For several weeks I’ve been watching Fox news commentators slamming Muslim societies for not permitting, among other things, gay marriage and special protection for the transgendered. It is strange indeed that our media “conservatives” should be loudly championing culturally leftist causes, an advocacy that is becoming integral to how they define themselves politically. About ten years ago I also started noticing neoconservative journalists defending gay marriage as a “family value.” In the Republican New York Post, editorials have been calling for turning Stonewall Inn, the pub in NYC where gays in 1969 demanded a right to party and to enjoy public moral acceptance, into a protected historical site. It appears that just about any step toward self-expression that comes from (let us be frank) the Cultural Marxist Left, morphs into a “conservative” position, if one waits a few seconds until “conservatism” moves one step further into our LGBT new world.
This continuing transformation of respectable conservatism in the US and throughout the Western world into variations of the simultaneously mutating Left has been quite noticeable for decades. In my most recent work on the “American conservative movement”, I list all the onetime leftist positions that media and political conservatives are now celebrating. The mounting influence on this establishment Right of neoconservative journalists and neoconservative philanthropists accelerated this trend; and so did the linkage that took place between what calls itself the “conservatives movement” and the GOP. Both relations have pushed the acceptable Right leftward, mostly on social questions, and resulted in the elevation of onetime leftist heroes such as Martin Luther King and John Brown into “conservative. Meanwhile, we have witnessed such post-World War Two conservative heroes as Robert E. Lee, Robert A. Taft, and Joseph McCarthy turned into objects of contempt for present-day conservatism.
These changes raise the question of whether “conservative” and “liberal” still make sense as reference points. For a very long time I’ve been undertaking to demonstrate why these designations, which once referred to world views as well as political positions, should be retired, perhaps in favor of less dishonest reference points, such as position A and position B. Because soi-disant conservatives are terrified to appear reactionary, racist, homophobic, or whatever the leftist establishment decides to pin on the other side, they strain to appear sensitive to certain leftist causes, while differentiating themselves in matters that have little or nothing to do with traditional conservative thinking. Thus the Right want to build up the military and deploy it against the enemies of ‘liberal democracy” or lower the standards for “clean air.” The partisans may be right or wrong on these matters, or in their fervent support for the present government of Israel, but I’m not sure that such positions are necessarily conservative, as opposed to positions that Republicans are taking partly because of their donor base or because of their effort to woo certain voting blocs. But such positions are regarded as conservative because Republicans take them while Democrats are less open to them.
Earlier in the week, a discussion took place on Fox news on why George Will had left the GOP, after stressing his revulsion for Donald Trump. From the exchange, it became clear to me once again why the term “conservative” no longer describes our political reality. Newt Gingrich and Brit Hume characterized Will as a “Tory conservative” whose “style” did not permit him to stay in a party that had been taken over by its “base.” Contrary to this Tory image, Will has risen to prominence as a slavish toady of the Washington establishment. Since the 1980s he has gone from being an Anglo-Catholic admirer of the Oxford Tractarians to an equally explicit atheist, and from a defender of traditional marriage to someone who flaunts his disdain for those who continue to resist gay marriage.
On legalizing the illegals and expanding immigration, Will stands conspicuously with the “nice people.” In short, he’s a guy who hardly ever misses an opportunity to “grow.” He has also been a pro at fawning on those who could help his career. In the late 1980s, he carried water for the Kristol family and even produced in 1986 an adulatory column emphasizing how the cultural and social life of Washington had been transformed because of the decision of Irving and Bea Kristol to rent an apartment there. Neither Samuel Johnson nor Edmund Burke comes to mind when I meditate on Will’s career.
But Will’s diction and “style” seem enough to identify him as a true-blue man of the Right. That and his enthusiasm for something called “the Establishment” have raised him among his fans to a Platonic representation of an ideal “conservatism.” Of course one might designate as “conservative” anyone who displays correct diction, sports bow ties, and supports just about any “establishment.” But one could also recognize the obvious, namely, that certain political and social designations have outlived their relevance.
Although I’ve been arguing strenuously for the second position for the last thirty years, I doubt that I’ll prevail here. And there’s good reason for that. Politicians, journalists, and even voters adore antiquated labels, even if the users are committed to endless change and further sensitivity training. Thus we listen to media drivel that some politicians want to “go back to the New Deal,” as if FDR’s administrative innovations lie somewhere in our future. But both major parties have incorporated these one-time innovations and gone well beyond FDR, Truman, and LBJ in building a towering administrative state. Labels and events are dragged out of the past, in order to make the present look like a continuation of yesterday, when it is actually radically different. We are told that setting up rest room facilities for the transgendered is just the latest phase of a process going back to the emancipation of American slaves. Meanwhile, President Obama and half the Justices on the Supreme Court pretend that every blow against the moral consensus of the last several millennia was inherent in the work of America’s Founding Fathers.
But the preservation of outdated political labeling serves a purpose other than establishing false continuities. It provides decoration for what is an often tedious ritual. Having “conservatives” pitted against “liberals” or “Reds” against “Blues” enhances interest and voter turnout in contests between two groups of professional politicians. And the semantic distinctions now in use have not come under attack from our PC gatekeepers. No one who counts has gotten around to condemning the word “conservative” as racist, homophobic, or sexist.
This search for innocuous political labeling recalls the decision of later German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to call the party that he helped found after World War Two “Christian Democratic.” Since a defeated Germany was then being occupied by countries that referred to themselves as “democracies,” Adenauer was careful to include that god term in naming his new party. He also decided to call it “Christian” but not for the reasons one might suspect this devoutly Catholic Rhinelander would have given. He chose the word “Christian” because it sounded “moderate and inoffensive.” Little did he know that the term that he imagined being inoffensive would later become profoundly repugnant to a new ruling class! Perhaps the same fate will eventually befall the now increasingly empty term “conservative.” And it would be no great loss if it did.