My friend Chad Pecknold has written what has rightly become the most read and discussed article yet posted on Postliberal Order. His essay, “Therapists of Decline,” traces the systemic trajectory of decline and powerlessness that has been a constitutive part of the conservative movement from its inception. It was a movement designed to “contain” the pathologies of liberalism while remaining devoted to the underlying illness. As the illness progressed, “conservatism” would embrace the less diseased position that appeared “healthier” in comparison to liberalism’s further metastization. Positive promotion of marriage and the family gave way to opposition to divorce, gave way to opposition to homosexual marriage, gave way to opposition to transgender ideology, gave way to hearty defenses of religious liberty. Within a generation, expect conservatives to apologize for the bigotry that once led them to endorse even wan versions of religious liberty.
Pecknold’s essay focuses on the “declinism” that pervades the thought of three (well, four) very different thinkers: the scholars Ben and Jenna Storey, who have written a thoughtful, qualified defense of liberalism, albeit ultimately positive enough to garner endorsements from the Wall Street Journal and A.E.I.; New York Times editorialist Ross Douthat, whose genre is one of many-handed, agonized hedging that frets over the effects of liberalism while finally concluding that there is no real alternative; and blogger extraordinaire Rod Dreher, whose bestselling books rely upon promoting a vision of inevitable public defeat of Christianity, requiring withdrawal of the remnants to small islands of sustenance amid the sea of “liquid modernity.”
All four of these authors are friends, and I frequently benefit from their able diagnoses of the ailments of our age. But Pecknold is correct to identify a common thread of “declinism” in their various stances, a clinging to the pathogen of liberalism that, in various ways, they acknowledge gives rise to the diseased social and political symptoms that they otherwise ably diagnose.
Pecknold’s approach of focusing on several representative figures proved a powerful form of analysis, offering in flesh and bone examples of a phenomena that can be difficult to describe in abstract and theoretical terms. But it also could be mistaken by some readers as a set of critiques that were limited to particular individuals, rather than a reflection of systemic disorder. Indeed, we might be tempted to think that these individuals are to blame, rather than merely doing their assigned job and playing their given roles in the regime that actively seeks to shape all of us.
Indeed, the best analogy we might use is to suggest that we live in a diseased body politic whose traditionalist diagnosticians have been carefully selected from a designated pool of potential “influencers.” They have been identified and promoted not only for their ability to analyze the baleful symptoms of our underlying disease, but for their corresponding inability or unwillingness to identify the underlying cause. Indeed, their real value lies in their willingness to regard the source of our obvious ailments as a condition of health. Most of these diagnosticians don’t realize that this is their job: to continue to attract the loyalty, tractability, and revenue from sick if curable patients who can never be given the right medicine. But the fact they play their roles unwittingly does not discount the possibility that, behind them, there are master puppeteers who are ultimately responsible for the selection and promotion of these diagnosticians, ones who are incapable of offering a cure - who instead are engaged in long term hospice care of a terminal patient - America.
In her prophetic and apocalyptic novel Oryx and Crake (by far her better, and more acute, dystopian novel), Margaret Atwood foretells a future in which titanic corporations simultaneously create the diseases that infect the vast, poorer part of the population, as well as develop the medicines that prolong life, but which are designed never to cure the disease. Instead, the disease and medicines are jointly engineered to keep the patient alive long enough to transfer the patient’s pittance of worldly wealth to the corporations, a transfer timed to be completed around the time of their eventual demise. Denizens of the corporations live in gated communities where every luxury is available (including transplantable organs from designer animals), while the teeming masses outside are consigned to decaying favelas where narcotizing drugs, prostitution, pornography, and inexpensive titillation ensures their acceptance of and compliance to the system.
Conservatives act as the doctors in the hauntingly similar system we live within. While progressives accelerate the various pathologies of liberalism, conservatives act as the concerned diagnosticians who dispense “cures” that ensure the ongoing decay of the body politic. Their real job is to channel dissatisfactions, foment an acceptable level of discontent, offer palliatives that relieve some of the symptoms, all while leaving intact the underlying disease. Like the “pharmakons” of Atwood’s fantasy - simultaneously those who poison and drug - their positions have been established and maintained by corporations and various institutions of the regime, and in their roles they act as the front-line soldiers in the transfer of national wealth from the average and middle to the wealthy and coastal elite.
These “doctors” believe that they are acting as physicians. They have studied the diseases from approved professors; they have learned about the various medicines they sincerely believe are designed to help; and they believe that the recovery of their patient is on the verge of happening - just one more election, one more Supreme Court Justice, one more war in the Middle East. Almost to a person, they are wholly unaware of the role that they play in the maintenance of a system designed to fail. They are good people.
The selection process to become a member in good standing of Conservatism Inc. begins early - usually toward the end of high school, when conservative parents are advised about what schools their children can safely attend. High on the list are places like Hillsdale and Claremont. But many other schools are acceptable, particularly where there are center, institutes, and programs that attract and cultivate conservative students for a future in the movement. A prominent example includes The James Madison Program at Princeton University, which has spawned dozens of imitations throughout higher education.
Once in these institutions, a plethora of events, programs, internships, and networking opportunities are available to students. Students initially self-select - and such programs can and do draw a variety of interested students, often of diverse ideological orientations - but a winnowing occurs through ongoing participation in both internal and external programs, including a vast array of summer workshops, seminars, and institutes. Many students will spend every summer of their undergraduate years enrolling in a succession of these programs and seminars, giving them the intellectual introduction to acceptable discourse and ideas within conservatism, building a resume that will accord them a sterling imprimatur, and making connections for future internships and jobs in the conservative movement. Some will enter a track for the professoriate: while the numbers of conservative professors are small, they enjoy perks of offering the same “para”-education that they once received, often for generous remuneration during summers.
The intellectual program of these array of institutions - all of them overlapping and ultimately deeply informed by the same liberal intellectual tradition - provides the training to the eventual frontline “doctors” within the liberal regime. There is, of course, a heavy emphasis upon the American founding as the fundamental touchstone of the conservative movement. The founding is reducible to a set of ideas or theories, functionally detached from any historical particularity and contingency and instead transformed into a set of eternal principles. Those principles accord with the requirements of the conservative movement as it was developed following World War II and rose to prominence in the decades from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The “principles” that are distilled from the Founding accord with the contemporary demands and requirements of post-WWII and Cold War conservatism. They stressed political and economic universality. The political universality is classical liberalism, one that stresses liberalism’s versions of “limited government” and individual liberty. Among its main commitments are free speech (including academic freedom) and religious liberty that, it turns out, far more fundamentally embraced and promoted the “value relativism” that conservatives once claimed was the hallmark of progressives. Any exercise of political authority that would either limit speech (e.g., blasphemy, obscenity, and robust libel and slander laws) or promulgate law beneficial to religious belief (Sabbath laws, prayer in schools, public support for religious schools) immediately elicits calls for limited government and accusations that behind every positive exercise of government lies the threat of totalitarianism.1
The other main “principle” that is elicited from the Founding is free market ideology, the second prong of liberal “limited government.” Appealing to liberal theory, the market is considered to be philosophically prior to the founding of political society (per John Locke), and hence, one of the spheres of life is protected from government interference due to appeal to “natural rights.” Markets are autonomous of and more fundamental than considerations of common good, and any limitations upon market ideology is considered to be a form of tyranny. It also happens that such ideology is good for business, since its practical effect is to limit government regulation and expand the domain of market logic. Hence, when one looks at the funding of Conservativism Inc.’s institutions that do the selecting and winnowing of the footsoldiers in the cause, the vast bulk comes from corporations (or their funding arms), foundations, and philanthropists who made their fortunes in business, and whose contributions was driven overwhelmingly by support for the liberal conception of the free market.
Universalism was a requirement of the incipient American imperium. The individualist, “free market” ideology needed to be wholly universalized: both internally, displacing all other forms of self-conception in favor of the ideal of the self-making self - and globally, in which universalism was above all the unbounded transactional sphere of self-maximizing, free market actors. Untrammeled principles of free speech and religious liberty became “conservative” positions, forming people to internalize the dynamics of the market as their deepest belief system. A global market ideal became the actualization of the Lockean market, de facto placing economic actors outside and beyond the bounds of political ordering. Supporting the liberal ideology was the expanding imperium of the American military, drawing yet another vital area of both intellectual and enthusiastic funding support. The internalization and globalization of the “free market” ideology, advanced intellectually and militarily by well-trained footsoldiers who had little actual understanding of their role, constituted one of the most breathtaking “regime changes” in the modern world.
The American order - interpreted through a particular theory of the Constitution - became more liberal as a consequence of this set of developments. While claiming the label “conservative,” no actual time or practice in American history was being “conserved.” Conservatism acknowledged that the principles of the American founding had never been actually or perfectly instituted - neither at the time of the founding, nor in the 19th-century, nor during the 20th, by which time the scourge of Progressivism had become prominent. Instead, “conservatism” appealed to a notional set of “ancient” principles, distilled and finessed during the middle part of the 20th-century, and which - if finally embraced - would lead to a the future that America was supposed to be. All the while, it was claimed that the ancient nature of these principles were irreducibly American, and any departure from them was a betrayal of the true nature of the nation.2
This ideological conception of America was an invented tradition, emphasizing strands of the American founding to the exclusion of others. By linking this ideologically liberal tradition to a purportedly true understanding of the founding, it was able to shroud itself in the mantle of tradition, appealing to old and venerable ideas. It was able to appeal to people both inclined toward patriotism and conservatism, while in fact its ideology was radically liberal, libertarian, and revolutionary. The internalization of relativistic, individualistic market ideology, and the externalization of a borderless and universalist market system was, in fact, the fondest dream of leftist and “progressive” thinkers from the outset of the Enlightenment. Conservatism Inc. was a stunning sleight of hand, shrouding this revolutionary ideology in the trappings of “tradition.”
The people who get selected, promoted, and rewarded within this system are chosen for a reason. They are footsoldiers, not the generals, and their purpose is to keep the debate within the approved limits - never permitting any questioning of the liberal order, defining as out of bounds (either too radical, or totally irrelevant) anyone who challenges the wealth-concentrating paradigm. As long as the debate takes place within the confines established by the generals, the war is being won. The generals’ main aim is to distract us from their larger purpose, and hence, their existence.
Our sickness is today advanced by one establishment that pretends to offer us a choice. One - “progressives” - explicitly seeks to accelerate our underlying condition, offering ever-more radical forms of internalized and externalized liberalism. The other - “right liberalism” - claims to oppose these efforts, brazenly assuming the label conservative, all the while insisting that our symptoms are separable from the underlying disease. Pay attention especially to the efforts by the latter to undermine and attack those (like the band of happy warriors writing here at Postliberal Order) who expose the sham. They have a lot at stake. The transfer hasn’t been completed yet.
Thanks for reading The Postliberal Order! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
John Grove - managing editor at the website “Law and Liberty” (bankrolled by another institution of Conservatism, Inc., “Liberty Fund”), wrote the following: “The conservative tradition has long held that the pursuit of metaphysical purity—the quest for a regime perfectly in accord with natural morality—leads down the path of totalitarianism because the conservative recognizes the limits of human ability to perceive and pursue moral ends, especially when vested with considerable power.” This passage is a perfect encapsulation not of conservatism, but of liberalism, and its rejection of the necessity to use political power to advance the common good, claiming that even modest efforts to do so are nothing more than a step down the steep, slippery slope toward “totalitarianism.” There is no daylight between liberals like Grove and Karl Popper, who interpreted the entire classical tradition as a prelude to Hitler and Stalin.
I am unable to offer a full accounting of the number of times that right-liberal reviews of my book, Why Liberalism Failed, have accused me of being UnAmerican (like the author, linked above, of the Claremont Institute, who accused me of being indistinguishable from the “blood drenched” leader of Iran, Mahmood Ahmadinejad). This makes most sense when we understand that Right Liberals have been selected, promoted, and rewarded within the institutions of Conservatism Inc. for their unflagging devotion to the idea that America and Liberalism are identical.