“Was the Conservative Movement Destined to Go Bad?”

[The following is based loosely on an address I gave to the Fifth Annual H.L. Mencken Club Conference in Baltimore, MD on November 10th, 2012. I am told an audio of the full address will be posted on the Club’s website in the fullness of time.] 

[Peter Brimelow adds: I had the job of responding to John’s HLMC presentation, and will post a version when I get the transcript. But, in essence, I don’t really like John’s We Are Doomed stance, not least because I have very young children and therefore can’t surrender. As I concluded an article rallying patriots back in 2006, when it was universally but erroneously assumed that the Bush Amnesty was on the verge of passage, no-one really knows what’s politically possible—or even what’s going to happen next week.] 


Destined since when?

Not to waste my precious time on this earth, while walking my dog I listen to lectures from the Great Courses company. Currently I’m listening to Prof. Pangle of the University of Texas, course title: “The Debate Over the American Constitution.”

Pangle works over all the arguments put forward by the anti-Federalists, then gives you the counter-arguments from the Federalists, then the counters to the counter-arguments, and so on. My U.K. education had very little to say about American history, so all this is illuminating for me.

I have, however, been finding myself very one-sided on those debates from 230 years ago, nodding along in agreement with the anti-Federalist arguments but shaking my head and snarling at the Federalist counter-arguments.

Being pretty new to this material, I have not much confidence in my own judgments. Then last night I was sitting at dinner with Prof. Kenneth McIntyre. I told him about my adventures with Prof. Pangle and the Constitution. Ken expressed vigorous approval. Yes, he said, the anti-Federalists did have the better arguments!

It was very encouraging to have one’s private judgments thus confirmed by a credentialed academic. From now on I shall confidently buttonhole people in the street and urge them to ponder William Butler on impost duties or Melancton Smith on consolidation.

My point here is just that American Conservatism goes all the way back to the beginning of the republic. Many of the things we talk about at gatherings like this are in direct line of descent from the arguments put forward by the anti-Federalists.

Thus, to see the history of Conservatism in this country in terms of “going bad”—as a phenomenon somewhat like a living organism, that was born, flourished, then decayed—displays what cognitive scientists call “recency bias,” the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events.

Conservatism is a feature of the human personality found in all times and places. Its stock on the public exchanges may rise or fall with circumstances. But it will never disappear.

A couple of years ago I reviewed a book actually titled The High Tide of American Conservatism. It’s about the 1924 Presidential election, when John W. Davis stood for the Democrats and Calvin Coolidge for the Republicans, two gentlemanly Conservatives. Davis was a Wall Street lawyer, and Calvin Coolidge was Calvin Coolidge.

Two gentlemanly Conservatives contesting the Presidency. Let me just pause for a moment here so that we can all heave a collective sigh.

[Collective sigh...]

Twenty years later the Presidential contest featured a liberal Republican versus Franklin D. Roosevelt. So it goes.

Post-WW2 Conservatism: When did it go bad?

All that was just a cautionary note, to add some perspective. We all know that the Conservative movement mentioned in the topic is the post-WW2 manifestation of public Conservatism, and that Conservatism in this manifestation did go bad. So let’s just adjust the question slightly to make this clear: “Was the post-WW2 Conservative movement destined to go bad?”

There is an obvious argument at hand to show that it was. Post-WW2 Conservatives judged that winning the Cold War was sufficiently important to ditch the core principle of American Conservatism, the principle that goes all the way back to those anti-Federalists: the principle of antipathy to a strong national government.

Then, having let the grizzly bear into the living-room, Conservatives of course could not get him out again.

This argument is quite plausible. Most of the “going bad” mentioned in our title, most of the wrong turns and malign phenomena, do seem to have happened or originated in the 1990s, after the Cold War.

I don’t myself think that the cap of Oakeshottian Conservative temperament can be made to stay on the head of George Herbert Walker Bush. But it’s hard to see much of a silver lining for Conservatives in Bush’s 1992 defeat.

Again, the changing of the guard at National Review in 1997—fifteen years ago this week—is viewed by many of us here, certainly by Peter [Brimelow, a participant], as a key event in the going-bad process.  

Without wishing to subtract from any of that, I think there is some cognitive bias there too. The rot had set in before the 1990s. As David Frum showed in his 1994 book Dead Right in the actual business of government, Reagan proposed but staffers and congressional RINOs disposed.

Even further back in the Cold War, opposition to Soviet Bolshevism had come not only from traditionalist Conservatives but also from Mensheviks (as it were): social democrats, ex-Trotskyists, and other factions well to the left of Robert A. Taft.

Once inside the Conservative house, these “neoconservatives” began reorganizing the furniture. They had a particular enthusiasm for looser immigration. That enthusiasm eventually merged with the high-WASP noblesse oblige of George H.W. Bush and the ethno-clerico-progressivism of Ted Kennedy to give us the 1990 Immigration Act, which raised the annual ceiling on settlement by 40 percent (and gave us the preposterous “diversity lottery”).

Thus things were going bad even during the Cold War. Anticommunism remained a binding factor for Conservatism almost to the end, though, with neo- and paleoconservatives decisively parting company only in the late 1980s, the parting finding political expression in Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary campaign. Conservatism in the 1990s displayed all the symptoms of a once-purposeful movement now floundering about in search a new role.

The darkest view of subsequent events is that mainstream Conservatism found that role at last as a churchgoing, fiscally-Conservative hired sparring partner—or, if you want to be really dark, shoeshine boy—for the globalist, missionary-militarist, moral-universalist liberal establishment.

David Frum supplied the marker here, too, with his 2003 National Review article “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” in which he chased the moneychangers from the temple of Conservatism, the moneychangers of course having names like Patrick Buchanan, Lew Rockwell, Sam Francis, Tom Fleming, Joe Sobran, Paul Gottfried, and Taki Theodoracopulos.  That 2003 Frum essay was when the “going bad” of the Conservative movement hit bottom, where it has remained ever since.

Was this destined?

So, taking all that as accepted, was the decay really “destined”? Might things have turned out otherwise? If they had, might we now be living in a United States with a small military establishment mostly in domestic bases, with well-guarded borders and an immigration policy modeled on Japan’s, with freedom of association and true equality under the law, with a meritocratic civil service selected by written examinations, with Congress making frequent use of its power to deny the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction as permitted by Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution . . . and without public-sector unions, without a 74,000-page federal tax code, without affirmative action or “disparate impact” jurisprudence or “hate crimes” legislation, and without the Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development?

My short answer: No. It follows that my answer to the topic question is: Yes, the post-WW2 Conservative movement was destined to go bad.

I have to unmask myself at this point as a historical determinist. There are large general trends in the development of human societies. We do not of course know much about the laws governing those trends, though I think some of the upstream determinants are coming into view, thanks to researches in the human sciences—genetics, brain studies, social psychology, ethology, and paleoanthropology.

I mentioned above, for example, Japan’s immigration policy, which is highly restrictive. Why can’t we have an immigration policy like that?

Well, you may say, because we’re America, and that would be un-American. Fine: but if immigration-restrictionism is un-American, why is it also un-British, un-Irish, un-French, un-German, un-Spanish, un-Danish, and un-Swedish? The immigration policies of those countries have been at least as idiotic as ours.

What do all those countries have in common? Low birth-rates? Japan’s is lower than any of theirs.

Why do we see such a stable equilibrium point in so many nations in, or descended from, Europe? Why does no such nation, with the partial though very interesting exception of Israel, have Japan’s immigration policy?

If you ponder this question for a decade or two, I believe you will come to the conclusion, as I have, that we don’t have Japan’s immigration policy—and, from looking at that list of other nations that don’t have it, can’t have Japan’s immigration policy—because we are not Japanese.

That just kicks the question of upstream determinants along the road a bit, though. What does it mean, to be or not to be Japanese? The PC babblers will promptly reply that it means having a different culture—or, as it used to be called before Franz Boas came along, a different history. That’s just tautology, though: they are that way because they are that way. Why?

We don’t know: but we do know, as of last week, that the American Exceptionalism our mainstream Conservative eggheads babble about is not preventing us from trending towards a left-liberal, class-ridden, secular, multicultural social democracy like those of our cousin nations across the pond.

And we know from the numbers that foolish policies on immigration, promoted by Republicans at least as much as by Conservatives, have been factors in that trend.

To return to my earlier point, though: Conservatism may have gone bad and entered a decline, but not even a determinist need believe historical trends to be unidirectional.

As a temperamental pessimist, naturally I don’t see much hope: but probably I’m one of those sad augurs Shakespeare wrote about:

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,

And the sad augurs mock their own presage.

The Coolidge-Davis election is still within living memory—just barely. 

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimismand several other books. His writings are archived atJohnDerbyshire.com.

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