In the mid 1980s, two of the enduring magna opera of conservative thought, Jean-Francois Revel’s How Democracies Perish (1984) and James Burnham’s The Suicide of the West (1985) appeared in quick succession to spelunk amongst the unconscious psychopathologies of what Malcolm Muggeridge had earlier called “the great liberal death wish”. At the same time (1984), the Conservative Book Club’s alternate selection was R. Emmett Tyrell’s optimistically titled The Liberal Crack-Up. (Reagan was in power; it was the dawning of the age of “irrational exuberance”.)
That in the West democracy and civilization as we knew them are now roadkill putrefying on the shoulder of the Highway of Progress will get no argument from the present writer. But that liberalism as a political philosophy is moribund or suicidal — if that was the authors’ implication—appears to have been a consoling illusion. The Left, in its current “progressive” modality, is very much alive, and can be seen everywhere—forgive the indelicacy, but the image is all too apposite—urinating on the graves of its erstwhile undertakers.
The unremitting success of the Left’s march through the institutions hardly suggests that liberals suffer from a death wish; on the contrary, a compelling argument can be made that conservatism (to borrow the phrase of the literary critic Stanley Fish) is a “self-consuming artifact”. At best, there has always been an enervating contradiction running through the history of conservative thought. On the one hand, conservatism is founded upon a regnant hostility toward the State, against whose tyrannical velleities it preaches eternal vigilance. On the other hand, it remains dedicated to the preservation of those perennial mores and traditions that have evolved organically throughout the epochs of civilization, while concomitantly horrified by the sort of anarchic revolutionary energy that seeks to dismantle the State along with the norms of civil society, lock, stock, and barrel. Under the afflatus to “conserve”, conservatism regards obedience to authority as a virtue, and this often translates into an obedience to the very government whose despotic usurpation of man’s natural rights and freedoms it is always admonishing against, not to mention a failure to recognize that the State has long ago been captured by and become the citadel of those revolutionary forces it is, also, always admonishing against.
The reflex of conservatism, above all, has been to retire from the public square to the wholesome pleasures of family and private life; to be grateful for the blessings that God and our ancestors have bestowed upon us; to practise the Boethian acceptance of the world’s transitory miseries and injustices against which inner virtue and Christian Truth are impregnable; to cultivate moderation, even as our enemies reflexively accuse us of the “extremism” that the Left practises habitually and unapologetically. (For conservatives, moderation invariably means reaching across the aisle to enact every last codicil of the progressive agenda. Conversely, to hope for moderation in return is on the order of Christians’ hoping for moderation from the lions. Progressives know that reaching across the aisle is a strategy for losers. Winners don’t reach across aisles; they fix borders and lay down terms of surrender.)
Conservative Party Nominalism
Apparently unknown to itself, conservatism has been in a fight to the finish against a foe whose end is to annihilate it, inspired by something very like the fundamentalist religious zeal that animates the Islamic jihad. In North America and Western Europe, none of the titularly conservative political parties has deigned to recognize that the other side regards them as pestiferous infidels; and even when conservatives invoke military analogies (the “culture wars”, the “war against the family”), they do so with that tincture of embarrassment and fear of hyperbole that typically attaches to post-religious metaphorical thinking. The “culture war” remains a poetic figura in their minds, as it must, since only one side is waging it.
In the United States, the RINO (“Republican in name only”) phenomenon has been the subject of conservative threnodies for decades; but almost every conservative party in the West is a nominalist construct. In Canada, there is an already venerable tradition according to which, once in power, both federal and provincial Conservative Party politicians ritually repudiate the social conservatives on whose backs they have ridden to victory. Their argument, that no one can get elected as a social conservative, is self-evidently oxymoronic; but that fact has thus far failed to find its way into the strategic calculations of the Parties’ millennial brain-trust. The argument’s subtext, of course, is that no politician wants to be unloved by the progressive beau monde, which conservatives court shamelessly, even as their love remains unrequited and politically emasculating. The situation puts one in mind of a famous scene in Chrétien de Troye’s twelfth-century romance, The Knight of the Cart, in which Lancelot fights his homicidal enemy with his back turned towards him, so he can keep his gaze fixed on his beloved Guenevere, who has nonetheless been using him cruelly for years.
Had politics in North America been regulated by something like the Boxing Commission, the right-wing parties should have been banned for consistently throwing fights. And yet Canadian and American conservatives continue to support them, for which the only plausible explanation is something akin to battered wife syndrome.
That conservatism in the West has become an academic divertissement, a topic for discussion amongst think tank philosophes, rather than a political force, begs for an explanation. It used to be said that conservatives are former liberals “mugged by reality”. I have never been fetched by that aetiology, in part because there is a complacent triumphalism about it, a faith in conservatism’s inevitable victory, which is all too analogous to liberalism’s own teleological fable about the historical inevitability of human progress. It’s truer to say, it seems to me, that today’s conservatives have been mugged by liberals and are still stumbling about in a concussive daze.
Bill Buckley once famously proclaimed as the founding mission of National Review “to stand athwart the tracks of history yelling ‘Stop!’” Conservatives are still following that heroically suicidal advice, imagining that rational argument will eventually prevail against the momentum of a progressive locomotive coming at them at 150 miles per hour and accelerating exponentially, with the inevitable consequence that the movement now looks like the planar figure of Wile E. Coyote extruded upon the tracks. As Mark Steyn observed long ago, liberals don’t want to win the argument, they want to ban it; they want to criminalize it (and they’ve succeeded). Conservatives can continue to reason with progressives philosophically about the virtues of freedom and tradition, but (like the “insurrectionists” in Ottawa or on Capitol Hill), they’ll have to resign themselves to doing so from a prison cell.
Since the halcyon days of NR’s founding, the political “reality” has evidently changed; but conservatives have flown from it in the same psychotropic fog as the flower children who imagined that peace and love could be attained by singing folk songs. At no point in the past half century has the progress of the progressive freight train been retarded—let alone stopped; (let alone reversed, save for brief interregna, such as under the Trump presidency, whose apostasy was immediately and effectively neutralized by Democrats and Republicans alike). Moreover, NR’s “tracks of history” have been uprooted and shifted a continent leftward. And the conservative establishment—Conservative Inc., in Paul Gottfried’s evocative phrase — is no longer yelling “Stop!”, but whispering it as a siren-song to tranquillize its traduced voters, before jumping aboard as inconspicuously as possible and hiding in the caboose.
While the Left has thus moved on inexorably into countries of the mind few of us can recognize, the Right has retreated step by step into the progressive future. By the 1980s, it had already become an historical cliché that those who had escaped into the West from the Eastern Bloc were fast succumbing to nostalgia. When William Gairdner asked the brilliant Hungarian writer George Jonas what it first felt like to come to a free country like Canada, he replied, “I felt like I was fleeing a disease. But it followed me.” Amongst refugees from the former Soviet Union who had found “freedom” in the West, the joke soon began to circulate that at least under communism there was somewhere to escape to. Today we are seeing something of a reverse exodus, as those who yearn for freedom of thought, speech, and religion—or simply to be left alone — are decamping in numbers to places like Poland and Hungary.
From the time of Buckley’s founding of National Review to 1990, the mind of conservatism was understandably concentrated to a point by the struggle to defeat communism, as the mind of liberalism continued to be volatilized in its psychedelic fairy tale of peace and love (with Brezhnev, Mao, Fidel et al. cast in the roles of both lover and beloved). What really concentrated the mind of the Left was an anti-anti-communism more militant than anything the Cold Warriors on the Right were able to muster. Liberal anti-anti-communism successfully elevated “McCarthyism” to the rank of America’s original sin (long before slavery was invited to occupy it). The mythology of McCarthyism, according to which 1, communists didn’t exist in America, and 2, conservatives were paranoid “conspiracy theorists” who fantasized that communists were hiding under every bed, ought to have forewarned us about the innate talent of liberalism for projecting its own sins upon the enemy. In its post-anti-anti-communist phase, the paranoid zeal with which the progressive Left has prosecuted its Argus-eyed search for and career-blighting denunciation of dissident opinion would have turned the senator from Wisconsin green with envy. For today’s progressives, a conspiracy theorist is anyone who fails to realize that there are white supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, transphobes, right-wing insurrectionists, and anti-science rubes hiding under every bed and marauding through every street in AmeriKKKa.
It seems only reasonable that if the Right is susceptible to “conspiratorial thinking”, so might the Left. Is it possible for the victims of racism to be guilty of racism themselves? Can their sense of having been historically oppressed and discriminated against not fester into a vengeful and unhealthy tribalistic detestation of the other, that eventuates in their prejudicially vilifying a whole race as un-meritoriously “privileged”, a “cancer on the body politic”, or congenitally (“systemically”) racist itself? Given the social toxicity of such accusations, is calling your political opponent “sexist”, “racist”, or “homophobic” love talk, or ought it not to be denounced unambiguously as the “hate speech” of which progressives reflexively accuse conservatives? Is it possible that victimhood can be actively sought insofar as it confers upon its aspirants moral prestige, wealth, and power, which they can then use to disadvantage and oppress their ancient soi-disant oppressors?
The answer to such questions is apodictically Yes, but Conservative Inc. is too timid to even pose them for debate, let alone indict progressives of the very sins with which they are always besmirching others. As Joe Sobran pointed out long ago, liberals have always enjoyed the privilege of accusation. In the egalitarian spirit of the age, conservatives should insist on its equitable redistribution.
Stuck on Communism
Instead, still hung over from their victory celebrations in 1990 (or shell-shocked from the struggle), conservatives continue to fight the last war. In the United States, the default culture-war strategy of the Republican Party is to call their opponents “Marxists”, “neo-Marxists”, “socialists”, or “communists”, as if the ultimate ambition of the Church of Progress were to nationalize private property, collectivize agriculture and industry, or defeat the global capitalism that gave it the gift of Big Tech censorship. Republicans’ besetting anxieties about deficit spending, unbalanced budgets, high taxes, and over-regulation continue to disturb their otherwise peaceful sleep, though even on that narrow front, conservative rhetoric has been all prop-wash and no take-off (to borrow the Reagan-era metaphor of the late D. Keith Mano). Have conservatives failed to notice that the “free enterprise system” and the corporate elites to which their erstwhile heroes Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and George Gilder sang hymns of praise have become shills for every one of the smelly little orthodoxies enforced by the ideocrats under whom they presently groan?
Conservatives have always imagined that they are the rational adults in the room, but only the most infantile thinking would equate the Marxism of the Soviet Union with the revolutionary grandiosity of today’s woke masters of the universe. If the term “totalitarianism” — like the millennial solecism “very unique” — could be made to admit of degrees, then venturing as it does into worlds where no man has ever gone before, the current iteration is rather more totalitarian than anything that was allowed to gain admittance to Marx’ or Engel’s fevered brains.
Marx, Lenin, Stalin et al. confined their utopian hybris to the socio-economic sphere; their ideation was much too sanely bourgeois and firmly grounded in tradition to dare to overturn the age-old consensus on marriage or gender: to indoctrinate schoolchildren not only in the achievements of the five-year plan but the messianic hope of critical race theory, homosexual marriage, self-identified non-binary gender, and sex-reassignment surgery. For all their ontological inversions and Orwellian assaults upon language, Soviet communists still accepted the brute facts of human biology, and refused to replace the Socratic epistemological principle of objective truth with the rank subjectivity according to which marriage or gender can be defined by ideological fiat, every male is guilty of sexual harassment because his guilt has been constellated in the mind of his female accuser, and a man is a woman if his thinking makes it so. (After 1917 many aristocratic landowners self-identified as peasants, but the Cheka didn’t believe them.) As anatomically determined, contentedly heteronormative, and unapologetically Caucasian, New Soviet Man remained at least a familiar member of the species.
Is it Cold War nostalgia that explains the Right’s reaching across the aisle once again to join the Left in its suddenly rehabilitated “paranoid McCarthyite” Russophobia? Who knows. Anyone can comprehend left-wing Putin Derangement Syndrome: Putin conspired with the deplorable Donald to steal the 2016 election, remember. Worse, Putin remains as determined to prevent the West’s exportation into Mother Russia of the LGBTQ cult as the Hellenic Pentheus was to prevent the importation into Thebes of the oriental mysteries of Dionysus. Indeed, like Hungary’s Orban (equally despised in polite society), Putin remains one of the last few European bulwarks against Western cultural imperialism.
The conservative establishment’s avidity for regime change in Russia is thus only the latest manifestation of its civilizational death wish. Notably, after calling for Putin’s assassination, Lindsey Graham excoriated fellow Republican congressman, Madison Cawthorn, for describing Ukraine as corrupt and criticizing Zelensky as a Trojan horse for the West’s “woke ideology”. Graham dismissed Cawthorn as an ”outlier” and demonstrated the rightness of his own hagiographical essays on Zelensky and Ukraine by pointing out that “90 percent” of Americans agree with him. In the context of the ubiquitous pro-Ukrainian war propaganda on both Left and Right, that public opinion is on the senator’s side should hardly be surprising. But what is instructive is Graham’s automatic invocation of one of the slurs (“fringe”, “marginal”, “outlier”) with which the Left has reflexively befouled conservatives, along with his epistemological appeal to the intellectual conformity and mass-mindedness—on this subject, as on every other, enforced by mainstream media censorship—that conservatives have always recognized as the defining infirmities, and blandishments, of liberal thought.
Not Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Meanwhile, how are things going right here at home, in the West? Do conservatives, civil libertarians, or traditional Christians feel grateful that, as opposed to living in “authoritarian” Russia, they can breathe the fresh air of Western democratic liberty? Where a female Finnish parliamentarian has been arrested for citing biblical doctrine on homosexuality? Where teachers are fired for refusing to address their male or female students using neoteric “non-binary” pronouns? Where Christian business owners continue to be fined for refusing to concelebrate the nuptials of homosexual couples (while, under COVID, businesses everywhere have been instructed to deny the right of “public accommodation” to the unmasked or unvaccinated)? Where social services can remove a prepubescent boy from his parents for opposing his wish to be surgically emasculated? Where Canada’s federal Conservatives voted unanimously in favour of a Liberal bill to criminalize “conversion therapy”: i.e., any counsel offered by doctors, clergy, or their own parents to gender dysphoric children that seeks to dissuade them from surgical transmutation — conversion, one might well call it — into the opposite sex, or doesn’t merely reaffirm their own aberrant fantasies? Where (under Alberta’s Conservative Premier) a Christian pastor has been jailed on six occasions and spent months in solitary confinement for the crime of keeping his church open during COVID (churches providing an “inessential service” by contrast to provincial liquor stores)? Where police arrayed in military phalanx and riot gear are pre-emptively dispatched to intimidate peaceful protestors against the West’s COVID lockdowns, and routinely pile upon them in feral packs (or trample them under equine feet, as happened last month in Ottawa)? Where, in Canada, mere suspicion of opposition to the government’s blatantly unconstitutional vaccine mandates may lead to summary arrest and imprisonment, seizure of your bank account, cancellation of your credit and insurance, repeal of your business and driver’s license, and deprivation of all common-law rights as a “terrorist”? Where, in the United States, hundreds of peaceful protestors against Democrat electoral malfeasance have been similarly detained as “terrorists”— not to mention suburban mothers who object to their schoolchildren’s indoctrination in “critical race theory” — incarcerated without due process, and are still awaiting their day in court? (N.B. At around a thousand, Canada and the United States have now consigned more citizens to political detention—i.e., for no other crime than disagreeing with their government—than Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela combined.) Where prosecutors, judges, and the police so venerate the rule of law that they invoke both scriptural dispensations of it: i.e., the Old Law of Justice for peaceful dissent from progressive dogma and the New Law of Mercy for burning down cities in its name? Where, in the United States, the FBI, CIA, DOJ, and all the intrusive apparatus of the surveillant State have made themselves the instruments of the Democrat Party, conspired with them to spy on the presidential campaign of their Republican rival and fabricate evidence against him, in an attempted coup as brazen as any that has occurred in some third-world banana republic? Where an erstwhile independent media—without which electoral democracy is a sham — has long ago been reduced to a one-party press, and suborned as the ministry of truth for the political Left throughout North American and Europe? Where in Canada, reporters from a recalcitrant remnant (Rebel News) have been repeatedly arrested for covering anti-lockdown demonstrations or disseminating medical “misinformation” by the police—another supposedly “independent” agency of Western democracy — at the beck and call of both the federal Liberals and the Conservative governments in Alberta and Ontario? Where, in the United States, Orwell’s Ministry of Truth has officially arrived, with the Biden administration’s creation of a new “Board of Misinformation and Disinformation”, headed by a Democrat operative who denounced the Hunter Biden laptop story as “Russian disinformation”? Where, in short, leftist propaganda, censorship, and intimidation ensure absolute conformity of thought and speech in every corner of private and economic life and in every department of human thought—in the schools, at the office, even in medical science—and the slightest departure from orthodoxy will lead to denunciation, shaming, sensitivity training, Maoist struggle sessions, miasmal banishment, de-platforming, indictment by human rights tribunal, professional censure and de-certification, summary dismissal from one’s job, and, as of late, political imprisonment.
After decades of presumably chastening neoconservative misadventures in planting democracy around the world (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and soon to be, Russia), the Right might consider that regime change begins at home. As the aforementioned Joe Sobran quipped about America’s risible attempts to bring democracy to flower in the Iraqi desert, maybe we should send them our Constitution too, since we’re not using it.
Conservative Sunny Ways
Friends have reassured me that what I anatomize above are the symptoms of a merely “soft” totalitarianism. The insouciance with which most people, including conservatives, have failed to recognize it suggests that hard totalitarianism is a disease you must practically expire from before calling your doctor.
Conservatives can continue to exhort Stoic equanimity, faith in Providence, or the so-called “Benedict option”. But wherever they flee, the heresy-hunters and block monitors of the progressive State will sniff them out. (Had Simeon Stylites lived today, the authorities would demand that he fly the rainbow flag from atop his pillar during every Pride Week.) I cannot remember how many times over the decades I’ve been admonished that “the pendulum is bound to swing back again”. Pendulums swing back, of course, but observe the rightward limit of their arcs when the surface on which they stand tilts ever downward to the left. In any case, were the pendulum theory of history credible, the Renaissance should have been followed by the Middle Ages.
It was Sobran again, as I recall, who advised that liberals ought to ask themselves in what sort of society they would be conservatives. It’s time for conservatives to ask themselves in what sort of society they would be liberals. The revered forefather of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, is regularly invoked for his sane abhorrence of Jacobinism. But Burke also supported the American rebellion that led to the overthrow of the British monarchy, and is most famous for his endlessly repeated aphorism that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Falsely attributed or not, like most truisms that live to attain the status of cliché, Burke’s more often moves lips than hearts. Even so, when one contemplates the moral arrogance, lust for power, and imperiousness of today’s progressive priest-aristocrats, it is hard not to fantasize about a modern Robespierre come to deliver us from their tyrannical yoke. But then conservatives dare not think about such things, let alone talk about them.