My new anthology, The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives in Conservatism (from the Cornell and Northern Illinois University presses) does not paint a flattering picture of the present conservative movement. The general impression conveyed by the contributors to this volume is that the movement is driven by the demands of sponsors who do not have a single conservative bone in their bodies. So-called conservative media stars have abandoned most of the significant social issues that defined the American right in the past and instead are seeking mainstream respectability.
The movement’s funders and stars have engaged in a game of triangulation in which they have labored to marginalize everyone and everything on their right while attempting to build bridges to the center-left. In politics, triangulation is the attempt to compromise your side’s political principles in order to find a common middle ground with its opponents. Fox News abounds in members of the friendly opposition, whose partisans accept payment and publicity from the establishment right. The same network rigorously excludes anyone associated with the socially conservative old right or anyone else who has not moved sufficiently to the left on certain social questions, such as gay marriage, the removal of Confederate memorial statues, immigration, and other social questions.
Further, when conservative publications or personalities point out leftist abuses, Fox invariably showcases on their discussion panels leftists who have been quarreling with other leftists. This is not just the case for Fox; the mainstream conservative movement is always looking to the left as a place to make influential friends. Not surprisingly, this reaching out to the left has always involved vigorous concessions toward leftist politics.
One telling but hardly isolated illustration of this befriending of leftists who haven’t kept pace with progressive politics can be found on the editorial page of the quintessentially neoconservative New York Post. A puff piece here celebrates the leftist author and feminist J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. It seems Rowling “refuses to cave to the bullies” and boldly tweeted in the face of trans opposition that “biological sex is real.” The transgendered lobby is upset that Rowling believes that women are something more than “people who menstruate.” The same piece reassures the reader that Rowling “remains trans-affirming,” even though as a committed feminist she is concerned that trans ideology may condemn young women “to lives of regret or painful de-transitioning.”
It seems that Conservatism Inc. is now positioning itself somewhere among the moderate “trans-affirming” crowd as opposed to the more radical advocates of the trans ideology. This positioning may bring benefits, e.g., if such a “moderate conservative” is allowed to appear on network TV or is hired as “conservative” columnist for The New York Times or The Washington Post or as an article writer for The Atlantic. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I can understand why virtue-signaling triangulators are doing what they do. Perhaps if I had the opportunity and were a lot younger, I would succumb to the same temptation. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, I never faced that temptation.
But the days when this strategy could be gainfully pursued may be coming to an end. The American political situation has been radicalized by rioting mobs and the cultural left; the conservative movement cannot remain the talking partners of the center-left without having to reach out to Black Lives Matter and other anti-white activists. How much more ground can this by-now hopelessly compromised movement yield without looking ridiculous even to talk-show-junkies?
Should we follow National Review, perhaps over the cliff, and rename all army bases named for obscure Confederate commanders, pull down Confederate memorial statues, and remove from public view Confederate battle flags? National Review editor Rich Lowry doubled down again on his stance calling Confederate generals traitors as he applauds the ongoing work in Richmond to remove Confederate statues and Battle Flags. Pat Buchanan has raised the highly relevant question of where this positioning ultimately leads, in an explosive column addressed to American political and civic leaders.
Significantly, the conservative movement has been running alongside the rest of the media in promoting cancel culture. It has hypocritically attributed to the left what its own movement is doing, each time the left lunges further leftward. This reflects the same kind of hypocrisy that Conservative Inc. has shown when it calls the left “intolerant.” In fact, it has been the conservative establishment which for decades has been purging and defaming dissenters, mostly on the old right. This practice and its payback recall “Chad Gad Ya,” an Aramaic Passover song in which weaker predators are swallowed up by more powerful ones. Conservative Inc. is receiving from leftist adversaries what it has been doing to an older right for many decades. So, pardon me if I tune out the conservative mainstream’s complaint about “leftist intolerance.”
The opportunities to continue triangulating with the left are diminishing, in any case. At some point, the conservative mainstream will have to choose between remaining “moderate” in the eyes of the respectable left and maintaining any credibility as truly conservative with the public. Until now Conservative Inc. has been able to have its cake and to eat it, too, because it has enjoyed the needed media resources to brand itself as conservative while marginalizing a more serious right. The left is becoming too frenetically radicalized for the conservative opportunists to continue taking moderate versions of leftist stands.
[Image by David Shane from United States of America / CC BY 2.0 via wikimedia commons, resized]
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.