we discern, just as we do in the BLM protests or the spread of the American social justice faith in our streets and universities, the political battlegrounds of Europe’s future. …
Indeed, it is striking that Europe’s soi-disant liberal saviour is the most prominent Western adopter of the new language of civilisation-states: no doubt the former Hegel scholar has discerned the Weltgeist. In an overlooked speech last year to a gathering of France’s ambassadors, Macron mused that China, Russia and India were not merely economic rivals but “genuine civilisation states… which have not just disrupted our international order, assumed a key role in the economic order, but have also very forcefully reshaped the political order and the political thinking that goes with it, with a great deal more inspiration than we have.” Macron observed that “they have a lot more political inspiration than Europeans today. They take a logical approach to the world, they have a genuine philosophy, a resourcefulness that we have to a certain extent lost.” “
Russia is following China in becoming a civilization-state. Emmanuel Macron has also been throwing around the idea of Europe becoming a civilization-state.
Modernism is nihilistic and the impulse that animates it which is to tear down all authority and order and reject the past in order to liberate the self and celebrate the other can only climax in self destruction. Much of the world sees the foolishness of the West and is embracing the civilization-state. As always, the West will only come around to this way of thinking after it completely destroys itself.
“That brings us to antiliberalism. If ‘conservatism’ is really a subspecies of liberal theory, antiliberal thought is more a direct antithesis. If Trumpists wish that society could have been forever maintained at a prior moment in the history of post-Enlightenment liberal theory, Oakeshottians wish to preserve the present state of society, and classical liberals wish to preserve for all time the ideological commitments (if not the institutional machinery) of the Enlightenment, antiliberals reject all of the above as the illegitimate children of Enlightenment liberalism. They understand the liberal ideological commitments of the Enlightenment as themselves rotten. Antiliberalism, as I understand it, has a fairly ecumenical basis in western political theory. It owes its origins to ideological traditions which predate liberalism, in primarily Aristotle and Aquinas, but also, arguably, Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, and others.
The core of antiliberalism, I think, is the notion that the atomistic individualism of liberal theory is pernicious: Human beings, as both Aristotle and de Maistre put at the central of their political thought, are social creatures, who can live fully ‘human’ lives only in a society. Social institutions are not to be selected from a menu of options at will. Individuals are inculcated from early childhood into the norms and traditions of a society. A society’s job is not to accept all forms of individual difference and work around it, but to actively work at reshaping individuals into productive and content members of the society they inhabit. There’s a clear connection to virtue ethics and perfectionism in moral philosophy, as the inculcation of virtue is seen as one of the core jobs of social institutions.
Morality is not something to be deduced from first principles, but to be drawn from the experience of living together harmoniously with others in a society, a matter of experience which is largely contingent to the particular society an individual inhabits. (And since different societies have different norms and institutions, membership in a society, contra the liberal tradition, is not something to taken up or abandoned haphazardly; individuals are educated to be productive members of a particular set of social institutions, to be citizens of this society and not others.)
A key feature of many important modern antiliberal thinkers is also decisionism: While liberal rationalism places faith in the idea that individuals can be governed by moral and legal principles which can be applied by anyone with decently functioning rational faculties, Antiliberals understand that moral, political, and legal conflict is unavoidable for people with different interests, backgrounds, and points of view, and that no set of neutral principles can dispositively settle these conflicts based on the workings of pure reason. …”
Worth reading in light of the above.
In the new age of moral clarity in American journalism in which “black trans” liberation is the edge of social progress, liberalism in its Modernist phase is approaching its climax. It has created a wide variety of new social problems which must be the starting point of conservatism. What happens after the social order has been razed to the ground, social solidarity has been completely destroyed, the roots of society have been poisoned and everything with two legs under the sun has been liberated from “white supremacy”?
Trumpism would attempt to return to the 1950s through the sheer power of nostalgia. Oakeshottian conservatism would conserve the status quo out of fear of unintended consequences. Conservative liberalism would attempt to return to a highly distorted understanding of the 1790s.