The Great De-Alignment
Top Stories of the Year: #5
It's time to count down the top five stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2020—my, what a year this has been—and reviewing and extending my coverage of them.
At #5 in my countdown is a story that has not been urgent or immediate enough to rank at the top—not in a year with a presidential election and a global pandemic—but which might be a lot more significant over the long term: the de-alignment of the political coalition of the right.
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This is something I've been covering piecemeal throughout the year, but I've not quite brought the big picture together until now. So let me step back first and provide some historical context.
Large-scale political alignments tend to last for a long time, so long that everyone regards them as permanent and inevitable, as the only choices that are available: Should I be on the right or on the left, a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat?
That's particularly true in the American system. In European parliamentary systems, it is much easier for small political parties to thrive, so larger coalitions are forged as alliances among these small parties—alliances that are more prone to shift as small parties seek leverage by joining a new coalition. American politics was designed to rein in the power of these minority factions, so it tends to herd them into two broad ideological coalitions represented by two major political parties. One of the consequences is that these coalitions benefit from all the fierce tribal loyalty that people foolishly tend to devote to political parties, giving what ought to seem like unlikely and merely temporary alliances a more substantive and permanent character.
But even in America, coalitions don't last forever, and it can be hard to spot when a political alignment begins to fall apart, or to know what to do about it. It's like dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic. It has been so long since something like this happened that the habits and mindset it requires have dropped out of living memory and have to be re-established from scratch.
I think we're beginning to see signs of this kind of Great De-Alignment happening now on the right.
The political alignment on the right that we've all grown up with was forged after World War II and reached its high point from roughly 1964 to 1994. This coalition has earlier roots (particularly in Republican resistance to the New Deal in the 1930s), but for various reasons, it took until 1964 for it to really pull together. First, it needed the success of the Civil Rights Movement to remove the confounding factor of segregation, which had prevented factions in the coalition from working together (for example, by making it impossible for Republicans to win elections across the South). Second, it needed an intellectual movement dedicated to forging the coalition together, which it got with William F. Buckley's founding of National Review in 1955 and his promotion of "fusionism," which attempted to forge an alliance of Cold War hawks, free-marketers, and advocates of traditional religious values. Third, it needed a charismatic leader around which this coalition could rally, which it got when Ronald Reagan burst onto the national political scene in 1964.
But most of all, this coalition was a product of the Cold War context, because Soviet Communism provided a common enemy which all the factions of the right could rally together to oppose. The hawks hated and feared the Soviets because they were aggressive and hostile to American interests—the free-marketers because they were advocates of communism—and the religious right because the Soviets preached an atheistic philosophy and persecuted Christians. The fact that communism also had a small but vocal following here at home, and that it found an increasing number of sympathizers within the political coalition of the left, just helped to solidify the opposing political coalition on the right.
You can see this reflected in the kind of rhetoric employed by Republicans up to this very minute—the kind of recycled Red Scare pitch that tells you that if you don't vote for the guy with the (R) after his name, then you're voting for socialism and we're on a short road to end up like Venezuela. They have to pick Venezuela because it's one of the few old-style socialist regimes left on the planet, so it's there to serve as a somewhat less intimidating stand-in for the Soviet Union.
I don't mean to suggest that Venezuela hasn't been a disaster—you know this because I've written about it. Nor do I mean to deny that there is a significant faction on the left, the whole Bernie Sanders wing, that would love to push us in that direction. I've written about that, too.
I'm pointing out how much of our political rhetoric is built on this template, using the prospect of Soviet or Venezuelan-style socialism to hold the political coalition of the right together. Yet old-fashioned left-wing socialism is no longer the only or, arguably, the dominant threat to freedom, and that is a factor that is beginning to drive apart the old ideological coalition of the right.
In 2019, I linked to an eye-opening article by Robert Kagan describing "authoritarianism" as the new global menace to liberty, replacing the old Cold War enemy of Communism. Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, along with others, have pioneered a new model of dictatorship (which is actually a return to the old, pre-20th Century model). It does not seek to completely expunge markets, only to rig them for cronies of the regime. It does not seek to suppress national traditions but to glorify them and use them as propaganda for the regime. (In China, this only applies to the ethnic traditions of the majority. Minorities, such as the Uighurs, are to be brutally suppressed.) Above all, in most of its versions, the new authoritarianism is not hostile to religion but poses as its sponsor and protector, dangling out to the church the prospect of a re-establishment of state-sponsored religion—the age-old alliance of throne and altar.
It is this last part that has grown increasingly appealing to American conservatives, and it is what is causing them to break apart the old "fusionist" coalition.
In 2017, a number of conservatives, including many of my former colleagues at The Federalist, began sending around a graph from a political study based on a survey of the political preferences of voters in the 2016 election.
The upshot was described here. When you read this, remember that "libertarian" here just means "pro-freedom," while "liberal" means "pro-big-government." Go figure.
Libertarians don't exist.
Well, obviously, they exist—just not in any remotely large enough numbers to form a constituency. It's not just hard-core libertarians who are absent. Even vaguely libertarian-ish voters are functionally nonexistent.
The study breaks down voters into four quadrants, defined by both social and economic liberalism. But virtually everybody falls into three quadrants: socially liberal/economically liberal; socially conservative/economically conservative; and socially conservative/economically liberal. The fourth quadrant, socially liberal/economically conservative, is empty.
The libertarian movement has a lot of money and hard-core activist and intellectual support, which allows it to punch way above its weight.... But the truth is that the underrepresented cohort in American politics is the opposite of libertarians: people with right-wing social views who support big government on the economy.
Obviously, I found this alarming, though I took it with a grain of salt. These are the results from just one election; the wording of survey questions can easily bias people's answers; voters will often endorse proposals in vague, theoretical terms only to balk at them once they are made real and specific; and of course all of this was coming only a few years after the very libertarian Tea Party movement.
Yet many of my colleagues were not alarmed but intrigued. They saw this not as a potential disaster but as an opportunity. This was, of course, part of the internal monologue for former Trump critics who were trying to talk themselves into jumping onto the Trump bandwagon. Remember that this was a survey of the 2016 electorate, so it seemed to be proof that Donald Trump was showing the way forward. A large section of the right began to wonder if there is a winning political coalition to be built by combining "social conservatism" with big-government populism—and sticking a knife in the back of the "libertarian" free-marketers.
This is precisely what they have proceeded to do.
Since it is true that we free-marketers have a lot of "intellectual support," the first thing that is necessary is to destroy intellectualism on the right. In late January, I noted one attempt to do this, in comments I expanded for The Bulwark.
Conservative intellectuals, I wrote, are "now arguing that both culture and politics are 'not a contest of ideas.'" I wasn't making that up. I took it from Mark Bauerlein, the kind of highbrow conservative who used to complain about "the coarsening of the culture" and the abandonment of Great Books education, and is now saying things like this.
Conservatives who appeal to liberal ideals in the context of existing institutions, be they the longstanding mores of cooperation in the Senate or academic freedom in the university, are beating their heads against a wall….
Donald Trump understands this. That's one reason the Left despises him. He typically doesn't bother to debate ideas and ideals, but this is not anti-intellectualism, as the liberal says. It is, instead, his awareness that politics is now, first and foremost, a battle of persons, not ideologies or tax rates or trade.
I pointed out how self-defeating this is.
Back in the old days—and by the "old days," I mean five years ago—it was commonly accepted that if a foolish or unworthy politician lost an election, it was probably his own fault, for not making a good enough case to the public. But all hope was not lost because the contest of ideas would go on.
But what happens when you give up on the contest of ideas? Then the political leader on your side at any given moment has to win, whoever he is and whatever his flaws. He has to remain in office and win re-election, because you have given up on winning converts and adding to your coalition. In this view, the crudest kind of partisanship remains as the only means conservative intellectuals have for achieving their ends.
In retrospect, this helps explain why so many people in this wing of the right have been so reluctant to acknowledge that their man lost an election.
In February I began tracing "The Death of Fusionism."
When I talk about nationalist conservatism, I want my readers to have a very clear idea of what that ideology is and where it came from. Check out this long summary of one major strain of that ideology, the version spearheaded by Catholic conservatives. This article describes a transition from relatively pro-liberty "fusionism" to a more theocratic, literally Old World version of Catholicism called "integralism."...
Catholic fusionism—primarily associated with the magazine First Things and its founder and longtime editor, Richard John Neuhaus, and writers such as Michael Novak and George Weigel—sought to develop a model of a distinctly American conservative Catholicism, one that blended traditional Catholic teaching on social issues with free-market economics and a commitment to individual rights....
Then, during the Obama years, liberal victories in the culture war began to pile up. Roe v. Wade remained in force. Public opposition to gay marriage crumbled, and in 2015, the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. Less than a year later, Obama's Department of Education ordered public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.... [F]usionism was premised on the idea that making Catholicism more American could make America more Catholic—or at least more religious and therefore more amenable to Catholic views. But if that didn't work, then what?
So the point of the fusionist alliance with the more secular elements of the American right, such as us free-marketers, was never to achieve liberty, but to achieve a religious revival. Having failed at that task, they are now experimenting with the more coercive approach of "integralism."...
The author of "Integralism in Three Sentences" is a man who, according to the integralists I spoke with, has done more than anyone to revive both the term and the philosophy: Pater Edmund Waldstein, a 35-year-old Cistercian monk who lives in Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a twelfth-century monastery a few miles south of Vienna.... By any conventional standard, his views are extreme: in addition to rejecting the separation of church and state, he is a monarchist who argues that the Church has the right to punish baptized heretics (Protestants), including by burning them at the stake. Yet he's gracious and warm in conversation and displays an impressive erudition.....
The bottom line is not that we are headed toward theocracy or an established church, though make no mistake that this is their goal.... Here's the much more likely result.... "[Ross] Douthat suggested that integralism was likely to pull Catholic intellectuals 'a little more to the left on issues of economics' and 'a little more to the right on issues of civil rights and censorship and these sorts of things.'"
In other words, they can't revive the Church, but they can undermine support for liberty in the American political system—and we are currently watching that happen.
See a follow-up piece I link to that describes a proposal for a federal "crackdown" on universities. As with the proposed executive order mandating "classical" architecture, or Donald Trump's "National Garden of American Heroes," or his shakedown to provide for "patriotic education," these are fantasies about using the power of the state to promote traditional culture or morality. With Trump out of office, they are even less likely to come to fruition, but they reflect the ideological direction of the conservative movement.
In April I linked to probably the most prominent nationalist intellectual, Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule, trying to exploit the coronavirus crisis by arguing that "a just governing order must have ample power to cope with large-scale crises of public health and well-being—reading 'health' in many senses, not only literal and physical but also metaphorical and social." If you were wondering what that means in practice, I pointed you to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's "coronavirus coup.
Vermeule goes on to lay out an entire re-interpretation of the Constitution that would throw out the natural rights philosophy of the Founders in favor of conservative paternalism, and I linked to an excellent reply by libertarian constitutional scholar Randy Barnett describing Vermeule's system as a theory of "might makes right."
I could provide more examples, and my coverage of this ideological trend continued through the rest of the year, when I could fit it in between the pandemics, the riots, and the election. But the point is that ideological coalitions seem natural and permanent, and it is hard to recognize when they are breaking up. In particular, they influence and sometimes distort who we regard as our enemies, and particularly who we regard as our friends, in this case causing us to be so transfixed by the enemies to our left—especially when they are rioting in the streets; see the next installment of this countdown—that we think there are no enemies to the right. In this regard, I think a few of my subscribers have been frustrated that I've been spending a fair bit of my time criticizing the right, when there are so many frightening enemies to contend with on the other side. What I want to suggest is that perhaps I'm just a little ahead of the curve.
We have to confront the question I posed in August. I suggested that "We are in a period of chaos in which the old ideological coalitions fall apart as their different factions follow the inexorable logic of their creeds." Then I wondered, "What if the old ideological coalition—free marketers, pro-American hawks, religious crusaders, and cultural populists—isn't going to come back together?"
What I've been hoping to induce in my readers is an "a-ha" moment similar to one reported to me recently by a subscriber, after I linked to Brad Thompson's run-ins with a particularly bad batch of nationalist conservatives. This reader admitted that he was "just not aware of a radical movement on the right." But "It requires intellectuals like yourself to expose a more obscure radical right, whereas we are being undated everywhere by the left." And there's the problem, isn't it? We're stuck in a pincer movement between left and right, in which it seems as if we can't take our eyes off of the one in order to defend against the other.
There's a solution to that, which I will suggest in a later installment of this countdown. In the meantime, it's important just to take a moment to recognize what is happening and the extent to which one of our former so-called allies, the "social conservative" wing of the right, now regards us as the enemy. Perhaps we should take them at their word.
Notice, however, that I am talking about a political de-alignment, the point at which an old political coalition falls apart, and not yet about a re-alignment, the moment at which former opponents realize they can make common cause and join together in a new coalition. That is still off in the future, if it ever happens at all, and before we can talk about that, we need to move on to talk about the Great De-Alignment happening on the left—which I will be covering shortly.
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