Submitted Question: How did classical liberalism turn into U.S. conservatism?
This has always been the question of the age for Americans, but in the past few years its gone from vaguely to urgently relevant.
There is a simple and a complex answer to this question, so I’ll give you a simple one. ‘Liberalism’ is a fake religion—it literally means nothing but negation, insistence not that the correct authority be in place, but only that humans be free of authority. And since humans are so competent, upright, and correctly inclined, this was taken seriously in nineteenth-century Europe by everyone but the bourgeoisie whom it materially “benefitted.” Only in Switzerland and America did we actually make a true religion out of it, because of the thoroughgoingness of our commercialist Calvinism. Not coincidentally, the most heavy-handed and severe religion ever devised is the one that could avoid the bourgeois awkwardness and apologism in fighting for their liberalism, because it actually was necessary to the exercise of their (actually believed) religion. Spinoza and Calvin were the first libertarians—denounced by everyone since of every persuasion as mean, dirty, ‘determinists’.
It doesn’t matter what your ancestral religion is, to “liberalize” is to move away from it. Only in America did affirmative religion occupy a place on the traditionalist right—the problem is, by the time we started using the word “liberal” in this new, colloquial sense, it had come to mean something very different. In a word, it was the softest, closest to one side, of the leftist continuum from Arrested Development to the Sopranos. Is there a difference between self-absorption and evil? Greater minds than I (Luther, Nietzsche, David Chase) have taken up this question, and politically it makes no difference. The bottom line is, the snake entered the garden in the late 60s, when our shared religion (don’t ask don’t tell de facto Calvinism) finally dissolved, the American brand of the international sickness known as the left, a universal solvent of self-worship filling the vacuum of spiritual needs.
We were able to have a “left”-ish element without it being left-ist; Teddy Roosevelt was an almost caricature fetishist for the old American manly ruggedness and touchiness about freedom; just as William Jennings Bryan was a religious reactionary and no racial progressive. Yet they both represented clear leftward lurches of their respective parties that fell squarely within the confines of Americanism, in at least one, legitimate/good faith interpretation of what it is and should be. (True) leftism is antithetical to Americanism—and so after the 60s it became everybody still around vs them. The “everybody else” had to flock to the Republican Party, whose establishmentarians—liberal, conservative, and puritan—still behaved as though the country had not turned upside down. Therefore they imposed things that cost them support they desperately needed and more importantly, did not really reflect the will of the people, but rather patterns in their heads they wished to use the state to make the world conform to: in a word, alt-leftists. No one was so egregious as the neocons, which gave the Democratic Party a new lease on life in this markedly anti-anti-liberal country.
So, while “social liberalism” emerged as a leftward challenge to “classical” liberalism, it did not represent a fundamental contravention of Americanist principles and republican government. Without a shared religion and/or regime that is actually held sacred, then liberalism will always be schizophrenic; separated from the concentration camps it leads to only by time and inertia. When you start reappropriating the hands the life has dealt, there will be no bottom, because no one would want to do that who did not already think himself God. One critic said about the character of Tony Soprano’s wife, after the period when a typical ‘epiphany/climax/transformation’ would take place, that she had “consciously chosen to become unconscious.” If there is anyone who still doesn’t get what the nice sweet cushy children liberals have to do with Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, be advised that Heinrich Himmler allegedly fainted the first time he visited one of the camps.
So “classical liberalism” meaning vaguely the esteem of representative government and economic freedom merged with “conservative” qua anti-reality-denying political fads when said fads came to dominate one of the two parties. The problem with conservatives is that, like all religionists, they see everyone outside their religion as a cultist. By the time you get there, you stop caring about authority, legitimacy, the things ‘libertarians’ care about that used to be taken for granted, because you see being short of the goal line as no different than actively running away from it.
The left needs to be out of power to appear not to have fundamentally genocidal designs, and the lie they still tell the world is exactly the one Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out when identifying the Achilles’ Heel of the founders and their regime: that the true lever of illegitimate power is not an unrestrained monarch but mob rule, what would come to be called “political correctness.” People routinely lose their livelihood because they support Trump, and the left can still keep a straight face romanticizing the self-pity of its failure at the ballot box because it can pretend, and apparently believe, that its out of power. Everyone becomes a (‘classical’) liberal when stripped of power; and right now classical liberals, (actual) social liberals, Christian conservatives, and anyone who either doesn’t profit from the leftist scam or isn’t too self-absorbed to recognize it as eventually coming for them also is a ‘classical liberal’/’conservative.’ If I move to Texas because I’m fed up with the NYC government, it might turn out they have weird alcohol restrictions in some counties; I just have to take it because the market moved me from one corner to the other. The people who were already there have more ‘market leverage.’ So the “conservatives” had the “market leverage” in the Republican Party until the Trump era; now at last it has been restored (mostly) to those who want to defend Americanism and aren’t necessarily willing to die on the hill of gay marriage. The old “Atarai”/”neoliberal” Democrats, corporatist whores with $20,000 refrigerators and contempt for the workers, but pro-abortion, urbanism, etc—they have similarly just seen their leverage forfeited to the fabulously titled “progressives.” In an open society it is simple market forces that define political allegiances, like in premodern European wars. Liberals and Conservatives are on the same team now to the extent that they have any beliefs at all, because the Democrat Party has become an unholy union of anti-socials who can no longer pretend not to be nihilists. You can see the pain in the party old-timers’ eyes, because they know how tragic it is to reveal cards you’re holding before even being forced to. But this is always the problem of representation among fake religionists: the constituents want red meat, which means simply being stroked, inflaming their enemies, impeaching Trump. Playing it cool until you have power only makes sense to the actual politicians themselves, who are in the business.
Michael Beraka is a passionate teacher, writer, and researcher at the University of Chicago Divinity School.