In the quoted paragraphs, I think they come close to an important observation, which is that as the stakes of politics come to be perceived as high, centrists get thrown off balance. Michael Anton’s infamous flight 93 election essay is a case in point. In conversation, Yuval Levin has argued vehemently against the thesis of that memo. He prefers a point of view that says, “Wait, things are not that bad. The political process works very slowly. We are not on the verge of total defeat at the hands of the left.”
Well, I was not in agreement with that, but hadn’t remembered seeing Levin’s “case” yet.
Jeffrey S. provided a link to Levin’s Conservatism in an Age of Alienation (you can watch him read a version of it to a Harvard audience here), and I responded.
Kling then posted Speaking for Yuval Levin, and said:
More recently, in conversation, he says that the guardrails have been working. This has been frustrating for those of us who want to see Obamacare repealed and other policy shifts proportional to the drama of the Republican victory a year ago. There have been some changes of direction, for example at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission, but in other areas there has been institutional inertia. Levin would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Most important, the fact that President Trump has been checked at times by courts and by Congress helps to remind Progressives of the value of traditional institutions.
Now, these were blog comments, and could clearly use some polish. But to capture them all in one convenient place, I’ll copy them below the fold.
I read through that essay, and it helps, but surprisingly, not very much on the issue we’re discussing here, that is, how much alarm is appropriate for traditionalist conservatives given an accurate assessment of the present state of affairs. It was hyperbolic of him to use the measure of “dystopia” – perhaps some North Korean tyranny or Venezuelan-style Communist-collapse – as the standard by which we should measure the appropriateness of real alarm at current trends. Just as it is a mistake to confuse the current, technologically-enabled levels of material prosperity with “good times” and healthy prospects for conservative ideas and traditional ways of life.
Let me back up a little. Read what Kling paraphrased, “The political process works very slowly.” When I read that my immediate thought was this:
No! This is 100% incorrect. The repeated lesson of history is that political processes and even major, radical – and often irreversible – changes can occur with lightning quickness! And not just because people find themselves at the sharp end of a sword. Indeed, much of the “Nisbet-Alienation” of which Levin writes is precisely a reaction to people irritated by those political processes moving too radically, too quickly. Instead, more correctly put, Levin wants the political process to run slowly, incrementally, cautiously, with an enlightened pessimism and wise skepticism. That’s the traditional conservative perspective on “positivist politics”, and there are strong arguments that we ought to pursue politics in such a manner, or at least hope that social, cultural, and economic changes evolve in a more comfortable, absorbable manner that benefits from the optimal adaptation of tradition instead of its sudden erasure and replacement. But, alas, they often don’t. And right now, they aren’t! I would say that a conservative politics should, at the very least, notice when that’s happening, and be willing to argue for the necessity of doing whatever it takes to slow it down, and “Stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” as one of those conservatives once said. But that’s what the Flight 93 essay did, and the reason it was so powerful and moving was because the rest of what became of the inheritors of the “conservative” scene were not performing this fundamental function at the time it was needed most. All they are being “conservative” about is a “business as usual” approach to their advocacy, which is merely the virtue of “conservatism” perverted into the vice of complacency.
In that essay, Levin is simply too vague (one could say strategically evasive) on the most germane points relating to the general claim to make any critique fruitful.
For example, we could ask the question, “How important is winning Presidential elections to the prospects of traditionalist conservatism in this country, both in terms of the contemporary intellectual scene going by that label and trying to retain ideological influence over the Republican party, and in terms of the way life is lived by ordinary Americans?”
Now, Levin is not a lawyer, but I really can’t believe that any smart observer of the American political scene like him can honestly believe that it doesn’t matter much, especially given the power of the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary, and the often radical role these have played in terms of selectively guiding the nation’s political evolution in a mostly non-conservative direction. The “it doesn’t matter much” claim hasn’t been true for over a century, alas.
Again, Levin doesn’t want elections to matter much, the conservative perspective on politics is that they ought not to matter much, but the fact remains that in today’s American they do. If, for example, a few thousand people in a few key states would have voted differently, it would have been Hillary Clinton who would have been able to appoint Scalia’s replacement, and it is simply indisputable that we’d be dealing with Warren Court 2.0 right now as a result.
It would be quite a stretch, to say the least, to say that “The Warren Court didn’t matter,” which would be close to saying, “The New Deal didn’t matter.” They mattered a lot, to the country, and especially to “conservatism”.
If one sees an open, flying staircase, with a guardrail on the right, but a big pile of bodies far below on the left, dead from having fallen over the edge, one ought not to foolishly assert, “See, the guardrails are working!”
Have you ever taken your kid bowling with the “bumpers” on over the gutters? If you see the right bumper bounce back the bowling ball, but the left bumper isn’t up, and the bowling ball only bounces back from that direction when it’s thrown so incredibly hard to the left that it bounces off the edge of the gutter itself, then you ought not to conclude, “No worries, we’re guaranteed to knock down at least some pins.” One only need look at the score, see some zeros despite those reliable bounce-backs from the right bumper, and conclude, “Hm, it seems that the guardrails aren’t working.”
So, it is at a least a little preposterous – and takes no small measure of chutzpah – to marshal examples of progressives using (or more accurately, abusing) the power of certain institutions – mostly the courts – that they dominate, in person and in precedents, to stymie the initiatives of a Republican administration, as evidence in favor of the argument that we can now be confident these tools will always be around, and that they can and will also be equally reliable and useful in reigning in future progressive excesses.
It is furthermore naive in the extreme, not to mention flatly contradicted by the last eight decades of our history, to believe that the progressives will come to some kind of permanent epiphany regarding these institutions that embraces the “bargain” of being just as checked when they are in power as the right is checked during Republican administrations, in order to preserve the their own ability to check those Republicans. Don’t we always observe the sudden, tragi-comic “epiphany-reversal” with every transfer of power? As an empirical test: did progressives emerge from the George W. Bush era with such lasting respect for the institutions they used to check his agenda that they didn’t immediately start arguing the opposite case when Obama won? This one almost answers itself.
All these examples show is that the stakes weren’t very high for the progressives, who have the winds at their backs and will arrive at a California-style One Party State in the fullness of time, as indeed many on their own side argued, e.g.
Indeed, one could say that the heart of my criticism of Levin’s essay is that if you swapped out “conservatism” with “progressivism”, then on the level of concrete realism, it would be a perfectly valid argument against progressive despair regarding their “bewilderment”, “exhaustion”, and “inadequacy”. It’s like his argument is an automobile he’s trying to jump, but he’s got the cables reversed, so his car can’t even get started, let along take us anywhere.
To use this line of reasoning to argue that the Flight 93 essay was wrong when it was written is equivalent to saying that, had Hillary won and replaced Scalia with another Ginsburg or Sotomayor, that it still would have been just as easy for conservatives to use the courts to check any of Clinton’s radical progressive initiatives. I just don’t know any serious person who believes that.
This is precisely the point the Flight 93 essay made. That what rickety guardrails still existed on the left and which might help conservatives actually conserve a thing or two were in imminent danger of being completely destroyed by the progressive demolition crew, and that we were about to go through another tradition-devastating era without any guardrail on the left, and the guardrail on the right being moved in so far that one could barely remain on the stairs at all.
So if one likes guardrails, and one agrees that no other GOP candidate had any chance whatsoever of defeating Hillary (which was quite clear from the very start, but also evidenced later by the fact that none of them could even defeat Trump), then one really had no other option than supporting Trump as a “hail Mary” effort to win this particular, crucial election. The members of the #NeverTrump mob actually conceded on multiple occasions that this meant they were cool with losing the Supreme Court, which, by obvious implication to anyone even passably familiar with our recent history, meant that they were also cool with watching the guardrails being swept away. Which, frankly, doesn’t seem very “conservative” to me.
Anyone who goes on about recognizing the “pessimism” of the eternal tragedy of the human condition, should understand that life is full of hard choices and trade-offs and that it remains fully principled to swallow ones pride and still support a “distasteful” outcome when it is the least worst option one has to preserving the things one cares about. For example, guardrails.
Please permit me to go through some more Levin’s essay to more fully explain why I’m opposed to his argument.
I.YL: The GOP is doing pretty well if you count Senators, Representatives, Governors, and state legislatures.
I.H: On the other hand, the GOP is doing catastrophically badly – in what looks to be a long-term state of affairs – if you count Mayors of all our most important cities: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, etc. These cities look like the future of America: its people and its economy, and that diverse future is Deep Blue. Giuliani could not win in today’s New York, and Reagan could not win in today’s America. Indeed, in 2012, the Romney v. Obama contest resembled Reagan v. Carter, but in a country where Reagan could not win. In 1980, Reagan trounced Carter in California, 53-36, despite another 8.6% going to Republican John Anderson.
Today, it’s inconceivable someone with Reagan’s 1980 positions could win in California, or even beat John Anderson’s take there. The present is a foreign country.
While Republicans having the current number of positions is of course better than then alternative – especially after the end of Senate filibuster – the key questions are A. “How much does this really matter?” and B. “How long will it last?”
(By the way, how did the Democrats’ destruction of the filibuster change Levin’s priors about the likelihood of progressive commitments to institutional guardrails in when in power? Why shouldn’t we conclude the obvious, that the temptation is politically irresistible, since it was not, in fact, resisted? And what about, “I’ve got a pen and a phone,” which was the pure distillation of the ethos of circumvention?)
The answer to the second question is “probably not long,” as explained above, and my guess is that the 2010’s will prove to be a high water mark. And the answer to the first question, unfortunately, is “not much”. Most governmental power is held by the federal judiciary, followed by the President and executive administrative bureaucracy, followed by officials in the major cities who determine the way the details of ordinary life is lived for most of the population, and followed by Congress and state Governors and legislatures.
State-level politicians are hemmed-in by 14th Amendment jurisprudence, in a way that makes Levin’s appeals to Federalism and subsidiarity sound like a joke when unaccompanied by expression of a radical willingness to break the centralizing chains of countless holdings and which – there is just no way around it – would require the corrective diminishment of the status of, and esteem for, the judicial institutions. As for Congress, it abdicated most of its responsibility to the administrate bureaucracy a long time ago, and continues to do so with what’s left, e.g., member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I didn’t even know we had one thousand troops in Niger.”
Let’s say one wants to take a bath. The bath started out full of water. How that water got there in the first place is a kind of deep mystery, but at the very least, we can thank whoever used it before us for filling it up. We hold elections for who gets to control the water level. One party says there is too much water, and it is going to open up the drain a little while in power, and it reliably does so. The other party says it is going to refill the bath while in power, but when in power, can only be relied upon to stop up the drain, and seems either unable or unwilling to turn on the tap. Well, that’s still certainly better than seeing the water drain away. But in such circumstances, when one looks ahead, the prospect of even very meager baths in the future is pretty dim, as it’s only a question of time before the tub runs dry.
As a real example of the above phenomenon, consider public finances in some of our most bankrupt states with Republican Governors, Illinois and New Jersey. When Democrats are in power, on average they tend to act, more or less in collusion with their public sector union clients, to raise taxes on the one hand, and pay and benefits on the other, debts that future Republicans are legally obligated to honor. When Republicans are in power, instead of restoring the status quo ante, they have little choice but to just try and contain the damage, and become those infamous “tax collectors for the welfare state.” In this way, we see the structural asymmetry of our system of government which permits one side to create – to use a loaded but still perfectly appropriate phrase – irreversible “facts on the ground.”
Other examples of “just being able to put the stopper back in,” would be the failure to repeal Obamacare after going on and on about nothing else for years (that’s sure some Senate majority the GOP has there…), and the fact that serious conservative observers cannot look back on the last time during the W. Bush administration when the GOP had Congress and a “conservative” Presidency without using the term, “squandered.” Speaking of Obamacare, how about the SCOTUS holding by Roberts saying, “You say penalty, I say tax, let’s call the whole thing Constitutional.” It turns out some of our custodians of our guardrails are more interested in preserving personal reputation and “institutional capital” than being guardrails, when the alternative is the progressive establishment coming down on them like a ton of bricks. It doesn’t take a particularly insightful observer to notice that Republicans are routinely disappointed by GOP appointments in this manner (Souter, Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, etc.) in a way that progressives almost never are.
II.YL: Regardless of how much power the Republican Party really has, The Conservative Movement (TCM) has a weaker hold on the GOP than in two generations.
II.H: Yes, but. First of all, what (or more aptly, who) is TCM? A “good enough” description would be the consensus positions of the mainstream and respectable right-leaning public intellectuals at various prominent media outlets and think tanks such as National Review, The National Interest, AEI/CEI, The Federalist Society, The Claremont Institute, Heritage, Hoover, and some small overlap with The American Conservative-style outlets on the one hand, and libertarian authors and institutions like CATO on the other.
The important and deep question to ask is,”Why have these public intellectuals, and their positions, lost that influence over both certain Republican candidates on the one hand, and the average Republican voter on the other?
If the answer is, “Conservatism is less popular than it used to be despite everything we’ve been trying, and the people want conservatism much less than they use to, and less and less with every year,” well then, if “despair” seems a little too melodramatic, then what exactly is the right word for a conservative’s proper emotional response to this development? “Cautiously depressed” perhaps. Or how about, “measured dejection.”
If the answer instead is that Republican voters still want some conservatism (defined at it would have been understood in the Reagan administration and including preservation of social arrangements and push-back against the progressive cultural revolution) but that TCM, and the politicians they influence, aren’t willing to give it to them any more, then that really is cause for despair for a minuscule-c conservative. How many “Why [thing that was a radical fringe progressive proposal only a few years ago] is really conservative,” pieces from TCM does one have to read before one starts to wonder about the C in TCM?
To put things a little more bluntly, there is the problem of “hate”. The progressive coalition runs on identity politics by implicitly promising to raise the condition and social status of the members of various “oppressed” identity groups at the expense of the “privileged” oppressors. They have developed the incredibly successful rhetorical tactic of calling every right-wing initiative that opposes the progressive agenda as “hateful”, and TCM has been either unable or unwilling to stand its ground in the face of these assaults. And so, either by reluctantly conceding territory and strategically deciding to stay quiet about it so as not to pick fights it can’t win, or by heartfelt conversion (with maybe a little motivation provided by business donors with their own, not necessarily conservative, interests) TCM-2017 doesn’t overlap very well with TCM-1982.
But just as it seems like a joke to go on about Federalism and subsidiarity without saying one is willing to entertain the disposal of the current jurisprudential scheme, it seems like a joke to go on about unity and national solidarity when the optimal electoral strategy of a party pursuing identity politics is precisely to array 51% of the population against the other 49%. That is to say, the erosion of any more solidarity than that was no historical accident, it was intentional – knowing and conscious – and the whole point. It’s a good thing TCM has been trying to suck the oxygen out of identity politics, not to mention serving their own constituents, by insisting on universal standards of meritocratic colorblindness throughout our society so that … oh, who am I kidding?
Either way, whether Republican voters are less conservative than the Conservatives, or the Conservatives are less conservative than Republican voters, it’s bad news. Alarmingly bad news.
III.YL: “A great many of Trump’s voters were moved by opposition both to Clinton and to what she represented: the elite governing class…”
III. H: This is far too personalized a framing. There is an important different between class protest, “ordinaries / middles vs. elites”, and protest against the likely impact – in terms of both policies and social status – that would be expected to result from the election of a particular individual. For every Republican voter of a particular non-elite class, social position, and condition, there was an equivalent Democratic voter who was voting with the elite governing class which, “treat[s] American life as its rightful possession.” What is the more parsimonious explanation, the the anti-elitist, populist persuasion mysteriously strikes every other individual like a 50% chance of getting a birthmark, or that conservative voters vehemently oppose Democratic candidates because they think progressives are out to get them, and progressive voters vehemently oppose Republican candidates because they represent evil obstruction of social justice?
And here’s a funny observation: Trump was most elite GOP candidate by far, whose lifestyle precisely mirrored that of those alien media-savvy coastal elites. We’re talking about an Ivy League-educated, billionaire playboy from Manhattan with his own reality show and a former Democrat who had the Clintons show up to his third wedding (because he paid them to.) Remember Ted Cruz and, “New York values”? No one was protesting any of that, because that’s not what mattered to them.
IV.L: “Trump’s appeal, and his victory, had a great deal to do with his ability to give voice to a growing (and in key respects surely justified) alienation from the dominant streams of the culture, economy, and politics in America.”
IV.H: Accepting this claim for the sake of argument, it raises the important question of why, in a field of fully 16 other mainstream GOP candidates for the presidential nomination, only he did it? Was he the only one that could do it? Or willing to do it? Or who realized it needed to be done? Again, there are no comforting answers. Either the rest of the whole GOP field was, well, persistently alienated from its own base in a way so stubborn that they wouldn’t adapt even in the face of defeat, and/or the no-holds-barred, pugilistic style of Trump’s campaign which they found distasteful and decided to eschew was, in fact, the only thing that works to win now. If TCM-influenced GOP candidates were so off-base in terms of recognizing and addressing this Nisbet-Alienation all through the election even as Trump leapt from victory to victory, how can one be optimistic for their future competency and prospects?
V.YL: “The idea that there was something fraudulent about our social order and its institutions was everywhere in Trump’s rhetoric—directed at various points to the electoral process, the media, the political parties, the legal system, the judiciary, the IRS, the FBI, and on and on among our institutions. The sense that this incomprehensible fraud perpetrated on the public by its own elites had robbed America of hope was key to the willingness of many on the right to overlook Trump’s own shortcomings and welcome the potential for disruption that he introduced.”
V.H: Well, for one thing, this has been a staple of conservative argument and Republican rhetoric for a long, long time. So what’s different now? Ever listen to Rush Limbaugh during the Clinton administration? If you didn’t, well, he was kind of a big deal. Biased liberal media this, unfair liberal judiciary that, corrupt liberal bureaucracy the other thing. Talk about alienation! Or talk about this being a long-standing feature of American life and a tried-tested-and-true mode of Republican electioneering. I seem to remember Ted Cruz not being too shy about making similar claims himself, but even if my memory is a bit faulty on the point, the question remains, why would Trump be the only guy in a large crowd to keep the tradition alive? Were the rest of these TCM-influenced politicians that politically incompetent, or had the elite counsel they were all receiving reached a consensus that they ought all to cut it out? Should one not despair at the commonality of this cosmic-scale, boneheaded error?
And, those voters don’t just have “vague feelings” and misperceptions, because, just maybe, there is something fundamentally fraudulent about our social order in terms of those institutions getting away with a public pretense of asserted neutrality but private progressive bias. When conservatives hear IRS, they think “Lois Lerner scandal.” When they hear media, they think, “96 percent donations to Democrats,” or “Fox vs. ABC-CBS-NBC-MSNBC-ESPN-CNN-NPR-PBS-NYT…” When they think FBI they now think, “Comey pre-emptively exonerating Clinton prior to investigation, despite clear guilt,” or “Trump dossier.” When they hear “intelligence community has rules to prevent politicized abuse,” they think “Daily granted requests for unmasking from Samantha Power she now claims to know nothing about.” When they think of elections, they think about voter fraud, and the fact that the Democrats and many judges oppose ID requirements, despite the fact they won’t let you into their own courthouses without IDs. When they think of Hollywood, well, perhaps the less said about that, the better.
And when they think “Democracy,” they think of recent judicial decisions, and the line, “… the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal,” as one Republican once said.
Now, I get the sophisticated take on all this. “Yeah, ok, the fraud is real, and these people aren’t crazy to notice it or be angry about it. But the tragedy of the human condition is that the most pleasant and functional civilizations are necessarily and indispensably under-girded by a noble mythology when even elites who know the truth are wise enough to pay lip service to the fraud, because the sudden collapse in public faith will predictably result in some kind of nihilistic political catastrophe. And yeah, this particular fraud game is subject to abuse by the progressives, but we’re still better off bolstering the faith than opening up the Pandora’s box of full-throttle attacks on our system’s fundamental legitimacy.”
This was a perfectly good argument that was timely in 1946, and maybe even still arguable in 1976. It was obsolete and dangerous in 2016, because the progressive abuse has accumulated in a way that, in the election of that year, threatened to unleash the home-grown version of what, to a conservative, would be experienced as just as much of a political catastrophe.
Conservatives and traditionalists – even the Straussian Neoconservative ones – are all living on top of a Jenga tower of inherited tradition, culture, and social capital. Early on in the game, if the progressives remove a piece or two, that’s no big deal, and one can rationalize allowing them to get away with it as the small price worth paying to keep the game going. But, after a while, enough of the foundations have been removed that the situation becomes precarious and the whole structure starts to get wobbly. At that point, the old logic no longer holds. At some point, mass legitimacy is itself the disease, not the cure.
I would go further, and say that the social order has now strayed so far from the Constitutional design that it is actually impossible these days to argue coherently for a conservatism of Constitutional fidelity without, by immediately obvious inherent implication, demonstrating that the bulk of our current system is utterly and fundamentally illegitimate.
VI.YL: “For some in the conservative media, in particular, Trump offered relief from the prospect of yet another election fought over marginal tax rates and vague slogans about the role of government.”
VI.H: Isn’t this a really bizarre kind of Omerta for 16 candidates of a purportedly “big tent” party full of all kinds of internal disagreements, to maintain with each other (and their donors), when all evidence pointed to there being real issues that stirred the passions of their natural constituents? The strategy of saying nothing to “stay viable in the general,” doesn’t sufficiently explain it. Why was it expected for all GOP candidates – except one outsider – to campaign in this vague, lame, and boring – that is, ineffective – way?
Later on Levin hints at the real answer for the only time the word even appears in his essay, “But it is a particular nation filled with particular people who deserve leaders who put their needs and interests first. Some implications of that for immigration policy … should be clearer in light of Trump’s electoral successes.”
Amen brother. Now that there is some conservatism.Well, it might be, unless if by “implications for immigration policy” Levin means, “comprehensive immigration reform,” and, well, the last half dozen times that was tried, you might say it really alienated a lot of Republican voters from the GOP.
But at any rate, why exactly didn’t anyone in TCM figure that out two years ago? (Or the last several times the base revolted against it on this issue?) I’ll admit it’s such a touchy subject that was so controversial that no other candidate was even willing to talk about it, because if they did they would only appeal to such a tiny, fringe minority of voters that it wouldn’t enable them to do anything but … become President of the United States of America.
Whoops. Even putting the matter of long-term political suicide to the to the side, it still kind of sounds like they were out of touch. Really, really, really out of touch. Which is kind of why Levin’s essay was written. But then who, exactly, is alienated from whom?
VII.YL: “Alienation can sometimes make for a powerful organizing principle for an electoral coalition, especially when hostility overpowers apathy among the sentiments it breeds. But it does not make for a natural organizing principle for a governing coalition”
VII.H: Simply wrong. The obvious natural organizing principle of alienation in America is restoration of the Constitutional order to restore the legitimacy the current corrupt system and social order does not deserve. This is just like “originalist jurisprudence” is the obvious natural organizing principle for those experiencing Nisbet-Alienation from judicial abuses of discretion.
More contra Levin:
VIII.YL: “It was, to be sure, a reaction in the name of the honor of the citizens today’s elites treat with contempt, the workers today’s economy treats as dispensable, the traditions today’s culture treats as primitive. It was a partial reaction, however, because Trump generally channeled the frustrations of these Americans but not their aspirations.
VIII.H: Again, some of this makes it sound like a matter of class, but class alone is a very poor predictor of who voted for whom. Which citizens are treated with contempt by the (progressive) elites, and why, and what are the political implications of the character of that contempt? These are crucial issues which have direct bearing on the essay’s thesis and so specific discussion of which ought not to be elided even in a general overview.
So, what it is specifically that these elites hold in contempt, besides, of course, adherence to conservative ideas, or – more disturbingly but no less plausibly – lack of membership in ideologically-favored identity groups? If all the workers in a class are being treated as dispensable, then why wouldn’t we see most similarly situated workers of all types rally behind Trump? Which we didn’t.
Also again, why was it only Trump who recognized and tried to channel these frustrations? I recognize the point is starting to become redundant, but it deserves repeating that if the rest of a huge field was either unable or unwilling to effectively speak to the same frustrations, then there is no other sensible conclusion but that something of central importance is alarmingly wrong with either the basic political competence of the entire GOP and those that have influence over it and/or the alienation of these individuals from their party’s voters has expanded to such proportions that there can be little hope of closing it any time soon, if ever.
Think of it, the New York Billionaire Lothario was more able to grasp – and effectively appeal to – the political and social yearnings of the average swing Republican voter than all the members of the GOP establishment and TCM put together, who had spent their professional lives campaigning to them and holding themselves out as their great interpreters, mediators, and agents? If it were fiction, no publisher would take it, for being too absurd a proposition. And yet, here we live, in the stranger truth.
Chto delat? What is going on now is positioning in the fight for narrative superiority – deutungshoheit – about the “real meaning” of that stranger truth, and the pragmatic political implications for conservatives and the GOP. From at least the time Trump secured the Republican nomination, and certainly since he won the election, public intellectuals have been jostling with each other (occasionally with deep subtlety) for influence in establishing the new consensus view of what ought to be done. Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that the answer nearly all the top folks seem to be giving are mostly some variants of, “The thing I’ve always been saying we ought to be doing!” TCM means never having to say mea culpa.
That is to say, the essence of the Complacency of TCM is that no one seems to be actually adjusting their priors even a little bit in response to an event which ought to be thoroughly model-shattering for them. For those who were aligned with the pre-Trump view of TCM, this manifests in, “Stay the course,” which leads to the stranger truth being explained away, rather than explained. A misdiagnosis of a mere aberration for which the prescription is maybe some light tinkering, instead of a genuine reckoning and coming to grips. Like Wile E. Coyote, TCM remains in stasis and keeps running the same way, so long as its members refuse to look down and realize they’ve traveled fatally past the base holding them up.
IX.YL: “He shared their resentments far more than their commitments, let alone their piety or their devotions, and so he tended to translate their yearnings into alienation of the sort that drew many other Americans to him.”
IX.H: This is beautifully written, but speaking of translating, allow me to translate from poetry to prose. Trump, like most elites and many former Presidents (and lots of GOP candidates, it must be admitted), is thoroughly secular and post-religious. Meanwhile, lots of loyal Republican voters are socially conservative, traditionalist, religious Christians. Like a lot of Presidents, Trump courted these religious folks by picking Pence as VP, paying some lip service to their concerns and desires, and pretending to hold Christianity in high esteem and take its doctrinal mandates seriously. In efforts that fooled precisely nobody. But which, however, sent the right signal about the likely social status repercussions of the election (i.e., the opposite implications of “bitter clingers”), and let these voters know that come his administration, they would have a fighter on their side. And one that, at the very least, wouldn’t be out to get them, but would lower the status of the folks that are.
Furthermore, everybody – literally everybody – knows that Trump’s behavioral history and all indications as to his character and personal ethical outlook – especially as reflected in his style of political campaigning – are, well, less than perfectly compatible with the tenets and ideals of Christian faith. Lots of devout Christians obviously weren’t very happy about all this, but they recognized that they still didn’t have a better option, and that it was still perfectly rational for them to line up behind Trump. Many commentators were shocked and aghast that purportedly religious Christians whose leaders had been going on and on about the critical – indeed, potentially disqualifying – importance of the “character” of political candidates could possibly rally behind, of all people, Trump!
These Christians were criticized for hypocrisy and insincerity and willingness to drop their Christian principles for nothing more than the sake of one political victory, and worse. But those criticisms – even the few that were sober and not tantrums born of bitter resentment – were mistaken. Turns out that that unlike TCM, these voters grasped the equally compelling principle of political survival, and recognized that having even a distasteful option is the difference between martyrdom and foolish suicide, and suicide, like despair of the Lord, is a sin.
In short, Trump didn’t translate Christian yearnings into alienation. They were already alienated. What they yearned for someone to speak frankly and openly – and yes combatively – about this alienation, and who, regardless of other imperfections, was the most viable alternative to getting culturally crushed by political power falling into the hands of a party that is out to get them whenever they try to follow the dictates of their conscience. Many Christians already know – and the rest are quickly realizing – that prevailing mainstream culture is rapidly moving against them. That why Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is such a big deal. The future for Christianity in North America can be seen in today’s Europe and the picture is as clear as it is dire.
For a while many people asserted – or maybe just hoped – that American would remain “exceptional” in retaining its high rate of religious commitment, adherence, and observance, even in the face of an unrelenting cultural onslaught. Now those claims look like incredibly foolish examples of wishful thinking. They were just as foolish as any claim that America wouldn’t adopt a national health care system like the Europeans all did: the distinction was only one of delay, not difference. So we are going to get a good look at what de Toqueville warned us about. The point is, there’s just no sense trying to encourage people to whistle past this graveyard. Speaking to yearnings and commitments without highlighting the root causes of “alienation” would be like speaking of next month’s offensive when standing in an evacuation line at Dunkirk. That grunt’s fellow soldiers, looking around and taking realistic stock of their grim situation as any reasonable person might, are going to think he’s gone completely mad. Maybe call it “The Dunkirk Election.” “Maybe we’ll win this war and maybe we’ll lose it, but one thing’s for sure, the enemy is on our heels, and if those boats don’t show up soon, we’re toast.” The H.M.S. Trump shows up, and she’s an ugly beast of a ship, swarming with rats. But at least she’s a ship.
The unfortunate fact is that the reason Neoconservatism has run its course and become obsolete is that the American civic-nationalism-based civil religion keeping nihilistic alternatives at bay has recently seen its tanks of inherited Judeo-Christian fuel run below the critical threshold, with progressivism having filled the moral vacuum for almost the entirety of the culturally influential elite, and having marched through the rest of the ideological territory, just as it has already done throughout the rest of the West, assimilating whole populations from what was once called Christendom. There are no limiting principles to progressivism’s egalitarian absolutism – none – and without widely-held alternative metaphysical commitments, and without an effective ideological or political opposition, there is nothing standing in the way of progressivism accelerating towards its logical implications. And those implications, when politically realized, will be nothing short of disastrous for religious traditionalists.
Finally, it must be said, why exactly should devout, traditionalist Christians trust Republican politicians and the GOP establishment to be any better than Trump, or to think, regardless of their religion or social conservative posturing, that they aren’t just paying the same lip service to values voters that Trump is? That is to say, that they aren’t also being equally opportunistic frauds. The last time when the GOP was in power with a born-again Christian at the helm, what did it deliver? Did it even turn off the tap of federal dollars for abortion? It did not. If it’s clear that they’re all just blowing smoke, then why not pick the fighter?
X.L: “This is why alienation tends to distort conservatism and to threaten what conservatives value. It is a problem to be addressed by a conservative politics but not a viable or sustainable source of energy for a conservative politics.”
X.H: In the alternative, how’s this: A is a potentially good institution for conservatives. But B, the recent set of changes to A, has made A into a bad institution for conservatives. That badness for conservatives has produced feelings of alienation for them. Just abandoning A and starting from scratch on the pile of smoking rubble would perhaps be even worse (though that has hardly been proved). But fighting to reverse B in order to have institutions that are good for conservatives again could be, get this, “a sustainable source of energy for a conservative politics.” There, FTFY.
For example, consider this completely crazy hypothetical: Republican politicians recognize that universities are an A, but just maybe in just one of those many states they purportedly politically dominate, the local fringe radicals decide to terminate any public funding for any non-STEM education program ending in the word “studies.”
That would be because these are a pretty good example of B. These Bs are bad enough for students paying their own money at private institutions, but forcing conservative taxpayers to contribute to, well, the indoctrination of themselves and their children that is source of their own alienation is not just perverse but more humiliation than free men and women ought to have to bear.
A proposal of this type is in the bizarre category of being simultaneously obvious common sense while at the same time so completely outside the Overton Window that no one is allowed to articulate it, the publicly funded propaganda factories apparently being too sacred for Republicans to desecrate by imposing standards of rigor and fairness again.
Conventional Republican politicians seem so unable or unwilling to even think in these terms that, in their desperation for some kind of response, it wouldn’t be surprising if certain Republican voters sought some kind of combative outsider madman to, if not champion, then at least pay lip service to their abandoned cause. It’s almost like the prospect of some B-push-back just might be a, “source of energy for a conservative politics.”
After all, complaining about all the Bs at all the institutions is certainly a sustainable source of intellectual energy for TCM in its written output! There is no way to recognize this clear fact without immediately concluding that actually proposing to do something about the Bs would be just as sustainable a source of political energy.
XI.L: “If our traditional ways of doing things speak to yearnings that arise anew in every generation, then there is always reason to hope for a resurgence of orthodoxy and to work for it.”
XI.H: The trouble is, our social institutions aren’t politically harmless. The whole point of the left trying so hard to successfully capture them is that they are influential and thus potential instruments of power which can be corrupted and abused to the benefit of the interests and agenda of their political coalition, and at the expense of their opponents. That is, conservatives. A plowshare can be beaten into a sword too. That’s the problem. The left has beaten the plowshares of our institutions into swords that are in their hands. And which they use. All the time. You might say it’s kind of alienating.
Let’s say you inherit a fine, classic automobile. You can admire the craftsmanship and recognize that it would be both enjoyable and useful to be behind its wheel, in the driver’s seat. It would get you where you are trying to go, and it would be fun to drive and make you look cool while getting there. On the other hand, the car was recently stolen and the keys are currently in the hands of an alcoholic maniac who hates you and who will be driving drunk tonight right when and where you are trying to cross the street on foot. In your hands you have a remote which can destroy the car. We can all admit this situation to be tragic – like that tragedy of the human condition – but this particular moment is not the one to prioritize preservation of the automobile in the hope of driving It again next summer. One might have little choice but to buy a new car. The car can be either useful or dangerous, and it does no good to mistake preserving that usefulness – which is of primary importance – with preserving the car regardless of its presently dangerous condition – which is unreasonable.
In a war, one doesn’t want to blow up a bridge if one doesn’t have to, as a bridge is a wonderfully useful thing, but one doesn’t always have that choice, because a bridge in the hands of your enemy is a pipeline delivering doom to your doorstep. And revering the institutions while ignoring their successful capture by the progressives and conversion by them into potent political weapons sounds a lot like Baghdad Bob insisting there were no tanks in the capital. There were tanks, and they meant, “the end.”
XII.YL: “Alienation denies or rejects the possibility of such resurgence and therefore the importance of working to keep that possibility open.”
XII.H: No, it doesn’t. Alienation is what embraces the possibility of resurgence. By active political measures. It is TCM which has been in denial and which has rejected the desirability – indeed necessity – of these possibilities.
XIII.YL: “Behind this framing of the options was a profound despair about America’s prospects and a sense that any concern short of such despair was unserious.”
XIII.H: Right. It would be unserious. If one is not playing a game to win, one is not serious about the game. Look, it’s ok to not be serious about winning a game. Maybe it’s just for fun and not worth the effort it takes to win. Maybe the other guy is on steroids, and you conclude, “I could win if I took steroids too, but it’s better to let him win that to come down to his level.”
It’s ok – if one admits as much. It’d be refreshing to hear certain public intellectuals concede, “Just so everybody is clear on the point, I’m just not serious about winning the game of electoral politics, and if you want advice on winning, you should go look somewhere else.” Though, it would be a bit odd after hearing them say this for them to appear so obviously upset after some particular electoral result, or to complain constantly about all the obvious consequences of those elections.
More to the point, what is the ethical thing to do, as a matter of basic integrity, when someone else does care about winning, and is looking for leadership and expertise, and comes to you, asking if you will be the captain or manager of their team. Can it be other than to say, “Well, gee, thanks for the expression of confidence in me fellas, I’m just humbled and honored that you’d ask. But I gotta be square with you, I can’t be your guy. Win or lose, it’s all the same to me, and I’ve got other, more pressing things to worry about. So if you actually want a captain instead of just a spectator, please ask around instead, and there’ll be no hard feelings from me.”
But it’s not much good to go into the game pretending to be serious, start losing, then try to save face by saying, “Well, you know, this game really isn’t very important to me anyway.” That’s like the fox trying so hard to grasp the grapes, and when he realizes he’ll never get them, deluding himself into imagining they were really sour all along. The ancients realized this human tendency countless generations ago. The conservative thing to do is to appreciate that wisdom.
I mean, why even try to have influence over politics or politicians at all? How is it coherent to say, on the one hand to say, “Here are the things you ought to do, and here are the things you ought not to do,” and simultaneously to say, “It really doesn’t make any difference who wins, because even though politicians will do different things, it just doesn’t matter what they do or don’t do.”
And even if someone were to buy that it doesn’t matter what a politician does, there is not much doubt that politicians occasionally get to stand in front of the bully pulpit, and so it might matter which politicians win or lose for what they get to say. It wouldn’t make sense to be a “public intellectual in the conservative movement,” if one didn’t really believe that which ideas get prominence wasn’t important, and it wouldn’t make sense to criticize Trump for what he says, which members of TCM do all the time, if it didn’t matter what was said. Right speech requires the right people, so winning matters, so lead, follow, or if one insists on being unserious, get out of the way.
XIV.YL: “It is an attitude that leaves no room for believing that things could be better except by believing that things almost could not be worse.”
XIV.H: Wrong. And I apologize in advance if this comes off as rude, which is not my intention, but this is such an illogical line that it makes one wonder if the Straussian technique of “sudden and jarring drop of rigor” is being employed to clue the perceptive readers in to the esoteric meaning.
Let’s say you are running in the Boston marathon, hoping to medal. You start out in front, but then one competing runner passes you, then another, and another. Now you are in the final mile with one hundred runners in front, and ten thousand behind. To despair about your chances of ever getting a medal is both reasonable and not in the slightest equivalent to an attitude that things can’t possibly be worse. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” doesn’t mean that nothing has been ruined at all, and is not the right response when someone points out accurately the ruin that has occurred.
XV.YL: “And in this respect it closes off the usual conservative response to times of challenge and opens instead a path much more amenable to radical disjunction and a thorough tearing down.”
XV.H: For everything, there is a season, and that includes “radical disjunction” no matter how much one might wish to avoid it. There have been necessary radical disjunctions in the history of this country – its very founding is one of them – and they were ugly and unfortunate, but the country survived and, many would argue, emerged in better shape after the pain of corrective adjustments. There is such a thing as “creative destruction”, and it applies to institutions. Indeed, one of the reasons for conservative despair has been the paralyzing risk aversion of the GOP establishment and TCM when it comes to standing up to the progressives in ways that might threaten such disjunctions. That’s the issue: the progressives have strategically bolstered their positions such that the only measures that might threaten their hold on the commanding heights are precisely the ones the GOP and TCM are unwilling to entertain. TCM: “The introduction of trebuchets might lead to a radial disjunction, so we had better not.” Progressives: “Well then, it was a good thing we captured these castles, since we are now clearly safe behind their walls. Eat some arrows, suckers.”
Bringing up the specter of radical disjunctions is another way of saying that abandoning institutions would be a form of recklessness. That’s possible, life is sometimes a gamble. However, the opposite vice of recklessness is a pusillanimous and enervating timidity. “Charge the cockpit? What, and unbuckle my seat belt? No sir, not me, that wouldn’t be playing it safe.”
XVI.YL: “It raises the prospect of a failure of perspective because the argument that things could hardly get much worse is almost certainly wrong.”
XVI.H: As shown above, this claim is what is certainly wrong, and a hyperbolic exaggeration, as literally no one is talking about the imminent dystopian apocalypse.
XVII.YL: “The idea that ours is the decisive time of history’s reckoning is always attractive, but conservatives in particular should see that it is almost certainly wrong.”
XVII.H: Here are two extreme positions. First we have the chiliastic preacher on the corner soap box, telling everyone that the millennium will come at the end of the month unless we repent, and when it does not come, he merely adjusts the date by another month. Second we have the incompetent plans officer who can’t understand that some battles are more important to the outcome of the war than others, and so treats them all with equal prioritization, with a kind of “what does it matter in the grand scheme of things” insouciance. The more accurate middle ground is that times change and situations evolve to be more or less precarious, and it is a matter of judgment to determine accurately how perilous things really are and what degree of drastic measures might be justified by such a situation. The equal and opposite mistake of being a perma-bear is being a perma-bull.
XVIII.YL: “We are called to enable a revival, not to mount a total revolution, and therefore to hold up the good before the rising generation rather than to tear down all we have inherited and treat it as unsalvageable.”
XVIII.H: This is a false choice, because salvage remains an option. If only someone would try it. That’s the problem: no one was trying it. Which is frustrating, even alienating. Too much of a radical disjunction I guess. As far as holding up the good, I’m going to involuntarily outsource this one to Rod Dreher, “We cannot give the world what we do not have.” That’s the problem too.
XIX.YL: “It is imperative, in other words, that those (generally young) men and women who seek after edifying alternatives find not despairing Cassandras in hysterical panic but rather winsome, welcoming teachers and guides—pastors, mentors, and instructors who hold out as alluring not a sharp break from all that came before but a pass to a rich heritage in religious wisdom, liberal learning, and philosophical truth. Today’s conservative intellectuals found such guides, in many cases at a time when despair would have been even more understandable than it is now. The next generation should too. Giving in to despair would deny those in search of such guidance what they require.”
XIX.H: This is exactly – down to the word “winsome” – how Christians who don’t want to face an ugly reality and the prospect of having to choose between their faith and an easy life respond to Rod Dreher, and how their predecessors responded to his predecessors a generation, or two, or three ago, about the fate of Christianity in this country and the West.
Boy, were they wrong. Dead wrong. As Levin notes about the example of Cassandra, she was right! But nobody believed her. They believed more optimistic, winsome types. To their doom.
But furthermore, I’m afraid this argument doesn’t stand on its own terms. At root is a kind of psychological claim about the need to put on happy warrior faces (without any warring, apparently), despite a tough situation and it being untethered from the real state of affairs, only because the “hope” expressed by those happy faces are what future conservative intellectuals will find attractive and compelling. In other words, fraudulent seduction. Sometimes seduction works, and when the noble fraud is discovered, it is forgiven. And sometimes the fraud is apparent from the start, which instead of being attractive, is completely off-putting.
XX.YL: “Despair of some people, institutions, communities, or even nations is sometimes simply justified.”
XX.H: Right. I would encourage Levin to spell out the criteria one should use, and indicators one should observe, to conclude that despair is warranted in a particular situation. My argument is that the Flight 93 essay was right in its expression of these warning signs and concluding that alarm was indeed warranted about the future path of American conservatism and the Constitutional order.
But let’s say for the sake of argument we’re in a marginal or arguable case, what then? Well, the usual way one makes a decision in such circumstances is to assess the relative costs or risks of making a decision which turns out to be wrong. The risks of overconfidence are large, if one is too blase and turns out to be in error, then the cost will large, there will be no way to tun back, and there will be a lot of regret. On the other hand, if one is too pessimistic and turns out to be wrong, well, then unless the upfront costs were enormous, then it’s a happy day, and one still has options and room for maneuver. As our ancestors might have said in a proverb, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Ah, conservative wisdom.
XXI.YL: “But despair of America is not justified, and the case for why this moment in particular should be the moment to despair does not add up to much. It assigns to Progressives much more malice (and competence) than is warranted and credits them with far more than they have actually achieved, and it sells our society short”
XXI.H: It adds up just fine. Regarding progressive competence, in any game, the issue of competence is not a matter of absolutes, but a matter of relative comparison. However incompetent the progressives may be, they’re the ones with the commanding heights of almost all our society’s influential institutions, and TCM isn’t. Possession is 9/10ths of relative competence. And as for malice, I mean, besides recommending a brief tour of social media to correct this misperception, I think the fact that the last year or so has seen over a hundred articles about the problems of polarization and tribalism precisely because the problem and severity of malice between political groups in the country is getting completely out of control provides some pretty good evidence against Levin’s claim.
Is one supposed to take all that hand-wringing about the malicious character and divisive effect of our political polarization seriously, or not?
XXII.YL: “To look upon our country in our time as a society so degraded and depraved that almost nothing could be worse than its present condition is to allow despondency or partisanship to cloud our judgment. And to think that a presidential election victory—indeed that a loss for the left, almost regardless of the person who would win—could by itself set us back on the right course is vastly to overvalue electoral politics as a means of renewal and strength.”
XXII.H: Again (again), no one was claiming imminent zombie apocalypse, and no one was claiming the election of Trump would set it all right again. Anton argued that Clinton’s election would provide a certain, irreversible, and significant deterioration for the prospects of Constitutional conservatism in America, in the manner of the New Deal, not that it would mean Venezuelan bread lines a month after her inauguration. The “charging the cockpit” metaphor doesn’t mean a promise to set the place back on course and land safely, it means it’s the only chance you’ve got, and even if you yourself are doomed, you may end up saving some things you care about currently in the sights of your enemy. As for overvaluing electoral politics as a mean of renewal and strength, it’s obviously possible to undervalue it as well, which I’m afraid TCM has been doing for a generation.
XXIII.YL: “And the need for such subsidiarity could also help us understand what it is we are seeking in our quest for greater solidarity in twenty-first-century America: a unifying civic culture, rooted in a shared national experience and in truths held in common, which could sustain a variety of moral subcultures suited to enabling human beings and citizens to flourish together.”
XXIII.H: But this is exactly the problem. The progressives are not interested in the slightest in anything that would sustain a variety of moral subcultures. They insist on one moral culture, their own, “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus“. And what if one dissents from that moral culture, and wants to preserve another one? Well then, that’s not just something worth fighting for, now it’s something that must be fought for. Or lost.