The conservative movement in the United States, if it can still be called that, is in a lot of trouble. It needs to find that fridge it left in the basement, dust it off, roll up its sleeves, clean it up, and stomach whatever is inside it.
Story time: a few months ago, through a convenient set of circumstances, I landed a really great, barely-used, two-year-old refrigerator. It was huge, and we had an awful time actually getting it into the house, but we managed. Aside from logistics, the only real question on our minds was what to do with the fridge we already had—a smaller, functional kitchen model that had come with the house. It was still in perfectly working order, and at the time, we didn’t know anyone offhand who needed one.
We decided to leave it in the basement until we could come up for a use for it. We don’t tend to drink enough beer to warrant an entire beer fridge, and we haven’t gotten into the habit of stocking cold products any longer than the week or two it takes us to polish them off, so there was no pressing need for a second fridge. We simply left it in our basement pantry unplugged and figured, when the time was right, we’d know what to do with it. A rule to life, I have discovered, is that, in general, never get rid of a perfectly useable fridge.
Unfortunately, I made a terrible, but not unrecoverable, mistake: I left the door closed. Fast forward about three months, and the smell from inside the machine had become pretty impressive. Add a week of torrential rains, a mildly-flooded basement, and the work that goes into getting rid of mildew, and the smell only gets worse. Turns out, that rule of life has a corollary: don’t just ignore a perfectly usable fridge—especially whatever is inside it. Also, make sure it’s clean before you leave it someplace.
There are few conservative voices and agents in the United States that seem to remember that they left a fridge in their proverbial basement. Some are beginning to wake up to this, slowly, after two years of Trump and a fairly successful track record to accompany it. The rest, like many at National Review and everybody who still has a Republican affiliation at the Wall Street Journal, remain in denial. Conservatism, they decree, is about preserving liberal values. Figure that one out. But, the conservatives tell us, they’re the real liberals, unlike the liberals who make up the left wing. After all, if you have values that go against theirs, they’re still willing to hire you. Sometimes.
About forty years ago, the conservative movement got a new fridge. The old fridge, at that point tracing itself back a good hundred years, had aged rather poorly. Inside it could be found the vestiges of southern agrarianism, what was left of the conservative wing of the Democratic party, and the nationalists leftover from the world wars. It was less a stated, political position than a collection of general ideas that focused on nationalism, nativism, and American identity, because it drew its existence from the presence of a long-standing historical reality. And while much of southern agrarian conservatism drew from the oldest wing of the Democratic party, conservatism per se was not uniquely a Democrat concept. The parties of the time certainly leaned this way and that, but they had not polarized to the extent that we see today.
This is, of course, before Conservatism became an identifiable term—before it got its capital ‘C’. The mid-60s sparked a surge in a new alternative to what was at the time a mainstream right wing, and at the tip of the spear was William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. As I’ve written before, Buckley, alongside Russell Kirk and many others who wrote for National Review in the first decade or so, were instrumental in shaping what is contemporarily known as Conservatism. Front and center in their worldview is something that, until then, conservatives had little use for: economics, and specifically, an increasingly liberal embrace of the free market. Tactically, this shift helped their rhetorical position as anti-communist, and it even helped pave the way for the 1980s in American politics, but strategically this shift ended up costing conservatism what high ground it could have had in the maintenance of the status quo.
We have to remember: the word conservatism implies the conservation something, but the embrace of a libertarian market ethos inevitably leaks into the rest of an ideology once it’s introduced. You have to ask yourself what, exactly, Conservatives were trying to conserve in the first place. If it was their cultural roots, then their economic policies should have been a means to an end: the preservation, cultivation, and flourishing of American identity and culture. But it seems obvious in retrospect that their interest lay instead in the free market, a so-called free, secularized space for economic transactions. They didn’t conserve anything at all. The only thing that could be conserved with such an ideology is the secularized liberalism that such a space requires in order to exist—and as anyone who’s lived in such a space could tell you, it comes at the expense of all alternative forms of economic and social life. Secularism, far from the inclusive meta-religion its adherents tout it as being, is nothing more than a cover for anti-religious and specifically anti-Catholic vitriol. The establishment of the secular public space means the surrender of virtue from the public square.
This shift in mainline Conservative thought, from the body and blood of the American nation to the embrace of a sterilized (and comically misnamed) free market economy, was everything that the Conservatives in the 80s bought with their new fridge. Against the communist threat, it offered simple and successful arguments against the evils of socialism and the errors of central planning, and against the more-liberal left of the American polity, it offered concise appeals to voters in the form of lower taxes and better lives for American workers.
This came, importantly enough, at about the same time that the intellectual left had begun to shirk away from economic arguments toward the now ubiquitous Politically Correct nonsense that self-proclaimed lefties uphold today. You can have your monetary policies decided by the suits on Wall Street, they said, and you can have your Federal Reserve, and your interest rates, and your Free Trade, and you can even have your tax plans, but please, said the left, let us keep our abortions, our contraception, our Free Love; we’ll strike a bargain and surrender economics to you if you just stay out of our social engineering, sexual liberation, and identity politics. Conservatism, revealing how materialist it really was, said sure, that’s fine. Everything that had once been conservative got thrown back into the old fridge and shoved in the basement. Only the Evangelical arm of the Republican party still paid lip service to social conservatism, and they were pigeonholed easily enough into the category of religious extremists by the opposition.
The problem is that this form of economically-liberal Conservatism has run its course. The Cold War ended a generation ago, and with it did the pressing need for an evangelizing secularist dogma. Capitalism has flourished to untold heights, and Free Trade has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. The system has worked so well that the free movement of labor across international lines, coupled the fruits of the sexual revolution at home, has resulted in a demographic crisis that would have made the late Roman Empire shudder in horror. It should be clear now more than ever that the ideologies espoused by the mainstream left and right in this country are two sides of the same usurious coin: the postliberal democratic regime.
But the fridge still hasn’t been opened yet. Talking heads like the writers at National Review are trying to shove it deeper into the basement. A writer like Jonah Goldberg, who seemed to have his head on his shoulders about fifteen years ago, can write a book as idiotic as The Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Nationalism, Populism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, stealing the title from James Burnham’s 1964 classic which was almost diametrically opposed to every one of Goldberg’s points. Rather than acknowledge the right wing fervor that has risen in reaction to the liberal destruction of American life, mainline Conservatism would rather draw meaningless lines in the sand and call everything right of liberalism boogeyman names like fascism or Nazism, or simply try to pretend as though nationalism and identitarianism are uniquely leftist concepts in the first place. All this is going to do is further embellish the anti-American character of the postliberal regime.
And the thing is, the American order is not fundamentally anti-liberal in character. It was founded in a revolutionary fervor and has established itself over and over with revolutionary character. It’s the most stable of the liberal nations ever invented since the time of the Enlightenment, having had only three or four significant changes in character since its inception about two and a half centuries ago. The problem is that the last change in character resulted in a the creation of an American identity that was directly at odds with what America actually is—and perhaps worse, it was an identity that is completely unsustainable. What we are witnessing now, and what mainline Conservatives are trying to avoid, is the inevitable collapse of that identity in favor of a new one.
So what can the capital-C Conservatives do? They’ve stuffed their old fridge so far into the depths of their basement that half of them don’t even realize there’s still a fridge back there. They didn’t plug it in and they didn’t crack the doors, so everything inside has grown thick layers of mold and reeks. The nationalist identitarian ideologies have sprouted into easily-hijacked movements like the Alt-Right, and the remnants of old nationalist America First movements like the John Birch Society are stagnant non-entities run mostly by has-beens. Nevertheless, the animosity against the mainline strand of conservatism still exists.
The pundits on the so-called right will have to adjust their positions and walk a fine line. On one hand, a moderate wing of the right is necessary in order to stay the course, as well as to prevent newcomers from being chased off by the disorganized and unaesthetic radicals who, despite the time that has passed, still have not coalesced into anything meaningful. On the other hand, asking the blockheads that occupy the right on the national stage to reel in their free market, free-trade, libertarian, postliberal, Wall Street-style “conservatism” seems like asking for the impossible. The neocons of yesteryear made it all to obvious what kind of credence the word “conserve” carries among the urban elite; in general, these are the types who would rather cozy up to their urban liberal friends, look down at the streets from their penthouses, and enjoy Guatemalan coffee with the stockbrokers managing their hedge funds. The end for this style of conservatism is already spelled out. They are not, and never have been, our friends.
Having bleached and cleaned my own fridge in the basement, I’ve found it a useful addition to the cellar pantry. I can use it again, and so long as I maintain it, it services my household pretty well. It would be nice to see the self-professed Conservatives do the same to their own ideological basement. Too many seem wholly unaware that they even have one, much less that somewhere down there, they also have an old, disused fridge.