In the liberal society there is necessarily a private sphere with which the state’s legislation must not interfere. . . . [T]he liberal society necessarily makes possible, permits, and even fosters what is called by many people “discrimination.”
—Leo Strauss, “Why We Remain Jews” (1962)

For many decades now, conservatives in the United States and elsewhere have faced a dilemma. By disposition, conservatives are inclined to endorse precedent. But since the dominant culture is liberal, conservatives must make their peace with progressive policies or find themselves accused of abandoning the central conservative principle of supporting established precedent.

As James Piereson noted in these pages in 2009, “conservatives, if they wished to maintain that designation, . . . were obliged to endorse all manner of liberal reforms once they were established as part of the new status quo.”

For example, it was said that “conservatives who attacked the New Deal were not acting like conservatives because they were in effect attacking the established order—and, of course, ‘real’ conservatives would never do that.” This embarrassing gambit was applied all down the line. If you opposed a liberal or progressive policy that had become established, you were not acting in a conservative manner but in an extreme or radical manner. “Conservatives, moreover,” Piereson pointed out,

could have no program of their own or, at any rate, any program that had any reasonable chance of succeeding, because any successful appeal to the wider public would turn them into populists and, through that process, into extremists and radicals. Not surprisingly, they viewed a popular conservatism as a contradiction in terms. Conservatives, in short, could only win power and influence by betraying their principles, and could only maintain those principles by accepting their subordinate status. Thus, in the eyes of the liberal historians, conservatism could never prosper in America because, if it did, it could no longer be called conservatism.

This last formulation recalls an observation by the Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?/ For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Mutatis mutandis, conservatism doth never prosper, for if it does, none dare call it conservatism.

This surreal situation was the result of an inexorable process of one-way ratcheting. Progressive ideology makes continuous inroads, gobbling up one institution and one consensus after the next. Any occasional pushback is weathered as a temporary squall, after which the work of expanding the progressive envelope proceeds apace. Last year’s extreme outlier becomes this year’s settled opinion. To oppose that is evidence not of conservative principle but reactionary, even (as we have lately been told) insurrectionary, stubbornness.

The fate of this dialectic has depended upon a certain friction in which conservative conviction appealed to a fund of traditionalist sentiment even as it acceded to ever more extreme moral and political positions. Over the past several decades, however, this dialectic has lost its ballast as the entire apparatus of government has been colonized by an extreme progressive agenda.

In the past, conservatives had been able to regard the fundamental institutions of society—the family, the churches, the military, the corporate world—as natural allies. This is no longer the case. At a time when the Department of Justice identifies ordinary parents as potential “domestic terrorists” because they oppose the insinuation of sexual exoticism and Marxist ideology into their children’s schools and the fbi scrutinizes traditional Catholic parishes for evidence of “extremism,” conservatives face a new dilemma.

In years past, they were asked to accommodate themselves to established liberal policies and the welfare state or forfeit relevance. Today, they are asked to collaborate in their own obliteration as the essential forces of governmental power are enlisted in propagating the progressive project.

What happened? The four essays that follow, on “The new conservative dilemma,” explore that question. They also conjure with its successor question: what, if anything, can conservatives do to respond effectively to their de facto supersession?

As to the first, I believe that Christopher Caldwell touched on one essential if under-appreciated truth in his book The Age of Entitlement (2020). It is common in academia and the media to celebrate the Lyndon Johnson–era Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a great victory for equality and social progress. After all, was it not a potent weapon in the battle against Jim Crow and other expressions of racism?

But in fact, that extension (or exaggeration) of the Fourteenth Amendment helped sow the seeds of our present discontents. As Caldwell pointed out, the Civil Rights Act did not simply enhance certain provisions of the Constitution. It soon became “a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible.”

The Constitution as originally drafted aimed to limit government authority and protect citizens from the coercive power of the state. The Civil Rights Act underwrote the indefinite extension of governmental power and opened ever new avenues through which progressive activists could meddle in precincts of life hitherto reserved to private discretion. The act, wrote Caldwell, “emboldened and incentivized bureaucrats, lawyers, intellectuals, and political agitators to become the ‘eyes and ears,’ and even the foot soldiers, of civil rights enforcement.” No realm of social intercourse was off limits. “Over time,” Caldwell noted, “more of the country’s institutions were brought under the act’s scrutiny. Eventually all of them were.” Indeed,

Civil rights transformed the country not just constitutionally but also culturally and demographically. In ways few people anticipated, it proved to be the mightiest instrument of domestic enforcement the country had ever seen. It can fairly be described as the largest undertaking of any kind in American history. Costing trillions upon trillions of dollars and spanning half a century, it rivals, in terms of energy invested, the peopling of the West, the building of transcontinental railways and highways, the maintenance of a Pax Americana for half a century after World War II, or, for that matter, any of the wars the country has fought, foreign or civil.

Leo Strauss was correct when he observed that a true liberal society depends on the maintenance of the distinction between the realm of politics and that of private initiative. The Civil Rights Act all but erased that distinction, opening up every sphere of social endeavor to federal interference. As one reviewer quipped when Caldwell’s book was first published, the Civil Rights Act was “the law that ate the Constitution.”

The hypertrophy of the Civil Rights Act did not take place in a vacuum. Its progress was directed by the essentially Marxist ambitions of those radicals who plotted the “long march through the institutions” of the 1960s and beyond. The most recent anatomy of this phenomenon, ably expounded below by James Piereson, has been set forth by Christopher F. Rufo in his new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.

“Everything” is not an exaggeration. If the Civil Rights Act is the engine behind the transformation of liberal society into an illiberal, proto-totalitarian compact, the designers of the cultural revolution of the 1960s—from Frankfurt School Marxists like Herbert Marcuse on down—provided both the plan and the fuel. The result is a weird, almost surreal situation in which the most common realities and institutions are undermined, transformed, inverted. What is a family? What is a man or a woman? What is free speech? We used to be able to answer with confidence. Can we still? It is a grim sign of the times that Rufo has himself been swept up by this imperious juggernaut. As I write in mid-September, the media is full of the news that the Department of Education has opened an investigation into New College of Florida, where Rufo serves as a trustee. Among the torts? Rufo is accused of “misgendering” a “diversity, equity, and inclusion” officer who likes to pretend that her pronouns are “ze/zir.”

Together, the limitless, disestablishing agenda of Sixties radicalism, backed now by the coercive power of the state, has transformed the very fabric of society. How should conservatives respond? Daniel McCarthy outlines several possibilities in his essay below. The most bootless—also the most contemptible—is the response of “conservatives” he calls “accommodationists”:

Their job is to make liberals seem tolerant for tolerating conservatives who attack the same right-wing targets that liberals attack. Accommodationists . . . will thunder in outrage any time [other conservatives] join forces against the Left.

Accommodationists are terrified of being mistaken for populists. But, as Margot Cleveland points out below, “The irony here is that those conservatives who most loudly declared populism at odds with conservatism—a refrain repeated ad nauseam to distance themselves from Trump and his supporters—soon abandoned conservatism itself.” The step from accommodation to capitulation is always a short one.

In fact, there is a double irony in this instinctive rejection of populism. Conservatives of all stripes hold up William F. Buckley Jr. as a patron saint. But what if not “populist” was Buckley’s declaration that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than the Harvard faculty? If in years past conservatives shied away from defending conservative prerogatives for fear of being castigated as populists, today they must embrace that more radical conservatism or be utterly absorbed by the progressive juggernaut.

At a time when the abnormal is championed as the new normal, conservatives cannot act to uphold the established order without being silenced or destroyed by the progressives who control that order. It is perhaps paradoxical but nonetheless true that the most vital form of conservatism today is a form of radical populism willing to challenge a corrupt and encroaching status quo. And challenges are nigh. For Cleveland is right: the “increasingly emboldened elite” that would subdue us is facing “an increasingly angered populace.”

How angry? On the answer to that question turns the probability of robust conservative survival. The happy ending is outlined below by Victor Davis Hanson, who notes that there is “a growing grassroots resistance to the cultural and political Left” that is “mostly divorced from institutional Republican politics.”

This response . . . points the way to actual conservative victories . . . . Conservatives are just now learning how to emulate the Democrats’ mail-in electioneering, and they certainly are starting to master the left-wing tactics of boycotts and ostracism. As a result, the conservative snoring dragon is beginning to awake—and to discover it has underappreciated, even enormous power.

I think this is probably correct. I do not expect the awakening to be tranquil.

—Roger Kimball

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 2, on page 1
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