Conservatism has become as pessimistic as liberalism. While both were founded in the context of postmillennial optimism with is dream of a better world and improved human condition. The wish was to build God’s Kingdom or at least something that closely resembles it. Liberal politics failed, with WWI serving as the landmark. The subsequent McGovern school shifted the ideology away from the positive hope of JFK to the pessimism of Marx.
Conservatism began its decent at roughly the same time. Whittaker Chambers suggested surrender to the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut. But “better dead than red” was the populist reply. Russell Kirk considered the agenda of the conservative to be that of slowing down the progressive machine. He lacked the eschatological hope that the postmillennial theology of the previous century provided. Though he appealed to Christianity he did so in a way that seemed ignorant of the specific systematics at play.
Jonah Goldberg has taken a next step as he registers his understanding of what it means to be conservative in Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy. But going further than Kirk he takes a rationalist’s approach, painting the American Experiment in terms of the Enlightenment apart from theology. Thus the “city on a hill” as a beacon of hope for all is replace by “nothing is foreordained” and hope disappears. The ideas sound like an objectivism (fortunately) devoid of Rand’s hedonism.
Still, he is able to step outside his box and see what is happening in the world around him. He sees the conservative embrace of Trump as a “catastrophic surrender,” an indicator of the collapse of Western liberal democracy.
I realize that there are varying schools of thought with regard to historical analysis. Some paint America’s founding in terms of secular individualism. Others in terms of global evangelism. Mr. Goldberg uses the Enlightenment as his foundation. Frequent are his references to Locke & Co. but Burke gets only a single mention in the book. That seems incomplete. America is English in its philosophical heritage while borrowing some from the continent. One is not fair to history to leave out either the theological constructs or the burgeoning libertarianism of revolution.
Mr. Goldberg’s work thus represents the pessimism of modern conservatism. But what else do we have? Marxism is by nature pessimistic Progressivism has a pessimistic program. Conservatism has some optimism no program. The West hasn’t committed suicide. It died for lack of hope.
Now an excursus
One additional tool for understanding American history is by way of a thing called a cultural hermeneutic. This is an analysis of the character of a culture and the things that drive it. In this case we can look at America in theological terms. Deism was nearly dead, so much so that even the strongest deists among the founders called for prayer (Ben Franklin). It was present but was quite modest in its influence. Then there were those Connecticut Calvinists (among others, of course) and their eschatological hope. The optimism of postmillennial theology drove William Carey (England) as well as Manifest Destiny (US) and later the Progressive ideals. Sometimes the God of the theology (as with the progressives) was missing though the constructs remained intact. (See John Gray, “Black Mass, Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia” for a useful historical analysis.) People want hope. Hope is the principle that drives people to action.
The American Revolution was a hope for justice. The do-gooders work for a hopeful society — “a hand up, not a hand out” has this as a foundational idea. Barack Obama won the presidency partly because he understood the theme and proclaimed that “We can do it,” giving people a goal and a hope. Donald Trump provided an eschatological purpose, to “Make America Great Again.” Hillary Clinton lost need votes to the three outlier candidates because she said “America is already great” with the subtext “it’s all about me.” She provided no sensed purpose, no eschatos for the voter. The three progressive outliers gave the base more hope with their progressive rhetoric.
It should come as no surprise that the rise of evangelical fundamentalism came at roughly the same time as the rise of modern conservatism. Both are reactionary, where fundamentalists define themselves against the error of theological liberalism and the outgoing assertiveness of the postmillennialist. Today they’ve morphed into the “fundamental” groups and can be identified by two hallmarks which allow them to separate from other sound evangelicals: King James only and double separation. Little do they realize that some of the most orthodox believers are in the groups they separate from, being supposedly compromising. It’s a defensive posture, a reaction.
Conservatism has some conflicts with Christianity. At this time it sees itself as the senior of the two, with theology and religion supporting it. That creates the problem of civil religion, reducing Christianity to a servant position. That’s not how Christianity works and not now society works. But it seems to be how political theorists think.
We need to be cautious about what Christianity directly proposes and what it might allow. Many seem to be of the opinion that capitalism and the character of our republic are the fruit of Christianity. As with my concerns about Mr. Goldberg’s work, this seems a bit too exclusive. If we marry ourselves to an economic or political system does that not affect our mission? Does that not turn us into just another progressive of a sort, conflating the socio-economic with the fuller mission of the church. (And please don’t accuse me of neo-Platonism here. There is so much more to the story.)
Conservatism today sits as a reaction more than a driver because it has no program. Should conservatism ever develop a program the the adherents to this conversation will be able to enact meaningful policy. But today’s conservatism is mired in a battle between nationalistic capitalism, international capitalism, and social conservatism. Should some in the conservative movement find a path to reconciliation, even in part, conservatism will make greater progress than ever before.
In the end …
Mr. Goldberg’s work is useful. It’s a little short-sighted in its rejection of Burke. He paints a proper picture of the swamp. He understands the problem of Marx and Darwin in politics. And he clarifies the conservative principle well that economic class is mutable. These points are significant and make the book valuable. I highly recommend reading it.