What is a conservative? What is a true conservative?
What is a populist? What is a faithful populist?
The answer to both sets of questions is something that runs along the lines of “it depends.” Depends on what? Well, it depends on what we are talking about.
Verbs and Direct Objects
No virtue is located in a transitive verb. No vice can be located there either. We have been taught otherwise, but that doctrine is one of the chief sources of our discontents.
Surely love is necessarily a good thing, right? Absolutely not. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). You heard it here first. Love—the verb is agapao—is wickedness and sin. The thing that determines the ethical value of the love is whether the object is the world and its ways, or the Father and His ways. Where is the love directed?
Surely it is sinful and iniquitous to hate, right? No, not exactly. “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: Pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way,and the froward mouth, do I hate” (Proverbs 8:13). This kind of hatred is what the fear of the Lord looks like. Does a man hate the law of a holy God, or does he hate all departures from the paths directed by this same holy God?
If a man says that he loves, and does not supply us with the direct object of his love, we do not know whether to praise or blame him. How could we? We do not know whether he is talking about his three mistresses, pistachio ice cream, his newly selected pronouns, Jesus, the third verse of Be Thou My Vision, his mother, or child pornography. We don’t know enough to even hazard a ranging shot. The distance between possible direct objects could be the distance between Heaven and Hell.
And the same thing goes for the man who says that he hates, and who does not tell us what the direct object is. It could be piña coladas, or walking in the rain, or child pornography, or the Oxford comma, or, returning to an earlier theme, pistachio ice cream, or his father, or the smell of burnt garlic. We have no idea whether this man is a noble aristocrat or a savage beast. How could we know? We do not yet know what we are talking about.
Everyone hates and everyone loves, and the difference between a virtuous man and an evil man is found in the direct objects. Who does he love? What does he love? What does he hate?
So Perhaps You Have Run Ahead of Me
Is it good to be a conservative? That depends. What are you conserving? Are you conserving the old polygamous ways in the mountains of Utah? Are you conserving the traditions of this once great Republic? Are you conserving the prerogatives of the old Politburo?
Or are you conserving the ostensible reputation of a once great conservative institution, but doing so mainly to conserve the ongoing generosity of the donor base?
I bring this up because somebody needs to formulate a law that describes the inscrutable behavior of conservative donors to liberal causes.
What is it you are conserving? And are you actually conserving it?
The Mainstream is What Goes Over the Falls
The marketing consultants who advise the editors of magazines, and presidents of colleges, and pastors of big churches, and directors of parachurch organization, are the ones who stand diffidently behind and to the side, plucking at the left sleeve, and who urge such leaders to make yet another accommodation (just for the moment) in order to best position themselves for the long term plan, which will naturally be a great leap forward.
And this is how conservative institutions drift steadily left.
For those of you who are faint of heart, and who are subject to fits of the vapors, I am about to quote someone who fought for the Confederacy, and who owned slaves. A wail goes up. “Why do you have to do that? Why can’t you find someone who never owned slaves, and who didn’t fight for the South? Would that be so hard? Wilson?”
Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t quote Dabney down below if you—who fit the description you have so nicely outlined—say something very much along these lines instead. And then I will quote you. Deal? Or better yet, find me a historic Vermont Yankee who lost two sons fighting for the Union, and who distinguished himself as a Wilberforce sort of abolitionist, but who said something similar, and I will quote him, while pretty much guaranteeing that our generation will stand quietly by as agitators splash red paint on his statue, and pull that statue over as an object lesson to all the white supremacists.
Okay. Dabney it is.
“It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This [Northern conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always when about to enter a protest very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance: The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy, from having nothing to whip.”
He wrote that in the 19th century, which means that we have been surrendering for a long time now. He wrote that in the 19th century, which means that the Overton window was moving left long before Overton was even born. He wrote that in the 19th century, which means that our situation hasn’t changed nearly as much as we like to pretend it has.
And look. I have read enough Dabney to be able to quote him being blinkered, silly, and wrong. But I refrain from doing that because our cultural moment doesn’t need any more content that is blinkered, silly, and wrong. We are running a surplus.
The Tinsel Strands of Ineptitude
So populism is a little different because we don’t have an actual verb to illustrate this with, but the principle is the same one. If people want to know if I am a populist, the answer to that is also it depends. Let us say that the public has risen up and is demanding certain things. Am I with them or not? Well, what are they demanding?
That is like presenting me with an ethical dilemma that runs something like, “Country A has attacked Country B. Which one is in the right?”
Angry crowds have demanded all sorts of things, from free silver to the crucifixion of Jesus. The Tea Party movement was a populist uprising that I supported because what they were demanding was honest budgetary math. The women’s march in Washington, the one with the genitalia hats, was a massive expression of incoherence.
H.L. Mencken once defined democracy as a method of ascertaining truth by counting noses, and promulgating it afterwards with a club.
And so the content of the agenda matters, not how many people support it, or how agitated they are.
And so there are times when a portion of the public begins demanding something really reasonable, and this happens when the ruling elites are busy crowning themselves with the tinsel strands of ineptitude, and the cultural circumstances are such that there has been a erosion of trust in authority generally, with the result that an explosion of some sort becomes inevitable. There are occasional times when such an explosion makes things better, and so one can be hopeful. But explosions don’t usually make things better, and so one needs to be wary, even when the crowds in the street are chanting something that is hard to argue with. “What do we want?” “Time travel!” “When do we want it?” “That’s irrelevant!”
The Sad Spiral Downwards
The advantage that populism has over conservatism is that it does not so readily institutionalize. When the moment is over, everybody goes back home.
But conservatives start things—colleges, churches, magazines, think tanks, and so on. They generally start things so that the liberals will have something to infiltrate and capture. That seems to be the plan anyhow. This involves a lot of work, and all of it requires donors, and the donors are generally true blue. But in addition to being true blue, these donors are not nearly suspicious enough about how institutions falter. They should have remembered the attractiveness of whatever institution it is, now that the money is flowing, to a certain kind of person. This is the person who likes to burrow into the woodwork, from which position they can start to erode the mission.
Eric Hoffer outlined it well when he said something like “first a movement, then a business, then a racket.” Now with those words burning in your mind, take a look at the overall trajectory of Conservative, Inc. If you wanted to refute Hoffer, for example, if you had a deep desire to demonstrate how wrong his thesis was, what institution in the world of Conservative, Inc. would you point to?
This brings to mind the second and third laws of politics as formulated by Robert Conquest.
2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.Robert Conquest
This is why Christian organizations often falter first. They pretend to be above politics, which means that they can make a “principled” choice not to be “right wing.” However, this principled stand doesn’t keep Conquest’s law from being true, and so good-bye to Wheaton.
This is why National Review stayed useful and counter-cultural longer than Christianity Today did, although the downgrade is now obvious at NR also.
3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.Robert Conquest
As soon as the donations get above several hundred dollars a month, you need admin. And then admin quietly morphs into a bureaucracy. And then the bureaucracy establishes surreptitious contact with that cabal of enemies.
And the first thing you know, the conservatives are conserving what? The last great accomplishment of the progressives.