What does Michael Lind mean when he says conservatism is dead? Could he be right?
(Note: these thoughts, which originated in an e-mail, are not fully polished but are sufficiently clear for posting.)
Michael Lind, since his loudly proclaimed break with neoconservatism and embrace of some kind of Progressive liberalism in the early 1990s, which was really when his career as an intellectual commentator began, has always been oddball and highly idiosyncratic. In his article at Salon, “Intellectual conservatism, RIP,” he adds to the never ending accumulation of articles by liberals declaring the demise of conservatism, a questionable enterprise. What I initially found annoying about the piece was that Lind, who stands outside conservatism, acts as if he’s discovering what serious conservatives have in reality been struggling with from inside conservatism for a long time, the decadence of mainstream conservatism. He sees the movement in disarray, he sees intellectual decadence, and he declares, with seeming satisfaction, that conservatism is dead. As though conservatism were an external thing. I’ve been saying since at least 1995 that as far as an intellectual movement is concerned, there is no conservatism, there is just a bunch of incomplete fragments that need to be brought together. But at the same time, I’ve continued, there a conservative essence, parts of that essence can be seen in different aspects of conservatism, and the parts need to be brought together and the essence needs to be built up. (See my 1996 article, “A vision of a new conservatism.”) So the essence is certainly not dead. But Lind, looking at conservatism from the outside, as a hostile and spiteful critic, sees only the external decadence and says that conservatism is dead as such.
He says he likes the early neoconservatism of the ’70s and thinks that’s the place to start over again, not the militaristic neoconservatism of the ’00s.
Also, he considers neoconservatism the only intellectual conservatism. He denies that the old National Review conservatism was an intellectual movement.
So that’s what he means by “conservatism RIP.” By conservatism he’s only speaking of neoconservatism, and because (as we all know) neoconservatism has gone terribly wrong for many years and stands for little but U.S. intervention abroad (see my discussion of Irving Kristol’s 2003 article, “The neoconservative Persuasion”), therefore “conservatism” is dead. This liberal is not even cognizant of a non-neocon, traditional intellectual conservatism. Or if he is, he simply dismisses it.
At the same time, one can’t blame him for this, since he’s looking at actually existing external movements, not at tendencies in individuals’ heads, and at present, except for a few scattered people, there is no trad conservatism as a real movement. It doesn’t have enough mass and weight to be considered a movement.
So in a sense his take is correct, with qualifications. But what is annoying is his pretense that this death of “conservatism” has just occurred in 2008, with the rise of the awful Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc. Now I said myself in September 2008 that social conservatism died when social conservatives threw over their principles and gave their gushing approval to the Bristol Palin situation. But that doesn’t affect my understanding of Lind’s argument, since Lind is not talking about social conservatism, which he doesn’t consider an intellectual movement.
Where he’s wrong is his suggestion that “conservatism” (i.e. neoconservatism) died as an intellectual movement recently, when in reality it died by, say, the early to mid ’90s, in the aftermath of the death of the USSR, when neocons realized that without the Cold War they were at loose ends. They tried to fight multiculturalism and Culture War, but their hearts weren’t really in that.
So, what is the point of these meandering thoughts? It is what I’ve said all along. There are various valid fragments of conservatism, but nothing like a whole. The whole has to be created for a new conservative movement to be born. Lind’s take and Lind’s concerns are irrelevant to ours. He wants to go back to the neoconservatism of the ’70s. He ignores—he doesn’t give a damn about—the possibility of an intellectual traditional conservatism.
What is the central animating core that can link together all the incomplete fragments of economic, social, national defense/patriotic, and traditional conservatism? I think it may perhaps be skepticism about man.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 24, 2009 02:05 PM | Send