The Malaise of Conservatism

by Alex Knepper

I have argued elsewhere that liberalism — from its so-called ‘classical’ roots to its modern/progressive outgrowth — is the engine that moves America, and that the role of conservatism is largely to moderate or restrain liberal excesses. In this sense, the right is almost necessarily defined by what it opposes. The great conservative (or, right-liberal) triumph of the 20th century within liberalism was the rise of Ronald Reagan, who decisively repudiated the infinite growth of the welfare state and reinvigorated the power of our civic mythology. But it only took the center-left a couple of election cycles to accept and absorb that new consensus and integrate it into its economic platform. Democrats in the 1990s embraced welfare reform, middle class tax cuts, budgetary prudence, and even American exceptionalism, thereby ensuring a bulwark against greater reaction. Obama has not overtly repudiated this approach, and has embraced a successor set to continue it. So what is the point of conservatism today? Quite simply, Reaganism’s success domestically has left the American right without a unifying cause in the post-Soviet era. Once Trump is defeated, the Republican Party will have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections — and the one they won was a terribly narrow victory during wartime, three years after the worst attack on the country in our history.

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And why not? Who needs Republicans? The variety of conservatism offered by most of the Republican Party is fundamentally in agreement with the variety of liberalism offered by most of the Democratic Party. They both aim toward maximizing material luxury, coupled with expanded individual choice and social access (prosperity, liberty, equality). The most evocative international threat comes from a sprawling network of paramilitary operations, and Democrats have been at least as successful at confronting it as Republicans — so the idea of a new ‘fusionism’ is useless. (We should note here that ‘fusionism’ was about fusing against something, not for something!) Rates of crime, divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, and other ‘social indicators’ are better than they have been in decades. The last Republican president has been judged to have been a supreme screw-up economically. Maybe John Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton this year, but the populists are right: aside from a few social issues primarily of interest to niche factions, Kasich is not actually terribly different than Clinton.

At most, there are some disagreements between party establishmentarians about how to reach the liberal goal of free and equal prosperity: how high we should aim in what period of time, which entities should oversee the administration and distribution of various goods and services, whose needs are to be prioritized first, etc. Even the nationalist/internationalist divide is something of a chimera, since everyone agrees on the overarching goal — in a vital sense, even the hardcore nationalists think liberalism is actually pretty great, but that too many Muslims and Mexicans will end up ruining it for everyone. If Democrats agreed to limit immigration and insist on assimilation, the right would be robbed of yet another argument.

But isn’t this okay, or even good? Isn’t this how it is supposed to work? The right’s skepticism toward mass immigration and so-called ‘globalism’ is not without merit, after all, and democratic governments must satisfy (or at least pacify) their right-leaning factions. If liberalism is the engine and conservatives are the moderating forces (in a historical sense, not a temperamental one!), then isn’t the theatrical bluster of election season little but noise? We must assume Trump, Brexit, and the German refugee crisis will be sufficient warning signs for ‘elites’ that something has to give. (If not, the impending right-wing reaction will be practically deserved.) But as the liberal project advances and more large-scale questions are decided, the differences in the visions between the two parties is bound to become even smaller, and the purpose of politics is bound to narrow further, and the stakes decrease. We are quite possibly rushing toward what amounts to a virtual consensus. Eventually, the need for high-stakes politics might be eliminated entirely.

What is the point of a center-right party in an era of global liberal hegemony, then, beyond opposition to excessive multiculturalism and social permissiveness? Are there possibilities for liberalism beyond the ideological consensus? Is it possible to forge a vision that goes beyond identity politics and class politics without dismissing the truths of either? The right is running out of things to oppose — it’s time to start innovating. A clever conservative might be elected president if he (or she!) can provide a compelling answer to that question — one that looks beyond merely trying to agitate against the left — and toward a loftier vision of the possibilities afforded by liberal democracy. That might get sucked into the consensus, too — but it will at least serve the noble goal of elevating it beyond mere ‘identity’ and consumption.

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