Wednesday, 2 November 2016

After the US Elections, What Will Happen To Conservatism?

Cartoon of Trump with a snake coming out of his mouth
Conservatism is becoming a comical parody of itself, as is evidenced in a Twitter exchange I had tonight with this chap why calls himself a "liberal republican." The echo chamber has done its job, then, pushing alt-right ideology to the front and centre of conservative thought to the point where the so-called Reformicons are not what we want them to be; they're just pushing a polished version of the current, Trump-shaped turd. Win or lose, then, what will happen to conservatism? Will the alt-right burn itself out or will it continue to dominate political discourse?

I consider myself conservative based on this:

[I] believe in the rule of law, a just society, self-determination, a [strong] work ethic, healthy competition, a free and fair market, personal freedom, patriotism, and respect for traditional values. [I] don't like sudden, radical changes and have a deep respect for intellectual endeavour and a comprehensive education. [I] believe you have to work for what you get and that you should be fairly compensated. [I] believe in justice and fairness. In honour and integrity. In respect for religion and culture. In family, community, charity, and duty. - Will The Real Conservatives Please Stand Up? - On t'Internet

That these sentiments are now considered left wing is terrifying. What it means is that the religious authoritarian might-is-right, end-justifies-the-means ignorant YOYO (you're on your own) bigotry I deplore is now considered to be mainstream conservatism. Those who consider themselves on the bleeding edge of the reform movement are just finding nicer ways to articulate the often horrific, exclusionary worldview of their political colleagues. It is precisely this and its milquetoast little brother in the neoliberal wing of the Democrat party that have caused the American people to become so disillusioned with politics that they're willing to vote a nutter into the Oval Office by the end of the month.

The war for the soul of conservatism

To dismiss Trump supporters as ignorant idiots is to disavow any responsibility for dealing with the mess that sent them that way in the first place; poor people want Trump to be their president because they feel neglected by the kind of people who declare NAFTA to be a runaway success and who are planning NAFTA 2: Now With More ISDS and IPR! A.K.A. TPP. The rich people who support him have alt-right views and are confident of avoiding the worst of the consequences of him winning the election — if he does. That the poor whites have generally swung right come election season is down to the neglect of their needs by the powers that be and the scapegoating of minorities by politicians running for office. Indeed, it was George Wallace who said:

"You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor." - Wikipedia

Keeping people ignorant and poor, then playing on their fears to manipulate them is the oldest trick in the book but they keep falling for it. Indeed, if social media and blog comments sections are any indicator of genuine attitudes, every American is under intense pressure from other Americans to pick a party or political affiliation and woe betide them if they fail to toe the line!

The echo chamber

I've seen tech blogger Mike Masnick derided in his own comments section for not overtly supporting Trump. It's ridiculous how horrible and personal the attacks on him can be, the idea being that failure to bow down and worship Trump somehow means he's all over Karl Marx, or something. He's not. He actually tends to lean libertarian (that's where I argue with him) but has the public interest close to his heart. It's his concern for the public interest that gets him hammered. This is the alt-right's most successful weapon: using labeling and shaming tactics to force people to toe the line. That Mike stands firm in his convictions is to be applauded; if he was more of a populist he'd be more partisan in his outlook. For the record, he's not keen on any of the candidates. In the stifling, high-pressure environment of the partisan echo chamber, the most extreme viewpoints are accepted as normal and dissenting voices are silenced. Thus the view that alt-right positions are actually mainstream is reinforced and dissenters are either brought into line or pushed out. This is what happened to my friend Israel in that Twitter conversation I had earlier. He genuinely thinks he's mainstream. Perhaps he is, but this is a new normal. Conservatives aren't historically so hysterical.

Can the sane people take back the movement?

The moderate dissenters who have been pushed to the fringes, e.g. David Frum, have been lumped together with the likes of Bruce Bartlett, whose somewhat progressive views are to the left/liberal of my own. Since Bruce makes no secret of the fact that he wants to see the GOP destroyed, this is not a good thing. The trouble with Trump is he's a nutbucket, so whoever follows him in the next election cycle will pale in comparison. He (or she, you never know) will have an uphill struggle trying to win over an increasingly fractious and paranoid base that's self-aware enough to know it's being played but is willing to go along with it to get what it wants. This means that the Reformicons, whose policies are basically "put the lipstick on the pig, add blusher and eyeshadow," are in a position to wiggle into a position of credibility on the basis that at least they're not Trump and they've not strayed from orthodox positions. This is a development I've only recently considered as a possibility, but Trump would have to lose good and hard, i.e. in both Houses as well as the Presidency, for the GOP to consider rebooting the party. Otherwise, I'll be watching through my fingers for the day when it finally implodes; the normalisation of lunacy has actually made hitting the bottom take a lot longer (with a lot more screaming) than expected. What I'm saying is, if the party does reboot, the Reformicons will be in the driving seat, which means that in a decade or two a Trump type will return because you can't keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. The alt-right has won the battle for the name of conservatism, and with it, the soul. For now.

What will "conservatism" mean in the future?

As long as the think tanks and media outlets continue to promote an idea of conservatism as reactionary, brutal, stupid and paranoid, reactionary, brutal, stupid and paranoid people are going to be attracted to it. The success of refining the reactionary brutal stupidity and paranoia until the people are driven mad by it depends on the number of people willing to commit themselves to such ideologies. The echo chambers tend to burst and splinter after a while as members fight for dominance. If conservatives are beaten in the forthcoming elections in a resounding defeat, the party will have to rethink its strategy. My money is on more of the same via the Reformicons simply because the traditionalists have been pushed so far to the fringes that they've mostly thrown their lot in with the Democrats. Unless a new conservatism that is willing to challenge the nutters can be brought into being and articulated via the media and the think tanks, this is the best we can hope for.

I'll be continuing to bang the drum for communitarian conservatism because I think it's the way forward. Whether or not I'll ever be able to persuade others to agree with me enough to promote it is another thing altogether.

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