Say no to the populist war party

8 April 2022

10:55 PM

8 April 2022

10:55 PM

Addressing the question of whether now is the time for counterrevolution rather than conservation, I will take “counterrevolution” to mean the idea that all-out political and cultural war is what the moment requires, not the alleged conservative gradualism or restraint that those crying out for such war detest.

(There are a variety of factions that march under different banners — nationalists, populists, integralists, MAGA. And while there are meaningful differences between these troupes, the shadows of their banners overlap like the shaded part of a Venn diagram this idea of counterrevolutionary war. For brevity’s sake I’ll call them the “war party.”)

I think this framing is part of the problem. I am all in favor of counterrevolutionary war where necessary. I am also in favor of conservation — or, simply, conservatism — where necessary. I see no inconsistency here. Indeed, I share many, though certainly not all, of the war party’s concerns and aims. The difference fundamentally is a question of prudence, which Edmund Burke tells us “is not only first in rank of the virtues, political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.”

The war party disagrees passionately, and their passion has caused many to discard all pretense at prudence. They argue that the liberalism at the heart of Anglo-American conservatism — and Anglo-American culture generally — should be interred in the dustbin of history alongside prudence itself. By my lights, this is madness and folly. Our conservatism is hardly just a synonym for classical liberalism; it has always sought to conserve the Anglo-American love of liberty — both political and economic — and respect for the rule of law. These commitments are prior to the legal constructs created to defend them, philosophically and politically, but also historically. For instance, centuries before the Fourth Amendment was written, the English believed a man’s home was his castle.

This doesn’t make conservatives “right-liberals,” as the war party claims. But hostility to this belief does make the war party right-wing populists or nationalists. They argue that the state should pick winners and losers — in the economy, the culture, and in political discourse. Again, as a prudential matter, the state can do a little of this while still staying true to conservative principles. Big Tech, for instance, can be regulated in accordance with the First Amendment.

But like all populists, the war party rejects all impediments to their will to power as inherently illegitimate or corrupt, because they start from the premise that they are right in all questions of morality and policy. Thus, they embrace the “logic” of burning the village to save it. This approach fails on every level.

I’ll forgo arguing why liberalism, constitutionalism, economic liberty, etc. are worth conserving in the hope readers will see this as self-evident. I still believe that conservatives are charged with the duty to conserve our revolutionary accomplishments. Instead, I’ll simply note that the war party’s approach fails prudentially — i.e., tactically and strategically — as a political project. It’s nice that they align themselves with the libertarian spirit opposed to vaccine mandates and the like. But such natural libertarianism is an unnatural ally for their political goals. This is not the reserve army ready to impose some theocratic “Highest Good” regime they believe it is.

The war party has deluded itself into thinking it has the numbers on its side. This gives its members and advocates the unwarranted confidence to join similar radicals on the left in their war on the safeguards of the liberal order, in the fantastical hope that once the safeguards are shattered, they will be able to rule the ash heap. That’s not conservatism, it’s radicalism.

Jonah Goldberg is editor in chief of the Dispatch, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the author, most recently, of Suicide of the West. This article is one excerpt from “Fight for the right,” a symposium on the future of American conservatism. Read the full series here.

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