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A Brit’s Friendly Advice to American Conservatives

(Brian van der Brug/NAM)

“In order to win, the American Right needs to bury dead dogmas, get its head out of abstract Platonic idealism, and look reality in the face.”

It may seem strange for a Brit, and a relatively young one at that, to write about what the American Right should be (and should do) in the future in order to win again. After all, what does it have to do with me? The answer is that future of the American Right affects both the British public in general and the British Right in particular. The hegemonic position America occupies in culture, economics, and politics inevitably affects us here in Britain. A healthy and effective American Right is to all of our benefit and should be fervently desired in the face of America’s—and the wider West’s—many problems.

The fact is America is a mess. The Right in America needs to accept what it is facing. To escape into abstract worlds of Platonic ideals, constantly prating on that “ideas have consequences,” is really just a massive cope. It is a demonstration of the Right’s impotence in the face of the managerial state in control of the economic base and the means of cultural production.

The American conservative commentariat mostly shares the culture war obsessions of the leftist elite because that is with whom they interact. Much of Conservatism Inc’s ideological pastimes are divorced from the Republican base. As Michael Lind writes, “The business Republicans, whose preferences Republican politicians promote, on average make $69,711 a year, around $30,000 more than the Republican populists, whose preferences most Republican politicians ignore.”

Populism does not just mean whining about cancel culture and how mean the Left is on social media, complaining about digital book burnings and then reading Green Eggs and Ham as an act of bravery. Celebrating “Twitter owns” and bemoaning the censorship of conservatives on the Internet are all surface-level manifestations of a deeper problem: the lack of actual power American conservatism has, coupled with its inability to use it when it is obtained. Former President Donald Trump won in 2016 with a populist message but then did almost nothing to enact it while in office. Governing today means appointing the grey-faced, grey-suited people to fill the managerial positions that realize one’s goals. President Trump failed in this, instead ruling like a “normie,” neoliberal Republican with a vile personality. The Left built a straw-man radical populist to justify their ideological overreaction.

Marx loved free markets and free trade: He saw that they were acid to social and cultural structures standing in the way of economic dissolution of social forms.

Economically speaking, the United States has been both the chief proponent and victim of globalization. The idea that unlimited free trade was an unalloyed good—and that erasing one’s own industrial infrastructure and ability to make things was the road to ever greater freedom—was always a delusion only neoliberal ideologues divorced from reality were capable of believing. Family formation, which relies on material as well as cultural reserves, has disintegrated from material and subsequent cultural deprivation. China, the source of disastrous trade competition and the Coronavirus (COVID-19), benefited at America’s loss.

The economic policy of the Right in the United States has suffered from the same dogma-driven malaise it suffered under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her heirs in the United Kingdom. Anything on the Right that does not bow down before the inflexible abstractions of Hayek, Friedman, and company is still deemed socialist and, therefore, illegitimate by many among the Anglosphere’s Right. Marx loved free markets and free trade: He saw that they were acid to social and cultural structures standing in the way of economic dissolution of social forms. As in Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s day, the forces of economic liberalism have liberated people from the bonds that make life worth living, leaving them at the mercy of the winds of the market and the leviathan state.

As Lind via Lee Drutman shows, 41% of Americans are “populist”: culturally right and economically moderate. The love of free markets and free trade displayed by elite American conservatives (6.2% of voters) is anathema to most of the increasingly diverse working-class base that voted for President Trump in 2020. Neoliberal orthodoxy will not cut it: President Trump’s popularity crashed after his 2017 tax cuts. Conservative economics must stop being the mirror of Marxism in its fetishization of homo economicus, of the maximization of autonomy through the market. Republicans should heed Prime Minister Disraeli’s example and pursue a properly conservative economics oriented to restoring and preserving functioning families and communities, anchored to concrete places. For all his cringe-worthy clichés, this is exactly what Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “leveling up” rhetoric points to.

Socially, the United States’ working and lower-middle classes are doing badly. Their jobs, particularly in industry and manufacturing, were dwindling before COVID-19 killed millions more. Law and order had already disappeared from vast stretches of inner cities before the retreat after George Floyd’s death. Now, violent crime is spiraling. Immigration was a problem before; now, hundreds of thousands are attempting to enter through the United States-Mexico border. Social isolation and loneliness were becoming the norm for more and more people, as they fell through the evermore frayed social fabric before COVID-19 further tore it apart. The mass opioid cull is the bleakest manifestation of long-term trends. America’s popular culture was increasingly degraded; now it is obscene.

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The breakdown of communal bonds and structures is not just a function of welfare-statism or “big government.” It is a function of the very individualism rooted in liberalism that necessitated these incursions in the first place. As Patrick Deneen argues, individualism leads to statism. Any conservatism worth the name should consider that its goal should be to restore—and then conserve—the places, families, and communities that provide the texture of life and the forms that give it direction, purpose, and meaning. Economic and social policy should be subservient to social stability. Prime Minister Johnson accepted this on the campaign for the 2019 general election, arguing that one should not have to move across the country for employment, away from all support and solace of one’s place and people.

The malaise of modern societies is one of purposelessness attached to precarious low-wage employment. Large portions of the United States’ population are entertained to spiritual and physical death. Their economic want mirrors their spiritual lack. Christopher Lasch was correct when he wrote that this “culture ‘educates’ the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfilment. It upholds consumption as the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction.” Communities hollowed out by economic loss face cultural assault.

The social and economic mess is perpetuated by a bipartisan managerial state structure and managerial class devoted to entrenching its own power through the dissolution of the rest of society. What Lind dubs the Overclass, the top 5-10% of the population, controls the interlocking networks and positions of power between industry and the state bureaucracy. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft comprise the ascendant dematerialized economy, one that provides the technology infrastructure on which government itself now functions.

Ideas only have consequences with the power to enact them and make them have consequences.

The managerial Overclass, Paul Gottfried argues, entrenches its control through the employment of therapeutic language of safety, harm, pathology, and purity. This is all imprinted on the proletarianized populace through social media allied with legacy media. Wesley Yang’s Successor Ideology, a form of extreme identitarian egalitarianism, is the latest iteration of this therapeutic worldview, cleaving the world into those stained with sin and those blessed by grace. The Successor Ideology as managerial worldview legitimates the Overclass via exploitation of identitarian divisions. Multiculturalism was the managerial predecessor to identity politics. Both aim to deconstruct the American people and state.

The American Right needs to accept the realities of power. It needs either to control or repurpose the networks and institutions that enable the implementation of a truly conservative worldview. Ideas only have consequences with the power to enact them and make them have consequences. This should be allied to a view as to the ends of government. Government with defined ends is thereby limited in its purview and actions. Government should serve the common good of the common man and woman, helping to create the conditions for flourishing lives in stable, safe, and secure communities. Family as the root of civilization should be the priority. Concrete place and people over abstract ideals should be the goal.

A political and economic elite combined with an administrative class is inevitable in our complex societies, so conservatives should reconcile to this. However, one not riddled with hatred for the governed, what Roger Scruton called oikophobia, would be beneficial to all concerned. What Patrick Deneen has called Aristo-Populism seems worthy of exploration. The mutual and reciprocal ennobling of the worthy few and dignified many is something of which Disraeli would have approved. Emphasis on the role of social, political, and economic structures is all well and good, but one must have a vision of moral and social origins and ends before using power with any wisdom. Educate, then replace the elite.

There are signs that American conservatism is at least considering moving away from Zombie Reaganism. Who would have predicted Senator Marco Rubio lending support to trade unionists against Amazon; or a Republican Congressman, Jim Banks, advocating embracing the working class; or using government power against technology monopolies? Politics is about winning. In order to win, the American Right needs to bury dead dogmas, get its head out of abstract Platonic idealism, and look reality in the face. The American people need and deserve better. Conservatives should deliver by being equal to the task: more populist and more elitist. Only then will an American Right dedicated to the common good for the common people, a politics of home, have a chance of success.

Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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