Eying Return to Power, Conservatism Learns to Love the Administrative StateNews at Home
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, MAGA, National Conservatism, Catholic Integralism
Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).
Rod Dreher at the National Conservatism conference, Rome, February 2020
Beneath and beyond the January 6 insurrection and the right-wing populist surge that’s expected this Tuesday, American conservative thinking is taking some confused and confusing turns. One of them involves backing away from familiar “supply-side” dogmas and moving instead toward seizing the power of the administrative state to restore order and public virtue to Silicon Valley technocratic elites and to unruly masses, all under the tutelage of a “truly” conservative ruling elite.
These thinkers aren’t flirting with Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism or Joe Biden’s new New Deal. They’re edging closer to the Roman Catholic “common good Constitutionalism” of Harvard Law Prof. Adrian Vermeule and several Supreme Court justices, or to the old Ivy-Protestant, “Good Shepherd” guardianship of the republic, or even to the Nineteenth-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s authoritarian, ethno-nationalist welfare statism, which presaged the “national socialism” of a German political party that incorporated that phrase into its name and its public promises.
It's a complex development, but let me try to make it as comprehensible as it is reprehensible, because it may be hard upon us after this Tuesday's elections.
“We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” writes John Daniel Davidson, a senior editor of The Federalist, a conservative publication (unaffiliated with the judiciary-focused, right-wing Federalist Society). Davidson praises and echoes an argument by Jon Askonas, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, who writes in Compact, another conservative site, that “the conservative project failed” because it “didn’t take into account the revolutionary principle of technology, and its intrinsic connection to the telos [or over-determined trajectory], of sheer profit.”
Both writers want a conservative-led counter-revolution against a corporate technocracy whose fixation on maximizing profit has trapped Americans like flies in a spiderweb of come-ons that grope, goose, track, and indebt us, bypassing our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets. But are conservatives who lament such developments truly urging a revolution within “free market” conservatism itself? Or are they making only a tactical shift in their strategy to support the scramble for sheer profit and accumulated wealth, glossed by religiously inflected public discipline?
American conservatives have long ridden every national gold rush, blaming liberals and progressives for trying to stop such stampedes by desperate mobs and greedy plutocrats. Most of Davidson’s articles have pounced, in sync with conservative media, on any opportunity to lambaste liberals for disrupting plutocracy’s accumulation of wealth (see “The Next GOP Congress Should Impeach Merrick Garland” and “It’s Not Crazy to Think Biden Sabotaged Nord Stream to Deepen U.S. Involvement in the Ukraine War”).
Yet now Davidson is warning that conservatives themselves have undermined their small-r republican virtues and freedoms by surrendering more than they’re conserving. He’s accusing them of accommodating themselves to “woke” liberals’ efforts to redress income inequality, sexual and racial grievances, and markets’ amoral reshaping of society. In so doing, he warns, conservatives, too, have disfigured civic and institutional order.
Once upon a time, Davidson explains,
conservatism was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing. Well, too late. Western civilization is dying. The traditions and practices that conservatives champion… do not form the basis of our common culture or civic life, as they did for most of our nation’s history.
So, conservatives must seize power instead of sharing it. They must restore moral and social order, even if doing so requires using big government to break up a few monopolies and redistribute income a little to Americans whom conservatives have claimed to champion even while protecting the powers and processes that have left them behind.
Davidson and Askonas reproach fellow-conservatives for buying into “woke” corporate capital’s intrusive, subversive technologies, which treat citizens as impulse-buyers whose “consumer sovereignty” suffocates deliberative, political sovereignty. The irony in conservatives making this critique is that profit-crazed media such as Rupert Murdoch’s assemble and disassemble audiences on any pretext—sensationalistic, erotic, bigoted, nihilistic—that might keep them watching the ads and buying whatever they’re pitching.
Conservative jurisprudence that protects consumer marketing’s algorithmically driven pitching—by pretending that the business corporations engaging in it are persons deserving of the First Amendment-protected speech of self-governing citizens—only hands bigger megaphones to managers of swirling whorls of anonymous corporate shareholders, leaving truly deliberative citizens with laryngitis from straining to buck the telos of sheer profit.
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It's no small thing for conservatives to acknowledge that they can’t reconcile their claim to cherish traditional communal and family values with their knee-jerk obeisance to every whim and riptide of conglomeration or financialization. Ivy League graduates often try to finesse the contradiction gracefully and persuasively to most Americans. John F. Kennedy and the two George Bushes have arguably done so, but, perhaps, they knew better than to persuade themselves. “We are poor little lambs who have lost our way… damned from here to eternity,” Yale’s Whiffenpoof songsters croon, clinging to lost civic virtue in formal white ties and tails but acknowledging, humorously and ruefully, the soulless life awaiting them in Dad’s firm or at J.P. Morgan or in poring over spreadsheets as corporate lawyers and business consultants.
Although Davidson and Askonas are more candid than the Whiffenpoofs about the costs of facing both ways, they stop short of crediting Whittaker Chambers' warning to William F. Buckley, Jr.. Chambers, the ex-Communist, took a cue from Marx advising that "you can't build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture," as Sam Tanenhaus, a biographer of Chambers, put it in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute in 2007. Liberal Democrats, too, have stopped short of challenging neoliberal capitalism’s relentless dissolution of civic-republican virtue, voting instead for “the pro-corporate and anti-worker policies that made Trump,” as Robert Kuttner reminds readers of an American Prospect column in which he filleted the centrist liberal writer Anand Giridharadas's effort to rescue liberalism without indicting or significantly reconfiguring corporate capitalism.
Democrats celebrate their breaking of glass ceilings to install “the first” Black and/or female or gay CEO, but they do little to reconfigure those structures’ foundations and walls. While they’ve been breaking glass ceilings, they’ve also been breaking laws and regulations like Glass-Steagall, which restrained the investment banking, private equity, and hedge fund rampages that bamboozle and dispossess millions of Americans. They’ve even accepted the Supreme Court’s orchestration of George W. Bush’s ascent to the presidency and its decimation, via the Citizens United ruling, of campaign-finance laws that curbed corporate capital’s sway over the election of officials who are supposed to regulate corporate capital itself.
In Kuttner's view (and mine; see Liberal Racism), liberal Democrats who wave banners of ethno-racial and sexual identity to cover for their complicity in all this have given conservatives excuses to divert a resentful public's attention from the right’s even-more deceitful complicity in fomenting our republican crisis. Instead of offering alternatives to inequality and decay, conservatives have dined out so compulsively on liberals’ follies that they’ve forgotten how to cook for themselves and the rest of us and have abandoned the kitchen to Donald Trump.
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Peddling demagoguery and finding themselves soulless, some conservatives have turned to religion for cover and succor, if not salvation. But religion should scourge them, as Moses scourged the fabricators of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai; as Jesus did the money-changers whom he drove from the Temple; and even as the conservative theologian Richard John Neuhaus did Senator Bob Dole, who’d condemned cultural decadence in Hollywood and had challenged Bill Clinton in the 1996 election but later made TV commercials for Pfizer, testifying that Viagra helped him cope with his erectile dysfunction. “The poor fellow looks like he’s restraining the impulse to unzip and show us the happy change,” Neuhaus barked.
When I noted Dole’s folly in "Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea Change," an essay for the journal Salmagundi, the conservative Christian editor Rod Dreher, then at The Dallas Morning News, republished my essay in that newspaper, explaining to the conservative Catholic magazine GodSpy that although I made “an impassioned case” that “’the pornification of the public square’ is destroying any kind of civic-republican ethos,” I would never see my dreams realized through liberalism because “only religious faith has the power to resist our very powerful commercial culture.”
Religious conservatives such as Dreher and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have indeed sought in faith an escape hatch of sorts from conservatism’s imprisonment in the telos of sheer profit in our fallen world. Religion served the purpose, too, for William F. Buckley, Jr., who was a wealthy heir to part of the fortune his father had accumulated as an oil prospector and industry developer who meddled in Mexican politics during the military dictatorship of Victoriano Huerto. In 1951 Bill, Jr.’s book God and Man at Yale summoned that college’s presumptively Christian gentlemen alumni to rout the godless socialism of its professors.
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Buckley’s conservative movement has been at it ever since his passing in 2008. The lavishly funded William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale characterizes itself as a champion of “viewpoint diversity” instead of color-coded diversity, and it claims to oppose “intellectual and moral conformity” on campus. Its website features Buckley’s observation that “liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Actually, the program isn’t above trying to shock left-of-center students into making censorious protests which conservative media then spotlight and lampoon, as I recounted in Salon.
Whittaker Chambers would have responded to conservatives’ zeal to own the libs with a shrug and “the sly half-smile of a melancholy man who knows better,” as Tanenhaus put it. The fuller truth is that “viewpoint diversity” doesn’t make much headway against the Buckley Program’s own carefully managed internal conformity, as I discovered in September 2021, when its president, having read a column of mine about Yale’s star-crossed venture to establish a liberal-arts college with the tightly run city-state of Singapore, invited me to speak with the Buckley student fellows, writing that “we are looking to host in-person events with Yale affiliates. Please let me know if you are and I would be happy to follow up.”
“I'd be delighted to talk with and listen to Buckley Program participants,” I responded.
My criticisms of Yale College (which I've defended at times against certain outside conservative critics) are themselves somewhat "conservative," in that I try to protect old civic-republican virtues that I think Yale should continue to nurture. I agree with conservatives that Yale doesn't do enough of that. But… I believe that… finance capital… undermines what's best and necessary in a traditional liberal education….
I could also discuss broader dilemmas that Yale faces in its role as a crucible or training center for civic-republican leadership. Again, I've been severely critical of some conservative critics of Yale (try this, for example! --how's that for "viewpoint diversity"?!). But the older and wiser I become, the more convinced I am that each side of the political spectrum needs the best of the other side in certain ways, and, in this time of increasing polarization, that can't be stated often or clearly enough.
I'd be glad to explain what I mean by this, and I'd be more than willing to listen for a long time to the Buckley student fellows' own thoughts about this….
I never heard back from the Buckley president or anyone else in the program. Ironically, my disinvitation may have had been prompted by my depiction of some conservatives’ stagey condemnations of liberals’ “disinvitations” of conservative speakers. I described Buckley board chairman Roger Kimball’s introduction of the columnist George Will to Buckley student fellows at a “Disinvitation Dinner” staged by the program to dramatize Scripps’ college’s cancellation of its speaking invitation to Will after Will had made disparaging remarks about a “rape culture” of supposedly inflated accusations and cries of victimization. “Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” Kimball thundered, oblivious of the conformity he was enforcing on the 20 year-olds seated before him in formal wear at Will’s “Disinvitation Dinner” in an elegant hotel.
More telling than this reeking strain of hypocrisy has been the conduct of the Yale Law School’s chapter of The Federalist Society, some of whose alumni guided Trump in deciding his appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal judicial benches. Here I commend a brilliant expose of the Federalist Society’s “free speech” hypocrisy by Jack McCordick, a Yale undergraduate at the time, now a researcher-reporter for The New Republic.
Firebrands in the Buckley undergraduate program and the Federalist Society’s law school chapter succeed at times in baiting left-leaning students (and, sometimes, university administrators) into committing or suborning excesses that the national conservative media eagerly denounce. But when the Law School’s Federalist Society chapter did manage to sponsor a straightforward debate—“Income Inequality: Is it Fair or Unfair?”—between the progressive Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits and libertarian writer Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute—Markovits wiped the floor with Brook: See for yourself how an outbreak of “viewpoint diversity” at the behest of the Federalist Society flummoxed its organizers.
A similar embarrassment became public when editors and board members of conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal denied its writer Sol Stern freedom of speech to criticize Donald Trump at all. Stern, who’d been writing for that magazine and institute for years, outed them in an article -- "Think Tank in the Tank" -- for the left-liberal DEMOCRACY Journal that’s as telling as McCordick’s expose of the Federalist Society.
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It's almost enough to make one sympathize with some conservatives’ religious escapes --Rod Dreher’s embrace of what he calls the “Benedict Option,” comes to mind. But it’s not enough to make me sympathize with the secular cries de Coeur of Davidson. “Put bluntly,” he writes, “if conservatives want to save the country, they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found it, and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it.” Why? Because accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible.
One need only consider the speed with which the discourse shifted on gay marriage, from assuring conservatives ahead of the 2015 Obergefell decision that gay Americans were only asking for toleration, to the never-ending persecution of Jack Phillips,” the baker who has indeed been hard-pressed to defend himself legally several times for refusing to decorate a cake with words congratulating a gay couple on a wedding. “The left will only stop when conservatives stop them,”
Davidson continues, warning that
conservatives will have to discard outdated and irrelevant notions about ‘small government’…. To those who worry that power corrupts, and that once the right seizes power it too will be corrupted, they certainly have a point,
If conservatives manage to save the country and rebuild our institutions, will they ever relinquish power and go the way of Cincinnatus? It is a fair question, and we should attend to it with care after we have won the war.
But when have conservatives ever shied from wielding power, except when they’ve been embarrassed or forced into relinquishing it by the brave civil disobedience of a Rosa Parks and the civil-rights movement, or by the disciplined, decisive strikes and protests and electoral organizing of labor unions and social movements?
If conservatives really want to “attend with care” to the examples set by Cincinnatus and George Washington, who relinquished power so that the public interest would continue to be served more lastingly and effectively by others, they’ll have to enable American working people to resist the “telos of sheer profit” that’s stressing and dispossessing them and that’s displacing their anger and humiliation onto scapegoats under the ministrations of Fox News and right-wing demagogues.
How about taking seriously Davidson’s proposal that government offer “generous subsidies to families of young children” -- a heresy to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax zealot who said he wants to shrink government to a size where he could drag into a bathtub and drown it? How about banishing demagoguery from their midst, as they often claim that Buckley banished John Birchite anti-Semitism? How about disassociating themselves, as I think Buckley would have done, from The Claremont Institute, the hard-right think tank that’s been so deeply “in the tank” for President Trump that he gave it a National Humanities Medal and followed the advice of its senior fellow John Eastman in attempting to overturn the 2020 election?
Davidson proposes that “to stop Big Tech… will require using antitrust powers to break up the largest Silicon Valley firms.” But he also proposes that “to stop universities from spreading poisonous ideologies will require state legislatures to starve them of public funds.” He writes that conservatives “need not shy away from [big-government policies] because they betray some cherished libertarian fantasy about free markets and small government. It is time to clear our minds of cant.”
American conservatives hoping to wield big-government power are moving toward something like European conservatism, which has long mixed capitalism and welfare-state spending to advance nationalist, imperialist, and even racialist purposes. That dark, dangerous tradition began with Bismarck and metastasized into Nazi “national socialism” half a century later.
Americans should look carefully into the Pandora’s Box that they’re opening, and those who crave a more-“godly” relation to power would do well to ponder the observation by John Winthrop, the founder and first governor of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, in his essay-sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity,” that “it is a true rule, that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” In other words, not even wealthy estates can survive for long in a society that’s being disintegrated by capitalism. It's getting very hard to imagine America’s conservative “fundamentalists,” be they religious or secular, finding it in themselves to escape the English poet Oliver Goldsmith’s foreboding of doom in 1777: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
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