John Davidson contends that those of us who still call ourselves “conservatives” ought to knock it off already.
Why? Because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach. Conservatives have long defined their politics in terms of what they wish to conserve or preserve — individual rights, family values, religious freedom, and so on. Conservatives, we are told, want to preserve the rich traditions and civilizational achievements of the past, pass them on to the next generation, and defend them from the left. In America, conservatives and classical liberals alike rightly believe an ascendent left wants to dismantle our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia. The task of conservatives, going back many decades now, has been to stop them.
In an earlier era, this made sense. There was much to conserve. But any honest appraisal of our situation today renders such a definition absurd. After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.
Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing.
Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion are, at best, being preserved only in an ever-shrinking private sphere. At worst, they are being trampled to dust. They certainly do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.
It’s a very good essay, of which you should read the all. Despite making a solid case for dropping the “conservative” appellation due to an acute case of terminal meaninglessness, however, it’s extremely doubtful that any such change will happen anytime soon. While I do wholeheartedly agree with Dan Gelernter’s conceptual reframing of the current conflict as involving not “Democrat versus Republican” but “America versus politics, people versus government,” the moldy old “liberal” and “conservative” labels are almost certain to be with us for a good while longer yet. They’re just too convenient, too easily understood by almost any politically-aware person for them to be disposed of casually or hastily.
Which, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that. People need labels for things sometimes, and staying with the tried and true, familiar old nomenclature during the transition can be helpful in all sorts of ways. Yes, the old liberal-conservative dichotomy has become stale and imprecise, particularly after the Left misappropriated “liberal” from its rightful owners to disguise their iniquitous designs on American liberty. So stipulated. Nonetheless, the various alternatives Our Side’s punditry has tried on for size—Patriots, classical liberals, Heritage Americans, Normals, etc—are every bit as imprecise, even incomplete, as well as being somewhat unwieldy.
Again: so stipulated. Those issues aside, Davidson’s argument is about more than just the names we use to call ourselves. One hell of a lot more, in fact.
So what kind of politics should conservatives today, as inheritors of a failed movement, adopt? For starters, they should stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, that is what they are, whether they embrace those labels or not.
Whatever the term or image, the imperative that conservatives must break from the past and forge a new political identity cannot be overstated. It is time now for something new, for a new way of thinking and speaking about what conservative politics should be. The fusionism of past decades, in which conservatives made common cause with market-obsessed libertarians and foreign policy neocons, is finished. So too is Conservatism Inc. and the establishment GOP it enabled, whose first priority was always tax cuts for big business at the expense of everything else. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 heralded a populist wave and the end of Republican politics as we knew it, and now we are in uncharted waters.
To be sure, there has been plenty of talk on the right lately about what should be done differently now. Some, such as Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule (along with a larger cohort of conservative Catholic thinkers), advocate a conservatism that is comfortable with big government and in fact sees it as necessary not only for the common good but to tame what Ahmari recently called the “private tyranny” of woke corporations empowered by unrestrained market forces. Conservative Catholics, he argues, should today claim ownership of a pro-worker, even pro-union political agenda that once belonged to the left, and which produced generations of Democrat-voting Catholic workers.
Indeed, a willingness to embrace government power has been a topic of fruitful debate on the “New Right” in recent years, as it should be. However uncomfortable traditional “small-government” conservatives might be with Ahmari’s argument, it is more or less true.
Put bluntly, if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it. Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible. One need only consider the speed with which the discourse shifted on gay marriage, from assuring conservatives ahead of the 2015 Obergefell decision that gay Americans were only asking for toleration, to the never-ending persecution of Jack Phillips.
The left will only stop when conservatives stop them, which means conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about “small government.” The government will have to become, in the hands of conservatives, an instrument of renewal in American life — and in some cases, a blunt instrument indeed.
To stop Big Tech, for example, will require using antitrust powers to break up the largest Silicon Valley firms. To stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds. To stop the disintegration of the family might require reversing the travesty of no-fault divorce, combined with generous subsidies for families with small children. Conservatives need not shy away from making these arguments because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.
i’m finding it difficult, practically impossible really, to argue with any of that. The proposition that it might be necessary to temporarily abandon a fair-sized chunk of our Constitutional ideals in order to reinstate the Constitution seems contradictory on the surface, and rightly so. The idea of it is distasteful, to say the least. But, well, here we all are.
What Davidson is suggesting is pretty much word-for-word the very thing I’ve said myself for years here, if from a slightly different angle: any serious, pragmatic effort to put our country right again will require us to seize the abominable Statist machine the Left built and use it against them, however unappealing such a tactic is to right-thinking people. If Big Government is what we must have, and for now it is, then let Big Government work FOR us, and not AGAINST us as it has for many decades.
The first step on the path to the restoration of our Constitutional Republic is to defeat the Leftists—to destroy them so completely, so utterly, that the very thought of ever daring to rise up against us again is anathema to them. Only after they’ve been crushed can we move on to destroy all their works. And then?
On the transgender question, conservatives will have to repudiate utterly the cowardly position of people like David French, in whose malformed worldview Drag Queen Story Hour at a taxpayer-funded library is a “blessing of liberty.” Conservatives need to get comfortable saying in reply to people like French that Drag Queen Story Hour should be outlawed; that parents who take their kids to drag shows should be arrested and charged with child abuse; that doctors who perform so-called “gender-affirming” interventions should be thrown in prison and have their medical licenses revoked; and that teachers who expose their students to sexually explicit material should not just be fired but be criminally prosecuted.
If all that sounds radical, fine. It need not, at this late hour, dissuade conservatives in the least. Radicalism is precisely the approach needed now because the necessary task is nothing less than radical and revolutionary.
To those who worry that power corrupts, and that once the right seizes power it too will be corrupted, they certainly have a point. If conservatives manage to save the country and rebuild our institutions, will they ever relinquish power and go the way of Cincinnatus? It is a fair question, and we should attend to it with care after we have won the war.
Just so. Human nature being what it is, we well know that those who are attracted to power will fight to hold on to it with grim determination once they’ve gotten their hands on some, regardless of how passionately they once may have advocated for limited government. Throughout history, I can call to mind no government that has ever relinquished power and agreed to its own dismantling willingly and peaceably, based solely on principle alone. The irony is that, at some point, force of arms and violence will still need to be used, no matter what, to complete the task before us. First of all, though, we must win the war. Failing that, this is all just idle chatter.