Elite movement conservatives still do not understand what the 2016 election means for conservatism. Many have not evinced even the slightest bit of introspection or curiosity about whether conservatism, in light of its manifest failures, can—or even should—continue on as it’s currently constituted. The very hint that something—anything—needs to change sends waves of paroxysms through the halls of Conservatism, Inc. Even fellow travelers who do not consistently tout the party line are suspect, and their failures, real or perceived, to do so are duly noted.
The preferred argument of the members of Conservatism, Inc. is that Trump voters have given up on virtue and have made a Faustian bargain that will “cost them their souls.” Given what they view as the steep price to be paid for giving Trump any credit, conservatives like this prefer to judge Trump by their endless checklists—checking off boxes as news comes forth from the White House. A conservative constitutionalist nominated to be on the Supreme Court? Check. A cabinet even more conservative than Reagan’s? Check. They are encouraged by Trump’s actions that seem “conservative” and cast disapproval on those—such as what they term his “protectionism”—that fly in the face of their sensibilities.
Conservatives thus measure all political phenomena by how closely they hew to what are dogmatically considered the immutable core tenets of conservatism. Conservatism truly is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, their “central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate.”
Thinking in Slogans and Clichés
Being so highly attuned to all of the things they call “conservative,” movement conservatives often take special note of anyone who does not mouth the catechisms of orthodox conservatism. Seconds after Steve Bannon, the chief strategist to President Trump, spoke at CPAC, John Podhoretz tweeted out the following:
Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, showed no curiosity about what Bannon said concerning nationalism (or patriotism, take your pick) or the rise of a globalist class who cares more about securing the good of hedge fund managers in Dubai than out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia. Podhoretz offered no acknowledgment of Bannon’s argument that we must “deconstruct the administrative state” for the people to reclaim their sovereignty and rule again in their own interests.
Instead, Bannon’s unforgivable sin was that he did not once utter the word “conservative.” Podhoretz’s singular focus on needing to hear repetitions of the slogans and clichés that make up much of modern conservative rhetoric is revealing. He gives words a power akin to when God spoke the world into existence as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis. Even Protagoras would have blushed.
But words apart from political action are just that: mere words.
What has modern conservatism done lately that has risen past words to anything fundamental? A few regulations rolled back here, a small uptick in the amount of conservative lawyers there. Yes, Republicans made major gains in statehouses nationwide, gaining nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures in the past eight years under President Obama.
While surely impressive, what exactly have these gains accomplished? Paraphrasing Michael Corleone’s famous response to Senator Geary’s attempted shakedown in the “Godfather: Part II,” the answer is this: nothing. Conservatives have been content to sit by with satisfied smiles on their faces as the administrative state rolls on, flattening everything in its path.
Mike Lee Misses the Point
Those who walk the halls of Conservatism, Inc. have largely shielded themselves from such uncomfortable truths by launching into pseudo-theoretical discussions of the compatibility of “populism” with “conservatism.”
In a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation and a subsequent interview with the Washington Examiner, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) argued for a “conservatism for the forgotten man.” In Lee’s understanding, these are middle class Americans who work “hard every day to put bread on the table to feed” their families and strive to be good citizens. His plan is for a “populist” president to identify the problems forgotten men and women have—because, as he admits, conservatives have been unable to do this themselves—and conservatives will then offer solutions to ameliorate these difficulties.
But Lee doesn’t seem to understand what he has just conceded. If conservatives can only provide solutions once others have identified problems, what, exactly, is the usefulness of such a political movement? It would be akin to George Washington and his troops being supplied with munitions and ammo but not knowing they were fighting the British.
Plus, if conservatives can’t identify political problems in the first place, what makes them think they will even be able to provide effective solutions? These are the same people who have been proposing the same stale policies for decades no matter what political realities seem to call for. Conservatives are pilots flying blind with no radar, hurtling through cloudy skies.
And yet Mike Lee seems content with this state of affairs, untroubled by a major defect within modern conservatism that he seems unable, or unwilling, to help correct. Apparently, this is one of the jobs conservatives won’t do.
While admitting conservatism’s fatal weakness, Lee at the same time elevates conservatism to a place of importance that it does not deserve. He claims that Trump’s brand of “populism”—a word that goes largely undefined—is not an “existential threat to conservatism, republicanism and constitutionalism.”
But since when did conservatism, which Lee just admitted is defective in a major way, suddenly rise to the level of a regime principle? Why should we spend any time at all worrying about what poses a threat to it?
Conservatism… or Constitutionalism?
Republicanism, in Publius’s Federalist 39 formulation, is defined by “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior.” Constitutionalism buttresses republicanism by promoting the principles that must undergird republican government in order for it to survive for more than one generation. Important principles of American constitutionalism include the protection of natural rights, equality under the law, and a written constitution that sets down limits on the powers of government.
Conservatism, by contrast, is best understood as a political coalition formed in the mid-1950s between “free-market” libertarians and traditionalist conservatives who wanted to beat back the Soviets abroad and the New Deal bureaucracy at home. This coalition reached the zenith of its political power during the 1980s when Ronald Reagan and his administration began implementing some of the items on the conservative wish list.
Since that time, however, conservatism has been in free fall, resigned to fighting ineffective rearguard actions on the “culture wars” front and becoming an ever-smaller coalition that has a negligible effect on the trajectory of national politics. Conservatives today have largely forgotten conservatism’s political origin and instead have elevated its disparate policies created in light of specific circumstances to the level of principle itself. As Gladden Pappin recounts in a masterful essay in the inaugural issue of American Affairs, the “mainstream conservative platform that has devolved into a checklist of incongruent planks now that the underlying conditions which afforded it some coherence as a political strategy no longer apply.”
This also means that, contra Ben Shapiro and countless other conservative commentators, conservatism is not a “philosophy.” Philosophy in its original meaning is the quest for wisdom for the sake of attaining truth whereby opinions are replaced with knowledge. While American conservatism seeks to pass along to future generations the philosophical ideas enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, it itself is not a philosophy apart from the things which it has attempted to conserve.
‘A Referential Term’
Ultimately, conservatism is merely a vehicle by which certain political ends that are outside of itself can be secured. The word conservative is derived from the Latin word “conservare,” which is a verb that means to keep or preserve something. As Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn recently told the audience at CPAC, “It’s a referential term. It doesn’t really mean anything of itself.” Thus if conservatism fails to secure the common good of the citizens of the United States—the only reason for its existence—then it should step aside and let another political movement that is attuned to current political realities take the reigns.
Thus obsessing over whether Trump is or is not a conservative is, in the final analysis, a meaningless question. Beyond placating and flattering movement conservatives, such ideological navel-gazing inverts the proper distinction between means and ends, turning conservatism into an end to which everything else—including the good of the country—is sacrificed. Such discussions are driven by a mournful nostalgia for circumstances that have long since vanished.
Put another way, who is more nostalgic: Donald Trump, who understands the threats posed by unchecked globalization and the overall loss of the people’s sovereignty, or a reform conservative, who wants to tinker around the edges of the administrative state but essentially offers moderate strategies which might have been appropriate for Edmund Burke’s Great Britain? Who gets closer to one of the “primary truths” of politics which is, as Publius argued in Federalist 31, “that the means ought to be proportioned to the end”?
Combined, these errors have helped to render much of movement conservatism blind to the lessons of the 2016 election. They don’t understand that this election was a fundamental reordering of the political map—and one that has been in the works for quite some time. They don’t understand that the old left-right dichotomy—if it was ever useful theoretically—is insufficient to make sense of this new reality.
Hillsdale College politics professor Kevin Portteus can help us understand this realignment:
In 2016, the most consequential division was not between Democrats and Republicans but between the “court party” and the “country party” of whatever formal affiliation. There was a general dismay at the cronyism of bailouts and the stimulus package, a regulatory state with its tentacles in every aspect of individuals’ lives, trade deals that benefit multinational corporations, mass immigration, the imposition of same-sex marriage on a nation that had voted overwhelmingly against it, and the passage and subsequent sustaining by the Supreme Court of the Affordable Care Act.
Because most elite conservatives do not, or will not, see this truth, conservatism in its current form has outlived its usefulness. The particular conditions that led to its creation have ceased to exist. And it has proven to be clueless not only to what current circumstances seem to dictate on the level of policy but what the current circumstances even are in the first place.
Ultimately, whatever comes in its place—and whatever name that political movement takes—must focus on securing the good of the citizens of this nation. We need to stop worrying about the psychological state of mind of our precious conservatism and begin to think about how to blow holes through the walls of the administrative state and allow the people to govern again, which is their right and our duty to help secure. Whether conservatism has anything to do with this project is to miss the point entirely.