jimsleeper.com » Conservative Convolutions

Conservative Convolutions

William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will   (Wikimedia/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will (Wikimedia/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

American conservatism has many mansions and sects, but few conservatives can reconcile their yearning for an ordered, sometimes sacred, liberty with their obeisance to nearly every whim and riptide of capital that’s dissolving the liberty they cherish.

Today’s corporate consumer capitalism, far from being the Lockean expression of creative, private work that conservatives have long claimed it to be, degrades individuals and subverts civic-republican dispositions and traditions. It’s also undermining national sovereignty with a speed that confounds conservative understandings of patriotism. Among the pacified and degraded are conservatives themselves, as I became exasperated enough to explain in The Coddling of the Conservative Mind.”

Whittaker Chambers told William F. Buckley in 1970 that one can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism because capitalism disrupts culture. He didn’t blame this on the conservative movement’s noxious neo-conservative cheerleaders and squawk-talk radio and cable TV drones, but on central contradictions within conservatism itself. Libertarian conservatives dismiss a lot of the “order” that other conservatives demand; orthodox religious conservatives try to impose doctrinal order on a fallen world, even while sighing occasionally, like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, at doctrinal order’s often-hypocritical, even brutal, results.

Yet most conservatives keep on trying to reconcile capitalism and community values in symposia at elegant redoubts such as their Manhattan Institute and their Hoover Institution at Stanford or by teaching the classics opportunistically, as in the Grand Strategy program at Yale during the early 2000’s, which I’ve criticized obliquely below. More often these days, conservatives end up projecting the central contradictions between their moralism and their materialism — and the bourgeois self-loathing that it often prompts — onto scapegoats at home and abroad. They dine out on leftist follies so often that they’ve forgotten how to cook for themselves and the rest of us, and they’ve abandoned their conservative kitchen to the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump.

Capitalist markets should be honored in their place, which is determined by a sovereign polity exercising republican vigilance. Profit-maximizing multinationals subvert that vigilance and republics themselves, through anarchic consumer marketing and the seduction, corruption, and control of politicians. The tragedy is that many conservatives truly mean better. When they vow to rescue liberal education and liberal democracy from liberals, they mean to defend a classical liberalism that balances individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property with the same individuals’ responsibilities as republican citizens. They want students to become loving and self-disciplined enough to rise above narrow self-interest to enhance the common good in a true commonwealth.

Such conservatives know that a decent society shelters the spark and flame of individual dignity and conscience but that it can’t presume to light that flame in the first place — or extinguish it. Conservatives think that that flame is lit and sustained by faith or natural law. But even a conservative republic’s “civil religion” can’t create or, ultimately, sustain that flame. Conservatives often blame leftists and left-liberals for ignoring this sublime truth and for relying too heavily on its statist supports. Most liberals haven’t a credible answer to that accusation, but neither do conservatives who’ve prospered so well in the system as it is that they make only philanthropic or moralistic gestures against its deepening, increasingly dangerous inequities.

Yet neither today’s liberals nor conservatives can quite bring themselves to defend the corporate and financial dispensation wholeheartedly. Sensitive to individual rights and sufferings, they want to strengthen society’s public provisions without restricting individual liberties. For that they rely on outside incubators of virtues and beliefs which a classically liberal state itself cannot nourish or even enforce very well, committed as it is to protect and even expand individual autonomy. Conservatives share in that dilemma because the mayhem that’s rising all around and within us is driven in no small way by the seductions and stresses of corporate consumer marketing and employment.

Defenders of today’s capitalism forget, or only opportunistically invoke, Adam Smith’s theory of the moral sentiments and a civic-republican patriotism that might be enabled and ennobled by a classical education. But instead of taking that challenge as seriously as they claim to do, conservatives careen incoherently between loyalty to a national-security state and subservience to a post-national, global capitalism that, far more than terrorism, is dissolving both the state and the republican virtues on which they rely. Call Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez insufferable scolds, if you wish, but there’s such a thing as “economic violence” that does eviscerate the villages that raise the children. Wall Street does subvert Main Street and morals.

Here are some of the essays and reviews I’ve written to assess these challenges and conservatives’ efforts to meet them:

“Half-Right,” Commonweal, Feb. 13, 2009. Review of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Where Ross Douthat Goes Wrong, History News Network

Ross Douthat

“Eyeing a Return to Power, Conservatives Learn to Love the Administrative State,” History News Network, 2022. Also at RawStory. (This was posted in anticipation of a dreaded “Red Wave” a few days before the Nov. 8, 2022 mid-term elections. Although that “wave” didn’t materialize, this essay discerned a shift in conservative thinking that’s still underway. It’s posted also right here on this website, with photos of the principals.)

“Gip, Gip, Hooray!” How Ronald Reagan administered a glorious euthanasia to the civic-republican spirit, — or tried to. History News Network, 2007

How a Republican Party that I Grew Up Respecting Has Gone Off the Cliff, The Berkshire Edge, 2018

“By Gradual Paces,” The American Prospect, 2004; how conservatives betrayed the founders’ original intentions for the American republic.

“Thucydiots,” The American Prospect, 2004. The Iraq War’s folly was evident to some of us early on.

“Humanists and Warriors,” The Yale Politic, 2007. How conservatives misconstrue the humanities and leadership training for a national security state within American republic.

Video of me “answering” conservative writer Amity Shlaes at a conference on “American Exceptionalism” organized by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, 2014. Shlaes, David Bromwich, Joan Richardson, and I were on a panel discussion, “The Unmaking of Americans.” To see my comments on Shlaes’ remarks, go to 37:57 on this video.

The Conservatives Driving the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade, The American Prospect, 2016

“Conservatives’ Conundrum — and Ours,” History News Network June 18, 2008. What’s gotten into George Packer? His account of “The Fall of Conservatism” in the May 26 New Yorker shows mainly how the chattering classes, liberal as well as conservative, avoid reckoning our civic-republican decline.

“Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea-Change,” Salmagundi, 2006. This essay about what I called “the pornification of public space,” written for the 40th anniversary issue of the quarterly Salmagundi, was reduced and adapted for the Dallas Morning News, where it got a lot of reaction from members of the Christian right, a lot more of it positive than I’d have expected.


Neocon princelings William Kristol, Robert Kagan

Neocons (and some liberals) Can’t Stop Flailing Ghosts of Left-Liberalism Past, Nov. 9, 2006

Glenn Beck Reminded Neocons It’s Always 1939 All Over Again. Nov. 12, 2012 Also at History News Network How American Stalinists became neoconservatives without really changing. Here I explained what was behind it, and I’ve posted several comments on the column.

How neoconservatives set the stage for Trump, AlterNet, 2017

Norman Podhoretz’s My Love Affair With America is mainly his account of his love affair with himself and his embrace of neoconservatism.. Los Angeles Times, July, 2000.

How some neoconservatives sacralize America. Boston Globe, August 19, 2007 (Review of David Gelernter’s Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion)

Here they go again. October, 2009, David Brooks, Afghanistan, and neocons’ habit of celebrating sacrifices that they don’t make.

“Neoconservative chickens coming home to roost,” The Guardian, 2007, a potted history of their misconceptions and missteps, occasioned by essays and a lecture by New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus late in 2007.

“Allan Bloom and the Conservative Mind,” New York Times Book Review, 2005.

David Brooks, “The Manchurian Columnist, Takes Off His Mask,” History News Network, and “The Two Brookses,” The American Prospect, 2006. How David Brooks, purveyor of neoconservative wisdom to New York liberals, gets himself more tangled up than Houdini.

Intellectual Usury Feels Good, at First — and David Brooks is good at it. July 26, 2008

“The Wiley E. Coyote Conservatives,” The American Prospect, 2006 What will it take for conservative movement pundits in pursuit of liberal subversion to realize they’ve fallen off the cliff? This was posted as well on CBS News’ website.

“Timmerman and the Case For a New Politics, “The Bennington Review, 1982. Anyone who has followed neoconservative drumbeating for an aggressive American foreign policy will be amused but also outraged by this 1982 account of their silence about — and apologetics for — a brutal, anti-Semitic dictatorship’s violations of human rights.

“Hawking War Guilt,” The Nation, November 12, 2007. How the New York Times Book Review became Iraq Warhawks’ damage-control gazette.

Arthur Sulzberger’s Cracked Kristol Ball, History News Network, 2008 Jim Sleeper: Arthur Sulzberger’s Cracked Kristol Ball | History News Network

The perils of pro-life violence, Daily News, 1994