Is (Was) Conservatism a Mass Movement?

I’m finally getting around to writing about this recent Henry Olsen essay, “Movement Conservatism Was Dying Before Trump.”  When it was first posted, Jonah Goldberg was not a fan; Olsen responded briefly to Goldberg and at greater length to Charles Murray.  Although I enjoy Olsen’s The Working Class Republican, in general I am of a disposition to agree more often with Goldberg or Murray about things.  In this case, however, I want to pessimistically riff on Olsen’s theory because I think it’s useful for conservatives — particularly those who see it as an intellectual pursuit — to at least consider some inconvenient possibilities.

Olsen begins by claiming that the “fusionism” originating in the early pages of National Review (esp. from Frank Meyer) may have united a number of factions, but that the real glue was anti-Communism; once we won the Cold War, that coalition began coming apart.

I don’t think that’s entirely true, but there’s enough truth in it to consider more thoroughly.  Meyer’s fusionism tended to be shorthanded as uniting small-l libertarians and traditionalists.  But what you see in NR‘s mission statement got refined over time by William F. Buckley and popularized by Ronald Reagan into what was called the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and foreign policy conservatives.

What is only implicit in some of Olsen’s essay is the degree to which the left helped make this happen, particularly once the New Left started gaining power within the Democratic Party.  That is, one major reason, fusionism succeeded was because the left started alienating the people whom the theory required.

This alienation happened at both the elite level and the mass level.  Among the elite, former Communists and Democrats, like Irving Kristol and Jeanne Kirkpatrick were moved on an intellectual or ideological level to reject the dovishness of the Democrats on foreign policy, while people like Richard John Neuhaus morally and theologically opposed the left’s embrace of abortion rights.

But it was a less intellectual exercise for someone like Peggy Noonan — at least at first.  Rather, she realized she was not of the left after personally witnessing the ingratitude and contempt the left had for America, particularly those fighting and dying in our long struggle against Communism.

What may go unappreciated is the degree to which many people migrated from the Democrats to the GOP based on lived experience and never took the intellectual journey that someone like Noonan eventually did.

After all, Richard Nixon was a fairly progressive Republican, not Reaganesque.  But Nixon romped to re-election because George McGovern’s version of the Democratic Party could be characterized as favoring “acid, amnesty [for draft-dodgers], and abortion.”

By the end of the 70s, stagflation had disproved Keynesian economics, the abortion, divorce and crime rates had soared, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan while Iran took our embassy hostage.  There were plenty of reasons for the conservatives being effectively purged by Democrats to look elsewhere.  And Reagan himself used to say that he did not leave the Democratic Party so much as it left him.

All of which is to say that while Buckley, Meyer, and others should be given enormous credit for building an intellectual movement and significant conservative institutions that could serve a president like Reagan when he arrived — and even for foreseeing the type of coalition that might elect a Reagan — the actions of the left were also important, as was the historical moment.  Modern conservatism was not a Field of Dreams that merely needed to be built for people to come.  And the voters who elected Reagan were not necessarily a movement of Buckleyites or Hayekians so much as they were repelled by the left for a variety of less-intellectualized reasons. (It does not thrill me to write that, but it should be considered.)

Olsen is correct to claim that our victory in the Cold War also had the effect of weakening one of the three-legs of the stool that got Reagan elected.  I think he may be on less solid ground in claiming that the GOP winning control of Congress in 1994 was the other major factor.

Rather, I would argue that Reagan’s successes in cutting income taxes and then reforming the tax code were the second “catastrophic success” for the stool.  Once you moved so many people off the tax rolls, the issue would move far fewer voters.  As Olsen himself has noted, Reagan was always more opposed to the great Society than the New Deal.  And George H. W. Bush had no particular zeal for dismantling the administrative state, leaving the much less politically popular aspects of the GOP economic agenda, notably entitlement reform, undone.

Indeed, as Olsen noted on Twitter, in the immediate post-Cold War moment, the conservative commentariat groped around for a new unifying theory, whether it was “national greatness conservatism,” Buchanan’s marriage of social conservatism and economic populism, or (shudder) big government conservatism.”  The GOP’s Contract With America, extensively poll-tested, unsurprisingly had its own populist cast; issues like supply-side economics and abortion were indirect considerations at best.

Republican opposition to Bill Clinton was based on his history as a draft-avoider and serial adulterer as much as it was his political agenda; it was, in some important ways, revisiting the same basic fight begun in 1968-72, but ending with an old McGovern hand winning.  The 90s were also the period during which Grover Norquist began describing the GOP as representing the “leave me alone coalition,” a formulation that again may be read as an assemblage of the anti-left more than a libertarian movement.

George W. Bush campaigned on a theme of “compassionate conservatism” that may have helped keep soccer moms in the party coalition, but his Electoral College squeaker was as much due to the deflating dot-com bubble and scandal fatigue at the close of the Clinton era.  He was re-elected in part due to a restrengthening of the stool.  Islamic terrorism replaced Communism as a common enemy around which to orient foreign policy.  Referenda regarding same-sex marriage may have boosted turnout from social conservatives.  And Bush did cut taxes, as republicans are supposed to do.  To the extent one buys Karl Rove’s theory that No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D were also necessary, it must be noted that these fell far more on the side of compassionate than conservative, if we are talking about the existence of a mass movement.

Bush also took a couple of runs at remaking the GOP coalition with immigration reform and his push for an “ownership society.”  The problem with this is that the time for assembling a coalition is before an election, let alone a re-election.  Parties tend to resist being remade on the fly.

Ultimately, the failures of the Bush administration — both real and perceived — left the GOP casting around for a new coalition, which is a significant part of How We Got Trump.  During to Obama era, like the Clinton era, the core of the party thrived on opposition to the Democratic agenda.

So viewed, the history of the past few decades is one of conservatism being far more a movement of an elite — writers, scholars, activists and officials — than one of the masses.  Voters have gravitated to the GOP as much by an opposition to the steady leftward march of the Democratic Party as any intellectual or ideological commitment.

Some may look at this as a failure of conservative elites (e.g., Tucker Carlson‘s dismissal of the conservative nonprofit establishment).   In fact, conservative elites are responsible for hundreds of policy innovations people like Carlson apparently take for granted now.

But it is fair to say that conservatives lost the battle to remain integrated in larger, formerly more transpartisan institutions in (for example) academia and journalism — and the approach of building counter-institutions (an application of O’Sullivan’s Law) has had its failures, even if it succeeded in making Carlson a populist one-percenter.  Now the debate has shifted toward whether ostensibly conservative institutions — like politicians — are primarily in the business of offering considered judgments or merely representing a political constituency.

Given that we still live in a relatively open society, I don’t think there’s any single answer to that question.  The fact that the question is being debated tends to point again in the direction of concluding that conservatism was always more an elite movement than a mass movement.  That doesn’t diminish its importance.  The leftward drift of the country over the past century occurs without people being conversant with Marx, Dewey, Adorno, or Derrida.  Nevertheless, an examination of the weaknesses of the conservative movement — such as it is — will be necessary if the elites want to do more than serve as handmaidens to a coalition that is more anti-left than it is right.

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Atlanta and Authenticity: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist today, “Atlanta Takes On the Authenticity of Acoustic Rap Covers.”  On Monday, in my Bruno Mars liner notes, I mentioned that one of the things I had to leave out for space considerations was a discussion of the sometimes elusive idea of “authenticity,” which became the basis for today’s discussion.

But the column also addresses the anxieties fans have over their sub-cultures — a subject I have written about here wrt television and our shrinking popular culture.  As I write today: “Communities want their opinions and tastes validated … but not too much, as they fear mass acceptance may consume and destroy what makes their sub-culture distinct and special in the first instance.”

By coincidence (srsly), similar ideas — and the converse case of anxieties that arise when one’s culture is declining — are the subject of yesterday’s Federalist Radio Hour with Ben Domenech and Amy Chua.  They were probably recording it while I was writing and I had not discussed the specific content of today’s column with Ben.  It’s a mildly eerie tribute to how certain ideas emerge from the zeitgeist.

So what did I leave out this time for space considerations?  Mostly material about Atlanta‘s showrunner and star, Daniel Glover.  One could write an interesting column about authenticity around Glover himself, because there are ways in which he is authentic, while simultaneously working as a rapper (Childish Gambino) and as an actor (pretending to be someone else for a living).  In particular, a recent longread about Glover in The New Yorker touches on the concepts of authenticity and of storytelling.  But also telling is is wariness that — as often happens — becoming a celebrity is a drag on his opportunities or abilities to observe the human condition, something necessary to actors and writers.  I could have compared that to the way in which the Paper Boi character on the show is finding himself drained in various ways, including by the YouTuber covering his song.  Again, life imitating art — or vice versa.

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Revisiting Battlestar Galactica: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “Revisiting Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series.”  I’ll be recapping the groundbreaking series for its 15th anniversary.  But don’t worry, I won’t be doing liner notes for this series of columns.  After all, anyone subscribing to this blog via email presumably did not expect a series recap.  I may post notices on Twitter; I haven’t quite sorted that out yet.

Bruno Mars Is Not A Cultural Appropriator: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “No, Bruno Mars Is Not A Cultural Appropriator.”  Regular readers may recognize some of the historical points made therein on the silliness this charge usually carries when discussing Rock & Roll music, though the column is broader than than things I have mentioned here previously.

As is often the case, there are points I don’t get to make due to considerations of length.  In this case, I could have written more about the sub-charge that Mars is “inauthentic.”  Here, Mars is charged of being both inauthentic and a cultural appropriator.  It is possible to think of instances where those two charges might peacefully coexist.  For example, Elvis Presley’s version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” probably sounds more “authentic” to most listeners than Pat Boone’s version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”

But there is always an internal tension to this combo.  Authenticity in this context usually refers to capturing something essential of a culture or style,  Very often that goal will conflict with the charge (as is also lodged against Mars) that he is unoriginal.  Simultaneously demanding preservation and innovation is generally a pretty high bar.  Artists like those to whom Mars is unfavorably compared, like Michael Jackson or Prince, may manage to pull it off.  But that’s why they’re Michael Jackson, Prince, or Presley.  Artists of that caliber are few and far between.

Also, the column begins and concludes with the larger political dimension at work, but mostly addresses the charges against Mars on the merits.  An alternate approach to the column would have proceeded from and more deeply elaborated on the premise that the accusers here do not really care about Mars nearly so much as they care about browbeating the majority of the panel into deferring to their rage as a political tactic.

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The Cannabis Candidate Goes Up in a Blaze: Liner Notes

It’s twofer Friday, as I have both a blog posting and a new column at The Federalist, asking “Will A Democratic House Candidate Facing Allegations of Abuse, Threats and Resume Inflation Be Saved by Stoners?”  Here’s your lede graf:

One of the great things about primary campaigns is that they offer almost limitless opportunities for previously private citizens to engage in very public acts of self-immolation. This is the story of Benjamin Thomas Wolf, a Democratic House candidate who burst on the political scene in a cloud of marijuana smoke, but now faces a firestorm of allegations including physical abuse, threats, and an almost comical level of resume inflation.”

People may alternately cringe and guffaw over Wolf’s defects, but there was more reason for me to write about him beyond the fact that his story jumped from my neck of the woods to the national media.

A recent Federalist Radio Hour with guest Daniel Hannan has a lot to recommend itself to those of you who read here because you’re concerned about the current state of American politics.  He is in the somewhat unusual position of being both a Brexiteer and being more classically liberal than populist.  But one of the things he said in passing was that, in his opinion. American primary elections do a better job in weeding out fringey candidates than the party list systems often found in Europe.  Those of us concerned about the conservative movement may not have been feeling that way about GOP primaries recently, so Hannan’s view from a distance may help us see there are silver linings even in stormy periods.

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Socialism Time and the Suicide of the West

While I’m working on some other pieces, here’s something about Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent WaPo column, “It’s time to give socialism a try.”

As you might imagine, the reaction from the right was basically, “No thanks.”  HotAir’s Ed Morrissey, for example, provided the standard economic and historical arguments against socialism.  I find myself in general agreement with them, as far as they go.

But there are two related points Bruenig raises which are worthy of a response.

First, she observes: “Contemporary supporters of liberalism are often subject, I think, to what I call ‘everyday Fukuyama-ism’ — the idea, explicitly stated or not, that the end of the Cold War really signaled the end of history, and that we can only look forward to the unceasing rise of Western-style liberal-democratic capitalism.”

Second, she observes:

In fact, both [Andrew] Sullivan’s and [Yascha] Mounk’s complaints — that Americans appear to be isolated, viciously competitive, suspicious of one another and spiritually shallow; and that we are anxiously looking for some kind of attachment to something real and profound in an age of decreasing trust and regard — seem to be emblematic of capitalism, which encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws. (As a business-savvy friend once remarked: Nobody gets rich off of bilateral transactions where everybody knows what they’re doing.) Capitalism is an ideology that is far more encompassing than it admits, and one that turns every relationship into a calculable exchange. Bodies, time, energy, creativity, love — all become commodities to be priced and sold. Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.”

Morrissey responds to this second point by noting Bruening “provides absolutely no evidence for her conclusions that capitalism causes shallowness, isolation, and a lack of ‘public morality’,” which again is true as far as it goes… but importantly, that doesn’t meant the claim is unique to “prior socialist thought,” either.

I’ve been making my way through Jonah Goldberg’s upcoming book, Suicide of the West — and enjoying it a lot — and it speaks to Bruenig’s points at length, from a variety of angles.   The book is apparently still on embargo (Hugh Hewitt notwithstanding), so I will be a bit general in my response here, based on the Amazon description of the book, related things I’ve already written and things Goldberg has discussed in Liberal Fascism and on The Remnant.

What we think of as classical liberalism, including economic freedom, emerges from the philosophy exemplified by English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers.  It tends to think of people as a species where individuals act in their self-interest.  It seeks to create a space where people can pursue their own happiness (or meaning), but creates institutions that diffuse power to mitigate the malign influences of self-interest and faction (for more on that, I recommend the Constitutionally Speaking podcast hosted by Jay Cost and Luke Thompson).

However, both before and after the Enlightenment (and in the French Enlightenment and its descendants), there is a view that runs in the opposite direction.  It views human beings as essentially noble savages who find meaning in the tribe.  The impulse in human nature to find meaning in unity has gone by any number of names in different vessels — romanticism, nationalism, communism, socialism, fascism, collectivism, populism, etc.  And since the Enlightenment, whatever label it has taken, it is sold in part as a response to individualism, as a response to the alienation people can feel in any system that seems to privilege the individual over the tribe. (Alienation predates the Enlightenment, but that’s a much longer story, and it’s why I and others have noted the similarity of identity politics to religion.)

If you are looking for evidence that modernity contributes to alienation, one need look no further than the periodic eruption of the various movements or philosophies grounded on the idea.  Or, to put it bluntly, to the fact that people like Bruenig would still look to socialism in the face of the historical evidence Morrissey compiled.  People gravitate to these movements (sometimes ideological, sometimes not) because they are based on exploiting that sense of alienation among a swath of the public at any given moment.  The tribal desire for unity is such that the historical record of totalitarian systems doesn’t matter to them.

Classical liberalism — and capitalism — are, in the vast sweep of human history, relatively new concepts.  And they have improved the lot of humanity on countless dimensions, as noted in Steven Pinker’s useful (if flawed) Enlightenment Now.  But as Goldberg (among others) has noted elsewhere, there is no impersonal force of History that we will inevitably move toward.  If humanity wants to preserve and improve on the gains we have made under a regime of classical liberalism and capitalism, we will have to work for it.  Those who believe in the End of History have been too lazy and too often incompetent.  (If only there were more Morrisseys running our institutions.)  There will always be people like Rousseau or Marx or Mussolini who want to overthrow the regime in favor of some form of totalitarian subjugation to the will of a tribe.

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The Media’s Toxic Bias Regarding Farrakhan and the Left: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “The Media Decision To Ignore Democrat Ties To Farrakhan Reveals Toxic Bias,” about the establishment media’s reluctance to cover the association of Democratic Members of Congress and leaders of the Women’s March with one of America’s most notorious racists and anti-Semites.

In fairness, I note that while the column was moving through editorial, the WaPo has at least published an op-ed about the controversy, and New York magazine and Vox have run pieces.  Good for them, though I’ll note that the WaPo barely mentions the problem in Congress, while NY mag and Vox avoid Congress altogether (and to one degree or another focus on how this story is a problem for the March in building an “intersectional” movement). Salon published a piece this morning while I was writing this note, again focused on the March.  Locally, the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board criticized Rep. Danny Davis without addressing the breadth of the problem.

Moreover, as I note in my column, the question remains as to why they were so slow off the mark; the Daily Caller’s Peter Hasson first interviewed Davis over a month ago.  Indeed, I wonder whether the story would have died if the Women’s March not issued a statement that avoided denouncing Farrakhan.  It is another sign — if one were needed — that a left-leaning establishment media still believes that even the worst forms of identity politics can be overlooked so long as they benefit the left, even as they blame the election of Pres. Trump on white resentment of said politics.  And it is part of a much larger story of how a dysfunctional elite negligently empowers the polarization it bemoans.

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Mike Huckabee’s Gun Fight with the Country Music Association: Liner Notes

My latest column at the Federalist is “Country Music Executives Slammed The NRA In Push To Oust Huckabee.”  If you’re as big a Huckabee fan as I am, don’t worry: the column isn’t really about him.

Rather, as longtime readers know, I find it useful to use stories about people (that many like to read) to really write about ideas (that fewer like to read).  The column is really about the history of country music has traditionally been a voice of cultural conservatism, but only became a voice of political conservatism as the left started making cultural conservatives uncomfortable with the Democratic Party — not unlike what happened to the NRA, ironically.

The past couple of years of school shootings — and the Las Vegas shooting, having targeted the Harvest Music Festival — is causing some in the country music business to rethink their prior support of or silence about the NRA, even if there’s little evidence the genre’s audience has moved much on the Second Amendment.  Moreover, while country music of the 1960s and 1970s used to have room for more diversity in its politics, the polarization that moved their audience rightward may force those in the biz who favor even modest gun control measures into some of the “binary choices” that are now de rigueur in politics.

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Dick’s Sporting Goods’ Odd Gun Decision: Liner Notes

I have my third column up at The Federalist to end the week, “Why Dick’s Decision To Ban Some Rifles (Again) Might Backfire.”  The chain has tried this before, only to quietly retreat at a small spinoff-chain, most of which is located in places that won’t like their decision.

Of course, it’s possible Dick’s thinks this might boost non-gun sales with particular demographics like Millennials.  This sort of thinking is something I’ve written about before regarding ESPN, and (indirectly) Patagonia (one of Dick’s competitors).

But the polling suggests that this sort of thing might be popular in the abstract, gun sales bans may not appeal particularly to the young.  Indeed, while the piece was in editorial, Pew released a poll about generational politics suggesting that while Millennials are more progressive on most issues, gun control is an issue where the difference is modest.

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What the NYT Newsroom Needs to Hear About the Editorial Page: Liner Notes

I have a new column up at The Federalist, “NYT Reporters Upset The Editorial Page Includes Conservative Voices Need To Hear This.” And while some of you may already know the backstory, it’s easier for me to excerpt the beginning of the piece:

The head of The New York Times editorial page is under siege by the paper’s own journalists.

James Bennet’s crime? Hiring NeverTrumper Bret Stephens and Israel defender Bari Weiss as columnists, as well as publishing op-eds by people whose views offend the newsroom staff. Bennet has held at least three internal town-hall meetings in an attempt to respond to his critics, but the level of acrimony only seems to have increased. A different approach is needed.

Bennet should consider delivering remarks along the following lines when he opens his next in-house gripe session…

And what follows is a quasi-humorous rant about a situation in which the patients are trying to run the asylum.  When this topic first came under discussion, it was my pitch to do it is a rant because: (a) I don’t usually write rants much these days and they can be fun to write; (b) more serious pieces had already been written on the value of the NYT editorial product diversifying, however slightly, as well as the problems with the internal complaints; and (c) it seems manifestly obvious that the internal complainers have no interest in having an adult conversation about what an editorial page is or does and why it’s really not the reporters’ business to try to supervise Bennet.

The problem with ranting is — because it’s fun — it’s difficult to stop.  As long as the column is, you wind up having to leave stuff out about the mentality of people who think debating what to do about climate change makes someone a denier, while also wanting to question that modern capitalism has been the greatest single engine in eliminating poverty the world has ever seen.  The former is about long-term simulations and predictions, while the other can be answered by looking at a any serious history book, or a nighttime satellite photo of North and South Korea.  Not surprising from a paper that spent the year whitewashing Soviet Communism for its 100th anniversary, but still.

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