Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Who Failed Conservatism This Time?

Image via TheNewsBuzz.

Longer™ David Brooks ("Republican or Conservative, You Have to Choose"):
You see, a while back we were walking along the yellow brick road, and—no, wait, it was other people, George Will and Steve Schmidt, who said it is time to leave the Republican party now that it's rotten to the core, and Dr. William Kristol, who says it's not, which is a good sign it is, given his record as the only New York Times columnist in history so consistently wrong about everything that the paper had to let him go, and when you recognize that I've still got my job, you'll understand that's saying a lot. But while I've posed this interesting question of whether it's time to leave the Republican party yet, I think it will be much more valuable to discuss something else, namely, since everybody in this discussion is a conservative, what is a conservative? Or, putting it more precisely, how can I bend the discussion into a book promo for Roger Scruton?
You see, as Roger Scruton reminds us, conservatism was invented during the Enlightenment, when thinkers in England, France, and North America were thinking about eliminating the monarchy. Since society was created by a social contract, these Enlightenment thinkers reasoned, in which free individuals came together to negotiate a sociopolitical order, therefore they should build an order based on reason, and the consent of the governed. Conservatives said, "We agree with this general effort, but it is based on a misunderstanding of human nature." There are no literally free individuals who can come together to build an order, they explained, so you must have the order first, and the freedom can come afterwards.
In other words, as Roger Scruton puts it in his bracing new Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, which successfully avoids mentioning Donald Trump altogether, conservatives believe in the primacy of the chicken of order, and liberals in that of the egg of liberty. The practical upshot is that conservatives emphasize the sacred space in which individuals, along with family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and manners are formed, and correspondingly deemphasize the secular space where I guess they have food, water, and sex. This only makes sense.
Black Tie Invited. A Reception Will Follow.

Since nobody ever signs a contract to join a family, religion, culture, school, and so forth, it follows we are bound to them by pre-rational cords of sympathy and affection, and inevitably our attitude toward them is one of gratitude, the way one always feels when one wakes up and finds that one has been tied to a sacrificial altar. But this happy situation was soon threatened by problems like the French Revolution, and, later, industrialization. Conservatives like John Ruskin and T.S. Eliot, dismayed, arose to preserve culture from the soulless machine age, but they were a little late, for the next thing was the state, in the form of communists, fascists, social democrats, and liberals, competing to take the functions of the family, religion, culture, school, and so forth out of the sacred space and have them performed profanely.
Conservatives didn't mind the state in particular, but they had a big thing about the sacred space. Thus George W. Bush and David Cameron created compassionate conservatism and the Big Society, respectively, but unfortunately the Republican party in the United States and the Conservative party in Britain had already stopped being conservative—they had become market fundamentalists. Market fundamentalism is an inhumane philosophy which leaves people atomized and unattached. You don't want to be atomized, so voters voted for Donald Trump and tribalism, a sense of social belonging. It was the wrong kind of social belonging, but it was the only one available, because you could hardly expect them to vote for Hillary Clinton and her liberal idea that it takes a village to raise a child.
In short, it's quite true that conservatism cannot fail, but it can be failed even more than was previously thought, and indeed is being failed right and left as we speak. The only way to save conservatism is to empty it of all its political content and start talking like a jar of strained baby food, with a theme of "beautiful communities" so vague that it's illustrated equally by Blue Burlington and Red Salt Lake City*. I was going to say something about what the Republicans should do but oops I'm all out of space again.
*Salt Lake City, with a Democratic mayor, and all 13 of the Democrats in the state House of Representatives and all five in the state Senate, isn't that Red. The introduction of John Ruskin as a prototype of Brooksian conservatism, followed up by the idea of the "Beautiful Community", makes me wonder if conservatism has now become one of the utopian socialisms of William Morris, Tolstoy, and Gandhi, all of whom claimed Ruskin as an intellectual ancestor.

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