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The Strange Death of Conservative America

American conservatives once sought to ride the waves of markets and innovation toward ever-greater wealth and prosperity, but now they cower in fear. And, as the trajectory of today's Republican Party shows, that makes them a threat to democracy.

If you are concerned about the well-being of the United States and interested in what the country could do to help itself, stop what you are doing and read historian Geoffrey Kabaservice’s superb 2012 book, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. To understand why, allow me a brief historical interlude.

Until roughly the start of the seventeenth century, people generally had to look back in time to find evidence of human greatness. Humanity had reached its peak in long lost golden ages of demigods, great thinkers, and massive construction projects. When people did look to the future for promise of a better world, it was a religious vision they conjured – a city of God, not of man. When they looked to their own society, they saw that it was mostly the same as in the past, with Henry VIII and his retinue holding court in much the same fashion as Agamemnon, or Tiberius Caesar, or Arthur.

But then, around 1600, people in Western Europe noticed that history was moving largely in one particular direction, owing to the expansion of humankind’s technological capabilities. In response to seventeenth-century Europeans’ new doctrine of progress, conservative forces have represented one widely subscribed view of how societies should respond to the political implications of technological and social change. In doing so, they have generally gathered themselves into four different kinds of political parties.

The first comprises reactionaries: those who simply want to stand “athwart history, yelling ‘STOP,’” as William F. Buckley, Jr. famously put it. Reactionaries consider themselves to be at war with a dystopian “armed doctrine” with which compromise is neither possible nor desirable. In the fight against this foe, no alliance should be rejected, even if it is with factions that would otherwise be judged evil or contemptible.

The second kind of party favors “Whig measures and Tory men.” These conservatives can see that technological and social change might be turned to human advantage, provided that the changes are guided by leaders with a keen appreciation of the value of our historical patrimony and of the dangers of destroying existing institutions before building new ones. As Tancredi explains to his uncle, the Prince of Salina, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”

The third type of conservative party is found primarily (but not exclusively) in America. It emerges as an adaptation to a society that sees itself as overwhelmingly new and liberal. It is not a party of tradition and inherited status, but rather of wealth and business. In its ranks are conservatives who want to remove government-imposed hurdles to technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and enterprise. Confident that the free market holds the key to generating wealth and prosperity, they breathlessly tout the merits of surfing its waves of Schumpeterian creative destruction.

Lastly, there is the home of the fearful and the grifters who exploit them. This constituency includes all those who believe it is they who will be creatively destroyed by the processes of historical change. They feel (or are led to believe) that they are beset on all sides by internal and external enemies who are more powerful than they are and eager to “replace” or “cancel” them.

What I have learned from Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s 2018 bestseller, How Democracies Die, is that democratic countries can be governed well only if their conservative parties fall into the second or third of the four categories above. When conservatives coalesce around reaction or fear, democratic institutions come under threat.

Levitsky and Ziblatt offer many examples to demonstrate this, but let me add one more. A little over a century ago, Great Britain experienced an astonishingly rapid decline from its position as the world’s political and economic hyper-power. This process was accelerated significantly by the transformation of its Tory Party into a party combining types one and four. This was the party of Mafeking Night (Boer War) celebrations and armed resistance to Irish constitutional reform. In the 1910-14 period, George Dangerfield later recalled, the world witnessed the “strange death of liberal England.”

That brings us back to Kabaservice’s book, which tells the story of how the US Republican Party put itself on an analogous course. When I look out at the current political scene, I see very few elements of categories two and three in the Republican Party. And any that are left are fast disappearing.

Republican politicians today are desperate to pick up the mantle of Donald Trump, undoubtedly one of the worst presidents in American history. Obviously, this dangerous and embarrassing trend needs to be reversed as rapidly and as completely as possible. But I, for one, am at a loss to see how that might be done.

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