Feature 01.16.2019 5 minutes

Mugged by Hyperreality


Conservatives are learning the hard way they can’t defend the American regime without defending the American state.

“No prophet is accepted in his own country.”

Many critics of established conservatism, finding their criticisms unwelcome, long ago marginalized themselves and joined arms with proponents of unsavory and often crackpot theories. But for mainstream conservatives who prided themselves on having been “mugged by reality,” it is still surprising how much they were caught off guard by the success of Trump’s candidacy, by intellectual interest in the policy issues it raised and, now, by The Weekly Standard’s surcease. Yet for all that, creative destruction within the conservative intellectual world has barely begun. The watchwords for the next generation of thinking on the right, centering in particular on the state and state capacity, will diverge almost entirely from that of postwar conservatism.

The conservative movement has only itself to blame for ignoring the many sensible challenges to its priorities. Prophecies of its demise are hardly new: Michael Lind’s “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died” appeared in Dissent in winter 1995, just two seasons before The Weekly Standard’s launch. Lind’s basic complaints, that the intellectual Right has stagnated due to nepotism and dependence on foundation money (as well as adoption of libertarian economic nostrums), are still correct. Indeed, they provide an explanation why, until 2016, the prophecies of intellectual conservatism’s demise never seemed to materialize. Even while conservatives were complaining of censorship in academia, they dotted the university landscape with para-academic institutes that reinforced limitations on conservative thinking. The bloat at some “conservative” nonprofits should be an embarrassment to the Right, but criticisms are few and far between (with American Affairs a lone exception).

Even today, many conservative conferences are stuck in an endless loop of topics far removed from contemporary political reality. American conservatives have simultaneously shunned some European thinkers (e.g., Carl Schmitt) as nonliberal and foreign to supposed Anglo-American traditions, while freely importing others (e.g., F. A. Hayek) without the slightest pangs of conscience. Although Leo Strauss fashioned criticisms of modern politics second only to those of the Roman popes in their severity, many sectors of American Straussianism appear focused on constitutional originalism to the exclusion of such criticisms. The pseudo-traditionalist element of American conservatism has also served it poorly in the long run. Rather than focusing on how to use the means of power to secure their political goals, the Right has instead pined for earlier phases of liberalism—for example, in futile attempts to roll back the administrative state. The Right’s para-academic educational programs are plagued by similar failures and oversights, even while their own constituencies of the intelligent young are favorably disposed toward nonliberal economic ideas neglected on conservative syllabi—including those in the integralist tradition, which insists that public life be oriented around our proper human ends, up to and including a public role for spiritual authority.

In this context the closing of The Weekly Standard was an afterthought to most students of contemporary public policy and political thought. Like all surrealist fiction, The Weekly Standard obscured the line between reality and hyperreality. The problem that emerged over its twenty-three-year career was that it was unsure where that line was. As a weekly, it had a putative connection to everyday politics. Yet it took features of political life, “democracy” for example, and treated them as abstract art that could appear jarringly in seemingly random contexts. As conservatives, they purported to show that American democratic practice was the culmination of Western political thought. Yet as surrealists, they extrapolated already-diminishing liberal achievements in the West and supposed they would soon be found in far-away lands.

Reversing the Straussian stereotype of cynical philosopher-kings and a wholesome populace, The Weekly Standard retained a pious devotion to the spread of liberal democracy while the people cheered on the chief critic of their presidential hero. The hallmark of this approach was an earnestness in devotion to “liberalism” that was not demanded even by liberalism itself. Instead of flattering the regime while quietly indicating their reservations, The Weekly Standard embraced liberalism just when it was least necessary to do so. Imagining itself as a persecuted subject (the “conservative” or the “true liberal”), The Weekly Standard eventually strove to acquit itself of any apparent departure from liberalism. It was thus caught unawares by the eclipse of liberalism all around it. Having rallied to a cause that never summoned it, it had no choice but to become the persecutor instead. In the end, captive to the drama of creative destruction that it had long sanctioned, it sacrificed itself to its own image.

At the heart of this dynamic lay an historicist tendency to regard liberal democracy as the definitive regime type, requiring a moderately preservationist political stance. But liberal democracy is no normal regime. Indeed, liberal democracy’s chief post–Cold War formulations, in the Washington Consensus and European Union, aimed at transcending normal political dynamics in two directions. Markets established by political authorities and the rule of law were to be replaced by global markets and associated apolitical, unaccountable regulatory bodies with declining reference to the interests of nation-states. And second, the clumsy forms of democracy that would resist that transcendence were to be replaced by “democratic norms” issued by the same apolitical bodies. Moderate defenses of liberalism have also run up against liberalism’s tendency to threaten and dissolve traditional ways of life. The task of the contemporary Right, potentially shared by parts of the Left, ought to be to anticipate the political situation as liberal institutions suffer the consequences of their own overreach. If we had paid better attention to the political development in countries such as China and Singapore, both successful nonliberal regimes, we might have avoided misreading the post-1991 landscape as liberal democracy’s triumph.

The policies of such a new approach are not mysterious or difficult to imagine, as many critics of the critics of liberalism allege. Where liberalism emphasized market mechanisms at the expense of the state, a politics directed toward the common good must be oriented around bolstering state capacity in the direction of industry, obtaining a broadly accepted or social agreement between the managerial and working classes, and explicit political clarification of what ways of life the state wishes to foster. The watchword of the next generation of political thought on the right, whether conservatives like it or not, will be “the state” (and, in political theology, “the Church”). That reconfiguration will produce more crosscutting political alliances of the sort that have already begun to form outside of stagnating think tanks and dying magazines (see, for example, Senator Marco Rubio’s proposal to tax corporate share buybacks as dividends). The only question for the intellectual Right is whether it will slough off its fusionism and its narrow canon of thinkers and begin to catch up to where it should have been a generation ago.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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