Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Revenant Conservatism

     The Kristols, Irving and Bill, have been associated with conservative thought and policies for decades. Irving Kristol was among the first “neo-conservatives,” and an important contributor to Commentary and similar publications. His son Bill edits The Weekly Standard and frequently appears as a representative of institutional conservatism on various radio and television shows.

     Neither Kristol displays much affection for the constitutional and classical-liberal ideas that largely define conservatism today. (We can, of course, forgive Irving for that, as he passed on in 2008.) Bill Kristol recently made his preferences explicit:

     Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.

     How a man can advocate constitutional politics yet prefer the “deep state” to the closest constitutional politics has come in decades, I cannot imagine...unless it’s because Kristol’s meaning for the word conservative is reverting to its origins.


     Conservative shares its root with conserve:

Conserve \Con*serve"\, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Conserved; p. pr. & vb. n. Conserving.] [F. conserver, L. conservare; con- + servare to keep, guard. See Serve.]
     1. To keep in a safe or sound state; to save; to preserve; to protect. [1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary]

     The original conservative politics was, quite simply, resistance to change. A high school American History teacher of mine was vehement about it: “The conservative wishes to conserve,” he proclaimed upon many occasions. He stubbornly opposed political or social changes of any sort. If change is to be entertained at all, he would say, let it be in small increments...and the smaller, the better.

     It should give my Gentle Readers a full sense of that teacher’s conservatism to note that he held Thomas Jefferson to be a wild-eyed anarchist whose libertarian ideals were inherently unworkable. He did what he could to inculcate that belief in his students.

     This appears to be the direction in which institutional conservatism is headed. Institutions, of course, are inherently opposed to large changes. The prospect of significant alterations in the Way Things Are threatens to destabilize the assumptions, customs, and practices on which an institution is based. Thus it is no great leap of the imagination to suspect that the institutional conservative would prefer The Way Things Are to go unperturbed even if they’re obstructive, costly, or unjust. He’s “done a corner in them.”

     Bill Kristol is a good representative of that mindset.


     The institutional conservatism of the Kristols is inimical to insurgent conservatism: those of constitutionalist or classical-liberal bent who call for limited government, the demise of the Deep State, and a strict conformity to Constitutional prescriptions and proscriptions in our laws and political processes. Insurgent conservatism had a pretty good run during the 80s and 90s. Reagan was its standard-bearer. It largely succeeded in checking the Clinton Administration’s more grandiose schemes. The Bushes largely disappointed it, and of course Barack Hussein Obama horrified it.

     What insurgent conservatives did not expect was that the institutionals would league with the Big Government Left to oppose us. But then, we hardly stopped to ponder the nature of the institutional mindset, and institutionals have always “talked a good game.”

     The institutionals view Donald Trump as an interloper who threatens to bring down the legal and political edifices in which they shelter. There are several facets to this. The most important of them is institutionals’ comfort with the Deep State: the bureaucracies and mechanisms that dominate contemporary American life. The Deep State provides the stability institutionals cherish while simultaneously giving them a rhetorical punching bag...not that they ever hit it too powerfully. That the Deep State is inherently unfriendly to individual freedom, limited government, and economic growth is of far less importance than that stability to the institutions that have accommodated themselves to it.

     Immediately after that comes the nature of the institutionals’ enterprise. They live to provide rhetorical opposition to the Big Government Left. It’s their livelihood. Their magazines, policy studies, and the rest might rail against the Deep State, but were it to vanish, the institutionals would be out of work. It would compel them to change trades. The Trump Insurgency, with its exuberant populist-oriented conservatism, is a direct threat to their rice bowls.

     Third and last for today, there are personal networks linking the institutionals to their supposed adversaries in the American political elite. They tend not to speak of them, and strain to change the subject when those linkages are hauled into view. “Our sort” includes both institutional conservatives and the farthest-left of the Left. An elite is an institution in its own right: divergences among its members’ rhetoric seldom impede the desire to “get along” and remain in good odor with “the boys,” whether it’s for profit or ongoing inclusion.


     People are generally resistant to change. As Arthur Herzog has written, “Change is hard, and difficulty makes people impatient.” Yet America has given birth to a large-scale movement that demands changes of a particular sort. Its standard-bearer is a man of untamed tongue who’s accustomed to getting things done, on time and within budget at that, and he’s begun in admirable style. The institutions – Left and Right – feel the tremors in their floorboards. It’s more important to them to quiet those tremors than to achieve any legal or political ideal either has ever proposed in pixels or print.

     The revenant conservatism of the institutionals, that regards The Way Things Are as The Way Things Ought To Be In Perpetuity, is no friend of change. Neither can we expect it to embrace the changes the Trump Administration has ignited, unless in an attempt to co-opt and nullify the forces that propel them.

5 comments:

Dystopic said...

I've become a downright radical insurgent conservative in recent years. It's to the point that burn it all down and salt the Earth where its smoking ruins once stood is barely sufficient.

The insurgents can be broken down into the burn it down types, and the massive reduction & reform types. Trump is probably the latter, but even that represents radical change that must horrify the institutionalists. What should horrify them more, however, is what will happen if the reformists *fail*.

Then they will have to deal with folks like me.

brinster said...

Dystopic, I'm with you brother.

Anonymous said...

Rush pointed out some time ago that liberal and conservative labels are essentially backwards in these strange times.

As for me.. you'll find no stronger raging insurgent conservative. I live on the border of libertarianism. I'd move there completely except some tenets are unworkable. Not to mention their candidate selection can bring into question their sincerity and/or intelligence. I don't care that Mr. Johnson smoke(s)d dope as long as he is sober at work. I do care that a candidate for POTUS has less knowledge of world affairs than I do. Don't get me started on the whole eliminating taxes business!

Jack Imel said...

I had to read it twice, cause my brain keeps being revenant when I least expect it. Francis, I think you could have added some facets of the economic dimension in there for a more complete analysis. That being said, I'm with brinster.

Linda Fox said...

Insurgent conservatism is more likely to win. Too many have no touchstone for conserving what previous eras held dear - they have been indoctrinated into believing that it has something to do with KKK and neo-Nazism.

What they CAN look to is the actual Constitution. Paring down our legal structure to the bare-bones is, as they see it, sensible and 'conservative'.