Will we have politics-as-conversation or politics-as-war? Those are the only choices.
The arena of contemporary American politics is a confused place.
And so-called conservatives—Republican politicians, yes, but, particularly, those in the mainstream “conservative media” or Big Conservatism—are especially confused.
Historically, within the West, there can be discerned two rival ideal political types between which discourse and practice have oscillated. On the one hand, politics has been conceived in terms of a conversation as it is the ultimate expression of civilization.
On the other hand, however, politics also has been viewed as an extension of war, the quintessential existential civilizational crisis that, in encouraging the human penchant for violence, threatens to undermine civilization in favor of barbarism.
Big Conservatism seems to want to have it both ways.
Beating the War Drums for Cash
Those in official positions within Big Conservatism seem to relish in patting themselves on the back for refusing to resort to the gutter tactics regularly employed by their leftist opponents. Every time these media celebrities slam the Left for their raucous street demonstrations, boycotts, demonization campaigns, “doxxing,” blacklisting of their enemies, and outright violence against conservatives while highlighting their unwillingness to do the same in return, Big Conservatives are saying nothing more or less than this: “We are much more civilized than are our opponents on the Left.”
Well, OK. But at what point does this become delusional?
Big Conservatives, despite incessant assurances to their constituents that the Left poses the greatest of existential threats to the West, steadfastly refrain from deploying their (vast) resources in influence, recognition, and affluence to the end of combating, to say nothing of eliminating this threat.
Conservatives, we are repeatedly told, are radically unlike leftists inasmuch as they are truly “tolerant” of alternative perspectives and genuinely value “free speech.”
At the same time, however, they do indeed characterize the Left as the greatest of existential threats to America and the whole of Western civilization. It is, after all, precisely because the Left has long ached to “fundamentally transform” our country, as Barack Obama so memorably put it, that Big Conservatives have seen in leftism an ominous design.
Big Conservatism also routinely describes the relationship between the Left and the rest of America as being one of war—a “cultural war,” say, or a “second civil war,” or “a war for America’s soul.”
War Games Are Not Games
Yet politics-as-conversation (PAC) and politics-as-war (PAW) are not only mutually distinct conceptions of politics; they are mutually antithetical. They differ not only in degree, but in kind.
Conversation, even when it contains passages that are dramatic and tense, is still a kind of play, a species of discourse between interlocutors who implicitly consent to one and the same set of rules, rules prescribing civility, mutual respect, a willingness to listen, and in the absence of which dialogue of any sort is impossible.
Conversation is a cooperative endeavor between persons who, even while disagreeing, and perhaps disagreeing vehemently, are nevertheless at least tacitly friendly with one another. At a minimum, conversation categorically precludes violence of any form.
War, in glaring contrast, is the ultimate expression of violence.
The difference between PAC and PAW might be understood in light of an analogy from the world of martial arts. Although most people (including, remarkably, many practitioners of the martial arts) appear to be unaware of it, the fact is that between classical martial arts and combat sports and combative self-defense there is an unbridgeable gap. As for “Wrestlemania”-type professional wrestling and real combat, the chasm is that much more obvious.
A genuinely combative system of the sort designed by the men (William Fairbairn, Rex Applegate, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, and some others) who pioneered what are now known as “World War II close-quarter combatives” while preparing U.S. soldiers in the 1940s for hand-to-hand combat in the South Pacific and elsewhere is meant only for life-or-death attacks. There is nothing competitive, aesthetically edifying, or entertaining about it.
Retired Marine Corps Lieutenant-Colonel Al Ridenhour is a senior master instructor of the combative art known as “Guided Chaos” and the founder of Warrior Flow. He is also my master. Not long ago Master Al shared with me his philosophy of fighting and self-defense, a philosophy shared by such prominent veteran teachers of mortal combat as Professor Bradley J. Steiner, founder of American Combato, and Grandmaster John Perkins, founder of Guided Chaos.
“Yes, we are teaching people life and death combat,” Master Al said. “For us, a real fight is akin to war. You either go big or you go home. There is no in between.”
Real fighting is akin to war.
Unlike the arena, the dojo, the ring, and the octagon, there are no rules, regulations, sportsmanship, or fair play in war. A participant in war has two options: He either can deploy with “ruthless intention,” as Master Al refers to the mindset necessary for victory in battle—every resource at his disposal to crush the enemy into oblivion—or else he must avoid war at all costs.
Defeat is not an option. Nothing less than unqualified victory is sought by the combatant.
Anyone who lacks this attitude—who isn’t, so to speak, in it to win it—has no business being anywhere near a battlefield (of any kind), for this painfully conspicuous absence of the “moral clarity” needed to destroy the bad guys is sure to imperil the good guys.
So Which Is It?
Big Conservatives can’t have it both ways. Either there is a war between the Left and the rest of us or there is not. If there is a war, then leftists compose the enemy, an adversary that, not unlike any other adversary in war, needs to be destroyed.
Half-measures, to say nothing of such emphatically un-war-like activities as “reaching across the aisle” and dialoguing, are to be rejected unless and only if they can end hostilities on terms that do not contribute to the “fundamental transformation” of our civilization.
Big Conservatives who constantly call on their audiences to help them “fight” the Left need to decide whether they endorse PAC or PAW.
They scarcely ever fail to use the rhetoric of war, and spend no small amount of time pointing out to their listeners, viewers, and readers how and why it is that the Left truly is toxic to the survival of Western civilization and America. Yet they just as rarely advocate any measures that could reasonably be said to constitute strategies, or even tactics, against this enemy.
Big Conservatives seldom possess the stomach to even call the Left—which they convict of all sorts of crimes against humanity—as the enemy of our civilization. This is why so many of them distanced themselves from President Trump when he followed, impeccably followed, the logic of their own narrative to its inescapable conclusion by calling out the leftist media as “the enemy of the people.”
Of course, it’s true that the hyperbolic rhetoric that comprises the politics-as-war template for which the Big Conservative media is known is far more titillating—far better for circulation, ratings, and, thus, profits—than the terminology proper to politics-as-conversation.
But as Master Al said, since real fights are war, and nothing less than life-or-death is at stake in war, those who would become combatants must be willing to either “go big” or “go home.”
That Big Conservatism essentially does nothing more than wax indignant over the Left’s “double standards,” i.e. the enemy’s partiality to—imagine this?—itself, establishes to all with eyes to see not only that Big Conservatives are resolutely unwilling to “go big.”
They don’t even have the slightest clue as to what politics as war entails.
Until and unless such time arrives that they become willing to make their walk match their talk, they should “go home.”
Jack Kerwick earned his doctorate degree in philosophy from Temple University. His areas of specialization are ethics and political philosophy, with a particular interest...