As a follow up to my earlier Spectator piece I thought it would be helpful to analyse the state of conservatism today. This will give us a better sense of how we moved from the boring but stately conservative parties of the 1990s to the post-modern pastiche of scandal and outrage that is Trump-Brexit-Orban conservatism. I think there are three types of conservatives in the Anglosphere today. The first are the traditionalists. Then there are the radicals. And finally there are what I have been calling the post-modern conservatives, who are currently the ascendant group.
Traditionalist conservatives include writers like Bill Kristol in the United States, Jordan Peterson in Canada, and Roger Scruton in the United Kingdom. Each of them supports conservative positions from a different philosophical perspective, but has reached similar conclusions about the state of conservatism today. Their outlook was nicely summarized in a recent op-ed Scruton produced for The New York Times on Donald Trump and tariffs. In his article Scruton evokes nostalgia for the refined conservatism of Thomas Jefferson and Margaret Thatcher, complains that Trumpism is vulgarizing politics with its lack of intellectual substance, and then observes that American conservatives no longer seem to care much about market capitalism and free trade. He concludes by arguing that at best Trump has a “distorted” vision of conservatism. The implication is Scruton wants everyone to get back on the right track.
I think Scruton, and those like him, are correct that Donald Trump’s conservatism is “distorted” and breaks with the past. It is therefore not surprising that many conservatives like him revolt against these shifts. But I think these traditionalist conservative don’t spend enough time really analysing why figures like Trump and other right wing populists have emerged across the Western world. There is a reactionary quality to their critiques of right wing populism, as if it were nothing but a few vulgar demagogues who successfully conned their populations into buying into fundamentally non-conservative ideas. To understand why conservatism has changed we are going to need a deeper analysis.
This is where the radical conservatives come in; figures like Alasdair Macintyre (not quite a conservative but a big intellectual influence), and writers for The American Conservative.
Perhaps the most articulate of these radical conservatives is Patrick Deneen, whose great book Why Liberalism Failed has provoked furious commentary on all sides of the political spectrum. Deneen argues that for too long commentators on both the progressive left and what I have called the traditionalist conservative right have ignored fundamental tensions within their more basic doctrine: liberalism itself.
Progressives accepted liberal morals and markets, but wanted to temper the latter with a few welfare programs to help the poor and needy. Traditionalist conservatives also accepted liberal morals and markets, but wanted to temper the former by conserving a few culturally specific traditions and hierarchies. Politics in developed nations tended to consist of tediously passing the baton between these two groups and their respective political parties.
What Deneen argues is that liberalism is beset by more basic tensions than either progressive leftists or traditionalist conservatives recognized. Their faith in liberal markets meant that both groups presumed that the middle and lower classes would accept immense and often unfair levels of economic inequality so long as their standard of living continued to increase. Much of this faith stemmed from endless faith in technological advancement and how its benefits would trickle down.
What liberals on all ends of the political spectrum didn’t recognize is that technological and economic transformations are fundamentally changing the way we communicate and interact with one another. Technology and markets have radically globalized the world, tearing up old cultures, traditions and values as they advance. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called this process “creative destruction.”
Resentment about social and economic inequality, and the limited political power that comes from being at the bottom of the pecking order, can now spread and fester across the internet. Communication bubbles form where the resentful and disaffected are continuously exposed to click bait sensationalism and hyper-partisan rhetoric.
According to Deneen, all this has occurred not because liberalism has failed, but because it has succeeded. And it is what traditionalist conservatives who still want a return to the status quo of faith in markets, trickle-down economics, and maintaining a few cultural practices have failed to see.
This brings me to the third and now ascendant type of conservatism in the developed world: post-modern conservatism. Post-modern conservatism emerges in the Age of Twitter. Resentful individuals who feel disconnected from the politics of their countries, and who are paranoid about the rapid changes transforming their societies, come together using the same technologies that helped bring about those changes.
In digital media and partisan networks like Breitbart and Fox News they find hyper-partisan figures willing to ignore facts, stoke an angry identity politics, and direct their followers against readily available enemies responsible for their lot: immigrants, academics, the media, and status quo politicians.
These post-modern conservatives are the product of the socio-economic and technological changes that have transformed our world. Their solutions can’t do anything to get at the root of these changes since post-modern conservatives rely on them to achieve success (what would Trump be without a hyper-partisan internet?).
What makes these post-modern conservatives dangerous is what they will do in lieu of actually fixing these problems.
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