Will conservatives break up?

Jonah Goldberg, whom I mostly see in the National Review, has published a column in the Los Angeles Times expressing a fear that, to borrow the title, “This time, the conservative crackup is real.”[1] It’s not his best writing and his conclusion is so devoid of substance as to be worthless. But that’s not to say the entire column is without substance:

The level of distrust among many of the different factions of the conservative coalition has never been higher, at least not in my experience. Arguments don’t seem to matter, only motives do. . . .
Wherever the truth lies, questioning motives is poisonous, because such claims are not only unfalsifiable, but they also give an instant excuse to ignore sincere, reasoned, [sic] arguments.[2]

Some of my liberal friends will now commence snickering. One of the more delusional even hopes that the Republican Party will crack up to make way, in a structural two-party system, for a more progressive party on the left. In a universe of things that might happen, that isn’t one of them. This friend much too readily dismisses deeply held right-wing views that will never succumb to “sincere, reasoned[] arguments” because conservatives prefer “transcendental” knowledge, which is inherently authoritarian in nature,[3] and they don’t even agree on what knowledge to treat as foundational. And the notion that some knowledge should simply be accepted on the basis of authority rather than from empirical research places conservatives at odds with others (although the positivist underpinnings of scientific method are also themselves foundational).

So the real question here is whether there is justification for Goldberg’s fear that the fusionist project that has, largely under the auspices of the National Review, united disparate factions of conservatism into a politically potent force[4] is now utterly unraveling. This would be no minor matter. Fusionism has shoved the range of politically acceptable discourse ever farther to the right, pretty much ever since Richard Nixon’s downfall. Even Goldberg tends toward skepticism on this point, writing that he’s been “hearing about the impending ‘conservative crackup’ for nearly 25 years.”[5] I’d say longer. Frank Meyer’s fusionism has been ideologically incoherent and under strain from its beginnings in the 1970s.[6] (The backlash against the 1960s era social movements is largely neoconservative and has propelled neoconservatism to the forefront of U.S. politics, becoming one of two major forces in the Ronald Reagan presidency and part of the mainstream consensus ever since.[7] Fusionism was probably a neoconservative project.)

The fissures are real. Traditionalist conservatives see neoconservatives as “usurpers”[8] and Jeffrey Hart writes as harsh a condemnation of the neoconservative adventure in Iraq as any I’ve seen on the left.[9] In general, traditionalists, paleoconservatives, and capitalist libertarians align against other conservatives in opposing war (because it enlarges government). Some capitalist libertarians argue that other conservatives favor government intrusions in matters of private conscience or are insufficiently purist in their economic prescriptions.[10] Goldberg points to the differences between authoritarian populists and the “establishment” (functionalist conservatives)[11] that have their own history.[12]

But in my dissertation work, I also found substantial overlaps. Traditionalist conservatism is often hard to distinguish from social conservatism, particularly on anything having anything at all to do with sexuality. And paleoconservatism, which favors ethnic and racial segregation, has authoritarian populism, most recently appearing as the “Tea Party,” mostly surrounded in ways that make many differences seem less than substantive. Most conservatives have embraced neoliberalism; neoconservatives accept it as morally essential.[13] (If I continue my research, I will probably repeat my work with a topic involving war and militarism, such as U.S. policy on Syria, that should help to expose differences between social conservatism and traditionalist conservatism and between authoritarian populism and paleoconservatism.) The differences between these tendencies and the anguish that accompanies those differences are nothing new. What conservatives have in common—authoritarianism[14] and the influence they have achieved as a united force—weigh heavily against any dissolution.

I don’t want to say a crack-up won’t happen. But it’s probably a lot less likely than you’ll ever hear from conservatives who are worried about preserving their political influence.

Note, January 30, 2016: This post has been revised for grammar, wording, and clarity since it was originally published.

  1. [1]Jonah Goldberg, “This time, the conservative crackup is real,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0126-goldberg-conservative-crackup-20160126-column.html
  2. [2]Jonah Goldberg, “This time, the conservative crackup is real,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0126-goldberg-conservative-crackup-20160126-column.html
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2015), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001
  4. [4]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  5. [5]Jonah Goldberg, “This time, the conservative crackup is real,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0126-goldberg-conservative-crackup-20160126-column.html
  6. [6]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2015), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001
  8. [8]Richard J. Bishirjian, “Why I Am a Conservative,” First Principles, July 10, 2008, http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=173
  9. [9]Jeffrey Hart, “Why I Am a Conservative,” First Principles, September 23, 2008, http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=178
  10. [10]Grant Babcock, “Fissionism: Why Libertarianism Should Extricate Itself from Conservative Entanglements,” Libertarianism, November 20, 2014, http://www.libertarianism.org/columns/fissionism-why-libertarianism-should-extricate-itself-conservative-entanglements; Jonah Goldberg, “A Lib-Lib Romance,” National Review, December 31, 2006, 18-20; Brink Lindsey, “Liberaltarians,” New Republic 235, no. 24 (2006): 14-17; Brink Lindsey, “Right Is Wrong,” Reason 42, no. 4 (2010): 24-28; Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, “Fusionism Revisited,” Reason 44, no. 3 (2012): 64-75; Gary North, “American Conservatism Is Keynesian to the Core,” September 16, 2014, http://www.garynorth.com/public/12903.cfm; Williumrex [pseud.], “The Fusionist,” review of Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement, by Kevin J. Smant, National Review, January 23, 2007, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/219790/fusionist-williumrex
  11. [11]Jonah Goldberg, “This time, the conservative crackup is real,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0126-goldberg-conservative-crackup-20160126-column.html
  12. [12]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2015), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2015), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4776.2001
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Defining conservatism,” April 12, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/04/12/defining-conservatism

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