To err is human. To indulge in Schadenfreude is also human. The recent dust-up on the political Right regarding the supposedly “demonic” “Drag Queen Story Hour”, in San Francisco public libraries, was, for me at least, an event that generated more than a little snide glee. The Right-wing coalition of Randian libertarians, social conservatives, crypto-imperialists, and not-very-crypto authoritarian plutocrats, is transparently unstable. Just as schisms on the Left between democratic socialists and technocratic centrists are emerging in the wake of the Trump presidency, parallel breaks on the Right come as no surprise. It’s a guilty pleasure to witness Reagan’s 11th commandment — “no enemies on the Right” — crumbling into dust, but a pleasure nonetheless.
One thing that always puzzled me about contemporary American conservatism is: what, exactly, are American conservatives trying to conserve? It’s anything but clear.
· Libertarian conservatives are openly hostile to any existing social and economic structures that set the contours of the common good. The market is their god, and his word is, as Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into air.” In other words, monetize everything, and he who dies with the most toys wins. (It is always presumptively a “he”…)
· Social conservatives define morality in terms of sex and gender, but generally are indifferent to capitalism and its culture of systematic economic domination and the unbearable yet inescapable strain placed on families and other social institutions. Their idea of tradition is rather brittle, because it is deaf to any tradition’s need to renew and reform itself by engaging with new understandings about reality, social, cultural, or natural.
· Crypto-imperialists — the neoconservative old guard — are unmoved by moral constraints on waging war and international politicking, which immediately puts in question their commitment to stable order, since they think all is fair in war, and that politics is war by other means. They are balance-of-power, existing-world-order stalwarts until things change, and then they’re not. The relevant changes usually have to do with things like oil.
· The not-so-crypto-authoritarian plutocrats — the Mercers, the Kochs, the Trumps, and members of their exclusive club — have no ideology except preserving the eternal dialectic between power and money, and making sure it stays in their little circle of the 0.01 percent.
The political scientist Corey Robin has persuasively argued that conservatism is not motivated by respect for tradition, social order, and gradual change only when absolutely necessary. Its goal is preserving a group’s favored place in actual social and economic hierarchies, and adopting any practical means and theoretical ideologies to accomplish this given goal.
Robin’s thesis seems to me to be correct, and perhaps explains the fragmentation of the contemporary American Right. The Kochs occupy a different favored place in a different hierarchy than, say, Sohrab Ahmari, the “traditionalist” Catholic conservative who slammed David French’s blander style of conservatism in the now notorious First Things article, and who suggests that the culture wars should be fought not for establishing a modus vivendi, but to annihilate the enemy and establish a new moral-cultural order. And both are worlds apart from the conservative agenda of John Bolton, which is military domination of the world, and that of Donald Trump, whose agenda is and always will be, well, Donald Trump.
Ahmari’s brand of cultural politics is obsessed with sex and the gender binary in a way that crowds out almost all other concerns. To be fair, while I view Ahmari’s moral high dudgeon with bemusement, disdain, and alarm, I can see what he’s getting at. As a transwoman I have always been a bit disturbed by drag. In at least some of its variants, it exaggerates stock versions of femininity in a way that, to me, suggests a small hint of misogynistic contempt under its campy and sincere homage. But I am willing to write this off as my own mishegoss. Drag is not really my bag, and I am not going to make an issue of it if it’s your bag. Furthermore, I am not sure children will get the irony and pastiche of drag culture by being read-to. Were I sitting in that reading group, I would not be morally warped for life, but in viewing an over-the-top exaggeration of a human female approximating Divine, I might be thinking to myself “what the hell is this then?” That said, I am sure that Ahmari and his cohort would be just as offended if a cisgender librarian in subdued civilian garb were to read aloud books like Julian is a Mermaid or Heather Has Two Mommies to an attentive group of kids. And that is precisely the problem.
Conservatives are worrying about the wrong things. “Family Values” is a canard and always has been. As Michelle Goldberg as pointed out in her New York Times column, LGBTQ culture has been thoroughly integrated into mainstream domesticity:
These days, however, the left has become overwhelmingly family-friendly. For years now, the mainstream L.G.B.T. rights movement has been more consumed with marriage and children than sexual liberation. The anti-Trump resistance is dominated by middle-aged suburban mothers horrified by the president’s depravity. On the left’s cutting edge, meetings of the Democratic Socialists of America often provide child care, and a recent issue of the socialist magazine Jacobin came with a kids’ book.
(As a sidebar, I think it interesting that Christian social/cultural conservatives go all out for championing the “traditional” nuclear family. A fair reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was at best indifferent to the family and at times actively hostile to it, since it would often exert a gravitational pull against the more determinative Christian community, the ekklesia, the gathered Church. As far as traditional gender roles go, a cursory glance at Paul’s epistles would reveal the frequent participation of women in the diaconate, and the claim, manifestly outrageous at the time it was written, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) This is not a conservative sentiment: it is radical. Radical then, radical now.)
“Family Values” is a Right-wing reflex concept. Upon scrutiny, it falls apart because it means “what we mean by Family Values”, which, like Humpty Dumpty’s theory of meaning (“When I use a word . . . it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”) means nothing at all. It is a way to mask to oneself the truth that one is worrying about the wrong things.
What should conservatives be worrying about, then? Pretty much what everyone, whether conservative, liberal, or radical should be worried about. The neglect, indeed the abuse, of migrant detainees on the southern US border. The fact that 21% of children in the USA live in poverty as defined by the US Census Bureau. The degradation of intelligent discourse and civility in the libertarian wild-wild-West of social media. The rise of right-wing white nationalism abroad and at home. The decay of liberal-democratic-republican institutions in the United States at the hands an openly despotic executive branch and a supine Senate and judiciary. The horrifying escalation of climate change. The indifference of today’s financialized capitalism toward the collapse of the middle and working classes and the plight of the poor. The worship of mammon. The plague of mass shootings and the incapacity of government to do anything about it given the inscrutable Second Amendment. Open racism, open Xenophobia, open LGBTQ-phobia. And the list could be expanded indefinitely.
Conservatives like Ahmari would brush the above aside as symptoms of “politically correct woke-ness.” They think they are morally “better” than all that “SJW” bathwater, more authentically virtuous. But this is just so much self-congratulatory hogwash. Socio-cultural conservatives habitually deploy the rhetoric of virtue and the common good as a kind of club against their rivals.
The rhetoric of virtue and the common good is, I think, worthy and righteous. “Virtue” has a long pedigree, stretching back to Plato and Aristotle, and forward to Aquinas, Hume, and Rousseau. “The common good” likewise looms large in the ethical politics of founders as different as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, and is the lingua franca of the democratic left. But it is important to note that the table of virtues advocated by the socio-cultural right is constrained and narrow: basically chastity insulated from any deepened appreciation of what sexuality actually is for the human species, obedience to authority emanating from the nation-state, deference to one’s superiors (who usually are economic superiors). Little mention is made of such excellences of character (a better translation than “virtue” of the Greek “aretē”) as forbearance, kindness, lack of acquisitiveness, good temper, and humility, all of which have a sound Greek and Jewish-Christian-Muslim pedigree. And the appeal to “the common good” on the part of socio-cultural conservatives prescinds from the liberal-democratic-republican ideal that the common good is arrived at through common deliberation about the goods held and pursued together by the political community, which itself contains a multitude of opinions about what those goods are and how they should be pursued. Socio-cultural conservatives seem to mean by the “common good” “what we mean by the common good.” So much the worse for those who are opposed to their political fiat, whether they are a drag queen reading to kids or AOC or Pope Francis.
Socio-cultural conservatives’ appeal to the tradition of virtue and the commonweal is a façade, hiding a desire to make an end-run around political reasoning toward a modus vivendi, turning a blind eye toward the ethical vicissitudes of capitalist accumulation, and masking a desire to hold on to power and privilege by playing the victim. Once again, this is evidence that Corey Robin is basically right: conservatism is an ideology of the economically and racially privileged, and its appeals to tradition and stability are a simple dodge.
Lest those Left-of center become smug about all this, it is becoming clearer by the day that we too are tempted to worry about the wrong things and falling into the same morass. A good example of this is the fracas about “electability” in the 2020 presidential contest. “Electability” is a chimera, and everyone knows it. “Electability” does not name a property that a candidate has, like being a centrist or democratic socialist or having blue eyes. It is actually more of a relational property that comes into being when the electorate shows up, which does not happen until, well, the electorate shows up. Prior to that, no one knows who is electable or not. What the Left should worry about is 1) addressing all the worrisome issues cited above, 2) conducting effective and civil debate about policies that address these issues, and 3) elaborating the conclusions to these debates, while showing to a possible electorate that Donald Trump is an existential menace to liberal republican democracy, who in large measure has drastically worsened the nation and the world, and who must be defeated. While “anybody but Trump!” is tempting as a slogan, until a candidate is chosen and the primary season closed, it only distracts from the important issues at hand, of which Trump’s aspiration to be a tyrant is a key part, perhaps the key part, but nonetheless only a part. We will have time to worry about “electability” in due course, at which time our worries should be directed toward getting out the anti-Trump vote wherever it might be. Until that time, we have better things to worry about. Please: focus, and worry about the important stuff instead.