Thoughts on the failures of conservatism

(Note: many good comments have been added to this entry.)

James R. writes:

In the entry, “One of the biggest and most consequential conservative failures in recent times,” on the passage of the bill that homosexualized the military, you wrote:

“It seems that the conservative movement was, at best, like me, complacent or asleep at the switch, and, at worst, unwilling to fight.”

I think you may have been asleep at the switch, but the broader conservative movement was closer to unwilling to fight. The great pattern on issues such as this is that conservatives take all the opprobrium of the liberal culture/opinion-leaders for holding a position, but withdraw their fangs as it were because of loss of nerve, not wanting to be seen as what they will be portrayed as anyhow. They follow the pattern first observed by R. L. Dabney.

A lot of it also stems from the fact that most conservatives don’t understand conservatism itself. In part I blame Russell Kirk for this: wanting to avoid being ideological, dogmatic (which conservatives are accused of anyhow), it left conservatism inchoate for many conservatives. Not truly understanding their own position, they’re befuddled about what to conserve and why. Thus one hears conservative pundits saying that this is an example of social evolution, describing it in Burkean terms, contrasting it favorably to developments imposed via judicial fiat. [LA replies: As I’ve said many times, that’s the problem with Burke, as well as with Kirk, who was a Burkean. Burkean conservatism only works in a society that has an intact tradition to appeal to; in a society that has already been radicalized, Burkeanism merely accommodates conservatives to radicalism. This is why a conservatism is needed that doesn’t just appeal to “the way things are” (which may already be radicalized) but to “the way things ought to be”—to principles and values that may be lost at present and need to be brought back.]

It’s akin to the pattern you have observed with respect to the advance of multiculturalism and mass immigration, where members of the conservative movement (it’s not just neoconservatives) act as if it’s not a problem, or at least not as big a problem as changes in tax rates, until the day they declare it’s a fait accompli that there is no point in opposing it.

We see liberalism as our main enemy, but the conservative movement is in grave danger of becoming its own worst enemy because too few conservatives understand what they should be conserving and why, and thus are not able to make the prudential distinctions Burke (or Aristotle) could between acceptable gradual change and the sort of changes that ought to be opposed. This indeed is one of the main reasons most conservatives tacitly accept liberal premises: They don’t really understand their own philosophical foundations. [LA replies: There must be a conservatism or traditionalism which is the opposite of liberalism, and consciously and explicitly seeks to undo the rule of liberalism. Instead, what we have is a conservatism that accepts the rule of liberalism and just disagrees with it on a few points here and there. Such a conservatism cannot stop the onward progress of liberalism.]

Thus they don’t understand why they should be as vigilant and fight as hard if not harder on things like this as they do on tax rates or hyperegulation (both of which are important; I’m with Hayek—but the Hayek who also supported traditional morality as an important bulwark of liberty, and traditional social institutions/norms likewise).

- end of initial entry -

December 23, 3:49 p.m.

Paul K. writes:

James R. describes how the conservative moment acted as if multiculturalism and mass immigration were not as big a problem as changes in tax rates, until the day they declare them a fait accompli that there is no point in opposing.

This is a good point which I noticed in regard to our Mexican immigrants who, in the minds of many, went from “too few to make much difference” to “so many we can’t afford to antagonize them” in the blink of an eye.

On the repeal of DADT, listen to the way Krauthammer, still quoted as if he were a conservative sage at NRO, embraced it: “It was inevitable. It was always going to happen. It’s a generational shift. It’s good it happened in Congress not only because it lends legitimacy and authority but because the way the language is written, unlike a court decision which would happen overnight, it will allow a gradual implementation which the military will appreciate.” <

As a tagline in its advertisements, National Review uses Buckley’s vow to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” But today’s NR staffers sink into the ooze of history and sigh, “It’s inevitable.”

You posted a maxim on VFR a few years ago on that; unfortunately I can’t locate it. It was to the effect that, when it comes to social problems caused by liberal policies, liberals recognize them only after the policies have been fully implemented, conservatives recognize them only when it is too late to stop them, but traditionalists (or reactionaries) recognize them at the very outset.

I’m sorry I don’t recall the way you phrased this; perhaps you can remind me.

LA replies:

It’s something I’ve said many times, with slight variations:

A traditionalist (or a reactionary) recognizes a threat to his society the moment it appears.

A conservative recognizes the threat when it has half-destroyed the society.

A liberal only recognizes the threat after it has completely destroyed the society, or, alternatively, he never recognizes it at all.

And why does the traditionalist recognize the threat immediately? Because he sees the principle that is contained in that threat. For example, the first time I encountered the multicultural ideology, in New York State’s “Curriculum of Inclusion” in 1989, I recognized that the principle of multiculturalism, that America consists of a collection of “equal” cultures, meant nothing less than the destruction of America. Regular conservatives didn’t see this. They thought that multiculturalism was a well-meant idea which in some instances had “gone too far.” They didn’t grasp that multiculturalism in its very essence was antithetical to America.

Debra C. writes:

The failure of conservatives—to know what they wish to conserve and why—relates directly to the success of the left: the long march through the educational institutions (breeding grounds of liberalism, whose graduates go on to infiltrate society at all levels, not least of which is to produce liberal and leftist teachers of the young). Most of us know of or have read Wm. F. Buckley’s 1951 book, God and Man and at Yale; and in that eye-opening volume he addresses not only the new liberal face of the college professors and administration, but also the lack of interest on the part of Yale’s alumni to stir up opposition against it. You could say we lost the battle two generations ago.

We traded truth for progress, upward mobility, and materialism. Peace and prosperity have a way of distracting a people from caring about conservatism and traditional values that, as in the case of the West, spring from Christian precepts that at core eschew the ways of the world where men vie for ever-increasing worldly pleasures. Meanwhile, the church was also under siege by liberals, furthering weakening America’s identity as a God-fearing nation.

In many ways, we are a victim of our own success which rendered us susceptible to the machinations of the left to undermine, Gramsci-style, our beloved country.

LA replies:

I agree. Just this morning I was saying to someone that the great shift that occurred was when the churches, instead of being the moral and spiritual leader of society and setter of standards for society, began to follow society. Why did the churches do this? Because of America’s astonishing material success.

Debra C. continues:

One other thing, to follow up directly on the comments of Mr. Sutherland, with which I heartily agree, is this: If one understands the overarching goals of the left—which is the imposition of a one-world order—then everything immediately becomes clear. Mr. Auster’s wonderfully cogent definition of liberalism (provided recently, but which I’m at a loss to find now), reads something like a master plan; once one understands the true intent of the left, everything else falls into place. [LA replies: When you see these good formulations, you ought to save them in a file so you can easily reference them later.]

If one acknowledges that a one-world government is where the left is taking us, then everything makes sense: the destruction of common values (feminism, activist homosexuality, PC language to stifle dissent, etc.), and the attack on our military via DADT “repeal” and the “romanization” of our fighting forces, as described by Mr. Sutherland. Rome all over again.

Even overarching all that, however, I contend, is the spiritual battle “in the heavenly realms,” Satan’s battle (futile as it is), to undermine and destroy the work of Christ.

James P. writes:

James R. writes,

“It’s akin to the pattern you have observed with respect to the advance of multiculturalism and mass immigration, where members of the conservative movement (it’s not just neoconservatives) act as if it’s not a problem, or at least not as big a problem as changes in tax rates, until the day they declare it’s a fait accompli that there is no point in opposing it.”

If the past is any guide, there is an even further step in the process. After accepting a leftist victory as a fait accompli, conservatives eventually internalize the radical change as part of the new status quo, and energetically defend it as such. Ironically, radical change thus becomes part of conservatism! What will trigger conservative defense of homosexualizing the military? Undoubtedly some new Leftist initiative that demoralizes and damages the military even further. Just as surely as the Right will accept a “conservative” status quo that drifts left over time, the Left will move even further left in its restless, never-ending search for new forms of depravity to normalize.

James R. is exactly right that conservatives, in the main, have no idea what they are trying to conserve. This is not merely because they don’t understand their philosophical foundations, but because they don’t understand history. The don’t know what the past was really like, so they don’t know how far the left has moved American society in past decades or how pernicious the changes have been. Much of this is, of course, due to leftist control of the schools, which permits them to indoctrinate everyone with a false view of the past America as evil and repressive, and a false view of American history as an inevitable progression upwards from this evil past into our more enlightened present and onwards into a better, more progressive future. As the saying goes, he who controls the past controls the present. Therefore it is essential for American conservatives to reclaim the past.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 23, 2010 08:30 AM | Send

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