Twenty years ago I was a teenager living in a conservative town surrounded by conservative friends. We all went to church. We all listened to Limbaugh and Hannity and thought Colmes sounded like a fool. I, along with several very good friends, took a college-level government course and even competed at the state level in debate. It was a great time, and we all agreed on the basics: small government good, free market good, unrestricted trade good, freedom good, we’ll put a boot in your a**, it’s the American way.
In the intervening years, most of those friends have moved far, far to the left. They attended college and dropped their faith and their politics and replaced them with what was on campus. Of the remaining few conservatives, many retain the label, but would disagree with me about virtually everything political. This post considers how this might be.
The old conservative consensus has been shattered into two primary factions, and a rough map would have the establishment conservatives on one side and the MAGA conservatives (or “new conservatives”, as I’ll call them, if it isn’t too much of a contradiction) on the other, but this obscures the real differences between the two sides, which are not merely a preference in leadership.
The establishment side is loyal opposition to the Left, and as such they adopt the Left’s positions on subjects ranging from immigration to same-sex “marriage”. The only values they have held since the 90’s are support for unrestricted trade, a desire to make government “smaller” (really, to grow it less quickly), a strong war enthusiasm, and a commitment to “freedom” – of the Civil Rights Act variety: any right, no matter how extreme, eventually finding a home in their hearts.
The more interesting thing is what lies behind the new side. While not unified, there’s an element of extreme traditionalism that rings true throughout the faction; this is a political force comfortable with the crusades, with colonialism, with mocking sexual depravity, etc. For the record, I don’t count these as universal negatives like our cultural consensus would. My point in bringing them up is to say that the new faction has rejected the “progress” of the past several decades or even centuries because it leads to an abyss. I named this blog Antemodernist, so my sympathies should be obvious. The values of this faction include a strong commitment to family and localism, a love of small and family business and a disdain for corporatism, support for stay-at-home motherhood against career women, chastity and other ancient virtues, and a general apathy toward international affairs (though, importantly, this apathy doesn’t extend to missionary work).
There are probably better names than “establishment” and “new”, then. The former really seem to be libertarians with an international gaze. The latter are harder to pin down. The term “Christian Nationalist” has been offered by hostile media. They approach a more economically literate sort of Chesterton and Belloc’s “Distributism”.
In any case, they are far more focused on the moral component of living than their opposites; their economic view comes from their view of family and community, rather than their economic view being the foundation for all else. The establishment/libertarian side in contrast roots everything in free markets and global trade.
The distinction gets blurred a little when we get into specifics, unfortunately. What happens when a factory that employs 50% of the town’s working-age men goes out of business because it can’t compete? The establishment-type has no problem with it; this is economic progress and the market in action. The MAGA-type is much more concerned with the town than with the factory. And yet both has a point to make here. We can’t artificially make factories competitive, and yet we seem to have some kind of obligation to defend the town’s livelihood. So what do we do?
At the risk of posing too simple a solution, there’s one possibility that wasn’t obvious to people even ten years ago, and I propose it not as the solution, but as something to consider. What if the seed of the problem was sewn when the concrete was poured for the factory? This is where the new conservative differs from the liberal who hates the factory owner’s decision to move his operation elsewhere. The establishment guy has no problem with the factory moving and the liberal is mad it moved, but both embrace a form of economic thinking that requires factories full of people working away from their families for most of their lives; a factory that replaces the churches and other community places as the place where communal life happens so that when it leaves, the town dies.
The idea that families should work together was so strong for so many millennia that when factories first opened, mothers brought their daughters into those dark places to work alongside them, and fathers brought their sons into the industrial mines. As CR Wiley puts it in his book “Man of the House”, perhaps it wasn’t merely the factories that were inhuman, but the industrial revolution itself.
There’s another nuance though, because many of us “new conservatives” don’t think the laws of economics can just bend to some sentimental will for older times that appear good to us only because of the distance. We know laws like supply and demand are in effect, that unwanted products can’t be forced to sell, that the value of something is set by those who want it, etc. The difference is that we don’t think these things necessarily lead to the destruction of families and local communities to create leviathans of business and government. We think that freedom of speech can be used for good or ill. We think firearms can be used to stop a villain or massacre a school. One of the fundamental differences then, between the new conservatives and the establishment, is that the new conservatives believe economic liberty can be used for good or evil, and the establishment believes anything the market produces is good. So if the market produces mega-corporations that dominate entire industries, that’s good. It’s efficient. But the end of man is not efficiency, and the mega-corporation is already spending millions to mutilate the sexual organs of children and pay to have the mothers working for them – already taken away from their families to work behind a desk – travel to see hit-men who will murder their children for them.
There are a number of things to consider that come out of this distinction, and a lot of confusion when people try to stand in both camps. I’ll save that for a follow-up post.