When conservatives become revolutionaries | The week
The conservative intelligentsia keeps reverting to authoritarianism.
In June of last year, I wrote a column about how the intellectual right itself spoke of demolishing American democracy. The occasion was a debate between David French, a social-conservative defender of the right to religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment, and Sohrab Ahmari, a more right-wing opinion journalist and editor who promotes an actively devoted policy to the reorganization of American life “for the common good and ultimately for the greater good”, even in the absence of popular support for such a religiously enlightened project.
Ahmari’s side in the debate received considerable momentum in April when Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule published an essay in Atlantic in which he attacked the conservative jurisprudence of “originalism”, which theoretically limits the actions of Supreme Court justices by insisting that they rely on the meaning of the Constitution as it stands. it was understood when it was drafted and ratified. Instead of originalism, Vermuele advocated something called “common good constitutionalism,” which would use the law to instill a holistic moral vision rooted in conservative Christianity.
At the time, I described this proposal as “an eager rejection of the need for democratic legitimacy and full adherence to political authoritarianism.” Last week, President Trump marked his administration’s approval of these views by announcing his intention to appoint Vermeule for a three-year term at the United States Administrative Conference.
In the months following the release of Vermuele’s essay, the mood among conservative intellectuals grew darker and more desperate, as the likelihood of Trump being re-elected declined – and the president himself began. to use federal agents to quash protests in the streets of American cities despite the objection of local elected officials, while repeatedly suggesting that voter fraud in the next election could render its results illegitimate.
How dark and desperate is the law? So much so that it is now increasingly common to see conservative writers openly flirting with ideas that clearly point in the direction of outright political radicalism, including speak civil war, permanently purge liberal political functions and positions of cultural influence, the need to revolutionary action, and hopes for a ârefoundationâ of America using âregime-level powerâ.
This is how political actors speak when they have lost confidence in the legitimacy of the political opposition and dream of overthrowing the system as a whole for the benefit of another who will be more inclined to place people like them in (potentially permanent) positions of power. .
To get a sense of where the conversation is heading on the right, it helps to start looking below the higher levels, where arguments are often made with a higher degree of subtlety and sophistication, and focus instead. on the more brutal formulations favored by professional trolls. For this purpose, a series of recent tweets by Kurt Schlichter, a rabid pro-Trump columnist for Town hall, is revealing.
Schlichter began his social media provocation by asking the liberals “to explain to me why Trump is morally obligated to leave the White House if he loses the election, and why we are morally obligated to treat his opponent as the winner.” When someone responded by pointing out that âthis is how democracy works,â Schlichter responded by rejecting the premise, âExcept it doesn’t work that way. I’m going to need more information on the source of this bond and why Trump should honor it. “
In a follow-up, Schlichter went further, to imagine what might happen “if the Democrats start another civil war, after we crush them.” In such a case, “we must destroy every institution they control, [and] kick all liberals out of power. Such a total purge of liberalism, argued Schlichter, “would fulfill the promise of the Constitution.”
Was it just the wanton rant of someone making their salary by injecting toxins into the body politic? If only. Schlichter’s tweets are a worrying indication of the direction right-wing minds are taking – towards a one-party regime for themselves and a willingness to fuel revolutionary violence against their opponents if they lose. We can see this from what more and more curators are writing and publishing, but also from the intellectual history and logic of conservative ideas themselves.
As the name suggests, conservatism is a political philosophy geared towards resistance to historical change. It seeks to keep aspects of the present and the past – to keep things, or at least certain things (especially respect for order, authority and tradition), as they are or have been. , in the face of individual agents or social forces seeking to produce their transformation.
But what if the change has already been made, leaving little to keep? The Conservatives were first confronted with this dilemma in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was at this point that the main conservatives recognized that there was no return to the pre-revolutionary monarchy and the established Church as it existed before 1789, and instead began to formulate a new counter-revolutionary political philosophy. He would seek to overturn the now completely corrupt status quo and restore primordial order and authority on a new basis through human will and action. It was now possible to be both a conservative and a political radical – a combination of tendencies that ultimately led to the rise of European fascism.
In recent years, we have witnessed a reconstitution of this dialectical movement of the American right at the level of ideas. Besides Ahmari and Vermeule, there is Patrick Deneen, a leading thinker behind a more radical conservative critique of liberalism. Deneen opposes not only moral individualism, which is common in the religious right, but also libertarian economics – and even goes so far as to reject any form of rights-based politics that underlies our form. of government and our way of life.
Deenen’s Important and Influential Book 2018 Why liberalism failed was somewhat vague on the practical political implications of his argument. But in a recent tweet thread, Deneen clarified things. He wrote there that many self-proclaimed conservatives are in fact just conservative liberals who defend a political and economic order that ‘does not’ preserve ‘, but disrupts, upsets, [and] liquefies stability and security. On the other hand, true conservatives like him recognize that “a liberal society is necessarily and inevitably incapable of being truly conservative” because “it is by definition progressive and hostile to tradition, to stability and to generational continuity”.
The result is a kind of double paradox, with conservative liberals seeking to maintain an order that makes order impossible – and true conservatives assuming the role of “revolutionaries” seeking to “change the current order, in an effort to make true conservatism possible. “
This is a position summarized and developed in a contribution to a recent colloquium in The American Conservative by Matthew Peterson of the Claremont Institute. The title of the essay – âAmerica Needs a Refoundationâ – conveys the core of its message. The country was founded on the presumption that “certain truths, the Laws of Nature and the God of Nature, could be known by men of good will who understand Nature and Reason, and that these truths should shape our structures. policies and our political and cultural life. . “Yet the ‘institutions that should instill these truths and this way of life are not doing so now.’ For this reason, ‘conservatism has to face the fact that in our time conserving alone is not enough.’
Instead of seeking to maintain the status quo, conservatives need to recognize that the left has already succeeded in “rebuilding America” ââ- and that they must “rebuild” it again in order to restore it to its former glory.
Conservatism doesn’t just have to make the case and reshape a bold new political platform – it must act on it, wielding “regime-level” power in the service of good political order to do so – or it will fail. We must lead a counter-revolution. Since it is not, by definition, “conservative,” American conservatism can no longer be called “conservatism” if it chooses to rise to the occasion. [The American Conservative]
When it comes to what will happen to those millions of Americans who do not wish to see their country undergo a conservative counterrevolution, Peterson offers nothing more than a passing commentary than the right. “Must promote an American way of life which appeals to Americans of goodwill(emphasis added). Those who support Peterson’s goals have good intentions. These are the good Americans. Those who oppose those goals, on the other hand, have more malicious intentions. These are the bad Americans, including the preferences, interests and concerns can rightfully be dismissed and referred.
We find evidence of the same Manichean view of the country and its citizens when we place Peterson’s essay in the context of the conservative writing for which the Claremont Institute is best known today. For much of the past three decades, the institute has developed a harsh critique of the “administrative state” that grew out of the progressive movement, with the implication that it should be largely dismantled in favor of a regulatory regime. much less expensive in Washington. . Yet Peterson’s case of the pro-right using government to enact a conservative counterrevolution seems to point in the opposite direction – toward the generous use of increased federal power to achieve supposedly valid political goals.
It is difficult to avoid concluding that the right is evolving in our time in the direction of a refusal of the regular transfer of power between two legitimate political parties within a liberal framework. In its place, reactionary conservatives oscillate wildly between supporting the revolution when its opponents win the elections and approving authoritarianism when it manages to seize power.
Both extremes arise from the belief that only one part of our political disputes has legitimacy. You can see where this type of thinking ends.