Governments, no matter how beneficial or enlightened, do end. So do the intellectual movements that underwrite such governments. Thus we see, in today’s America, that modern conservatism, a theory of government which arose largely from the writings of the late William Buckley, has reached its end. Limited government; personal liberties; low taxation and a reluctance to borrow upon the credit of the national treasury; an interventionist foreign policy based upon opposition to communism — all these have lost their hold upon the advocates, donors, and political parties which helped make the America of the past 50 years what it was.
Recently we have taken to naming this political stance “principled conservatism.” Which implies that the movements that now profess to be “conservative” are un-principled. This is a mistake. Today’s “conservatives” are fully committed to a principle : the end of our Constitution and of the liberal democracy which it details. Consider what the current Republican faction insist upon every day : ( 1 ) insurrection and sedition ( 2 ) falsehoods about elections ( 3 ) overturning election results if they go against the Republicans ( 4 ) an end to the separation of church and State guaranteed in the First Amendment ( 5 ) an end to free speech guarantees in said Amendment ( 6 ) an end to the equal protection and due process guarantees in the Fourteenth Amendment ( 7 ) isolationism ( 8 ) the President as absolute monarch and the un-personing if all who do not swear him a loyalty oath ( 8 ) Presidential control of the Federal Courts ( 9 ) disinformation via Republican-minded media ( 10 ) the application of vigilantism, including bullying of voters and harassment of officials, to enforce its agenda and ( 11 ) a love of death by whatever means those who support the Constitution do not support.
Nothing political could be less like principled, modern conservatism than these. The current Republican faction is a radical, illiberal, sometimes fascist, sometimes obscurantist, often delusional, bone-sawed hallucination funded by cynical money men and women who bamboozle working class supporters and foment a political epidemic in the course of which they can free their money purposes from regulation, oversight, and consequence.
We like to think that Trump made this happen, but that too is a mistake. He gave it permission, and has since then played up to it and allowed it to think itself good and right; and he has shown his troupe the ways to destroy; but the impulses were there already. They harken back to long traditions in American life — minority positions always., but of long persistence. All of the actual agendas espoused by today’s illiberals have made the scene many times : in 1787, against ratification of the Constitution; in 1794, the whiskey rebellion; after the Civil Wart, in Jim Crow laws and lynchings; many occasions when immigrants were hounded, harassed, and even murdered;. after World war I and II, in “red scares”; before World war II, the existence of Nazi sympathizers and anti-semites (these led by Father Coughlin and Gerald L K Smith); and for two decades, from 1894 to 1914, the William Jennings Bryan movement, which was racist, religiously intolerant, rural, and economically populist.
What was NOT present, however, in any of these movements, was ( 1 ) a willingness to resort to sedition. 1787’s anti-Constitution people, who might have led a rebellion, instead accepted the ratification; ( 2 ) movements led by liars broadcasting disinformation and fake bugotry ( 3 ) a readiness to chose death over public safety.
The utter falsity of the present illiberalism is scary. A political refusal to accept what is, is absolutely lethal to any kind of ratio0nal government. That today lies and falsity direct the politics of a major political party is a novel phenomenon for our natioin, one whose consequences will likely be fatal to our 234 years of rational governance.
And what of the Democratic party ? For decades beginning with the rise of Woodrow Wilson, it stood for utilitarian reforms that would make the Constitution’s guarantees more available and supported. All of the great democratic reforms since 1912 owe their enactments to Democrats (and, to be fair, to the reformist segment of the old Republican party as well). All of these reforms were achieved by legislative compromise, some of them rapid, some not so rapid, but in every case the consequence of deliberation and campaigning. Which is not to say that they were not accompanied by sometimes outrageous street actions — the antics of some suffragettes cannot be forgotten. Nor were the victories of labor won without violence. Yet if at street level the great reforms of 1913-1968 were often occasion for civil disobedience, often painful, in the halls of Congress, legislation was debated, crafted, redrafted, and enacted in the manner accorded by our Coinstitution as practiced.
Today that is less and less the case. The Democratic party has responded poorly to the current Republican menace. It is off balance at best. It can’t decide whether to become as cultish as the Republicans or to remain Constitutional. Much of its working class base has left the tent. The Democrats of today are, more and more every month, led by outlandish ultras who want it all and want it now; by mega-rich, technology donors and corporate human resource zealots; by academics who have turned universities into inquisitions; by racially obsessed biology nuts who divide the electorate into skin color or ethnic origin apartheids; and by consultants and campaign managers who have intentionally excised a huge part of the nation’s registered voters from their campaign lists. I have some advice for the Democrats : elections are won by addition, not subtraction. An act-blue campaign only to a “vote builder”: voterfile list is by definition a vote suppression, an oligarchic structure.
By campaigning thus, the current Democratic party is sticking its head in the Republican lion’s mouth, doing exactly to the voters what the Republicans want Democrats to do and verifying, for Republican voters, all the lies that Republican manipulators tell their voters about the other party and its activists. If that were all, it would be scary enough. There is more, however. Today’s Democratic party has almost given up on the deliberative Congressional process and on the independence of our Federal Courts. The party is dangerously close to trying to impose its priorities rather than negotiate them, to seek tinkering with the Constitution rather than accepting its skeptical, centuries-wise limitations. Nor should this surprise us. just as the Democrats’ academics and administrators tell students (and professors) what to think, say, and learn, and just as the party’s corporate managers tell employee what to think and say (much of it being skin-color and national origin diktats), so these same folks see no reason why in the political sphere they should not impose rather than discuss with their opponents. Nor is the Constitution any precept to them; after all, the Democrats’ favorite academics and advocates consider the Constitution illegitimate because crafted by slave holders in defense of slavery. Indeed, some Democratic zealots consider the entire history of our nation illegitimate.
The Democratic party hasn’t slid as far down the slope to illiberal as its political opposite — after all, Joe Biden is President, not AOC — but the clock is ticking. If the modern conservative movement is already dead, the modern liberal movement is maybe two election cycles away. All of the great Democratic leaders — Hoyer, Clyburn, Pelosi, Schumer — are 80 years old or almost. They have no successors. We are watching the constitutional Democratic party move into death’s waiting room.
We are so screwed.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere