The Paradox that Divides Conservatives

Today’s Right is not a monolith — it’s a sand castle.

Epistemic closure isn’t a symptom of what’s wrong with today’s Conservatism. It’s the most important prerogative of today’s Conservatism. A legacy from the movement’s forefathers, epistemic closure is a skeleton key in reverse, locking minds, killing questions, stopping debate and ending even the possibility of reasoned examination on any given question. Using it is a proud assertion of the Conservative right to absolutism, and Conservative candidates practically have to display it on any issue because the issues are secondary — absolutism is primary. The right to raise any sincerely-held belief on any subject — any policy, any interpretation of the law — to non-negotiability is non-negotiable.

None of them can admit the ultimate uselessness of such thinking; but they’re faithful Conservatives, so many of them can’t decline the prerogative to use it. So Conservatism is stuck, fragmented, and incapable of raising a single united voice. Epistemic closure demands candidates who are bona fide inside the Right, but ridiculous outside it; it punishes nuanced thinking and political conciliation; it demands ideological rigidity to the point of self-parody. The leaders fear the followers, the followers mistrust the leaders, and their discourse is reduced to a standoff.

Conservatives’ infighting today is an echo of the splits among the Confederate states 150 years ago, when each state was exercising its right to epistemic closure at the expense of the facts, when fidelity to the cause meant defending their autonomy against of centrality and nationhood even as they joined in the effort for centrality and nationhood; as surely as the planter class of the Old South declined to donate its slaves to the cause while their sons were dying for it. Conservatives are a house divided because they have to be. For them, reality is a political construct, with every Conservative entitled to his own self-validated version. Acquiescing to the idea of an irrefutable fact, even from another Conservative, is saying that the entire theory of Conservatism might be a fraud, and to even hint at such a possibility is apostasy that gets a political leader “primaried,” and a thought leader pilloried.

(The current wave of reports about Republican leaders avoiding “town halls” or making them by-invitation-only demonstrates how delicate this situation has become. Conservative candidates, it appears, fear their own constituents not just politically, but even physically, and with reason. Fred Romero, an N.R.A. field representative, explained in 1990 that “The Second Amendment is not there to protect the interests of hunters, sport shooters and casual plinkers….[the] Second Amendment is … literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government.” Many Conservative voters agree. Some Conservatives in government have made their names fomenting fear of government among their supporters — and now when, as incumbents, these Conservatives meet their constituents face-to-face, they are talking with angry people who might view those very leaders as betrayers and liars. Is it any wonder that Republican officials still kowtow to questions about Obama’s birth certificate or about impeachment when they’re in the room with their voters?)

The paradox of Conservatism today is that it requires Conservatives to respect each other’s entitlement to non-negotiable theory as they disagree with each other on any practical application of it. They are divided by their own most dearly-held tenets: that freedom means being left alone to indulge in any set of presuppositions one chooses; that sincere conviction permits coming to any conclusion by any means, and that any conclusion so reached is inherently valid; that subjugation means being required admit any notion as irrefutable fact, and that liberty equals dismissing any evidence that interferes with one’s beliefs, including the very process of empirical thinking itself.(This is a challenge for the Conservatives who insist that any deviation from ideological purity is a moral betrayal. The solution is simple: deviants aren’t real Conservatives in the first place.)

They aren’t ready to win or to lead. They can’t ever be ready. The united Conservative movement doesn’t exist any more than did the united Confederate States of America. In their united pursuit of ideological perfection, they have to betray each other.

These two epistemologies have always had to fight. Their war pitted Americans against each other over questions of human equality, freedom and economics in the Signing Room at Independence Hall. That disagreement fell to bloodshed in the Civil War and survived unresolved. Today those questions mobilize Conservatives to fight over social mores, economic models, and any other issue which they desire to elevate from mere fact into a personal belief beyond critical assessment. They want what they have always wanted: the right to live in any reality they choose, and to externalize any attendant costs of their choices onto other people, by law, by custom, and if necessary, by force.

Whatever nobility and dignity it might once have claimed Conservatism has become a citadel for some of the ugliest, meanest aspects of our nation’s character. Fortunately, whatever strength Conservatism has achieved in the minds of its individual adherents, the weakness of Conservatism in politics is that policy-making must in the end be based on consensus, clarity and empiricism; and every test that pits empiricism against anti-empiricism in making policy hits the Conservative sand castle like a wave.

How can we stop this? Force them onto the field and test the strength of empiricism and fact-based thinking against anti-empiricism and fantasy in practice. One way of thinking can win finally, and it isn’t theirs.

In our epistemological war, is one side demonstrably and measurably stronger? Does one way of thinking improve the lives of its adherents? Does it give them tangible advantages in their daily lives? Does it prove itself in hard trials and daily practice, promote a community of voluntary supporters, and demonstrate ongoing strength and self-evident merit across generations? Does it conserve itself? By every rational standard, Conservatism loses every test, and that is precisely what passes for their strength: they decline to be evaluated by rational standards. Conservative leaders gain credibility by being irrational. Conservatives elevate their most irrational thinkers to power. Trying to shame or embarrass them into rationality simply feeds their resolve. The epistemology of Conservatism lives like an oyster inside its sealed shell. They will not be measured by outside standards. They must be fought in their world, with their tenets. It’s possible to show again and again that they don’t really believe what they say they believe, and that they don’t really live the way they say they want to live.

They’re revealing their Achilles’ Heel every time they contend among themselves. Fight Conservatives with their own thinking: hold them to their standards for ideological purity. Help them make mistakes. Exploit their ideological differences in practice, and divide them against each other. Meanwhile, take every opportunity at the practical level to pit irrefutable facts against anti-empiricism, and make them experience the lies, failures and tragedy of their own reality.