Editors’ note: The following essay forms part of “The new conservative dilemma: a symposium,” a special section on the challenges facing conservatism today. Roger Kimball’s introduction can be read here.
About forty years ago the hard-right columnist and political theorist Sam Francis began to devise a new framework for understanding power in modern America. Francis accepted as true James Burnham’s argument that a “managerial revolution” had superseded the old class struggle between labor and capital and resulted in a new human type, the “managerial class.” To this Francis added an idea borrowed from the sociologist Donald Warren, who in The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation (1976) described men and women who might today be called “populists” (or “deplorables”) as “Middle American Radicals,” or mars. Francis recognized them as the population left behind and disenfranchised by the accumulation of power in the hands of the managerial elite. The class conflict of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as he saw it, was between the mars and the managers.
The class conflict of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as he saw it, was between the mars and the managers.
Burnham seems not to have believed that there was any way to reverse the managerial revolution, just as one could not undo the industrial revolution. Francis, by contrast, suggested that a “Middle American Revolution” might come from an uprising of mars, perhaps beginning with the election of Pat Buchanan as president sometime in the 1990s. It bears emphasizing that a politically engaged Middle American Radical is not a conservative; Francis was an unsparing critic of the conservative movement, which at its best consisted, in his estimation, of “beautiful losers.” Political mars would be far more confrontational than conservatives had traditionally been; they would not flinch at using state power to advance their goals, and they would not be encumbered by any debt to “classical liberalism.” These revolutionary mars bear a resemblance to the so-called New Right that today supports such politicians as Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. The latter’s use of his office as governor of Florida to constrain culturally left-wing or “woke” businesses is of a piece with Francis’s identification of corporate America as an enemy of mars more than three decades ago.
Before concluding that we are living in the world that Francis anticipated, however, one must look back at the conditions from which conservatism emerged in the first place. The style of analysis employed by Burnham and Francis, indebted though it may be to Karl Marx, is fruitful not just for understanding where conservatism came from and why it now appears to be in the midst of an identity crisis, but also for projecting what is likely to happen to it in the course of the twenty-first century.
Although there is a real sense in which conservatism does begin with Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, the term “conservative” only enters the political lexicon of the English-speaking world in the early nineteenth century. The French Revolution was over and Napoleon was already dead by the time Robert Peel rechristened the Tory grouping he led in Parliament as the Conservative Party in the 1830s. “Conservative” signified opposition to the “Radical” tendency among the Whigs. The Radicals themselves were a rather loosely defined group, but they were generally eager for further changes to the electoral system in a democratizing direction after the Reform Act of 1832.
The particular issues separating Conservatives from Radicals, however, and later from Liberals, were only emblematic of differing attitudes toward the same overarching question. What distinguished the ideologies of the nineteenth century from one another was their response to the consequences of the industrial revolution. And those consequences have continued to be the prime consideration in the drawing of ideological lines up to today, not only in the United Kingdom and United States but around the world, with, to be sure, great variations from nation to nation.
There were ideological divisions before the nineteenth century, and they were hardly devoid of economic subtext. But they did not primarily concern economic questions or their immediate corollaries. Whig and Tory parties in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were distinguished above all by their religious attitudes and contrasting views of the powers of the King and Parliament. At the end of the eighteenth century Burke recognized that provincial lawyers played an outsize role in perpetrating the upheaval in France, and he was attentive to the economic roots and ramifications of the revolution. Nevertheless, the fundamental choice that separated a revolutionary from a Burkean conservative was the simple one of whether the existing order of church and state should stand or fall.
Over the next hundred fifty years, that existing order fell almost everywhere, yet conservatism did not perish. Tsars, kings, and emperors were overthrown, and European states that did not become republics saw their monarchs’ powers diminished almost to the vanishing point. Likewise, where established churches were not disestablished they were stripped of binding authority. Although the French Revolution collapsed into dictatorship followed by battlefield defeat, subsequent revolutions and World War I completed the destruction of Europe’s ancien régime.
Yet conservatism survived, and in the late twentieth century it thrived. It did so partly because the conservatism of Britain and the United States, while more or less supportive of the Continent’s ancien régime, was grounded in a more modern—and democratic—native context, that of the Glorious Revolution or the U.S. Constitution and the self-government practiced by Americans even in colonial times. But in large part conservatism survived the fall of the ancien régime because it found a different question to answer and another revolution to address.
The industrial revolution caused the movement of population from the countryside into cities, where the concentration of men and women led to rising fertility. (The industrial economy itself, in early stages, also seems to promote fertility, perhaps as the sight of middle-class and elite prosperity encourages even poor parents to imagine that their children and grandchildren may one day enjoy such comfort.) Population concentration and population growth together led to the new phenomenon of “the masses.” And the masses were the great question that confronted the remnants of the old ideologies and forced the development of new ones.
Were the masses naturally revolutionary in character? Radicals, and later socialists, believed that they were. Deism or atheism was man’s natural religious disposition, they said, and only the force of established churches prevented the return to this natural religion or irreligion. The masses would surely feel just as oppressed by the old religion as a d’Holbach or d’Alembert felt. The masses would similarly chafe at the idea of inherited privilege and authority. Social egalitarianism, too, was natural, and would extend to property as well: the masses would demand redistribution, and certainly the confiscation of unmerited, inherited wealth. Fraternité was just as natural as liberté (that is, freedom from Christianity) and égalité. The masses would feel nothing but brotherhood for all of mankind, except for those men who placed themselves unfairly above others through ill-gotten wealth, unjust distinctions of blood, or clerical privilege.
Conservatives feared the radicals were correct.
Conservatives at first feared the radicals were correct about all of this, and that the new industrial masses would be as revolutionary as the most fanatical Jacobin. Even constitutional monarchy and a latitudinarian religious establishment would be brought down, and soon all social rank and private property would be abolished. To save anything of the social order as it existed in the early nineteenth century, conservatives (small- or large-C) would have to constrain the increase of the masses, by supporting agriculture over industry, for example.
Liberals, for their part, tended to favor the redistribution of social prestige and political power from land to industry, and industrialists needed the masses as workers and consumers. But the acquisitive masses posed a political threat to property, even as they also represented a potential voting constituency that might help urban liberals acquire more power relative to conservatives with rural constituencies. Liberals therefore pursued a mixed policy toward the masses.
But very quickly the radicals’ hopes for the masses, and conservatives’ worst fears, were dispelled. Far from being natural atheists or deists, the masses enthusiastically took to Christianity, albeit often in new forms. Their concern for higher wages and shorter hours was balanced by a sense of fair play and (especially in America) a desire for their own competitive advancement. And as the Napoleonic Wars showed from the beginning, the masses shared nothing of the cosmopolitanism of the philosophes. They were patriotic and indeed nationalistic, which also meant they took pride in national institutions. In Britain, that meant pride in the monarchy and in the empire.
Conservatism did not, therefore, depend on frustrating the masses but rather on strengthening their patriotic and religious feelings and denying their support to the radical or revolutionary Left. This involved conservatives, like their liberal opponents, pursuing a mixed policy, sometimes supporting, other times opposing electoral reforms and worker protections. What gave conservatism a long-term advantage over liberalism, however, was precisely what at first seemed to be conservatism’s weakness: it continued to champion the symbols of the old order—of God, King, and country—symbols that meant more to the masses than did the scriptures of Adam Smith or David Ricardo.
Although this account emphasizes British conservatism as paradigmatic, the rise of the industrial masses has been the central social fact that politics of almost all kinds, everywhere, have had to confront for the past two hundred years. How would the masses be educated, and toward what ends? Who would provide for them in sickness and old age? How could the mob be disciplined? What would happen if the masses did begin to enjoy widespread prosperity? What new private and public institutions would arise in response to the electoral, economic, and cultural demands of the masses?
These questions were the basic stuff of politics for two centuries, and answering them led to such phenomena as public education, welfare states, modern police forces, the rise of the suburbs, the proliferation of political parties and civil-society organizations, mass communications via radio and television, public relations, and more. Industrialization and the creation or reorganization of mass publics wrought transformations in the world order as well, as new powers—from a unified Germany to the People’s Republic of China—rose to prominence, and different states pursued different paths to economic modernization and the incorporation of the masses into the political order. War, genocide, and totalitarianism were the outcome of the most radical experiments.
Conservatism allowed the United States and Britain to adjust successfully to this reconfiguration of the social and international order, and after World War II the Anglosphere anchored the stabilization of Western Europe and the wider free world. Conservatism in the United States and Britain, in turn, depended on the patriotism and broad cultural Christianity of the masses. Although churches no longer had coercive powers, the long association of Western states with Christianity made Christianity a component of patriotism.
The new capitalist class that rose to prominence in society beginning in the nineteenth century was itself informed by Christianity—many of the great industrialists came from Dissenting Protestant backgrounds—and recognized the value of religion for instilling habits of hard work and honesty among the laboring masses. That Christianity promised a heavenly reward that would more than compensate for economic disappointments in this life also helped to defuse any revolutionary resentments among the masses.
Yet one element in the new industrial society was acutely uncomfortable with all of this. These were the heirs to the Enlightenment philosophes who had hated the Church for its moral authority over their lives. John Stuart Mill, perhaps the most important of these nineteenth-century spiritual revolutionaries, wished to be free not only of the Church’s power but also of its prestige.
What good did it do to disestablish or defang Christianity, if the masses continued to believe in it anyway? And if they did continue to believe, they would judge others by the moral standards of the faith. Mill wished society to judge by different moral standards—his own. (The tale is told well in Maurice Cowling’s Mill and Liberalism of 1963.)
Mill had no power to force adults to believe as he wished them to believe. And while he was not alone, he did not have the numbers on his side. He could not shift the market or the ballot box. But what he and others like him could do was to redirect the course of education by presenting themselves as more rational and scientifically minded than the defenders of faith. Conservatives were “the stupid party.” To be intelligent, one must reason as Mill reasoned.
Today Mill’s project has succeeded. For a century and a half, Christianity lost ground among elite intellectuals, particularly those involved in education and journalism. Although millions of the masses still adhere to the old religion in a more or less orthodox form, businesses and private universities—even Catholic ones—are more apt to display pride flags than any Christian symbol, while public buildings that are prohibited from promoting religion are festooned with rainbows.
If the masses were still what they were in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, the cultural revolution would have failed. The masses then were rapidly growing but had a strong sense of national identity, including a connection with the nation’s historic religion. But the era of the masses is over.
But the era of the masses is over.
The industrial revolution may continue in some sense, but the basic demographic fact that long characterized expanding industrialism has changed: developed nations have birth rates below replacement levels, and much of the developing world has slowing or halted population growth as well. As far as workforce is concerned, the developed world is truly post-industrial. This is partly a result of policy choices, chiefly those made in the 1990s to pursue globalization and the integration of China into the world economy. But it’s also a result of a process of maturation. Although tariffs might be helpful in protecting the manufacturing we still have, they are unlikely to restart the process of industrialization. There are many more places around the world to make things now, and new technologies mean that fewer workers are needed to make them.
There has also been a maturation of the social order. The urban masses moved to suburbs and aspired to rise in status and wealth through education. Working-class families were proud to send a child to college for the first time. As more and more did so, education became intellectually diluted but remained focused on promoting the moral prestige of science. The result is a new tyranny of opinion among the educated, who believe that whatever claims are backed by science—including “gender science”—are true and morally binding. Traditional authorities such as family heads and religious dogma have been overthrown as surely as if marauding Jacobins had burned the holy books and guillotined grandfather.
Conservatism from Peel and Disraeli to Thatcher and Reagan rested on three social foundations: the patriotism of the masses, the enduring cultural hegemony of Christianity, and the business community’s need for mass-based conservatism as a protection against the threat of socialism. Today the business community feels little threatened by socialism; economic nationalism and Christian morality are a greater nuisance as much of corporate America is concerned. Christianity’s cultural hegemony is over. And the national masses no longer exist. In their place, business interests and political progressives now import multinational immigrant populations. The educational establishment, meanwhile, encourages immigrants to see themselves as members of victim groups who should feel aggrieved rather than grateful toward the nation that has accepted them.
America has had many divisions in the past, but even in the Civil War both sides read the same Scripture and spoke the same language. Immigrants in earlier times were encouraged to identify with the nation’s history and its Christian, English-speaking majority. And in the epoch of the industrial masses, there were economic interests that could unify whole regions and classes, if not quite every region and class at once. Shared economic interests now tend to be more diffuse, with great divides between the educated and uneducated and between the financial elite and the educated but not very wealthy sub-elite.
The current configuration of conservatism reflects the decline of the masses and the end of Christian cultural hegemony. The conservative factions of today exhibit four types of response to the crumbling of the foundations that made conservatism possible for the last two hundred years.
The “restorationists” are those who believe a return to the industrial economy and a Christian culture is possible. Economic nationalists and Christian nationalists are two varieties of restorationist. Compact magazine has a restorationist outlook, as does much of the New Right, and the leading populist figures in the Republican Party, such as Trump and DeSantis, make restorationist claims.
There are two reasons, however, to doubt that restoration will take place. If the industrial revolution was a one-time phenomenon, a restorationist economic program may still do some good, but it won’t recreate the population conditions that made conservatism viable in the last two centuries.
Reestablishing Christian cultural hegemony, meanwhile, may be an even harder task. Christianity has been a very successful world religion. But it has only attained cultural hegemony in places where it has been wedded to political hegemony, beginning with the kind of military despotism characteristic of the Roman Empire and the barbarian warlords who overthrew the empire in the West (and in much of the East, too). The apostle Thomas made converts in the East, and Christianity spread to India and even to China. But it never attained the cultural preeminence that it won in the Roman and Germanic lands.
They have a Constantinian dream of converting American authorities to the faith.
Radical Christian restorationists, both Catholic and Protestant, do not shudder at the implication. They have a Constantinian dream of converting American authorities to the faith, and those authorities would then, like Christian kings or emperors, lead the people to the faith. Yet no American authority enjoys the singular prestige of a Roman emperor or indeed a Gothic king. Barbarian society was far simpler than ours, and Roman society had been simplified, too, by three centuries of military-imperial monopoly on power before it was Christianized. American society would have to be as hollowed-out as Rome’s was to effect a parallel conversion. That would require the destruction of all independent sources of authority, an undertaking that a series of pagan emperors could happily undertake but no conscientious Christian can. That doesn’t necessarily make the task of baptizing the modern democratic state impossible—only much, much more difficult than the task of baptizing an emperor and Rome.
The riposte to that might be to say that progressives, using variations on John Stuart Mill’s strategy, have indeed obtained hegemony for their views, even in a society as multifarious in its authorities as our own. But this is not correct: the Mill strategy has succeeded in destroying default presumptions of Christian morality in our public and private institutions, but it has not established a moral consensus with anything like the popular depth that Christianity long enjoyed. What Mill and his epigones have brought about is a culture war, rather than a stable progressive consensus.
The second kind of right-wing response to the disappearance of the conditions that made conservatism possible is also a response to the failed attempt at cultural hegemony mounted by the Left. This second right-wing faction is composed of the “nihilists.” They are defined by their rejection of the Left, rather than their desire to restore conservatism. Christianity, bourgeois security, the patriotic masses, and the ancien régime are all equally dead to them. Yet this does not make them despondent or inclined to accept left-wing authority. They will resist though they have nothing but resistance itself.
This category of post-conservative right-wingers is set to grow.
Some Trump voters fall into this category, as do some intellectuals for whom the label “nihilist” might not be strictly correct—they do have their own individual codes and values. This category of post-conservative right-wingers is set to grow in proportion as the Left overreaches for power and fails to get it or wield it effectively. The traditional sources of conservatism may be attenuated, but the conditions that support a nihilist right are only growing stronger. Although most liberals, and not a few conservatives, think of nihilists in the worst and most melodramatic light, as crude Nietzsche impersonators, there are some well-respected fellow travelers on this path, such as the British philosopher John Gray.
After the nihilists and restorationists come the “withdrawalists.” This group, which includes advocates of “national divorce,” the Benedict Option, and outright state secession, would like to save a microcosm of conservatism if the macro-conditions for conservatism have vanished. A town-sized religious “intentional community” or a red state broken away from the Union might, they hope, preserve something more like the old way of life.
Taken to an extreme, this can work, if the Amish are anything by which to judge. But the Amish proliferate while maintaining their separation from the wider society because they shun its education, communications, and mainstream economy. No red state is insulated from those forces, and few intentional communities are. Nor are even the Amish safe from state and federal power whenever government chooses to intervene. Withdrawalists may have a good personal retirement plan, or a plausible way to minimize society’s harm to one’s family in the short run. They do not, however, have a way out of the corner into which all conservatives have been painted.
Their job is to make liberals seem tolerant for tolerating conservatives.
Finally there are the “accommodationists.” These men and women, who often represent the “conservative” voices in liberal media, accept their place in a post-industrial, culturally progressive America. They tend to live like withdrawalists, in gated communities and red states, and console themselves with the assurance that their own family, their own private school, and their own church has not yet lost count of the number of human sexes (or “genders”). Their job is to make liberals seem tolerant for tolerating conservatives who attack the same right-wing targets that liberals attack. Accommodationists do not like restorationists or nihilists, and they will thunder in outrage any time restorationists and nihilists join forces against the Left. The privilege of judging the moral hygiene of other people’s alliances, while never accepting judgment for their own strange bedfellows, is characteristic of accommodationists.
Of these four groups, the one that provides the best hope for conservatism, however slender that hope might be, is the restorationists. If they are right that the hour is not too late for increasing industrial employment, reinvigorating citizen population growth, and proclaiming anew what had long been the nation’s moral consensus, then conservatism as we have known it has a future. Conservatives would do well to support restorationists, in politics and in private spheres, even if they find the restorationist Right at times too exuberant. Prudent conservatives can perhaps help the restorationist Right be more tactical and tactful.
If the restorationists are wrong about the hour, though, then conservatism’s future will depend on a radically new set of social conditions. The direction in which progressives are leading the United States and the West as a whole is toward a society of strangers, in which no common bond of religion or national loyalty characterizes the human beings within a given set of jurisdictional borders. Americans will morally and imaginatively separate themselves according to cult, race, and sexual identity, as they are already encouraged to do. At the top of society, an educated elite will still have some cohesion based on science as a substitute for religion and the shared interest in maintaining prestige and power. This elite will not have these things in common with the lower numbers.
The lower numbers may be totally socially atomized, or they may adhere to some pre-political identities grounded in religion and national origin. Whichever the case may be, there is conceivably a kind of right-wing politics, or even conservatism, that may appeal to the numbers. In a fully atomized society, one great unifying demand may be a call to overcome alienation. This is the kind of call that religion, most often a new religion, answers, though it can also be answered by class-based movements or charismatic political leadership. Attempts to vanquish alienation through political identity, however, have had a gruesome record of leading to totalitarianism in the twentieth century.
Could a conservatism that tried to negate alienation by reasserting Americanism—in a more passionate form than the tepid “proposition nationalism” of the liberals—unite strangers while leading them away from the horrors of the twentieth century? It’s a remote possibility at best.
If, however, some social cohesion remains among sub-national groups in the society of strangers, then a different conservative possibility arises. This would be an imperial conservatism, as if the British Empire in all its diversity were contained within the limits of a single landmass. This conservatism would be transactional, attempting not only to balance different groups but also to bind them to a common center. At the center would have to be someone or some idea or institution inspirational enough to overcome mere cynical calculations of interest—an American Queen Victoria.
In a very loose way, Donald Trump has modeled what this would look like. Trump is a transactional leader who inspires devotion among true believers of many kinds without being himself a true believer in most of his supporters’ causes. The local strains and incompatibilities of the coalition are overcome both by Trump’s transactional skills and by the power of his personality. Trump, however, has built his success on what remains of the old “Silent Majority” of the twentieth-century masses. An imperial conservative in the future would not have such unifying capital to begin with.
And what about the Middle American Revolution? The mars are divided among the restorationists, the nihilists, and the withdrawalists. They may have a revolutionary or counterrevolutionary attitude, but they do not represent a burgeoning new economic force and demographic tide. Such things cannot be wished into existence, and a predilection for wishful thinking has been a bane to the Right all along. The Right has too many myths already.
Conservatism will not disappear tomorrow. But unless it can regenerate the conditions that gave it political life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or find a different social base for the twenty-first century, conservatism will go the way of the sectarian ideologies of the eighteenth century.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 2, on page 19
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com