A Conservative Self-Critique

This anthology acknowledging conservative defeats contains many valuable essays, but ultimately doesn’t go far enough in its critique of conservative political elites.

Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right after a Generation of Decay

by Arthur Milikh, ed.

Encounter Books

328 pp., $32.99

After decades of almost unbroken defeat, culminating in what amounts to a coup d’etat by the left, we finally get an admission of failure from the establishment right. The chief merit of Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right After a Generation of Decay, a collection of essays edited by Arthur Milikh, is its acknowledgement of defeat—sometimes diplomatically, though often forthrightly.

“The establishment Right’s failures over the last generations have been manifold,” the editor writes in the introduction.

Since the end of the Cold War, what trajectory-altering successes or victories can the Right cite to demonstrate its worth? … Despite spending billions of dollars supporting its infrastructure … the establishment Right has registered no clear gains and many clear losses. Much of the nation was conquered on its watch.

Michael Anton goes further in his criticism of the establishment right in one of his two essays in the anthology, suggesting that it abetted its own defeats. “Where official conservatism’s opposition hasn’t been ineffectual, it’s been collaborationist,” he writes. Importantly, Anton here blames not only “Republicans in Name Only” (RINOs), but the larger conservative class itself.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book, and another of its chief merits, is that the 18 conservative writers and scholars who contributed to it refrain from defaulting to the typical conservative abstract philosophizing about the “common good” and “human flourishing.” They actually did some concrete research and wrote essays of practical value, which alone makes this collection worth reading.

Nevertheless, the thesis of Up from Conservatism suggests these authors see themselves as dissident conservatives, outside of that “establishment” and willing to criticize it. And they are, but only up to a point. Many are scholars or lawyers at major conservative academic institutions, think tanks, and publications, and as such are not truly outside of the establishment. Perhaps they are better understood as members of a rising post-Trump alternative establishment, one that has been willing to examine critically the prevailing neoconservative order, but which has its own sacred cows and elite-class biases.

Despite their supposed dissident stances, many of these authors are firmly rooted in the professional political class they chastise. Thus, in casting America’s problems as political, that is, pitting right against left—rather than of an ascendant cultural left threatening mainstream society—they seem to suggest that the evils produced by one side of the political elite class can be rectified by the other. The notion that conservatives have their own elite class that needs to be challenged, replaced, or bypassed is never considered in this book.

The book offers self-conscious critiques of “conservatism” addressed to “conservatives” by writers who identify as such. Certainly, that is needed. But addressing Americans beyond the programmatically committed might have broadened the perspective and achieved more. How far most Americans classify themselves as conscious conservatives is unclear; although in the face of an ascendant, extreme left, perhaps increasing numbers do. 

After making an excellent start in describing conservative defeats, the book starts to falter in its examination of the causes. With so many scholarly contributors to the book, one might have hoped for some comprehensive explanation as to why all this has happened. Individual authors do assess specific failures on their own bits of turf, all worthy of consideration, but the larger enigma of so many conservative defeats on so many fronts remains unexplained.

Likewise, the remedies proposed within are often unsatisfying. There are a lot of “shoulds” but very few “hows” in Up from Conservatism. But, to the contributors’ credit, they mostly avoid the habitual conservative faults of telling us what we already know and preaching to the converted.

Another big problem with the book is that inability to explain the right’s continuing defeat and to propose plausible remedies leads logically to despair and defeatism. David Azerrad suggests our difficulties with race “may well be that the problem cannot be solved.” Scott Yenor laments that “family decline at this point seems … inevitable and fated, sown into the American regime and indeed the modern situation.” Jesse Merriam is even more despondent: “Americans have largely lost the discipline, will, and virtue to engage in republican self-governance. Restoring an ethos of self-governance … may seem an impossible task.” That is hardly inspiring as a manifesto for what Yenor calls “a rejuvenated conservatism.”

All this raises the question of who and what is excluded from both the “establishment” and this volume. If conservatism has failed so miserably, perhaps we should start listening to the people who have been warning all along about the professionals’ shortcomings? Such as those who warned against reckless military intervention in places like Ukraine; those who ask why conservatives ignore and even support hideous civil liberties violations by American courts; those who insist that welfare be well and truly abolished; those who criticize the fecklessness of churches in the face of radical sexuality; or those who simply want debate about these topics and wonder why discussion of them is censored by the conservative establishment and its own media.

Some of this book’s essays are unexceptionable. Anton offers an elegant critique of neoconservative foreign policy, as does Carson Holloway on the concept of America as a “propositional nation.” Theodore Wold demonstrates how far Americans have farmed out their citizenship to functionaries, to whom elected officials also genuflect. “The administrative state is the single biggest threat that faces the Constitution,” he writes. The trenchant argument of Joshua Mitchell and Aaron Renn that identity politics originates as a “heresy within Protestantism” could apply to the entire modern left. 

But fundamental omissions in this collection explain much about the right’s parlous state. If I seem to dwell on the negative in the rest of my review of this book, let me point out that the negative is the book’s whole point. The book’s problem is that it isn’t negative enough, particularly about the challenges conservatives face in America’s judicial system and in realistically facing the country’s sexual and racial politics. I applaud the authors for initiating a constructive dialogue about the faults of conservatism, but I’d like to suggest why we need more exhaustive criticism of the conservative movement.

First, hideous injustices against Americans by their own government—specifically their own justice system—are rarely criticized by professional conservatives. Indeed, many are attorneys who actively participate in this corrupt system. Merriam presents standard complaints against judicial activism, with appropriate pessimism: “Why is it that, after more than fifty years of Republicans controlling the Court, the success of legal conservatism has been so limited?”

Perhaps it is because those Republicans avert their eyes and bite their tongues as they witness a judiciary that terrorizes its own citizens. Conservative writers like Paul Craig Roberts, Lawrence Stratton, Stuart Taylor, Harvey Silverglate, Gene Healy, Timothy Lynch, and I myself have documented the injustices that are routine in American courts. The American justice system has become one in which evidence is routinely fabricated or suppressed; records are falsified and defendants framed; confessions are routinely extorted; and jury trials have been all but abolished. Parents routinely have their children permanently taken from them without cause, before being plundered and jailed without trial. Legally innocent Americans routinely find their life savings stolen using a variety of pretexts and themselves reduced to penury. 

Federal courts protect all this. Thus it is small wonder that, as Milikh observes, “While the Right boasts about how it has stocked the federal courts with ‘originalists,’ the Left has attained nation-altering legal victory after legal victory.” 

If we are seeking the roots of “lawfare” indictments and other legal chicanery against Donald Trump and his supporters—and against conservatives of all stripes—we should start with the judiciary.

To this book’s credit, several of its essays, such as Jeremy Carl’s on immigration, do make clear that the judiciary is the most lawless sector of government and main impediment to broader reform. And what Robert Delahunty writes about the “Deep State” applies equally to the judiciary that enabled its ascension:

The Right … must bear a major share of the blame: it has mindlessly saluted it, funded it, protected it, allowed itself to be used by it, and possibly been blackmailed by it. 

Yet oddly, Delahunty writes that, “The only realistic chance of major reform … arises from the Republican Party.” Although Milikh and Merriam express doubt about the reliability of the GOP in promoting conservative goals, Richard Hanania also feebly concludes that “there seems to be no better answer here than winning more elections and appointing the right judges.”

In truth, curtailing judicial tyranny is the greatest challenge in our politics. It is only possible as part of a larger, more concerted effort to break the power of the entire professional political class, a cartel of unionized legal practitioners who have established themselves as our professional surrogate citizens—not only in the judiciary, but also in the legislatures, lobbies, executive bureaucracies, universities, military, and more. These people dictate how we are permitted to exercise our civic freedom. Given that the most serious violations against ordinary Americans take place in the family courts, starting there would raise enough of a ruckus to provoke a serious public debate on the essential issues.

Also basic to the right’s ongoing defeat is that the leftist vanguard has substituted sexual discontents for socioeconomic ones. As the most significant ideological innovation of our time, this is the threat most misunderstood by the right, the one from which they most readily run away, and it furnishes the foremost example of Anton’s point about the right abetting the left. Unfortunately, this volume’s meager treatment of sexual politics confirms this.

The book’s lone essay on the question, by American Conservative Senior Editor Helen Andrews, can hardly dissect what amounts to a quasi-totalitarian ideology. In passing, she debunks two excuses for paralysis worth emphasizing. First, the pill alone did not cause the Sexual Revolution, which was ideological and not technological. Second, she points out that pretending to address family dissolution with gimmicks, like paying people to have children or “tweaks to the tax code … are wildly out of proportion to the magnitude of the crisis we are facing.” Worse, they are diversions to avoid substantive reforms that sheepish conservatives know will bring the wrath of feminists down upon their heads. 

Andrews’ essay can be paired with that of Scott Yenor, who likewise acknowledges abysmal failure in the conservative protection of the family:

…conservative opposition to the Sexual Revolution has amounted to very little. In fact, things seem only to get worse.… The conservative movement’s broad trajectory on family is one of loss-after-loss.

But Yenor indulges in conservatism’s most self-defeating habits: lamenting a litany of horrors, followed by a litany of “musts” for those with magic wands to wave.

This failure stands out vividly as the cause of another big one: race. Azerrad competently recites the boilerplate case against the “woke” agenda. But the continued degradation of the African-American community remains a serious source of trouble. It does not mean that we flagellate ourselves for our “racism” and dole out reparations. But Azerrad mentions the real culprit only in passing: “fatherlessness” and lack of “strong families.” 

Of course, these social ills are caused—directly and demonstrably—by yet other government policies conservatives either ignore or support. It started with welfare reform—which was conservatives’ top priority until Bill Clinton’s faux-reform provided the excuse they needed to run away from it—likewise fearing feminist retribution. Welfare’s family-destruction machinery was then expanded to the middle class by divorce courts, whose depredations conservatives generally ignore and even encourage.

Mitchell and Renn glimpse the larger dynamic that fools conservatives and demands elucidation. They write that the woke “cabal”

requires of black elites that in exchange for their standing as untouchable, they must allow the black wound to be leveraged for the purpose of advancing feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and now transgender rights—movements that a vast swath of black Americans do not support.

Most obviously, Black Lives Matter is feminist-run and pushes sexual radicalism.

Conservatives conceal their own version of “cancel culture,” precisely because it so ruthlessly and effectively effaces both its victims and itself. Tucker Carlson’s ouster from Fox News showed a rare public glimpse of this in action, but similar techniques for purging dissenters operate routinely throughout conservative organizations. 

Milikh and Yenor offer standard complaints against leftist educational institutions, and sensible reforms, but prudently refrain from criticizing feckless conservative colleges, seminaries, scholars, administrators, journalists, and clergy, for not resisting Bolshevik methods. Hanania offers his suggestion, writing that “the main answer … is not to necessarily reform the university system to make it more agreeable to conservatism, but to reduce the status and influence of higher education, while depriving the academy … of resources.” 

How about getting scholars and colleges off their duffs and into action, like their leftist counterparts? Milikh and Yenor say that “new universities are popping up” and “the number of universities working outside the system is growing.” But aside from purging their own scholars, to appease the left, how are they responding to the leftist ascendency? Why do they not challenge the left?

If this book’s contributors are still acculturated to the political class they occupy, this may be said of many of us. We will free ourselves from the foolishness that led that class to defeat only when we engage in more rigorous self-criticism than is offered in this volume. 

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