Why is Conservatism Falling Apart?

There used to be bona fide arbiters who could say what Conservatism was and what it was not; there leaders who could cultivate canonical Conservatism and exclude what was inauthentic; and thus Conservatism to be substantiated by creditable thinkers in respected publications and settings, and even with its internal schisms it could earn its place in the public arena. Their unanimity worked only as well as their leadership was more or less centralized and their messages constrained by the technological limitations on their media.

Those limits are gone. Now anyone with a computer can anoint himself a Conservative thought leader and editorialize straight to publication unvetted by his peers; and best of all, he can exploit the mantle, selling ad space, books and speaking engagements in what has notoriously been called “a great little racket” by one of its racketeers. The competition among these self-appointed experts rewards provocation, extremism, and sensationalism more than gravitas and erudition.

William F. Buckley said, “You know, I’ve spent my entire lifetime separating the Right from the kooks.” Now the kooks separate the likes of Buckley out of the Right. Buckley would be patronized or ignored by today’s Conservative media, or else he would be attacked by ambitious pretenders. The progeny of Firing Line are the websites and podcasts of parasites and cranks, and there isn’t a thing Conservative “leaders” can do about it. Conservatism might once have aspired to rigor and integrity, but now that the mob is in charge, now that number of the audience is more important than how well anyone among them understands the message, authenticity among Conservatives is judged by its vaudeville nastiness, not by substance.

Conservatives’ adherence to their own intellectual tradition is a liability. The entitlement that nothing can be definitively settled, that anything believed strongly enough merits respect and support no matter how demonstrably false it is, was an economic requirement to Conservative leaders in 1776 and 1865, who could nullify facts around them while living in a theory; back then, after all, they were the powers in charge, and a plantation owner whose economic interests required him to deny the evident humanity of his property was effectively a state unto himself and subject to no other authority. Today it remains the sacrosanct First Entitlement of Conservatism to think as one likes on anything and call it reality, and every rank-and-file Conservative does just that with abandon. It might have appalled Russell Kirk and Buckley to see their shining city on a hill overrun with boors. Where for the old elite “Conservative” was a mantle to be earned, their heirs can declare by fiat their own Conservative elitism, thereby wrecking the possibility of Conservative elitism at all, and permitting its degradation from a philosophy to a scam.

Do Conservatives in the media and in government wonder how long they can get away with the fraud as they rip down the intellectual pillars of their own movement? They should.

If there ever could have been a useful orthodoxy to Conservatism, the chance was sacrificed long since in order to swell the ranks. The breakdown of Conservatism had to happen.

Buckley, in 1963, ducked defining it in “Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism.” Asked, “What is Conservatism?” he bluffed, suggesting that Conservatism was some spiritual certainty that transcended materialist definition. By inference, of course, some credible grasp of its truths and mysteries was possible, and Buckley and his peers had it. However, if the questioners pressed him, Buckley hid behind Richard Weaver, another obfuscator. He liked to use Weaver’s foggy characterization (calling it a “definition” of Conservatism is a lie): “a paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.” Meaning: nothing.

Conservatism has always been as much a faith as a school of political thought, with each individual’s experience of it central to the theory and to how it is implemented in the world, and that experience cannot be challenged because it’s every Conservative’s right to think for himself and interpret it as he feels. “The goal of conservatism,” as David Klinghoffer said, “was to restore to men and women a metaphysical dream that allows for ultimate meaning in our existence.” “The attitude we call conservatism,” Kirk said, “is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such.” Ross Douthat’s 2008 update showed how effectively Conservatism could yell Stop at itself. Conservatism, Douthat said, is “A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.” Nearly fifty years after Buckley: still nothing. It isn’t that Conservatism is “notoriously difficult” to define; it’s that Conservatives won’t define it. It’s too useful to them in its shapelessness, like a patent medicine for anything that ails. What it is, is what the purchaser makes of it.

Conservatism was never merely a working instrument. Conservatives boast that their epistemology, personal, timeless and subjective, was always something more than “just a policy agenda, a set of partisan gripes or a football team seeking victory on the electoral field.” That’s why it has so often proven maladaptive to the building of a political movement, and likewise to taking its place in the grimy mechanics of a republic — much of politics is nothing but just a policy agenda, gripes, and trying to grind the electoral enemy into the mud, so in actual application, Conservatism was wrong for the job. And it has failed by its own standards. In our time it has curdled into shamefaced obstreperousness — self-anointed, above questions, and capable of calling anything “evidence” for any argument. Even the lack of evidence can be evidence. With that evidence in hand, you can create your own reality, and while reasonable people study that reality, judiciously, as they will, you can act again. You can make war: “Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” You can prosecute crimes that may not have happened: regarding the disappointing yield of useful scandal from the Benghazi tragedy, “The blood of our heroes demands an answer,” Congressman Louie Gohmert told the TV cameras. “We’re about to the point where we’re just going to have to take it as a fact that the evidence they’re refusing to produce supports the worst of our fears about what this administration failed to do.” You can act again, creating other new realities, and be history’s actors, and leave reality to just study what you do.

Thinking like this must feel liberating, intoxicating. It doesn’t need their proof — it proves itself. It lashes out at the elitism of rationality and empirical process. It’s a display of power for people who feel disenfranchised by reason. It sends a message to those who feel that their epistemology is the sole best option. Anguish from the reality-based community is sweet recompense.

No wonder so many people want to call themselves “Conservative,” and chafe at any confining definitions of it. Loosed among them, this mindset feels empowering. It’s non-negotiable down to every individual interpretation, and they aren’t surrendering any of it to any authority. So they have implicit mutual alignment, but rigorous consensus? Impossible. Rigorous consensus would betray the spirit of First Entitlement. Again and again Conservatives have suffered internal power battles like the one they suffer now. “When the John Birchers had to be kicked out of the Republican Party, William F. Buckley Jr. effectively excommunicated them from the GOP. When the “smoking gun” Watergate tape came out, it was the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) who urged Richard Nixon to resign. And when Pat Buchanan’s views could no longer be called anything but anti-Semitic, it was Buckley who called him out.” The fights aren’t over the real, pure, One True Definition of Conservatism because after thriving on decades of inclusive, lucrative ambiguity, Conservatives can’t permit can’t be any such thing in the first place. The Birchers and Nixon and Buchanan and today’s renegades all can claim that they’re saving civilization and that their adversaries aren’t — and they can’t be policed. They can’t get kicked out for ideological impurity; they’re being entirely true to the ideology, after all, by distilling their own version of it. If they’re problems it’s because it’s they’re liabilities to the football team seeking victory on the electoral field. Or worse, they change the Conservative formula, double the proof of the moonshine, and blind the body politic for fun and profit.

Conservatives must refuse to adapt their thinking to operational requirements. Even admitting the idea of operational requirements requires consensus and consensus requires concession, and it’s a violation of the spirit of this epistemology to tell someone who has experienced a kind of immanence that his operational interpretation of it is politically inconvenient. What person who has had such an epiphany would permit himself to be marginalized by other people? The rigor Conservatism needs is the rigor it can’t permit. Only when they are galvanized by an outsider — the Union, the Soviets, or some ambiguous threat at home — can they align their different interests, and even when they do, the alignment never lasts. They have passion but no discipline; orthodoxy but no details. They fight Liberal relativism while Conservative relativism tears them apart. Liberalism uses dissension to seek actionable consensus; Conservatism necessitates dissension and resists any specific consensus. Empirical argument can be prosecuted to a reasoned conclusion. Anti-empirical fights are honor battles, zero sum, fought and won on theatrics instead of facts, and never-ending. Conflicts like Conservatives experiencing now aren’t anomalous. They’re inevitable.