The new conservatism

Having spoken to a few conservative recently, trying to suss out what they actually like about Trump (who is transparently an awful president and just as awful a person), I think I’ve stumbled upon the blazing obvious:

Conservatism is dead.

I mean, it’s obviously not dead. But it’s dead. Or perhaps the old glossy shell is being removed so we can all get a glimpse of the fetid interior.

Either way.

It used to be possible (whether that was right or not; I certainly believed myself to be in this camp) to be a principled, economically-oriented conservative.

I think conservatism (or, again, maybe not at its core, but certainly as it was served up) was about economic systems. Capitalism vs Communism. First vs second world. The guiding us-vs-them (never forget conservatism is always in the first instance tribal; there’s always an us; there’s always a them) was the global conflict against communism. Or, because the USSR was the 900kg gorilla of communism and the USA the 900kg gorilla of capitalism, USA vs USSR. (Also wonderfully ripe for classical Marxist analysis, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Since then, western conservatism (notable in North America and perhaps Great Britain) has undergone a remarkable realignment. The us-vs-them axis has been completely realigned, and Russia is now no longer the bogeyman of 20 years ago. If anything, contemporary conservatives are extremely sympathetic to Russia.

It’s quite hard to understand why this might be. I bet many of the old guard in both Canadian and American conservative circles find this absolutely mindboggling. How can you view Russia, our historic enemy, favourably?

But because conservatism is no longer primarily intellectually aligned with economic theory, it starts to make sense.

What, then, might the current alignment be?

I think contemporary conservatives, perhaps not rightist intellectuals, but certainly the at ground level, are primarily aligned along cultural lines.

You can’t underestimate the effect that narratives like clash-of-cultures have had, especially since the September 11 attacks. Clash-of-cultures (or clash-of-civilizations) is one of those foundational “great books” of contemporary conservative thought. The fact that it’s astoundingly popular doesn’t actually make it true; it just makes it a widely-endorsed myth.

There’s lots to say about clash-of-cultures, not much of it good. What it does have is that sort of “sounds about right to me” gut-check quality that conservative love. It might not be true, but it sure is truthy.

Conservatives have further boiled this myth down into a handy heuristic (and you can see American fingers in this pie; they’re not the only colourist racists in the world but boy howdy do they do it best): White good, brown bad.

In the original clash of cultures, the Protestant/Catholic West isn’t quite the same, culturally, as the Orthodox East (eastern Europe and Russia). But once you collapse “the West vs the Rest” into “the white vs the brown”, Russia starts to look a whole lot more Western. Add to that their persecution of minorities in general (ethnic, sexual, etc) and they start to feel very much of a kind with conservatives.

I think that explains a lot of what’s in the wind in recent conservative discourse. This (seemingly) sudden movement against any kind of diversity, (or as rightists would put it,” degeneracy”) has to be understood through a clash-of-cultures mythic lens. Diversity is weakness. We can’t provide a united cultural front if we’re multicultural, multiethnic, nonbinary, sexually fluid, and so forth.

I see late stage conservatism as an ouroboros of myth. There’s no there there. It’s resistant to facts, while claiming only to believe in facts (not feelings, natch). It’s completely fabricated, but it feels true. It’s stunningly postmodern while desperately trying to inherit the “Enlightenment”. It’s a construction begging the folks living inside to ignore all the bad wiring.

At least you can say that honest postmodern folk (who I do not count myself among) will freely admit that that stuff is constructed (while attempting to unmoor these constructions from their precursors, which is, in my opinion, not a great idea).

So I guess… conservatism is dead, long live conservatism?

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