The Great Conservative Death Wish

An autopsy of the Western right.

By the mid-1980s, a number of works had appeared to call attention to what Malcolm Muggeridge described as the “great liberal death wish.” Among studies that examined the multiple forms of this psychopathology were James Burnham’s Suicide of the West (1965), Robert Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority (1975), and Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish (1984).

A less sophisticated but amusingly written treatment of some of the same morbid symptoms was the Conservative Book Club’s alternate selection in 1984, R. Emmett Tyrrell’s optimistically titled The Liberal Crack-Up. Reagan was then at the height of his popularity and influence; for conservatives, it was the dawning of the age of irrational exuberance.

That in the West democracy and civilization as we knew them are now roadkill, putrefying on the shoulder of the Highway of Progress, will get no argument from this writer. But that liberalism as a political philosophy is either moribund or suicidal (if that was the authors’ implication) appears in retrospect to have been a consoling illusion. The left, in its current “progressive” modality, is very much alive, and can be seen everywhere urinating on the graves of its erstwhile undertakers—forgive the indelicacy, but the image is all too apposite.

The unremitting success of the left’s march through the institutions hardly suggests that liberals suffer from a death wish; on the contrary, a compelling argument can be made that conservatism is (to borrow the phrase of the once-fashionable literary critic Stanley Fish) a self-consuming artifact.

At best, there has been an enervating contradiction running through the history of conservative thought. On the one hand, conservatism is founded upon a regnant hostility to the State, against whose tyrannical velleities it preaches eternal vigilance. On the other hand, it remains dedicated to the preservation of the perennial mores and traditions that have evolved organically throughout human civilization, of which the State is the putative legal guarantor. Under the afflatus to “conserve,” conservatism regards obedience to authority as a virtue, and this often translates into an
obedience to the very government whose despotic usurpation of man’s natural rights and freedoms it is always admonishing against, not to mention a failure to recognize that the State has long ago been captured by and become the citadel of those revolutionary forces the right is also always admonishing against.

The reflex of conservatism, above all, has been to retire from the public square to the wholesome pleasures of family and private life; to be grateful for the blessings that God and our ancestors have bequeathed to us; to practice the Boethian acceptance of the world’s transitory miseries and injustices against which inner virtue and Christian Truth are impregnable; to cultivate measure and moderation, even as its enemies reflexively accuse it of the “extremism” that the left practises habitually and unapologetically.

For progressives, moderation and compromise invariably mean reaching across the aisle to enact every last codicil of their agenda. Conversely, to hope for moderation from progressives themselves is on the order of Christians’ hoping for moderation from the lions. Progressives know that reaching across the aisle is a strategy for losers. As P. J. O’Rourke put it, winners don’t reach across aisles; they fix borders and lay down terms of surrender.

Yet, apparently unknown to itself, conservatism has been in a fight to the finish against a foe whose end is to annihilate it, inspired by something like the fundamentalist religious zeal that animates the Islamic jihad. In North America and Western Europe, none of the putatively conservative political parties has deigned to recognize that the other side regards their constituents as detestable infidels to be converted, banished, or imprisoned; and even when conservative politicians invoke military analogies (the “culture wars,” the “war against the family”), they do so with that blush of embarrassment and fear of hyperbole that typically attaches to post-religious metaphorical thinking. The “culture war” remains a poetic figure of speech in their minds, as it must, since only one side is waging it.

Philosophically, moderation is sound Aristotelian counsel; but for conservatives in the political arena, it looks more and more like a symptom of self-harm. It was but a half-century ago that Barry Goldwater is reputed to have said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” In practice, soi-disant conservative leaders have almost always followed a symmetrical inversion of that advice.

Progressives know that reaching across the aisle is a strategy for losers. As P. J. O’Rourke put it, winners don’t reach across aisles; they fix borders and lay down terms of surrender.

Does fear of “extremism” explain the fact that in the West almost all of the establishment right-wing parties (the federal and provincial “Conservatives” in Canada, the Conservatives in Britain, the “RINO” Republicans in the United States, the Christian Democrat parties in Europe) are now mere verbal constructs that have floated free of any original conservative or Christian meaning.

In Canada, where I reside, “small c” conservatives have been betrayed by their “big c” parties so often in the past two decades that they can be forgiven for thinking that continuing to support them is a little like dropping another loonie into the cup of the self-same drug-addicted mendicant who mugged them last week. A psychiatrist friend of mine diagnosed the loyalty of Canada’s conservative voters as a species of battered woman syndrome.

Indeed, there is an ancient and venerable tradition in Canada according to which, once in power, both federal and provincial Conservative Party politicians ritually repudiate the social conservatives on whose backs they have ridden to victory. Their argument, that social conservatives are “too extreme” to get elected, is self-evidently oxymoronic; but that fact has thus far failed to find its way into the strategic calculations of the parties’ millennial brain trust.

The argument’s subtext, of course, is that no politician wants to be unloved by the progressive beau monde, which Conservative Party functionaries court shamelessly, even as their love remains unrequited and politically emasculating. The situation puts one in mind of a famous scene in Chrétien de Troye’s 12th-century romance, The Knight of the Cart, in which a besotted Lancelot fights his homicidal enemy with his back turned, so he can keep his gaze fixed on his beloved Guenevere, who has nonetheless been using him cruelly for years.

Finding real extremists on the mainstream left is like shooting fish in a barrel: unrestricted abortion fanatics who celebrate as “heroes” mothers who kill their own babies; fetishists of child genital mutilation; self-identified nonbinary gender delusionists; rabid haters of whites and men; puritanical censors of impure thought; Stalinist ministers of truth; Inquisitor Generals of non-progressive heterodoxy.

Meanwhile, the right continues to beg forgiveness: to apologize for its sordid racist and Christian past and resolve solemnly to purge its ranks of the atavists who still haunt them; to express sympathy with the grievances of all who continue to suffer from it; to declare itself firmly opposed to “discrimination” against blacks, women, gays, and the latest in the burgeoning panoply of official leftist victim-groups; and to remake itself in the image and likeness of the progressive Demiurge, even as the latter advances without impediment towards its goal of turning a once free, sane, and civilized world into a vast, woke, totalitarian prison.

If something like a boxing commission regulated the culture war, the right would long ago have been disqualified for throwing fights.

That conservatism in the west has become an academic divertissement, a topic for discussion amongst think tank philosophes, rather than a political force, begs for an explanation. It used to be said that conservatives are former liberals “mugged by reality.” I have never been fetched by that aetiology, in part because there is a complacent triumphalism about it, a faith in conservatism’s inevitable victory, which is all too analogous to liberalism’s own teleological fable about the historical inevitability of human moral progress. It’s truer to say that today’s conservatives have been mugged by liberals and are still stumbling about in a concussive daze.

Bill Buckley once famously proclaimed as the founding mission of National Review “to stand athwart the tracks of history yelling ‘Stop!’” Conservatives are still following that heroically suicidal advice, imagining that dispassionate rational argument (or even yelling) will eventually prevail against the momentum of a progressive locomotive coming at them at 150 miles per hour and accelerating exponentially, with the inevitable consequence that the conservative movement now looks like the planar figure of Wile E. Coyote extruded upon the tracks.

As Mark Steyn observed long ago, liberals don’t want to win the argument, they want to ban it; they want to criminalize it (and they’ve succeeded). Conservatives can continue to reason with progressives philosophically about the virtues of freedom and tradition, but (like the “insurrectionists” in Ottawa or on Capitol Hill), they’ll have to resign themselves to doing so from a prison cell.

Since the halcyon days of National Review’s founding, the political “reality” has evidently changed; but today’s conservatives have flown from it in the same psychotropic fog as the Sixties’ flower children who imagined that peace and love could be attained by singing folk songs. At no point in the past half century has the progress of the progressive freight train been retarded—let alone stopped; let alone reversed (save for brief interregnums, such as under the Trump presidency, whose apostasy was immediately and effectively reversed by Democrats and Republicans alike).

In any case, National Review’s “tracks of history” have been uprooted and shifted a continent leftward. And the conservative establishment—Conservatism Inc., in the evocative phrase of the editor of this magazine—is no longer yelling “Stop!” but whispering it as a siren-song to tranquilize its traduced voters, before jumping aboard as inconspicuously as possible and hiding in the caboose. (Were its publishers honest, National Review’s mission statement would long ago have been revised to “All aboard!”)

While the left has thus moved on inexorably into countries of the mind few of us can recognize, the right has retreated step by step into the progressive future. By the 1980s, it had already become an historical cliché that those who had escaped into the West from the Eastern Bloc were fast succumbing to nostalgia. When the Canadian author William Gairdner asked the brilliant Hungarian writer George Jonas what it felt like to come to a free country like Canada, he replied, “I felt like I was fleeing a disease. But it followed me.” Amongst refugees from the former Soviet Union who had found “freedom” in the West, the joke soon began to circulate that at least under communism there was somewhere to escape to. Today we are seeing something of a reverse exodus, as those who yearn for freedom of thought, speech, and religion—or simply to be left alone—are decamping in numbers to places like Poland and Hungary.

From the time of Buckley’s founding of National Review to 1990, the mind of conservatism was understandably concentrated to a point by the struggle to defeat communism, as the mind of liberalism continued to be volatilized in its psychedelic fairy tale of peace and love (with Brezhnev, Mao, Fidel et al. cast in the roles of both lover and beloved).

What really concentrated the mind of the left was an anti-anti-communism more militant than anything the Cold Warriors on the right were able to muster. Liberal anti-anti-communism successfully elevated “McCarthyism” to the rank of America’s original sin (long before slavery was invited to occupy it). The mythology of McCarthyism, according to which firstly, communists didn’t exist in the West, and secondly, conservatives were paranoid “conspiracy theorists” who fantasized that communists were hiding under every bed, ought to have forewarned us about the innate talent of liberalism for projecting its own sins upon the enemy.

In its post-anti-anti-communist phase, the paranoid zeal with which the progressive left has prosecuted its Argus-eyed search for and career-blighting denunciation of dissident opinion would have turned the senator from Wisconsin green with envy. For today’s progressives, a conspiracy theorist is anyone who fails to realize that there are white supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, transphobes, right-wing insurrectionists, and anti-science rubes hiding under every bed and marauding through every street in Amerika.

It seems only reasonable that if the right is susceptible to “conspiratorial thinking,” so might the left. Is it possible for the victims of racism to be guilty of racism themselves? Can their sense of having been historically oppressed and discriminated against not fester into a vengeful and unhealthy tribalistic detestation of the other, that eventuates in their prejudicially vilifying a whole race as unmeritoriously “privileged,” a “cancer on the body politic,” “systemically” racist—malignancies, that is, that are not individually willed, but passed down through the blood as congenital racial defects?

Given the social toxicity of such accusations, is calling your political opponent “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobic” love talk, or should it not be denounced unambiguously as the hate speech of which progressives reflexively accuse conservatives? Is it possible that victimhood can be actively sought insofar as it confers upon its aspirants moral prestige, wealth, and power, which they can then use to disadvantage and oppress their ancient soi-disant oppressors?

These are questions that conservative politicians might have been asking liberals more or less every day for the past half century. But having never been required to answer them, the left’s habit of projection becomes more and more entrenched and psychotic.

The default culture-war strategy of the GOP is to call opponents “Marxists,” “neo-Marxists,” “socialists,” or “communists,” as if the ultimate ambition of the Church of Progress were to nationalize private property, collectivize agriculture and industry, or defeat the global capitalism that gave it the gift of Big Tech censorship.

Today, the left has turned reality so completely upsidedown that one hardly knows where to begin in pointing out the ironies. Are the coerced injection of the nonconsenting masses with deadly experimental gene serums (my body, my choice?), the crushing of the civil liberties of those who demur, and their treatment as Untermenschen not vaguely reminiscent of the “Nazism” that the left always accuses the right of aching to revive? Is the deployment of government goon squads against dissenters from wokeism or the official COVID narrative not the resort of a repressive banana-republic police state? Should one call the mobilization of violent Antifa mobs to shut down political opposition anti-fascist, or fascist, full stop? Should State-sponsored inquisitors and censors of the ideologically heterodox not remind progressives, at least a little, of a medieval Christian “theocracy”?

The answer to such questions—as to any number of cognate queries into left-wing mendacity and delusion—is apodictically “Yes,” but Conservatism Inc. is too timid even to pose them for debate, let alone indict progressives of the very crimes with which they are always befouling others. As Joe Sobran pointed out long ago, liberals have always enjoyed the privilege of accusation. In the egalitarian spirit of the age, conservatives might insist on its equitable redistribution.

What is it that gets the conservative establishment fighting mad these days? To listen to Mitch McConnell et al., it’s “socialism.”

Still hung over from their victory celebrations in 1990 (or shell-shocked from the struggle), Republicans continue to fight the last war, which is one of the few wars they have ever won. In the United States, the default culture-war strategy of the GOP is to call opponents “Marxists,” “neo-Marxists,” “socialists,” or “communists,” as if the ultimate ambition of the Church of Progress were to nationalize private property, collectivize agriculture and industry, or defeat the global capitalism that gave it the gift of Big Tech censorship.

Republicans’ besetting anxieties about deficit spending, unbalanced budgets, high taxes, and overregulation continue to disturb their otherwise peaceful sleep, though even on that narrow front, Republican rhetoric has been all prop-wash and no take-off (to borrow the Reagan-era metaphor of the late D. Keith Mano). Have conservatives failed to notice that the “free enterprise system” and the corporate elites to which our erstwhile heroes von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and Gilder sang hymns of praise have become shills for the smelly little orthodoxies enforced by the progressive theocrats under whom they presently groan?

Conservatives have always imagined that they are the rational adults in the room, but only the most infantile ideation would equate the Marxism of the Soviet Union with the revolutionary grandiosity of today’s woke masters of the universe. If the term “totalitarianism”—like the millennial solecism “very unique”—could be made to admit of degrees, then venturing as it does into corners of the imagination where no man has ever gone before, the current iteration is rather more totalitarian than anything that gained admittance to Marx’s or Lenin’s fevered brains.

Marx, Lenin, Stalin et al. confined their utopian
hubris to the politico-economic sphere; their thinking was much too sanely bourgeois and firmly grounded in tradition to dare to overturn the age-old consensus on marriage or gender: to indoctrinate schoolchildren not only in the achievements of the five-year plan but the messianic hope of critical race theory, “diversity and inclusion,” homosexual marriage, self-identified non-binary gender, and sex-reassignment surgery.

For all their ontological inversions and Orwellian assaults upon language, Soviet communists still accepted the brute facts of human biology, and refused to replace the Socratic epistemological principle of objective truth with the rank subjectivity according to which marriage or gender can be defined by ideological fiat, every male is guilty of sexual harassment because his guilt has been fixed in the mind of his female accuser, and a man is a woman if his thinking makes it so. After 1917, many aristocratic landowners self-identified as peasants, but the Cheka didn’t believe them. As anatomically determined, contentedly heteronormative, and unapologetically Caucasian, New Soviet Man remained at least a familiar member of the species.

Conservatives can continue to exhort stoic equanimity, faith in Providence, or retirement from a depraved society, the so-called “Benedict option.” But wherever they flee, the heresy-hunters and floor monitors of the progressive State will sniff them out.

Is it Cold War nostalgia that explains the right’s reaching across the aisle once again to join the left in its suddenly rehabilitated “paranoid McCarthyite” Russophobia? Who knows. Anyone can comprehend left-wing Putin Derangement Syndrome: Putin conspired with the deplorable Donald to steal the 2016 election, remember? Worse, Putin remains quite as determined to prevent the West’s exportation into Mother Russia of the LGBT cult as the Hellenic Pentheus was to prevent the importation into Thebes of the mysteries of Dionysus from the barbarian East. Indeed, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (equally despised in polite society), Putin remains one of the last few European bulwarks against Western cultural imperialism. The conservative establishment’s avidity for regime change in Russia may be the latest manifestation of its civilizational death wish.

Meanwhile, how are things going right here at home in the West? Do conservatives, civil libertarians, or traditional Christians feel grateful that, as opposed to living in “authoritarian” Russia, they can breathe the bracing air of Western democratic liberty? Where, at one juncture in the aftermath of Ottawa’s Freedom Convoy and the “insurrection” on Capitol Hill, there were more political prisoners in Canadian and American jails—i.e., citizens detained without due process for no other crime than disagreeing with their governments—than in Venezuela, Cuba, China, and North Korea combined. Where, for two years all around the “democratic” world, police in paramilitary gear descended in feral packs upon peaceful refuseniks of despotic COVID mandates, while taking a knee to Black Lives Matter rioters.

Where teachers have been fired and parents violently arrested for criticizing “critical race theory” or homosexual and transgender evangelism in primary schools, and monitored by State police and spy agencies as “domestic terrorists.” Where a female Finnish parliamentarian was jailed for citing biblical doctrine on homosexuality. Where, for similar anti-state activities, a protestor in the United States and a journalist in England were rousted from their beds in dawn raids by phalanxes of heavily-armed police, shackled, and taken away in front of their weeping children.

Where prosecutors, judges, and the police so venerate the rule of law that they invoke both the Old Law of Justice for peaceful dissent from progressive dogma and the New Law of Mercy for burning down cities in its name. Where, in the United States, the FBI, CIA, Department of Justice, and all the intrusive apparatus of the surveillant State have made themselves the palace guard of the Democrat Party, conspired with them to spy on the presidential campaign of their Republican rival and fabricate evidence against him, in an endless coup as brazen as any that has occurred in some third-world dictatorship.

Where an erstwhile independent media—without which electoral democracy is a sham—has long ago been reduced to a one-party press, and has become the propaganda arm of the political left throughout North American and Europe. Where, in the United States, the almost literal revival of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth was narrowly forestalled, with the Biden administration’s abortive proposal of a new “Board of Misinformation and Disinformation,” to be headed by a Democrat-party operative who denounced the Hunter Biden laptop story as “Russian disinformation.”

Where leftist propaganda, censorship, and intimidation ensure purity of ideation and speech in every corner of private and public life and in every department of human thought—in the universities, at the office, even in medical science—and the slightest departure from orthodoxy will lead to denunciation, shaming, sensitivity training, Maoist struggle sessions, miasmal banishment, deplatforming, indictment by human rights tribunal, the blighting of one’s career, professional censure and de-certification, summary dismissal from one’s job, and, as of late, political imprisonment.

In the “democratic” West, in short, virtually every institution of power and influence—the schools, the press, social media, the arts and entertainment industry, Big Tech, Big Business, the professional colleges and boards that oversee the conduct and licensing of their members (including doctors, lawyers, teachers, and journalists), the police, the judiciary, and the surveillance State currently function as a giant Stasi to ensure conformity with every article of progressive ideological doctrine.

After decades of presumably chastening
neoconservative misadventures in planting democracy around the world (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and soon to be, Russia), the right might consider that regime change begins at home. As the aforementioned Joe Sobran quipped about America’s risible attempts to bring democracy to flower in the Iraqi desert, maybe we should send them our Constitution too, since we’re not using it.

In any case, to conservatives who are still obsessing about liberalism’s addiction to high taxes and deficit spending, one might say what an ancient physician, as recorded by Montaigne,

said to a man who presented him his finger to dress, and by whose complexion and breath he recognized an ulcer of the lungs: “My friend, this is not the time to busy yourself with your fingernails.”

My own friends have reassured me that what I anatomize above are the symptoms of “soft” totalitarianism. The insouciance with which most people, including conservatives, have failed to recognize it suggests that hard totalitarianism is a disease you must practically expire from before calling a doctor.

Conservatives can continue to exhort stoic equanimity, faith in Providence, or retirement from a depraved society, the so-called “Benedict option.” But wherever they flee, the heresy-hunters and floor monitors of the progressive State will sniff them out. Had Simeon Stylites lived today, the authorities would demand that he fly the rainbow flag atop his pillar every Pride Week.

I cannot tell you how many times over the decades I’ve been admonished that “the pendulum is bound to swing back again.” Pendulums swing back, of course, but observe the rightward limit of their arcs when the surface on which they stand inexorably tilts downward to the left. In any case, were the pendulum theory of history credible, the Renaissance should have been followed by the Middle Ages.

While they wait, conservatives are consigned to celebrating as “victories” occasional reversals of the latest outrageous advance by the progressive jihad: the legal reinstatement of a teacher fired for criticizing transgender ideology here; the withdrawal of charges against a peaceful pro-life protestor there; the decision by PayPal not to go ahead with its plan to fine conservatives for “misinformation” (“conservative misinformation” being a redundancy in the progressive lexicon). Victories? One might as well expect a man who has been buried under a rising mountain of rocks to celebrate the fact that his tormentors have decided to remove the last stone they have just added to the pile. That sort of “optimism” is rank self-delusion, like Satan’s pathetic attempt in Book One of Milton’s Paradise Lost to rally his defeated troops, half-submerged in the burning lake of Tartarus, by assuring them that “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell.”

It was Sobran who also wrote that liberals ought to ask themselves in what sort of society they would be conservatives. It’s time for conservatives to ask themselves in what sort of society they would be liberals. The revered forefather of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, is regularly invoked for his sane abhorrence of Jacobinism. But Burke also supported the American rebellion that led to the overthrow of the British monarchy, and is most famous for his endlessly repeated aphorism that “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Whether his or merely attributed to him, Burke’s truism more often moves lips than hearts. Even so, as one contemplates the moral arrogance, lust for power, and imperiousness of today’s progressive priest-aristocrats, it is hard not to fantasize that a modern Robespierre might deliver us from their tyrannical yoke.

But then conservatives dare not think about such things, let alone talk about them.

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