The End of Conservatism


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Prepare for 2024, the conservative movement is preparing for a civil war. The impending war has nothing to do with the direction of conservatism – the populist nationalist faction of the Republican Party has already claimed victory – but merely about who the movement’s leader should be. The “moderate” alternative is Ron DeSantis, whose policy disagreements with former President Trump are few and relatively unimportant. It is clear that there is nothing short-term about the Trump phenomenon. The madness of modern conservatism has become systemic.  

At its heart, conservatism has nothing to do with politics. It is a moral and aesthetic disposition – one that values customs and long-standing practices but shuns overly rational approaches to life. In short, conservatism is, in the words of Walter Bagehot, an “animated moderation.” An affirmation of tradition, stability, and the local that rejects extremism in all forms. One could be excused for having never thought of conservatism in this more philosophic and historical way, for it bears little resemblance to the modern right

National Conservatives, peddling ideas and political strategies that are authoritarian in nature are on the rise. For example, the Claremont Review of Books, a once respectable right-of-center publication, recently published an essay praising Donald Trump as the exact kind of leader the founders envisioned. At The American Mind, they have gone so far as to call for revolution against the status quo at any cost. New organizations, such as the American Moment, have sprung up to help foster national conservatives

Meanwhile, Republican politicians have taken their cues from radical right-wing policy proposals. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has pushed through an incredible amount of legislation designed to remake the culture of his state while using the full force of the government to punish any rival who stands in the way of his vision, especially in the case of Disney’s self-governing status. Even supposed moderates such as Virginia Governor Glenn Younkin have worked to have harmless books like Beloved tossed from their schools and set up hotlines to report teachers for discussing “divisive” topics with their students.

The stated goal of the intellectuals driving this shift in conservative values and policies is to remake America. In their eyes, the country has been seized by powerful progressive elites speedily moving it towards a decadent Marxist nightmare. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the bleakness of where they think the world is heading, these nationalist conservatives are increasingly comfortable using any means necessary to destroy liberalism. 

Whether they recognize it or not, the New Right’s understanding of contemporary events is warped. It is true that American culture has become dangerously selfish. It is also accurate that many of our politicians – left and right – have become pathetically out of touch with the voters they profess to represent. But the idea that the American left is sending the country down the road to tyranny is a farce. If anything, the rise of illiberal national populists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orban proves that the immediate threat to freedom and democracy currently comes from the political right. 

In addition, the new right’s rejection of modernity tragically misunderstands both conservatism and the modern world. The Enlightenment has done many undeniably wonderful things for humanity, not least of which is the creation of the liberal principles that serve as the foundation of the United States. These are our nation’s traditions, which true conservatives must preserve. That tradition, like all traditions, has evolved and grown over the years. 

 The American tradition is still evolving. Undoubtedly, we have taken some bad turns recently and our nation is still far from perfect, but the proper response is to reform and refine the American experiment in liberal democracy. Not, as national conservatives wish, to reject the present in favor of an imagined past. True American conservatism understands this. It embraces most of the fast-paced changes of modern American society – technology, same-sex marriage, and welfare capitalism to name a few – while working to incorporate these alterations into the culture and ethos that have made America great for close to two and half centuries.

Edmund Burke, the founder of Anglo-American conservatism, declared that “with or without right, a revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and good” – a sentiment the New Right in America seems no longer to share. They hanker for revolution, to overthrow modernity in favor of the greatness of the past. Like the eighteenth-century revolutionaries that Burke so eloquently lambasted, national conservatives have sacrificed moral virtue for their principles. They have hardened their hearts to the economic and social suffering of American liberalism so that they can tear it down and start anew. In their haste to revive and improve, they have forgotten to preserve. Theirs is a revolution fueled by fear, resentment, and a nihilistic rejection of all that is new. In short, it is not conservative at all. Conservatism in America will cease to exist if they are to succeed.

Jeffery Tyler Syck is a PhD Candidate in American politics and political theory at the University of Virginia. His work specializes in the history of American ideology and political institutions.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Tyler Syck

Jeffery Tyler Syck is a PhD Candidate in American politics and political theory at the University of Virginia. His work specializes in the history of American ideology and political institutions.

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