The Three Histories of Conservatism
Was MAGA always the inevitable endpoint of conservatism?
1. Mind Palaces
On Tuesday I offered a question:
In 2016, Trump believed that the conservative movement was so desiccated and weak that it could be overthrown without risking schism. That the conservatism of the last 60 years was a spent force, which would accommodate itself to whatever a strongman demanded of it.
He was correct. There’s no real argument about that.
The question is whether or not a healthy conservatism ever truly existed in the first place, or if it was just the intellectuals’ mind palace.
My tentative answer was that (a) I could argue this both ways and (b) there was a third option: conservatism as a cargo cult.
So let me make my best case for all three and then you can discuss amongst yourselves. But here’s my ask for the comments: When you explain which answer you believe is the truest, I’d also like you to caveat it and explain why you might be wrong.
And I say “truest” because in the most basic sense all three of these options are true to some degree. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. The question isn’t which explanation is correct—it’s which explanation is the biggest driver.
So let’s start with Stuart Stevens.
(1) It was all a lie. That’s the title of Stuart’s fantastic book about his journey through conservative politics and his thesis is that the current state of the conservative movement / Republican party was the inevitable endpoint.
Stuart looks at the long history of racism in America and how, from Nixon’s Southern Strategy to Lee Atwater to political ads about “welfare queens,” Republicans were always organized around white grievance.
Here, it’s important to be specific and understand that, in the contemporaneous view, there were no euphemisms about what this meant. Here’s Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips explaining the plan to the New York Times in May 1970:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Willie Horton. Law and order. All of these appeals—some coded, some not—were about the same thing: white grievance. And this was the true organizing principle of the Republican party at the electoral level, both then and now.
In this view, all of the other parts of conservatism—small government, interventionist foreign policy, fiscal restraint—were a façade erected by intellectuals in New York and Washington who had neither any contact with, nor understanding of, Republican voters.
Over time, these policies became obsolete. The Cold War ended. Voters expressed a clear, bipartisan preference for Big Government. Defeating the USSR required massive deficits. Conservative judicial philosophy conquered the courts. Yet with the façade stripped away, the structure still stood. Conservative elites kept raising money. Republicans kept winning elections. The only thing left was white grievance.
The intellectuals never understood this because their careers existed independent of the forces which animated the movement and the party. But the hucksters like Rush Limbaugh—whose careers were entirely dependent on having an accurate knowledge of what animated the main body of the party—understood it quite clearly.
(1 a) Demography is destiny. There is another theory of inevitability that’s based not around the Republican party, but around demographic change in America.
In 1940, 89.8 percent of Americans were white. By 2020, that number had fallen to 61.6 percent. This is an incredibly rapid demographic transition.
Historically, demographic transitions are accompanied by reactionary/nativist political reactions. And when you look at contemporary Europe you see the same thing: From Sweden to France to Britain, everywhere there has been a rapid demographic shift, a nativist party has risen to prominence.
Viewed through this lens, a politics centered on white grievance was inevitable in America, irrespective of whatever the Republican party and conservative movement did, said, or believed.
(2) History is contingent. In this view, the Republican party and the conservative movement arrived at the current moment because of some bad breaks and you can plausibly imagine an alternate timeline.
This view acknowledges that coded racism played a significant role in the 1970s and ’80s, but believes that the Cold War was the real animating principle of both conservatism and the Republican party—that both were vindicated by events: By 1978 Jimmy Carter had come around to what was essentially the Reagan view of the Soviet Union. The Reagan/Bush foreign policy accomplished something close to a miracle by bringing a decades-long conflict between two nuclear powers to a peaceful—even amicable—conclusion.
This view would also argue that the 1970s saw a radical shift in public policy along many vectors and that the “small government” movement provided a useful corrective—something like a reform of the reform—even if it never had any hope of returning to actually “limited” government.
And then we’d point to the many Republican leaders who explicitly rejected white grievance—from Dole to Reagan to McCain.
I hope you’ll watch all three of those clips.
Then read the following and guess who said it:
For our nation, there is no denying the truth that slavery is a blight on our history, and that racism, despite all the progress, still exists today. For my party, there is no escaping that the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln.
Recognizing and confronting our history is important. Transcending our history is essential. . . .
Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there is racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate but forgotten.
Yup. That was George W. Bush in a speech to the NAACP.
When you look at this history, you can see an alternate pathway in which the forces which were always present in the party either stayed at the margins or were forced out into a rump third party, leaving Republicans able to compete with Democrats for college-educated voters and Hispanic voters—and maybe even African-American voters.
In this view, Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican party—and the conservative movement’s surrender to him—shifted the dynamic in a meaningful way and this can be seen in the current Republican voters’ rejection of all past Republican standard-bearers—from George W. Bush to “Zombie Reaganism.”
And history is contingent, on both the micro and the macro scale. Take technology: Mesoamericans invented the wheel, but never found a practical use for it; instead, wheels became toys for their children. Without the wheel as a tool, their civilizations developed differently than they otherwise would have.
Or take geopolitics: The First World War started almost by accident—it was a perfect storm. But the outcome of the First World War made the Second World War nearly inevitable.
Why wouldn’t this kind of historical contingency apply to the Republican party and American politics, too?
(3) The cargo cult. A cargo cult is a belief system based on success, which misunderstands causality. In a cargo cult, if you do a dance and then it rains, people believe that the dance caused the rain.
In this view, Ronald Reagan’s two victories—one over a sitting president and then the last landslide in American politics—became fetish objects and Republicans believed that “conservatism” was the reason for his colossal wins. They then adhered to this ideology not because they evaluated it on the merits, but because they believed that sufficient devotion would again deliver them electoral landslides.
By 2020, that cult view of conservatism had fallen apart. From 1992 to 2020 only one time did a Republican presidential candidate win even a plurality of the popular vote. This Democratic dominance represents the longest sustained winning streak in American politics—even more impressive than the Republican party’s streak following the Civil War.
The cargo cult view also explains conservatism’s current devotion to MAGA: Trump won. Therefore his victory was the result of his America First / white grievance politics. And so Republicans will emulate that in hopes that it will cause future victories to manifest.
In this view, had Marco Rubio won the Republican nomination in 2016 and then defeated Hillary Clinton, Republican voters would all be chasing neocon globalism today in the belief that it was the source of their blessings.
So which is it?
I don’t have the answer. Probably all three of them in roughly equal parts, tbh.
Yes, the Republican party was always the home for the fringe elements who are now at its center.
Yes, the Republican party had an electoral strategy based on racism.
And yes, conservative intellectuals were deluded in their understanding of what motivated Republican voters.
But also: The conservative movement was correct about several important matters of policy, whether or not these policy prescriptions were what motivated its voters.
And many Republicans tried to expel the party’s fringe.
And if Chris Christie doesn’t do a kamikaze run at Marco Rubio and 35,000 New Hampshire-ites switch their votes in 2016, then maybe Trump isn’t the nominee and the fringe stays on the fringe.
And maybe if Rubio (or Jeb or pick your normie Republican) wins the White House in 2016, then Republican voters continue to see Zombie Reaganism / compassionate conservatism as a vehicle to deliver electoral victories.
But that’s enough from me. I want to hear what you guys think.
Remember the rules: Give me your view, but then explain to me why you might be wrong.
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I’m back with Tim and Sarah for an unusually good show:
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3. Woke Banks
Spoiler: Silicon Valley Bank did not go broke because it was woke. Anyone who says that it did is either an idiot or thinks you are an idiot. Here’s Matt Levine:
Crudely stereotyping, in traditional banking, you take deposits and make loans. In the Bank of Startups, in 2021, you take deposits and mostly buy bonds. Again crudely stereotyping, corporate loans often have floating interest rates and shorter terms, while bonds have fixed interest rates and longer terms. None of this is completely true — there are fixed-rate corporate loans and floating-rate bonds, traditional banking tends to involve making lots of loans (like mortgages) with long-term fixed rates, you can do swaps, etc. — but it is a useful crude stereotype. 3
Or, to put it in different crude terms, in traditional banking, you make your money in part by taking credit risk: You get to know your customers, you try to get good at knowing which of them will be able to pay back loans, and then you make loans to those good customers. In the Bank of Startups, in 2021, you couldn’t really make money by taking credit risk: Your customers just didn’t need enough credit to give you the credit risk that you needed to make money on all those deposits. So you had to make your money by taking interest-rate risk: Instead of making loans to risky corporate borrowers, you bought long-term bonds backed by the US government.
The result of this is that, as the Bank of Startups, you were unusually exposed to interest-rate risk. Most banks, when interest rates go up, have to pay more interest on deposits, but get paid more interest on their loans, and end up profiting from rising interest rates. But you, as the Bank of Startups, own a lot of long-duration bonds, and their market value goes down as rates go up. Every bank has some mix of this — every bank borrows short to lend long; that’s what banking is — but many banks end up a bit more balanced than the Bank of Startups. . . .
But there is another, subtler, more dangerous exposure to interest rates: You are the Bank of Startups, and startups are a low-interest-rate phenomenon. When interest rates are low everywhere, a dollar in 20 years is about as good as a dollar today, so a startup whose business model is “we will lose money for a decade building artificial intelligence, and then rake in lots of money in the far future” sounds pretty good. When interest rates are higher, a dollar today is better than a dollar tomorrow, so investors want cash flows. When interest rates were low for a long time, and suddenly become high, all the money that was rushing to your customers is suddenly cut off. Your clients who were “obtaining liquidity through liquidity events, such as IPOs, secondary offerings, SPAC fundraising, venture capital investments, acquisitions and other fundraising activities” stop doing that. Your customers keep taking money out of the bank to pay rent and salaries, but they stop depositing new money.
Shoutout to St. John Paul the Great.
I'm going to start with my Caveat: I was born approximately a week before the USSR began to really unravel. I never lived through any of conservativism's grand success. I grew up with Rocky IV and Red Dawn as cable TV staples. But I've never lived in a world where the US wasn't the global superpower.
Based on my limited life experience, I'm going with "it was all a lie". My childhood was defined my my parent's various failings and incompetence, and as a teen I desperately needed to believe I could pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I liked conservative principles. Work hard and succeed. A foreign policy that made the whole world safer (after all, I didn't want to live in my dumpy town forever!) Balanced budgets! I read Charles Krauthammer's column every Friday. He seemed smart. George Bush seemed to be authentically well-intentioned to me (PEPFAR, No Child Left Behind) and I bought into the Team America let's invade Iraq schtick. John McCain seemed like a good embodiment of teenage Maggie's value system.
In retrospect, I think my parents were motivated by entirely different things. Things weren't going well for them; they wanted people to blame. Rush Limbaugh offered that to my dad, in spades. Blame Dems, blame women, blame immigrants, Let's Go Buchanan, that was my dad. My mom was looking for validation that she had done the right things, and that her problems weren't her fault. I think the "moral majority" stuff really spoke to her. They were both looking for a bail out. McCain ticked their boxes, but he didn't excite them, at all. In 2016, Trump is basically the antithesis of everything I have ever believed in and the embodiment of everything I despise the most in America. He's a hard no for me and meanwhile they're lapping it up. All of it! (I then realize that I actually share no values with the people who raised me, have an existential crises, vote for Gary Johnson, and perm my hair.)
I'm sympathetic to the intellectual merit of the Cargo Cult theory and the demographic change theory (I studied abroad in France while Jean-Marie LePen was handing over the reigns of Le Font National to his daughter.) But for anyone my age, it's a hard sell that the Republican party has any real moral, philosophical, or policy underpinning.
"Was MAGA always the inevitable endpoint of conservatism?"
The answer is Yes.
But that requires us to properly understand just what "Conservatism" is. We need to distinguish it from Liberalism - which is the political philosophy of individual rights and limited government which dates back to the Age of Revolutions in the latter 18th century. The Liberal Revolution smashed the Ancien Regime, otherwise known as the Patriarchate, that throne-and-altar conception of society as organized in terms of vested hierarchy and privilege. The cardinal value of this Regime was ANTI-equality. They understood "freedom" in terms of knowing your place and fulfilling your God-given role in society. Liberalism was aimed like a dagger at this worldview and this anthropology.
Conservative values are the values of Patriarchy. The Patriarchate/the Ancien Regime was brought down by Liberalism, but Patriarchal *values* persist. And not for no reason - Patriarchal values were essential to keep civilization going, when zero-sum competition reigned, levels of economic productivity and technological innovation were in the basement, and life was nasty, brutish, and short.
Those values are less practical for us today, but they still have a tight grip on the minds of many. And one of the most enduring aspects of the Patriarchal worldview is the DENIAL of true universal political equality. The Conservative doesn't *really* believe that we're created equal.
Conservatives are not to be confused with Right-liberals, who really are very different from them. Right-liberals value political equality, but they value individual liberty and small government (which is not to be equated with limited government) more. One of the biggest differences is that Conservatives are permanently tempted by the attractions of authoritarian conservative populism (more succinctly referred to as Fascism), while Right-liberals are diametrically opposed to the Fascists.
The curious byways of American politics however have led the Right-liberals to go into political coalition with the Christian conservative populists; their interests are aligned to the extent that they are skeptical of the Left-liberal emphasis on egalitarianism and a robust measure of equality of outcomes.
We are seeing now however how that coalition is exploding, spectacularly - and in a manner which threatens to bring down the Founders' Experiment.