Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Expiration Of Traditional Conservatism

     There’s a new conservatism in town. The old one, which feels itself being displaced, doesn’t like it. No surprise there, I suppose. But it’s worthy of a few words of examination on a relatively quiet Thursday morning.

     The old, “traditional” conservatism that feels itself being displaced is probably best characterized by a statement the late William F. Buckley made many years ago about his conception of the role of the conservative:

     A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

     “Stop,” of course, means “Stop here. Go no further.” It is a slogan against change, rather than for any particular value. It is the outcry of the defeated party anxious for an armistice that will preserve what he still holds against further incursions by his enemy. It is a maxim that implicitly admits failure.

     The pre-Trump GOP, to the extent that it was “conservative” in any sense, was that kind of conservative. It conceded that the enemy – left-liberalism, social democracy, “progressivism,” what have you – had gained much ground. It did not fight for the ground it had lost; rather, it accepted the Left’s gains as irreversible. It merely hoped to thwart any further left-wing gains, especially in economic and fiscal matters.

     But a “hold our ground” position will always be attacked with the enemy’s full force. Without a counter-initiative pressed with vigor and resolve, it will continue to lose ground. So “hold our ground” comes to mean “lose our ground as slowly as possible.”

     Yet that variety of conservatism appeals to many. Humans are extraordinarily adaptable. Given time, we adapt to changes in our environment, including our legal environment, with changes in ourselves and our behavioral patterns that will preserve as much of what we value as possible. But “change is hard, and difficulty makes people impatient.” (Arthur Herzog) Traditional conservatism, with its message of resistance to further change, appeals to our adaptability and our dislike of change itself.

     Once men have adapted to a set of changes, keeping things as they are appears to be “the path of least action.” It seems to require the least thought and effort from us. We’ve adapted; we’re still doing reasonably well; why exert ourselves any further? Especially if in our hearts we believe that the changes forced upon us are “here to stay” — ?

     If history has any enduring message about sociopolitical systems and their dynamics, it’s that the most difficult of all feats is staying in one place.

     My thoughts this morning were nudged in this direction by this most recent piece from Wes Rhinier:

     [H]istory proves and human nature holds true that the only time people are motivated to change is when the turmoil and pain of change is better than the current state of affairs. Right now I don’t think many people are happy with how our country is at this point in time.

     As long as we continue to vote for the lesser of two evils the best we can ever hope for is the status quo. But evil and the power hungry will never settle for status quo, they will always want even more power. We are losing ground by continuing to play their game, on their terms.

     As long as everyone has remained fat, happy and entertained, people have seemed content to justify voting for the system.

     Now, Wes’s essay is a broadside against simply “voting for the lesser of two evils:” Republicans rather than Democrats. And it has merit – if there is no prospect for converting the GOP from its traditional “Stop here” conservatism to the more modern variety which the policies of Donald Trump have largely expressed. That modern, Trumpian conservatism is founded on a question:

What should we be trying to conserve?

     If we can arrive at coherent answers to that question – answers that would be widely agreed upon – we will simultaneously answer the related questions:

What is not worth conserving?
What must we oppose with all our power?

     My question, to Wes and my other Gentle Readers, is a simple one:

Can we transform the Republican Party:
Away from its “Stop here” legacy,
Into a party that promotes freedom and American sovereignty?

     I hold that this question, which is seldom seriously addressed and almost never seriously answered, is the crux of our contemporary political discourse.

     William F. Buckley was no fool. Indeed, he possessed a powerful intellect and a great erudition. One of his other statements, which seems to qualify the “stand athwart history yelling Stop” maxim, runs thus:

     Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great....The laws concerning marijuana aren't exactly indefensible, because practically nothing is, and the thunderers who tell us to stay the course can always find one man or woman who, having taken marijuana, moved on to severe mental disorder. But that argument, to quote myself, is on the order of saying that every rapist began by masturbating....General rules based on individual victims are unwise. And although there is a perfectly respectable case against using marijuana, the penalties imposed on those who reject that case, or who give way to weakness of resolution, are very difficult to defend.

     While that addresses a single contentious issue, the general principle to which it alludes – Each of us has the right to go to Hell after his own fashion – is an important one. While Buckley was willing to consider exceptions to that principle, he would not do so lightly, nor without pondering the consequences and alternatives.

     If there must be exceptions to the principle of individual freedom, let them be as few as possible. Never accede to one without soberly contemplating the probable consequences. Traditional conservatism often espoused policies that had grave consequences – far worse than the goals held out for those policies – that could have been foreseen, whether from simple reasoning or from historical precedents. It is from that sort of dogmatic, uncontemplative conservatism that we must retreat.

     President Trump’s thinking and preferences appear to incline in the direction of a new, freedom-centered conservatism. For me, the question of the hour is whether we can swing the rest of the Republican Party into his orbit, or whether he’s fated to be a glitch on the graph of history. If it is still possible to make the GOP into a party of freedom that isn’t overrun by fringe loonies and anti-Americans, then the time for revolution, and the chaos and bloodshed it would entail, is not yet upon us.



Wes Rhinier said...

Can we transform the Republican Party:
Away from its “Stop here” legacy,
Into a party that promotes freedom and American sovereignty?

My short and quick answer to this is No.
I have tried playing the game and working within the system. Most people do no realize how corrupt it is right down to the local level. I'll provide some links with my background and some of what I have done as I am not sure you are familiar with it. Please Read:

These people in our government have forgotten that they are there to serve us, not Rule us.


I don't recall where I saw it, but the analogy to civilizations is apt. Civilizations GROW or RETREAT. So do philosophies.

That's why the NeverTrumpers hate Trump so much. They're content to feed at the trough even as the world falls around them.

Glen Filthie said...

I am not a political guru, FP... but I wonder: promoting rights and freedoms and expanding them? The libs have been doing it for decades now. You have the right to an abortion. You have the right to free everything up to and including housing and healthcare. You have the freedom to marry whoever and whatever you want. Etc ad nauseum. It’s caused all kinds of trouble and heartache too.

I’d like the new conservatism to reintroduce the idea of responsibility and accountability. Social justice, for example: protecting black thugs is not social justice. If you go around raping, assaulting, and stealing and get shot 7 times by a cop while resisting arrest... well... THAT is social justice. I’d like to see new conservatism uphold laws rather than running on emotion and rhetoric...

WalkingHorse said...

For several years, the incremental retreat by folks proclaiming themselves to be "conservatives" has been emblematic of its failure as a governing political philosophy. Buckley admitted as much when he spoke of it in terms of "resisting change". Rather than resisting change, any political philosophy with legs has to encompass things it actively espouses and actively opposes. Trump's approach clearly has those attributes. Trump is serving in a more active role, that of conservator and antagonist against the forces aligned against liberty. The only description I have come across that accurately describes what Trump and his supporters are about is we/they, after tolerating decades of attacks, affronts, and damage at the hands and pens of people declaring active hostility against both our culture and our liberty, have embarked upon a quest to turn back our enemies and reclaim our government, our culture, and our other institutions from the enemies. There is only one historical antecedent with an apt term to characterize what we are about. This is a Crusade, in the religious, cultural, and civil sense. Crusade for Liberty is a mouthful, but it is a start. It must be understood that our liberty, our culture, and our shared religious beliefs will remain under perpetual attack, until the end of time.

Stewart said...

There is one area of modern conservatism that has made steady gains, and from which we may draw valuable lessons. While the rest of the conservative movement has been fighting a trench war against Blitzkrieg, the Second Amendment people learned that was a loosing strategy, and have been on the offensive for almost 20 years. They accomplished this by taking a “big tent” approach, by not being dogmatic, by having ambassadors who were open, friendly, and approachable, and by not relying on the NRA. And also being willing to fight like dogs when necessary.

Rick T said...

WFB had bully pulpits with The Firing Line and National Review but he only seemed to want to conserve his access to chic dinner parties in Manhattan. He opposed people like the John Birch Society who wanted to reverse changes, declaring them not part of his Conservative movement.

"Stand athwart history yelling Stop", not "Stand athwart history yelling Go Back"

Tracy Coyle said...

From my essay in response to Russell Kirk's 10 Principles of Conservatism:

When a society can be isolated from change it does not stabilize, it stagnates. Change happens. To seek to prevent that change from impacting society is to seek a status quo. That by necessity limits personal freedoms and liberties. The society I live in is fundamentally different than that my grandparents lived in. My parents have straddled that difference and found the old so detrimental to the liberty they desired for their children that they left that former society. It is not continuity of society that makes life meaningful, it is individual freedom of choice and association that makes life meaningful.

AuricTech Shipyards said...

You ask these corollary questions to the vital "What is worth conserving?" question:

"What is not worth conserving?"
"What must we oppose with all our power?"

I would reverse the order, and modify the second question into two questions:

"What must we oppose with all our power?"
"On what fronts can we afford simply to hold our ground for the time being?"
"On what fronts can we afford to cede some ground for the moment, in order to free up efforts to oppose what we must oppose?"