As Conservatism Inc. became more of a world unto itself, it sealed out bad news for conservative governance, contributing to debacles that doomed Republican presidents — Iraq for George W. Bush, Covid for Donald Trump. These debacles helped make conservatism less popular, closer to a 45 percent than a 55 percent proposition in presidential races, a blocking coalition but not a governing one. And this in turn made the right’s passionate core feel more culturally besieged, more desperate for “safe spaces” where liberal perfidy was taken for granted and the most important reasons for conservative defeats were never entertained.
Such a system, predictably, was terrible at generating the kind of outward-facing, evangelistic conservatives who had made the Reagan revolution possible. There are threads linking Reagan to Donald Trump or William F. Buckley Jr. to Sean Hannity, as the right’s liberal critics often note. But to go back and watch Reagan and Buckley is to see an entirely different approach to politics — missionary and confident, with a gentlemanly comportment that has altogether vanished.
In its place today is a fantasy politics, a dreampolitik, that’s fed by a deep feeling of grievance and dispossession. Part of this feeling is justified, insofar as liberalism really has consolidated cultural power everywhere outside Conservatism Inc. But the right’s infotainment complex is itself a major reason for that consolidation. Conservatives have lost real-world territory by building dream palaces, and ceded votes by talking primarily to themselves.
This is cogent, clear, and indisputably true. Who within the world of Conservatism Inc. is even making the slightest attempt at appealing to people who aren’t already on board?
P.S. Perhaps I should say that I stand in an odd relation to all of this because, as I have often noted, my conservatism is fundamentally theological and a conservative theology – a genuine Gospel of Life – yields a set of political policies that spans the spectrum of Left to Right. (Or at least, the Left as it used to be and the Right as it used to be.) But a constant awareness of human fallibility and the typical forms that that fallibility takes – have I mentioned that I wrote a book on Original Sin? – will, I think, push one towards an Oakeshottian mode of thinking about politics, a conserving tendency, a disposition to be skeptical about utopian hopes and plans, regular appeals to Chesterton’s Fence. So perhaps it’s not surprising that for a long time conservative outlets were very hospitable to my writing. And perhaps it’s also not surprising that as Conservatism Inc. has taken hold I have had to find other homes for my work, work which at one time might have been seen as an expression of the conservative temperament but now … not so much. Because the “conservative disposition” isn’t what it used to be: now it’s primarily a “deep feeling of grievance and dispossession.”