Among the things that are absolutely essential to progress – regardless of what sort of progress we’re talking about — the recognition and correction of mistakes is paramount. Human knowledge is like a single vector in a disordered field. To arrive at it involves eliminating all the alternatives to that one true magnitude and direction. There’s a reason century after century of pedagogues have said that we learn best from our mistakes.
American conservatives are no longer of a unified mind. The unwillingness of many to recognize and admit to conservatism’s historical mistakes is a great part of the reason. Perhaps the greatest of those mistakes has been a concentration on opposition, as if conservatism should be defined by whatever its enemies are pushing. We’ve learned these past decades that is not enough merely to oppose the Left’s agenda. Conservatives and the organizations they create must adopt positions that promote specific ends as well. Some of the ends best fitted to the preferences of American conservatives are absolutely antithetical to a number of policy postures traditionally seen as conservative.
As I’ve said here and elsewhere, for many years the mindset of the typical American conservative has been oppositional: to hold on to those values, policies, and institutions we perceive as being under attack by the Left. The etymology of the word conservative is perfectly aligned with that posture. I have no doubt that this is among the strongest reasons so many young Americans have resisted embracing the label or its foremost spokesmen.
John Davidson’s recent essay at The Federalist suggests an approach divergent from what the majority of conservatives value. He opens with a bit of “shock and awe:” First, renounce the word conservative!
Given the state of America in 2022, conservatives should stop calling themselves conservatives.
Why? Because the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach. Conservatives have long defined their politics in terms of what they wish to conserve or preserve — individual rights, family values, religious freedom, and so on. Conservatives, we are told, want to preserve the rich traditions and civilizational achievements of the past, pass them on to the next generation, and defend them from the left. In America, conservatives and classical liberals alike rightly believe an ascendent left wants to dismantle our constitutional system and transform America into a woke dystopia. The task of conservatives, going back many decades now, has been to stop them.
So far, so good, other than the jarring notion that our label has to go. People dislike being told to change their appellations; it sounds like betrayal. Un-conservative! But let’s pass on:
In an earlier era, this made sense. There was much to conserve. But any honest appraisal of our situation today renders such a definition absurd. After all, what have conservatives succeeded in conserving? In just my lifetime, they have lost much: marriage as it has been understood for thousands of years, the First Amendment, any semblance of control over our borders, a fundamental distinction between men and women, and, especially of late, the basic rule of law.
Calling oneself a conservative in today’s political climate would be like saying one is a conservative because one wants to preserve the medieval European traditions of arranged marriage and trial by combat. Whatever the merits of those practices, you cannot preserve or defend something that is dead. Perhaps you can retain a memory of it or knowledge of it. But that is not what conservatism was purportedly about. It was about maintaining traditions and preserving Western civilization as a living and vibrant thing.
This is where Davidson veers off the track of reason. His invocation of “medieval European traditions” is the first signpost to his intended course. What’s the relevance to the values American conservatives cherish and seek to re-elevate to primacy? None whatsoever…but let’s pass on a wee bit further. After what seems to me a digression into irrelevancy about technological innovations and their sociocultural effects, Davidson shows his hand in the most blatant fashion:
While it might be necessary, as [Compact essayist Jon Askonas] argues, to enact a serious program of technological development to build a future that supports human flourishing, it is also the case that to do so on a scale sufficient to save our country will require political power — and the willingness to use it.
So what kind of politics should conservatives today, as inheritors of a failed movement, adopt? For starters, they should stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, that is what they are, whether they embrace those labels or not.
About now, we could use a few quotes:
Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. – Albert Camus
Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder. – George Bernard Shaw
Revolutions, as long and bitter experience reveals, are apt to take their color from the regime they overthrow. – Richard Tawney
Politics, as hopeful men practice it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance. The American colonists, when they got rid of the Potsdam tyrant, believed fondly that they were getting rid of oppressive taxes forever and setting up complete liberty. They found almost instantly that taxes were higher than ever, and before many years they were writhing under the Alien and Sedition Acts. – H. L. Mencken
Those who have seized power, even for the noblest of motives soon persuade themselves that there are good reasons for not relinquishing it. This is particularly likely to happen if they believe themselves to represent some immensely important cause. They will feel that their opponents are ignorant and perverse; before long they will come to hate them…The important thing is to keep their power, not to use it as a means to an eventual paradise. And so what were means become ends, and the original ends are forgotten except on Sundays. – Bertrand Russell
The historical record aligns exceedingly well with the seemingly cynical views of the men quoted above. The final observation, from Bertrand Russell, is especially penetrating. It’s a point I’ve made many times here and elsewhere: Those who seek power value it above all other things. Moreover, their single-minded dedication to the pursuit of power virtually guarantees that they will rise to the top of any organization whose captaincy they seek, including a “conservative” one. Friedrich Hayek described the dynamic involved in 1944.
Once power-seekers have seized the levers of power, they will not relinquish them voluntarily. It will take a force greater than whatever they command to rip them from their grasp.
Davidson nods briefly to the hazard involved. He considers it a risk that we must court if we are to advance on our objectives. It’s the “win first, make adjustments later” school of analysis:
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.
Clearly, Davidson doesn’t agree with me about the magnitude of the risk he contemplates. Cincinnatus was a historical anomaly. So was George Washington, whose troops offered to install him as America’s king once the British had surrendered. If there are others like those two paragons, I’m unaware of them.
My question is whether there’s a viable alternative to Davidson’s proposed course that doesn’t involve the risk of a new, even more oppressive government. Americans would be no happier with a totalitarian conservative regime than they are with the present one. Conservative mistakes of past centuries included the enforcement of a great many rules of conduct that would badly chafe Americans, especially young ones. Asserting that those rules would be “good for us” is no defense; people have a need to make – and learn from – their own mistakes.
Isn’t that what freedom is about?