Fashionable “Conservatism”

William F. Buckley, in starting the National Review, his periodical of conservative opinion, said that his goal was to make conservatism “shoe,” which was his weird term for “cool.”

Unfortunately, he succeeded beyond his wildest fantasies.

This was always a misbegotten enterprise. To begin, if there is one thing no real conservative should care a whit about, it is fashion. Conservatism is the political philosophy of tradition and respectability. Its serious practitioners are always slightly, yet proudly, fustian. Think the Queen of England, the leading conservative in the western world at the moment. Always very respectably dressed in outfits that would fit right into a clothing catalog from the 1950s. She cares not for fashion.

Then there is the point that making conservatism fashionable is a bad idea because conservatism is inherently silly. It is the ridiculous idea that humans can stop, or at least effectively resist, change, which is patently stupid. Or, as Buckley himself put it, a man “standing athwart history, yelling stop.”

This is the sort of conceit that only a “conservative” man could come up with. No one can “stand athwart history.” White, presumptively heterosexual men are the only people on earth who willfully engage in that level of self-aggradizement. It would be funny if it had not caused so much violence and suffering in the history of the world.

Buckley explicitly defended racial segregation on the grounds that black people were not ready to participate as equals in the important business of self-government. The point is not that all change is good — making conservatism “shoe” in the United States was in fact a change that helped no one that I can see — but some things — racial segregation leaps forcibly to mind — need to change as fast as possible, and there is no good “conservative” argument — no good argument at all — for opposing reasonable measures to bring that outcome to fruition.

The other problem with making conservatism fashionable is that doing so has attracted any number of charlatans to the “conservative” banner, not because of any commitment to a set of principles, but because that’s where the money is these days.

It is absurd to reduce the universe of options in political philosophy to two, conservatism and liberalism, but such are the prevailing terms of our political discourse in the United States of the early twenty-first century. It is true that something most people call “liberalism” was by far the predominant political philosophy in the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Buckley got his start. That is so because, between the Great Depression and the War itself, what passed for “conservatism” in the United States had been found woefully inadequate to the problems of the modern world. In 1932, the first presidential election year after the start of the Great Depression, the nation elected a Democrat as President and Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress, a political fact that would persist with little deviation for the next sixty years.

The Democrats are far from perfect. Everyone is. But they did adopt policies that enabled the period of enormous economic prosperity and internal peace of the post World War II era. The lack of peace that resulted from protests by African Americans against racial segregation mostly ended with major civil rights legislation under the auspices of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, with not a little help from Republicans in Congress — back in the days when Republicans in Congress would cooperate with a Democratic President.

That same Democratic President did foolishly start the war in Vietnam, the other major source of protest in the 1960s, but he did so mostly because he foolishly listened to Republicans whining about how communism in Vietnam was a threat to U.S. national security, a claim that proved to be completely absurd after South Vietnam finally fell under communist control once we admitted defeat and ended our occupation of that nation — under a Republican.

The Republicans did figure out how to win presidential elections using Richard Nixon’s tactic of quietly appealing to the enduring white supremacist vote with covertly racist appeals that nice, white people who did not want to support overt racism could conveniently ignore. So Republicans controlled the presidency for most of the period from 1968 to 2008. Even during this period, however, they foreshadowed their future descent into insanity with their treatment of the most prominent Democrat to serve in the office at the time, Bill Clinton. They pursued a highly partisan impeachment of him despite knowing to a certainty that it would fail for being too patently partisan to convince anyone, especially the Democrats who held enough seats in the Senate to prevent removal of their man from the presidency.

Then, in 2008, the unthinkable happened. Not only did their sotto voce racism not work, it failed to prevent the election of the nation’s first black President. Now, eight years later, they run the risk of having their fashionable conservatism collapse entirely.

That U.S. “conservatism” is nothing more than a cheap fashion on par with parachute pants is clear from looking at its chief practitioners. Among the punditocracy, they can claim such idiotic hucksters as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who figured out that there was good money in being willing to say whatever scurrilous, mean-spirited, vicious thing they could think up about the enemy du jour. Limbaugh a few years ago called a young woman a “slut” for explaining in public why requiring insurance policies to cover prescription contraceptives is a good idea. Nothing at all conservative about that. Now Coulter has snatched up the bad, “conservative” idea of the moment and trashes all immigrants without let or hindrance. Such is modern, U.S. “conservatism.”

Their public officials are not much better. Liberal observers coined the term, “magic asterisk” to describe the budget proposals of Paul Ryan, the man who is allegedly the leading deep thinker about matters budgetary among the Republicans. As a scholar at Harvard explained, the “magic asterisk” originated during the Reagan administration, home of absurd assumptions such as the ridiculous idea that tax cuts will unleash such a huge surge in economic activity that tax collections will actually rise, offsetting the reductions in rates. This has never happened and there is no good reason to think it ever will.

The “magic asterisk” refers to “future savings to be identified,” and in the modern era when health care costs are a key expense, such “future savings” usually are supposed to come from some magical “free market” solution that will not work any better than any other Republican economic nostrum.

Before Ryan, the Republican Party’s deep thinker on matters of policy was bomb thrower Newt Gingrich, who led the impeachment of Bill Clinton and, as a candidate for President in 2012, coined the term, “food stamp President” for Barack Obama. He is an expert at dog whistle racism, you have to give him that.

There is nothing at all “conservative” about these people or their political or policy ideas. They call themselves “conservative” solely because that is now the fashion, as it has been since the 1970s, a very bad decade for fashion in general.

Now fashionable “conservatism” has coughed up Donald Trump, like a hair ball, as the leading Republican candidate for President. The one virtue of this situation is that it has produced a seemingly endless quantity of high comedy as “conservatives” suddenly straighten their ties and try to explain how the Donald is somehow a threat to “conservatism” when he is really nothing but the logical outcome of the “conservatism” as fashion that Buckley unleashed sixty years ago.

Fashionable “conservatism” is, if anything, even uglier and dumber than the real thing.

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