Going back to Edmund Burke and the French Revolution, the birthplace of the modern ideology, conservative thought has had a long, unbroken line of intellectual history. It was forced into this rich tradition because of the very nature of conservative disposition: it swims against the tide. Conservatism, at its core, is a response to societal change. Because change is the natural state of the world, it takes deep unorthodox thought to shift the current.
Conversely, liberalism does not require the same tenacity. In fact, one could convincingly argue that John Locke pushed the boulder off the ledge and liberalism has been coasting off his momentum ever since. That is to say liberalism needs ideological underpinnings, but progress comes naturally over time once a society is foundationally structured to foster it.
That’s not to say progress is linear. History shows us quite the opposite. Progress ebbs and flows, but as King said the moral arc bends towards justice. There’s a healthy debate to be had about whether this is true or not, but it’s hardly debatable whether the arc bends towards civility. Not the western concept of civility that necessitates democratic capitalism, but civility in terms of finding nonviolent solutions to our problem. As the world becomes more and more peaceful, as it has for quite some time, people are treated better. Women are still subject to horrific conditions in many parts of the world, but they are increasingly seen as valuable and productive members of society overall. This is true in Ghana as it is in Russia as it is in Poland. All three countries have experienced massive disruptions, but the lives of minority populations is better in 2018 than it was in 1950, which was better than it was in 1890.
Conservative forces want to reverse the gains made by liberals, but in reality what they’re really trying to do is slow them down. There was a world in which gay marriage wouldn’t have been legal in the United States in 2025 but likely none in which it wouldn’t have been in 2085. The natural progression toward civility is simply too strong. What this shows is that liberalism seems to be increasing more rapidly. The only LGBT issue on the map in 2012 was gay marriage, and now we are having a real societal discussion about transgender bathroom accommodations. This is the momentum of liberalism, and it makes conservatives panic.
In the past, conservatives have always presented a viable alternative vision to liberal advancements that at least made them a relevant player in the debate. In fact Jonathan Haidt argues, I believe rightly, that conservatives traditionally have the upper hand when it comes to moral issues. This doesn’t mean that banning gay marriage is necessarily more compelling than legalizing it, but it does mean that as a whole the conservative worldview as it relates to morality and familial order speaks to something primal in human nature. There are always fears of the slippery slope and chaos that comes with liberalism. Conservatives offer a stabilizing force, which offers comfort.
Following this argument logically, one would expect the depth of the conservative ethos to grow over time. If liberalism increases exponentially and conservatism presents a convincing counterforce, conservatives should be as strong as ever. We certainly live in the most liberal time the world has ever known, at least in the United States. It in fact was true that conservatism developed alongside liberalism until very recently. Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Andrew Sullivan are some examples of conservative intellectuals since the 1950’s who have presented a serious and compelling vision to push back against the supposed excesses of liberalism.
In 2018, the state of conservatism is a far cry from even the Bush era. There are essentially three types of conservative “thinkers” today.
The first are the neoconservatives like John McCain who have never seen a foreign country they didn’t want to invade. Their vision of the world died with the failure of Iraq and Afghanistan. The very premise of their worldview, that democracy can be imposed on others, has proven faulty. Nobody on either side of the aisle takes what they have to say seriously, and they certainly don’t present a view of the world that people find comfort, let alone hope, in.
The second is the nativists. They contend that globalism is destroying the world; that both immigration and trade deals are destroying America. There’s two major problems with this worldview. One, it lacks a basic intellectual backing. It is purely an emotional response to the world because its claims simply cannot be justified by data. We know trade agreements are a huge net benefit to the United States and that immigrants give far more to the system than they ever take away from it. The second issue is that nativism lends itself to a deeply insidious form of racism that cannot be separated from its supposed non-racist iteration. It’s a movement that is filled with deep seated bigotry and therefore attracts very few people to believe in it as a first principal. That is to say quite simply that most people are not racist, and very few people run into problems with immigrants in their day-to-day lives. Structuring your worldview around nativism, then, is a tough sell for the vast majority of the population.
Finally, the party has a contingent of capitalists who have virtually no other interests and a worldview so dedicated to a fanciful vision of the free market that they cannot see its flaws. Virtually no reasonable person among the average population thinks markets are perfect, and America is deeply distrustful of big corporations and financial institutions, and yet this whole class of conservative “intellectuals” preach this view as fact. They don’t merely advocate for laissez-faire economics, they are fundamentalists. Any tax cut for the rich is good no matter what the outcomes. They preach trickle-down economics as if it were self-evident truth even while we see the vast majority of the tax cut windfall used for stock buybacks. Most people cannot buy into this vision because most people are not members of the capital class.
Notice what’s not on the list; the moralists that have formed the backbone of conservatism since Burke. The few people that continue to preach a moral vision – family, faith, fidelity – have been forcefully pushed out of the party. In their place, religious zealots have risen to defend Donald Trump at every twist and turn. It’s fine that he cheated on his wife with a porn star while she was at home caring for their newborn, Christ has forgiven him. Also he’s been forgiven for when he called Africa a shithole. Also he will be forgiven for whatever else happens in the future. Apparently God has given him a blank sin check. That’s the state of political Evangelicalism today.
Reports of the death of the Republican Party have been overblown. It will live on as an institution. Luckily for the GOP, we exist in a two party system and there’s still a big chunk of people who don’t like liberalism. Further, they have two things keeping them above water. First, an untapped base of nativists, anti-feminists, and unapologetic racists have been activated. This group of people isn’t large, but they make up a sizable chunk of the base when they’re active and election turnout is low, as it is in the United States. Second, the GOP will always remain well funded and research continues to show that elections in the United States are about money. The capital class, a tiny group of people that are activated by the free market fundamentalists in the party, will continue to throw billions of dollars at the party as long as they keep receiving a good return on investment. They could care less whether Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan is President as long as they get their tax breaks and their offshore bank accounts are left untouched.
But while the party remains, the movement is dead. There is no such thing as a conservative intellectual today. Ben Shapiro is the sorry excuse for what is called a conservative thinker, a fast talking pill-salesman who makes a couple moral claims in between anti-Muslim screeds and obsessive tweets over the culture war he swears he is above. Even what small value Shapiro has to offer is overshadowed by Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens’ brainless and obsessive daily MAGA tweets.
Conservatism has always waxed and waned, but it is almost certainly at its weakest point since the 18th century. Perhaps the next generation will provide a rebirth of a moral conservatism that is consistent and inspiring. If Turning Points USA and Young America’s Foundation are any indication, I wouldn’t hold my breath.