The slow and often comical decline of Official Conservatism™ starting somewhere in the Bush years has offered many insights into what has gone wrong since the middle of the last century. It is as if the tide is slowing going out, revealing many things that had previously been hidden under the waterline. Or, as Warren Buffett would say it, the tide has gone out and we now see who was swimming naked.
An example of this phenomenon is a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Atlantic in which he bemoans the state of conservatism. This is becoming a staple of The Atlantic. Two weeks ago, they gave the sanctimonious poseur David French the chance to whine about the “new right’s strange and dangerous cult of toughness.”
In the case of Brooks, he is doing the dramatic-exit act. This is when someone who is about to be escorted out of the party declares she is leaving and makes a big scene on the way out the door. In the case of Brooks, he is stomping off long after everyone at the party forgot he was still there. The only people who think Brooks is right-wing are his imaginary friends he uses in his columns. His sandwich-poor high school dropout friend will be crushed by news of his departure.
The “That’s it! I’m leaving!” act came back in style when Trump captured the Republican nomination in 2016. George Will famously announced at a Federalist Society event that he and his wig were leaving the GOP. The narcissistic nitwit Tom Nichols—that would be “Five-Time Jeopardy! Champion” Tom Nichols for you commoners—got the party started at The Atlantic as far as this sort of dramatic exit.
All of these bourgeois tantrums are amusing in their own way, but the Brooks tantrum is hilarious in that it reveals him to be a gold-plated phony. For example, he writes this in his setup. “I thought of myself as a socialist. But seeing the fallout from this situation prompted a shocking realization: This is exactly what that guy I read in college had predicted. Human society is unalterably complex, Edmund Burke argued.”
He is writing about himself in a way in which he thinks conservative intellectuals think about their journey to conservatism. While Edmund Burke played an important role in the inefficacy of conservatism, no one had their awakening while browsing his writings about the French Revolution. For most conservatives, Burke was who they found long after they found themselves in the conservative ecosystem.
He then follows that up with this bit of creative memory. “I started reading any writer on conservatism whose book I could get my hands on—Willmoore Kendall, Peter Viereck, Shirley Robin Letwin.” You see, he cannot use names here that are familiar, because that would be pedestrian. The William Safire chair at The New York Times requires the holder to present himself as superior to the hoi polloi of conservatism.
While it is fun to make sport of self-important fops like David Brooks, he and the others who are performing these public tantrums tell us something important about Buckley-style conservatism. People like David Brooks were attracted to the movement because it required so little of them. These were not intellectuals challenged by alternative moral philosophy, but poseurs looking for an easy place to land in the intelligentsia.
“Intelligentsia” is a word that originated in 19th-century Russia to describe a class of people whose identity was based in their social capital. That is, they self-identified as part of a class that was divorced from the practical structure of society. They stood outside of it and maintained a disdain for it. To be a member of this class did not require education or a curiosity about the world. In fact, a strong interest in the practical affairs of men was a disqualifier.
This is the opposite of how we think of the intelligentsia today, but our current thinking is mistaken, as our public intellectuals are every bit as vacuous and vainglorious as the intellectual class of 19th-century Russia. Then as now, these are the sorts of people who side with radicalism, because it is a good look and allows them to mock those who are engaged in the practical business of society.
This is one reason conservatism was such a failure. In their heart of hearts, the people with speaking roles in the conservative movement never disagreed all that much with their alleged opponents. Forty years ago David Brooks was a socialist, and he never stopped being a socialist at heart. It just became more stylish in the 1980s to wave the flag of conservatism, so he called himself a conservative.
The problem with conservatism goes much deeper. Its appeal was always that it asked so little of its adherents. This was the heart of Burkean conservatism and why Burke is revered by conservatives. Edmund Burke did not present an alternative to the modernism that erupted in France. He provided a path of accommodation between his patrons in the British Empire and the waves of modernism lapping their shores.
This was the appeal to self-satisfied blowhards like Bill Buckley. He could shake his fist at the latest progressive innovations, while dining with the progressives in the Hamptons or on his yacht in Newport. His was a cost-free opposition to radicalism, which was the appeal to the young David Brooks looking for a shortcut to a comfortable sinecure like the William Safire chair at The New York Times.
In fairness to Bill Buckley, this lack of conservative fortitude was not his invention, but a habit of right-wing progressivism going back to the 19th century. The great Southern author and philosopher Robert Lewis Dabney recognized this a century ago when commenting upon the great cause of the day, female suffrage. He pointed out that conservatism is “merely the shadow that follows Radicalism.”
Dabney wrote, “Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity.”
As the imperious rats flee from the sinking ship of conservatism, we may be finally seeing the end of this cycle. Conservatism is dying and what is rising up in its place is first and foremost a rejection of the core ideas of radicalism. Equality, freedom, and democracy are no longer axioms of the right. Instead, what lies at the heart of the new right is an acceptance of the human condition and the implications that flow from it.
Therein lies the last bit of humor in these posts from pseudo-intellectual poseurs ceremoniously leaving conservatism. In their zeal to denounce their old associations, they are making it easier for those building what comes next. Often the best one can be is a cautionary example to those who follow. David Brooks is a reminder that any serious opposition to radicalism must first start with serious men.
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