Watching the Bums Fight

From a dissident perspective, watching the fights within what they still insist on calling the conservative movement is a lot like watching a bum fight. The two journeymen fighters are paired up to see who will get to be the champ’s next victim. The fight may be entertaining, as long as you do not think too much about the fact that neither guy has a future beyond being a punching bag for the elite fighters.

These disputes are not without value. Granted, what comes from them will never be a genuine alternative to the progressive orthodoxy, but it offers some insight into what went wrong with American liberal democracy. One reason we conduct autopsies is to better understand what to avoid in the future. The same is true of these debates going on within what is left of conservatism. This dustup between William Voegeli and Glenn Ellmers is a good example.

The two men represent the two sub-cults that have animated conservatism since the middle of the last century. One cult is rooted in a worship of the Founders and the Constitution, while the other cult is a worship of Lincoln and what some have called the second founding. Voegeli is in the Founders cult, while Ellmers, an acolyte of the Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa, is in the Lincoln cult.

“While the two sides were decorating their respective fantasy world, the left marched from triumph to triumph.”

Founderism is the claim that we can and should return to the founding principles of America as spelled out in the Constitution. They embrace originalism, except for the three-fifths compromise, of course. There is no need for a new system as we have this old system that will work just fine if we just use it. In fact, this cult argues that all of the present ills are due to the failure to stick with the Constitution as written.

On the other side is Lincolnism. They argue that the Civil War was a step forward in reaching the original goals of America as spelled out in the Declaration. All men are created equal and should therefore have equal rights. The compromise over slavery was finally rectified in the Civil War. For this cult, Lincoln is the real founder of the republic and the starting point for their moral philosophy.

Neither side challenges the egalitarian and blank-slate claims of the progressives, but Founderism does sort of accept the natural inequality of man. They mostly ignore biological reality to avoid getting into trouble with the left. Lincolnism, on the other hand, embraces equality of opportunity. As long as all men have an equal chance to succeed, inequality of outcomes is tolerable.

The reason this is a topic at all is extreme egalitarianism and the blank slate are central to progressive morality. They see inequality as proof that there are constraints benefiting some at the expense of others. The progressive project is about eliminating those constraints. For the post-Marx culturalists who now dominate the left, it means they get to eliminate the barriers they see as unjust and ruthlessly enforce the rules they see as necessary for their project.

For the past thirty years or so, the Lincoln cult has been the dominant wing of conservatism, as it solves the race issue for conservatives. The Lincolnists get to claim that the “Democrats are the real racists,” pointing out that it was a Republican who freed the slaves. This leaves the members of the Founders cult to admire their powdered wig collection and grouse about the welfare state.

The crisis of conservatism lies in the fact that neither side has put up much of a fight because neither camp is a serious response to the progressive challenge. In fact, both camps are a form of escapism that allows the adherents to live in a fantasy world while avoiding present reality. Their role is to timidly resist today’s progressive innovation, while preparing to accept it as a conservative principle.

The most ridiculous of the two has to be Founderism, as the constitutional order they worship did not last a single lifetime. A generation after ratification, Yankee New England wanted out of the Union. The Hartford Convention was a series of meetings in 1814 to discuss their unhappiness with the new order. Secession probably would have happened if not for the rise of patriotism following Jackson’s victory at New Orleans.

If there were any doubts that the constitutional order was dead, those were put to bed in the Civil War. When the North conquered the South, they replaced the limited republican order with the new Yankee democratic order. Therefore, the only way we can return to the original constitutional order is by going back in time to warn the Southern leaders about what happens after they attack Fort Sumpter.

Lincolnism, in contrast, has a basic logic, thanks to Harry Jaffa, who should be considered the Karl Marx of American conservatism. Like Marx, Jaffa provided both an intellectual framework and a theory of history to solve a present problem. Socialists needed a moral justification for overthrowing the state. Conservatives needed a justification for embracing egalitarianism and the blank slate.

Like Marx, Jaffa was exceedingly clever. He conjured out of nothing a moral authority that allowed conservatives to embrace egalitarianism. Of course, the purpose of America was equality for all; after all, it is right there in the Declaration! Their quibble with progressives was a fight over how best to achieve it. Lincolnism does not oppose the progressive moral framework. It aims to improve upon it.

This is why Lincolnism has been the dominant cult within conservatism. It has been the most useful to the left. If the debate is always centered on how best to reach the egalitarian paradise, there is no room for anyone questioning whether such a thing is possible or even desirable. As Marx would have put it, once the morality of egalitarianism was accepted, the politics became ceremonial.

This is the source of the crisis within conservatism. While the two sides were decorating their respective fantasy world, the left marched from triumph to triumph. Culturally, America is so distant from the 1980s, when the movement of conservatism hit its stride, we may as well be on an alien planet. The left has transformed America in every conceivable way while conservatism acquiesced to every innovation.

The solution, of course, is to accept that there is nothing left to conserve and therefore conservatism is as relevant as Whiggism. Interesting as a means of understanding how we have arrived at this dismal state, but otherwise it is something that belongs in the museum of failed political movements. For dissidents, it is a warning about the wages of accommodating the original sins of progressivism.


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