Meta-conservatism: The Last Hope for the Right
Why conservatism died, and how to win the political right back from populism
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“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” — Heraclitus
The United States is a political duopoly. Not just electorally, but philosophically and ideologically as well. While it’s always held a diverse range of thought, the American political landscape has consistently been dominated by two factions whose tensions shape the national conversation: one representing the majority of the left half of society, and one of the right. Traditionally, these two sides were led by liberals and conservatives.
Over the past decade, ideological civil wars have ravaged both halves of society as emerging sects challenge the established orthodoxies. The battle for the left is still ongoing between the more moderate pre-woke liberals and social justice leftists. The latter have captured many of the country’s institutions, as well as nearly every avenue of culture and information, but their ideas remain unpopular, and their tactics even more so. Even while leftists gain territory, liberal resistance remains strong enough to deny them full victory. Because this internal struggle has not yet been resolved, the left half of America remains fractured and discordant.
The story on the right played out quite differently. The right dabbled with populism during the Obama years with the Tea Party movement, an incoherent and baboonish sideshow that never seriously challenged the right wing establishment for power. But with the rise of Donald Trump in 2015, right-wing populism had found its brand. This more popular iteration, openly flirtatious with the ugliest parts of the far-right, and embodying almost nothing recognizably conservative, proved vastly more formidable. When the populist right rose to challenge conservatives, there was no protracted struggle. It wasn’t even much of a fight. It was a curb stomping. Within the span of a single election cycle, right-populism eradicated conservatives from power at every level. Conservatism, as traditionally understood, is dead. If the non-populist right is to mount a comeback, then conservatism must evolve.
Conservatism, a Postmortem
To know how conservatism needs to evolve, we must first understand why it faltered. How was it annihilated so swiftly? Why was it so readily abandoned? Because it did not rise to meet the challenges of the day, and long since stopped delivering for its constituents. Fundamentally, conservatism failed to keep up.
Conservatism is like a Gen X high school quarterback — peaking in the 1980’s, never moving on, and spending the decades since in declining stagnation as they delusionally try to recapture those glory days, but while using the same now-outdated methods. The conservative playbook of slashing taxes, social spending, and regulations; of trickle-down economics; and that “Take em’ out into the woodshed” hard-ass father schtick hasn’t changed one iota in 40 years. And it’s about as effective at governing a 21st century society as a mullet, cutoff jean vest, and Aldo Nova mixtape is at picking up dates.
While certain issues recur in cycles, the world of today is incomparable to that of the 1970s and 80s. The middle class has lost ground, income inequality is soaring, and the climate is changing. We have the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic growth, GDP, and the stock market no longer correlate with the overall health of the economy. The population is larger and more diverse. To speak nothing of the ways in which technology has transformed our lives. We are more interconnected, not just through globalization, but through the internet. Using the 40-year-old catalog of right wing thought to address the problems of today is tantamount to fighting a modern military with muskets and mounted cavalry.
Don’t take my word for it, ask the voters. The Republican Party has only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since the 1980’s, and not since 2004. Even within the GOP, the first chance voters were given to choose a viable alternative to conservatism, they jumped at it and never looked back.
As conservatism’s obsolescence deepened, the American right came to no longer stand for anything, but merely to stand against things — more often, to stand in the way of things. Conservatism became a movement with no ideas, whose sole ambition was to cash donor checks and thwart their opponents rather than actually do anything themselves. To be sure, right-populism offers little more than its predecessor by way of a substantive and affirmative policy agenda. But it salves this deficiency with moral victories in the culture wars and the symbolic triumphs of not just stymying adversaries, but humiliating and enraging them. The right half of society has been waiting for more than a generation for some substance from their side. In its absence, they’ll take “owning the libs” as a consolation prize.
A Desert Caravan
The world is always in motion. Nothing stands still, from the particles that make up the atoms in your body to the cosmos itself — and everything in between. However stationary things might seem, we are in fact moving on millions of different axes, literally and figuratively, at this very moment. Traditional conservatism was a force for preservation through restraint and obstructionism. In simpler times, this was a feasible strategy. But the rate of change continues to accelerate. Time was, a person could live their whole life without noticing any major transformations. Now, the world of one’s youth is unrecognizable in middle age.
If the world changes, and you stay the same, then you have in fact changed relative to your surroundings. Not changing is changing.
Imagine a caravan moving through a desert. Anyone who goes backward will be lost. Anyone who stands still will be left behind. That’s plain enough. But what happens to the traveler who maintains his speed or direction when the group hastens their pace or turns? This traveler can argue that he has not changed. And yet, he has changed — he is now alone in the desert. Constancy, in a changing world, is relative. It cannot be achieved by stasis, nor by refusing to change. Staying the same requires making constant small adjustments to maintain one’s place relative to their surroundings. When the camel train speeds up, you speed up. When the procession turns left, you turn left. Only by changing can you stay the same.
“I’m much more left wing now on economics than I was 30 years ago, because the situation has grotesquely changed, and I regard that — and this is hard for some people to get — as a conservative move, because it’s adjusting to reality. It’s a meta-conservative view.”
— Andrew Sullivan
I encountered the concept of meta-conservatism from the writer Andrew Sullivan in a 2018 conversation he had with Robert Wright. The fundamental goal of conservatism is to conserve democracy, liberalism, capitalism, institutions, and the way of life that has so long brought people seeking a better future to our shores. In an ever-changing world, meta-conservatism, in contrast with traditional conservatism, would evolve with the times and adjust its views and policy prescriptions to more effectively safeguard these features of society.
The rise of exorbitant wealth inequality and a stalled middle class has festered to the point of doing serious harm to capitalism, and inspiring a renaissance of support for socialism. The conventional conservative response to this is more Reaganomics — which is political talk for sticking your head in the sand and your thumb up your butt. The meta-conservative response is to raise the economic floor and alleviate the worst suffering, whether through basic income, negative income tax, or some other means.
Our inaction on climate change has forced a situation where the best we can now hope for is to mitigate its effects, as preventing them is no longer possible. The traditional conservative point of view was to imbecilically deny that climate change was even occurring, and when that became untenable, pivoting to the nihilistic attitude of “Well, it’s too late to stop it, so why bother?” The meta-conservative response might include market solutions that promote renewable energy, ending fossil fuel subsidies, or enacting a carbon fee and dividend.
You could go down the list. Healthcare, corruption, education, housing, equality of opportunity, and so on. A meta-conservative right would be a reformist right; a right with ideas — a right that embraces change not to dismantle “power structures”, but to keep pace with a changing world in order to preserve them. This isn’t what any leftist wants to hear. That said, a meta-conservative right is much more likely to form bipartisan consensus with, and much more primed to get things done. You want to win back the right? Show the public what they haven’t seen from your side since Members Only jackets were cool: results.
A policy agenda fossilized from an era in which most of our current problems didn’t exist, or were vastly different, is of no use to anyone. By not changing, conservatism did change, from a movement of restraint and — so it always claimed — small government, to an instruction manual for how to be a do-nothing bum that no one likes.
To all my bow tied friends out there, it’s time to face the facts. Your ideology has so profoundly failed to deliver the goods that even your own side jettisoned it. That’s a gut punch you just have to let land, and land hard. The conservatism of those glory days is gone, and it’s gone for good. Either meta-conservatism rises from its ashes, or the populist right — and all of the even fouler segments to which it serves as a gateway — will continue to eat your lunch and have free rein over half of society. Your country needs you.
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