Our text for today is an article titled "The Next Conservatism" in The American Conservative. It is not a publication or Web site I know anything about, but I ran across several references to the article, and they sounded interesting enough to impel me to conjure up the source.
To briefly synopsize the piece, by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind (also heretofore unknown to me), they start from the assumption that political conservatism in any traditional or genuine sense is in a very bad way. What passes for conservatism, at least in Washington, no longer has any real ideas. It's just a brand name for a coalition that craves political power for its own sake.
Weyrich and Lind think that conservatism's political failure is the symptom of a deeper cultural, perhaps spiritual, failure. And any change that matters must be in reverse gear:
If the next conservatism is to reverse this decline and begin to recover the America we knew as recently as the 1950s, the last normal decade, it must do three things. First, it must aspire to change not merely how people vote but how they live their lives. It must lead growing numbers of Americans to secede from the rotten pop culture of materialism, consumerism, hyper-sexualization, and political correctness and return to the old ways of living. The next conservatism includes “retroculture”: a conscious, deliberate recovery of the past.
This recovery should not be, indeed cannot be, imposed through political power. This is the second action the next conservatism must take: putting power in its place. … The rejection of the counterculture that has become the mainstream culture must proceed bottom-up, person by person and family by family, on a voluntary basis.
They should have left that phrase "the last normal decade" out of the final cut, because it's mockery bait: what does it mean to call a decade "normal"? And their argument isn't really about today's American culture being abnormal, but about it's being pernicious.
The authors score a good point that so much of what has gone haywire is not a matter of political doctrines or bad laws; where those exist, they are effects of widely held value systems.
The usual shorthand description of the values gap is a "culture war." I don't want to put words in the authors' mouths, but they would be likely to agree that the war is over. Cultural conservatives have lost. The quasi-Marxist social revolution that the '60s radicals demanded is now mainstream. The separation of the population into racial and ethnic tribes, "celebrating" their differences; permanent reverse discrimination in hiring and social services; the belief that diversity, of whatever sort, is an unquestionable benefit; government and corporate promotion of multi-lingualism; all forms of social engineering; an ever-growing intrusion into people's private lives by the government, which knows what's best for everybody; contempt for restrictions on immigration (except by whites of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic ancestry, who aren't wanted); the chilling of free speech by formal and informal strictures against expressing certain words and ideas — all this, and so much more, is generally accepted as progress.
Of course, there are individuals, quite a few actually, who jib at some or all of these assumptions. But they are disfranchised, with no major party or faction representing them.
Weyrich and Lind say:
Cultural Marxists have largely captured the powers of the state and use those powers to force their ideology through government policies from affirmative action to public-school curricula to the imposition of feminism on America’s Armed Forces. This points to the third thing the next conservatism must do: restore the American Republic by stripping the state of culturally Marxist ideology in all its dimensions.
A Republic devoted to liberty imposes no ideology on its citizens. The government has no business mandating diversity of races or sexes in hiring or school admissions, or forcing the armed services to make women into fighter pilots and ship captains, or “celebrating” homosexuality in the workplace, or any of the other myriad of actions the state now takes to impose political correctness.
They recognize that a traditionalist conservative revival can't afford to ignore conventional politics. Among other things:
Restoring the Republic requires breaking the monopoly of professional politicians and two parties that are for the most part one party—the Party of I’ve Got Mine. The next conservatism should promote increased use of ballot initiatives and referenda, term limits, putting “none of the above” on the ballot and requiring a new election with new candidates if it wins, and ending legalized bribery under the name of campaign contributions.I agree with most (not all) of the political goals they spell out, including "the abandonment of a Wilsonian foreign policy, which is promoted by neoconservatives and neoliberals alike, and a return to a policy based on America’s concrete interests. … The Founders warned that we could either preserve liberty at home or seek Great Power status but not both. The next conservatism prefers liberty to the trappings of empire."
Unfortunately, our authors now begin to wax sentimental over a fantasy Arcadian past, again providing fuel for detractors to take cheap shots.
Further, the next conservatism should revive the dormant conservative agrarian tradition. As the Amish demonstrate, the small family farm can be economically viable. Organic farming, conservation and restoration of the soil, farmers’ markets and “crunchy cons” should find an honored place in the next conservative agenda. Family farms are good places for children to grow up. While environmentalism is becoming an ideology, conservation and care in the use of God’s creation have long-standing conservative credentials. In turn, agriculture has always been a conservative culture.Maybe it's a character defect of mine that urban "farmer's markets" bore me to bits, or maybe I've just known too many yuppies playing the organic purist, but I can't see — and wouldn't want to see — us becoming overall-clad sons and daughters of the soil again. Now this:
The next conservatism should promote the return of trains and streetcars as alternatives to dependence on automobiles. The private automobile is a great way to travel as long as not many people have one. At present, the proliferation of cars creates such congestion that everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, wastes vast amounts of time sitting in traffic. Not even a Mercedes sports car is much fun when it can’t move. Bringing back trains and trolleys can save us time and help revitalize our cities. The future energy situation also makes it likely that coming generations will thank us for re-creating the network of trains and streetcar lines America once enjoyed.Bring back trolley cars? What next, nickel beer and wooden Indians? Look, I dislike traffic jams as much as we all do, but I also spent years commuting via public transportation, and the worst traffic jam I've ever been in, seated in my own space, listening to a CD of my choice on the sound system, is better than an average day on a bus or metro line.
But it's more than a matter of personal preference. Public transportation was reasonably efficient, if less than enjoyable, when people worked in compact city downtowns and commuted a few miles to nearby dwellings. But it can't possibly work on a significant scale in cities of hundreds of square miles, decentralized, with people headed to every point on the compass, when many people live 30 or 40 miles from their place of business. That isn't to say that public transportation shouldn't be upgraded and expanded; it can relieve some of the pressure. But it isn't the basic answer to sprawl and stop-and-go traffic. There is only one answer that makes any sense to me: fewer people, ergo, fewer cars and smaller cities. But Weyrich and Lind apparently think population stabilization (or better, reduction) doesn't fit with their notion of a conservative way of life.
It's too bad they get carried off by nostalgia, because such lapses make it all too easy to dismiss the many good things they have to say. In fact, the very same issue of The American Conservative carries patronizing responses by James P. Pinkerton, David Franke, and John Derbyshire. The latter is usually entertaining and shows evidence of intracranial work even when I disagree with him, and some of his criticisms of Messrs. Weyrich and Lind are similar to mine, but he is not giving them their due with a snide put-down like this:
Perhaps we can salvage some of that old vitality to fortify us in the coming storms. I certainly hope so. The salvaging won’t be accomplished, though, supposing it can be accomplished, by turning us into a flock of hat-wearing, church-going, streetcar-riding, home-schooling, natural-produce-eating, “Lawrence Welk Show”-watching brownstone-dwellers.Come along, Derb, the article's theme is worth taking seriously, and deserves better than a simplistic parody. It is, or should be, possible to create a partial retroculture by preserving and reviving the best elements of the past without imitating what was trivial or is no longer useful in it.