|1940s college boys, from auburn.edu via Vintage Dancer.|
The reason that, in 1950, Lionel Trilling was able to argue that liberalism is “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in mid-century America is because FDR/Truman had effectively led the country out of a depression and won a worldwide war. By 1950, even most of the business leaders who had opposed the New Deal in the 1930s had come to terms with it. The weakness for the Democrats was different in kind. They weren’t just a workers’ party and a party for the business establishment. They were also the party of white supremacy and Jim Crow.
What’s interesting about conservatism is that they didn’t tap into the wedge the way you’d expect. Instead of criticizing the Democrats for their backwardness and vulgarity, they sought to steal the segregationists away from the party and keep them for themselves. This is the course that Buckley pursued. Rather than strengthen the GOP in his home turf in the North by pointing out the Dems' allegiance with the cultural neanderthals in the party’s southern congressional leadership, Buckley chose to make white supremacy respectable among the cocktail set at the Yale Club and the New York Yacht Club.
What happened in the 1970’s was similar in kind. An amalgam of Christian conservatives was brought into allegiance with Buckley’s jet-setters to form the backbone of the Reagan coalition. These new Republicans were the furthest thing from Bach aficionados and most of them had only seen yachts on television. But they served as the bodies that business interests needed to prevail politically and begin to beat back a New Deal that was no longer working as well as it had. Buckley and his allies didn’t give a damn about prayer in school or restricting abortion rights, but they needed an army that would back them on opposing federal regulations, high marginal tax rates, and strong antitrust enforcement.
Conservatism was always about raising an army of vulgarians to serve the interests of a new conservative elite in which folks like Buckley would “play the harpsichord.” That’s it. That’s all of it.Which is pretty much what I've been saying (riffing somewhat off Corey Robin) is the entire history of conservatism in Europe and the Americas, since 1789 (that date is just my francophilia talking; I guess I should really push it back to all kinds of earlier, with the evolution in Britain of the Tories as a fundamentally counterrevolutionary party from the reign of Charles I, and the Europe-wide struggle in the Enlightenment between the Freemasons and the reactionary church and secular authorities, through the American Revolution): those in power, faced with the forces of democratization, can no longer simply rule, but must rule with some kind of popular support, which they recruit from the lower orders through a mythology of how traditional institutions (including those things like school prayer and abortion prohibition) protect them from one horror or another, riot and anarchy.
In this way conservatives in that sense, the ones in the Yale Club and the New York Yacht Club, don't care about backwardness and vulgarity, as long as it stays out of their dining rooms. They need backward and vulgar people to vote them into office. That's what the charter school/voucher/homeschool movement is all about, from one point of view, the provision of segregated and simplistic education to raise a generation of fearful, bigoted Republican voters.
Anyway Jordan wrote in comments here:
the usual way to proceed here is to start talking about unholy alliances, both in the present and historically, and how they get ignored or hidden (or both); Nixon's "Southern Strategy;" the Civil Rights movement vs. the "Lost Cause" Dixie types; Reagan-era church figures etc. -- this is what happened in great detail over at BooMan Tribune yesterday.
And, as interesting and important as all that is....I really think there's something deeper and simpler at work here. People like Buckley, Will and Brooks aren't re-writing history (or, that's not their overt task) so much as they're trapped in a nostalgic, sentimental mode, remembering College Days (which is hugely important for everyone of this type) and wishing the world actually worked the way it seems like it does when contemplated by giddy young men of the best type, on the best campuses. (It's almost an Evelyn Waugh Et In Arcadia Ego Halcyon dream.)Well, maybe.
As I say, I've been preaching the unholy alliance forever, in terms as simple as Boo says: the gross part of conservatism is there because the elegant harpsichord-playing conservatives have to get votes from somewhere. Will can't bear being in the same room with the unlettered, ill-dressed, foul-mouthed yahoos who keep the Republican party alive, but without them conservatism is as dead as it was in 1950.
But the other side is: that college nostalgia has more in common with yahoo conservatism than you might think, because it's a nostalgia for a deeply stratified society in which the young men depend on an unquestioned capital income and an army of servants and attendants and seduceable low-class girls, bookies, drug dealers, musicians, and all that riffraff—while the young men remain cheerfully blind to their privilege.
The privilege is maintained and enforced (outside the young men's peripheral vision, so they can stay comfortable) all the way down into the peasantry by the exact mechanisms—"dispositifs du pouvoir" is the Foucault name,"apparatuses of power"—that constitute the core elements of yahoo ideology: dominance of male over female, white over brown, landlord over tenant, employer over employee. Segregated neighborhoods, licensed bullying of the LGTBQ, arbitrary scheduling of hours for McDonalds workers, are typical expressions at the local level of the same values as those by which at the global level monopoly capital continues to aggregate at the expense of the lower orders. This is how conservatism works, when it's working, which it clearly isn't at the moment, in spite of the fact that they seem to have won the 2016 elections—they can't resolve themselves into doing anything, and all of their initiatives, from the
Will's shock at the triumph of Trumpism is the shock of being forced to recognize what was there all along, the seamy underside of conservatism, the ugly mass on which his bow-tied, preppy polysyllabic world rests. The nostalgia was for the time before Trump when he could successfully pretend it didn't exist.
I don't know how long the current situation can last; the legislature can limp from continuing resolution to continuing resolution as it did through most of the Obama presidency, but government can't do much governing when the president is unable to name officers to staff it, for one thing, between his own people's laziness and candidates' reluctance to participate in the shambles. And the sheer appalling spectacle of the imperial family and its retainers is humiliating more of the public every day (a weird NPR story by Danielle Kurtzleben argues that Trump hasn't become unpopular as fast in his first four months as some previous presidents, but neglects to mention that he was so unpopular at his inauguration, compared to Ford and Clinton, that he didn't have very far he could fall). It's likely that the movement has some hopes of knitting itself together after somebody manages to chase Trump away—and over the long term find some other way of recruiting its army of vulgarians, some new terror to replace the old ones, as it always does.
A lot of well-meaning writers on the Democratic side are thinking in one way or another that we need to work on a similar model, competing for the vulgarians, aiming at those Trump voters. In the next post, insh'Allah, I'm going to try developing an alternative approach to putting together a democratically Democratic majority.