The end of conservatism as we know it
I've staked my ground on the thesis that ideology is no longer the primary driver of US politics, and here's somebody who agrees with me:
Is ‘Classical Liberalism’ Conservative?As I put it, conservatism now finds itself polarized between the End-Of-History camp and the Clash-Of-Civilizations camp. Yoram Hazony distinguishes between the Enlightenment-era classical liberalism that came to suffuse so much of modern conservative thought, and WASP-American pragmatism.
Trump didn’t divide the right. Centuries-old philosophical divisions have re-emerged.
American conservatism is having something of an identity crisis. Most conservatives supported Donald Trump last November. But many prominent conservative intellectuals—journalists, academics and think-tank personalities—have entrenched themselves in bitter opposition. Some have left the Republican Party, while others are waging guerrilla warfare against a Republican administration. Longtime friendships have been ended and resignations tendered. Talk of establishing a new political party alternates with declarations that Mr. Trump will be denied the GOP nomination in 2020.
Those in the “Never Trump” camp say the cause of the split is the president—that he’s mentally unstable, morally unspeakable, a leftist populist, a rightist authoritarian, a danger to the republic. One prominent Republican told me he is praying for Mr. Trump to have a brain aneurysm so the nightmare can end.
But the conservative unity that Never Trumpers seek won’t be coming back, even if the president leaves office prematurely. An apparently unbridgeable ideological chasm is opening between two camps that were once closely allied. Mr. Trump’s rise is the effect, not the cause, of this rift.
In his “Second Treatise on Government” (1689), Locke asserts that universal reason teaches the same political truths to all human beings; that all individuals are by nature “perfectly free” and “perfectly equal”; and that obligation to political institutions arises only from the consent of the individual. From these assumptions, Locke deduces a political doctrine that he supposes must hold good in all times and places.
The term “classical liberal” came into use in 20th-century America to distinguish the supporters of old-school laissez-faire from the welfare-state liberalism of figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Modern classical liberals, inheriting the rationalism of Hobbes and Locke, believe they can speak authoritatively to the political needs of every human society, everywhere. In his seminal work, “Liberalism” (1927), the great classical-liberal economist Ludwig von Mises thus advocates a “world super-state really deserving of the name,” which will arise if we “succeed in creating throughout the world . . . nothing less than unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.”
Friedrich Hayek, the leading classical-liberal theorist of the 20th century, likewise argued, in a 1939 essay, for replacing independent nations with a world-wide federation: “The abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law is a necessary complement and the logical consummation of the liberal program.”
Classical liberalism thus offers ground for imposing a single doctrine on all nations for their own good. It provides an ideological basis for an American universal dominion.
By contrast, Anglo-American conservatism historically has had little interest in putatively self-evident political axioms. Conservatives want to learn from experience what actually holds societies together, benefits them and destroys them. That empiricism has persuaded most Anglo-American conservative thinkers of the importance of traditional Protestant institutions such as the independent national state, biblical religion and the family.
As an English Protestant, Locke could have endorsed these institutions as well. But his rationalist theory provides little basis for understanding their role in political life. Even today liberals are plagued by this failing: The rigidly Lockean assumptions of classical-liberal writers such as Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand place the nation, the family and religion outside the scope of what is essential to know about politics and government. Students who grow up reading these brilliant writers develop an excellent grasp of how an economy works. But they are often marvelously ignorant about much else, having no clue why a flourishing state requires a cohesive nation, or how such bonds are established through family and religious ties.
Hazony points out that modern conservative unity was, in retrospect, a product of the times, specifically the great and defining Cold War. Then the Cold War ended (we won) and a certain class of thinker waited expectantly for the rest of the world to join us at the Eschaton. Thus imagine the shock, the anger when, as it turned out, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Muslims remained stubbornly parochial. For the true-believing classical liberal, it was the equivalent of continued heresy in the face of the physically incarnate Christ. This same aggrieved shock and anger manifests in the reactions to Trump, who casually tore up the ideological rule book and beat a whole bench of well-funded political pros at their own game.
As I've mentioned before, it's useless to talk about fiscal prudence in a country where half the people are net tax-consumers and the government prints all the money it wants. It's dishonest to lecture people about the free market when the central bank will backstop Goldman Sachs' and AIG's bad investments. And if Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India, Greek Cyprus, the Vatican, and lots of other places can have border fences well, why can't we? Principled Conservatism doesn't really have a response. The Left, of course, is completely honest about its aims: white people are systemically, irredeemably racist, sexist, and just all-around awful and their social and economic clout must be reduced via immigration. Whites outside coastal socio-economic bubbles quite naturally voted for the billionaire who tells them he won't let that happen. Why wouldn't they?