Not The Moment You Think It Is
There have been two indispensible conservative insights in the American political imagination, but both are now threatened with disregard and irrelevance.
The first is what we might crudely refer to as Burkeanism: the impulse to keep politics in the realm of the political, and to exclude them from the world of the family, religion, and personal virtue. This tendency supports conservative goals. Politics is ultimately the realm of government, and the steady creep of political positioning into more and more aspects of life cannot help but bolster the presence of government in our consciousness—and in so doing, support the underlying notion that problems are to be solved by government. An argument, successfully prosecuted, that government expense is inappropriate in a given situation nevertheless contributes to the steady mission creep of modern governance.
Even aside from conservative desires in the realm of policy, though, this insight is essential to modern life. The encroachment of materialism, whatever your stance on economic politics, must be checked in order to defend the deeper values of human life. Politics has massive consequences for human suffering and as such are part of our democratic responsibilities, but it is both a more humane and more just society if we preserve a sanctuary for the human heart. What the modern leftist must remember is that support for additional government effort or expenditure, in the pursuit of social justice, is not the same as support for the increasing bureaucratization of human life. If we take it as our goal to be practical in public life, romantic in private, and compassionate in both, it is all to our good to remember that government can push us towards justice, but never towards grace.
To call the Burkean insight a project or mission would be, I suppose, exactly wrong. But however we might want to frame it, it is clear that Burkeanism has failed utterly to maintain a hold on the communal imagination of movement conservatism. Convinced of the necessity of imprinting the conservative brand onto even the most elementary of human experiences, conservatives have come to look for ideological status (and thus ideological battle) in the narrowest crevices of day-to-day life. This has led to the sprawling industry of providing "conservative alternatives," in the realm of commodities or media, to conservative people. It is now entirely easy for someone to consume only conservative-oriented media at every level: conservative magazines, conservative radio, conservative television and news, conservative websites. Broader still, there are conservative dating services, conservative coffee houses, conservative colleges, conservative financial services, conservative rock music, a conservative YouTube....Often explicit, always obvious, these conservative-situated alternatives send the inescapable message: there is no end to the political; all of human life is a part of an endless ideological struggle; nothing is to be considered free from the quest for conservative purity.
As I've said, this is an uneasy development for an antigovernment movement; branding all of one's attachments, affinities, and commodities self-consciously "conservative" ensures that all political arguments will be fought on liberal battlegrounds. More troubling, though, is the inevitable stakes-raising that this kind of ideology-in-everything provokes. If one's whole life is part of an ideological war, if every aspect of someone's daily existence is to be counted as a function of an endless partisan squabble, there is no hope for reconciliation, only for victory. Political disagreement becomes not an easily-compartmentalized distraction from everyday life, but an affront to the whole self. Whatever its valuable insights, Marxism has this elementary failing; it is a corrosion of human life to relegate all behavior to the battle for resources and the wages of political war. Yet this is a seduction that movement conservatism has fallen prey to almost entirely.
This abandonment of the Burkean impulse is not an idle development. It has had a powerful consequence in the basic tactical application of the conservative project, the shift from the cautious incrementalism that was once the conservative hallmark to a preference for sweeping change, a goal of total victory, and the language of revolution. Given the slow drift of politics into every pore of American life, this was an entirely predictable change. Those who feel that their very lives are politically situated cannot help but be dissatisfied with the ethic of caution and gradual moves. If alternate opinion and its realization in official policy is taken as an insult to core values, incrementalism must be abandoned in the face of that insult. "What we want," my conservative friends tell me, "is a conservatism that can win." Left unasked is the question of whether one can reach a genuine conservatism in fact through a radicalism in method.
In any event, the slow-change conservative is dismissed as an out-of-touch dissident, and the slow-change conservative movement is no more. What we have, instead, is the People's Revolutionary Party of Conservatism. The temperate conservative victory of the second Clinton administration, restraining a president and Congress somewhat inclined towards broader and deeper change than they achieved, has been replaced as a basic template for success by the large-scale conquests (both attempted and achieved) of the Bush years. That these large measures seem to have led to short-term disaster for the Republican party is generally regarded as a consequence of Bushism, and not symptomatic of the drastic but unheralded changes in the right's tactical regime. Lurching from fight to fight and election to election, the Republican Party is not always sure of where it wants to go, but it is certainly in a hurry to get there. This is part of what makes internecine battles within the American right so shockingly angry; decisions made within the policy apparatus no longer lead to small steps and modest goals but rather to the vast expenditure of money, political capital and man hours. Conservatism is on the march.
The second most invaluable insight from contemporary American conservatism has been the recognition of the limits of the politics of grievance. That contemporary American liberalism has made the grievance of racial minorities, women, homosexuals, and the disabled a central part of our political landscape stems from a simple fact: these people are and have been aggrieved. Yet the conservative voice, while at times unduly dismissive or skeptical of such claims, has provided the necessary counterpoint, that claims of oppression can come to so dominate a given minority group's intellectual and political life that there is no room left for the work of life. While too often it has been silent about or openly opposed to redress of the grievances of minorities in America, the conservative voice has also been the one to remind all of us that if there is to be an end to grievance, there must be what comes after grievance. Take away that, and there is no hope for any of it. It is the conservative, to his or her credit, who has most consistently asked, "what next?"
To borrow a metaphor from John Updike, grievance becomes a mask that eats the face; it is not untrue to say that, at times, those within these groups come to believe in the essential truth "we are put down," and history becomes prophecy. What liberals insist, what I insist, is that there is one and only one way to transcend this dynamic, and that is removing people from their oppression. That is what both ethics and self-interest demand. All the same, the conservative message on the slow creep of grievance, the slow seeping of oppression into one's elementary makeup, has been among the best of the movement's insights. It is that message, not the child's mythologies of bootstrapping or deliverance through personal virtue, that should endure.
Instead, such a blanket condemnation of the politics of grievance has been swiftly and unceremoniously discarded, in the name of political expediency. Oh, that's not to say that the broad American right has much use for the claims of oppression from the usual suspects. I mean merely that conservatism, on the whole, has adopted the language and attitudes of the oppressed with a focus and zeal that not even the most practiced minority affinity groups could muster. Conservatism has become aggrieved, and to great effect, too. There is no message more central or insistent from the ordinary mouthpieces of movement conservatism (Fox News, talk radio) than that conservatives in America are a uniquely oppressed segment of the American populace. The existence of messages contrary to conservative sentiment is proof positive of distortion and bias; the existence of discrepancies between the numbers of liberals and conservatives in a given occupation or industry, evidence of exclusion. This attitude assumes that there are no fundamentally ideological occupations, so a prevalence of liberals in a given field can only indicate that conservatives have been barred for entry. There would be a whole host of conservatives, the thinking goes, among the ranks of women's studies professors, or ballet choreographers, or pornographers, or social services workers, were it not for liberal duplicity.
This is a piece with the most glaring lesson of the Tea Party movement: that conspiracy theorizing threatens to dominate the American right. If you assume that the default position of decent Americans is the conservative position, and you have come to see every aspect of your life as ideologically positioned, and you think that conservatives are the victims of systematic oppression-- well, Obama must have a secret cadre of brownshirts waiting to board their black helicopters, health care reform must be a secret attempt at establishing totalitarianism, every Democratic victory must be the product of ACORN and Chicago politics and other impropriety. The political and policy fallout of this emphasis on petty grievance are beyond my ability to predict. But the embodiment of this sense of grievance from those who are not aggrieved should give us pause; as Frederick Douglass cautioned Americans over a century ago, this belief in oppression through conspiracy, unchecked, will lead to violence.
The preference for conspiracy as an explanation of all disappointments and defeats elides with a strange discontinuity I have seen again and again in recent years: the compulsion to believe in imminent and total victory with minimal justification, but dissatisfaction with the modest consequences that are necessarily the product of electoral politics. This particular bipolarity is evident across much of the spectrum of self-identified American conservatism. One of the constant urges within Republican politics during the decline of the Reaganite era has been, at all times, to declare victory. We see this in the political climate today: the election of a single pro-choice, pro-state-based-universal—
This extreme readiness to assume monumental victory is balanced by the strange mainstream conservative tendency to fail to enjoy victory, or to see it as victory at all. I am hardly alone in having experienced the odd spectacle of Republican and conservative complaints of an inability to "really win" during periods of Republican dominance. I was frankly shocked by conservatives, both personal friends and those in the media, who complained of their impotence during, for example, the early months of 2005. The Republican party at that time had enjoyed almost unprecedented electoral victory. The GOP had come to control all three of the branches of the federal government, with widespread success at the statewide level and an almost total grasp on the mainstream media's political narrative. How could this possibly be considered anything short of massive victory? And yet the expressions of bitterness and disillusionment were palpable even before the failure of the GOP's Social Security legislation, before popular disgust with America's imperial project in Iraq, before the collapse of the Republican congressional majority.
What I think, but cannot possibly prove. is that this persistent lack of confidence and feeling of defeat at a time of victory is a product of the changes to the conservative character I have outlined above. I believe there is something within even the most ardently partisan conservative that recognizes that you cannot proceed from revolutionary change to reactionary reality, that you cannot cede all of human life to the political and meaningfully restrain government, that you cannot make your grievance a matter of politics without emboldening the government's efforts to help those who are aggrieved.
More, it may be that whatever the given political movement's political winds-- whether conservatives are animated by the Gingrich revolution, the Clinton presidency, the Obama victory, the Scott Brown moment-- there is perhaps an understanding that appreciable victories for American conservatism will necessarily be modest. This is what Whittaker Chambers knew, what Dwight Eisenhower knew, what Alexis de Tocqueville knew: that this is a country born out of violent revolution by men at the absolute vanguard of left-wing philosophy for their times, and that Western civilization is a vector, and it does not point towards the past. The direction may very well not be towards American liberalism's policies, but it will in keeping with the liberal character. You cannot move away from liberalism by appealing to the center, because liberalism is the center.
This may well seem self-serving for me to say. But it is this same phenomenon that constrains me. I am an ultra-leftist; the odds of my preferred economic platform coming to fruition within my lifetime are punishingly low. I have to struggle against what conservatives have to struggle against: that whatever the project of America is, it is a liberal project. Some, for reasons of psychic comfort and partisan squabbling, feel the need to attach "classical" before liberal when asserting this country's basic character. Perhaps they are right to; it makes no difference. This country's direction is and will be the direction of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson, and what that will mean for our vision of societal responsibility for individual problems will ultimately defy them and me both.
The political battle, of course, will always be about the next election, the next piece of legislation, the material consequences of politics. As for what will happen in that realm... who can say. But my intuition, and recent history, compels me to warn my conservative friends, who despite everything I love with my human heart: this is not the moment you think it is; this victory is not the turning point you think it is; the next congress will not give you what you hope it will; and even if you get every last thing from our electoral system you could possibly ask for, politics will never make you happy.
Freddie deBoer is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition. He blogs at L'Hote.