The Danube Institute hosted David Starkey, an English historian and television presenter, for a talk on British conservatism in Budapest. The lecture was given just a few hours after Liz Truss resigned as British prime minister. Starkey, an arch-Tory was brutal in his declaration: “This is a dusk for the Conservative Party.”
It’s not something I know, but it doesn’t look good to me for the Tories. They don’t seem able to identify what their beliefs are. Thatcherism is dead as Reaganism. They stand for national sovereignty. They got Brexit done, but immigration remains a huge problem. They don’t stand for waking up. The Tories seem not to care that crime is out of control. Radicals hostile to Britishness are rampant at universities and other institutions contributing to British culture. The Conservative Party appears unable or unwilling to fight back. Many young people are not interested in buying homes. Someday, the slogan “Vote to us, because our Loony Left is not for you” will not be enough to persuade enough people to allow the Tories to remain in power.
It struck me that much institutional degeneration plagues the Tory Party can also be found in the GOP. While the Republicans did get the chance to defeat Donald Trump, four years of Trumpism (high on red-meat rhetoric, low on red-meat accomplishments, with the federal judiciary as a notable exception) has not revitalized the party or given it the intellectual heft and confidence of Ronald Reagan. The GOP will be with us as long as we have one. In Britain, there will always be a Right-leaning party. But which parties will they be?
Although I don’t know enough about UK politics to predict what will happen, the American situation is clearer. John Daniel Davidson, writing in The Federalist, says that it is time for Americans on The Right to stop calling them conservative. Excerpt
Why? It is because the conservative project has been largely unsuccessful, and it is now time to try a new approach. Conservatives have always defined their politics by what they want to preserve — individual rights and family values, as well as religious freedom. According to conservatives, they want to preserve and pass on the rich civilizational achievements and traditions of the past to the next generation and defend them against the left. Both conservatives and classical libertarians in America believe that an ascendent left wants America to be a woke dystopia and will attempt to undermine our constitution. Since many decades, conservatives have had to stop them.
This was common in an earlier time. There was much to preserve. However, a fair assessment of the current situation renders such a statement absurd. What has the conservative movement succeeded in conserving? They have lost much in my lifetime: the First Amendment, marriage as it was understood for thousands of centuries, any control over our borders and a fundamental distinction between women and men, and, most recently, the basic rule and law.
In today’s political climate, calling yourself a conservative would be like saying you are a conservative because you want to preserve medieval European traditions such as arranged marriage and trial-by-combat. Regardless of the merits, it is impossible to preserve or defend something that has already died. You might be able to retain some knowledge or a memory of the deceased. However, conservatism is not about that. It was about conserving traditions and keeping Western civilization alive and vibrant.
Well, too late. The West is in decline. Conservatives are losing their traditions and practices. They are at worst being turned to dust. They are not the foundation of our common culture and civic life as they were for much of the nation’s history.
Davidson cites Jon Askonas’s recent excellent piece, stating that conservatives failed primarily because they didn’t know what to do with technology. Excerpts:
New technologies can disrupt the relationships between institutions, practices and virtues in a society. They can make traditions useless, break down the distinction between good and evil behavior, render traditional ways of living obsolete or reduce their value. Traditions will disappear if the institutions that guard them aren’t revived and no one adopts their methods.
The true revolutionary principle of technological transformation was what caused the failure of the movement. Conservatives “lost culture” not because of losing the battle for ideas but because they lost their economy. Communists attempted to transform society through the transformation of the household organization (the Oikonomos which is the etymological source of “economy “)–). But in the end, their efforts and those of party apparatchiks were nothing compared to the impact of The Pill and the two income trap.
It is not Progressivism and Socialism that have caused the collapse of many of the social practices and institutions that built these virtues, but technology’s new political environment and economic system. Sociologists have been studying the decline in two-parent families, hobbies and stable employment for decades. They also studied women’s clubs and libraries, politics, social rhetoric, neighborhood barbecues and Boy Scouts. Credit unions and small businesses. Even studies that focus on the decline of fatherlessness, loneliness, economic precarity and suicide miss the larger picture. This is because the social infrastructure that supports human flourishing has changed even for those who were lucky enough to reconstruct a portion of American life fifty years ago. When the wisdom of yesteryear is no longer valid, a tradition is over.
A living tradition teaches its members what it means to do good (a good farmer or a good officer, or a good violinist), aligning themselves with the traditions. These virtues go beyond morality. They are socially and materially rewarded and those who oppose them are punished. As time passes, the tradition begins to have a dialogue about how to best achieve its goals, whether it should change or adopt new practices, how to honour the past while taking advantage of the latest developments, and so on. This link to the past can also be a link to future: In order to put in the effort to master a tradition and to reward their followers, one must believe that it will continue to exist and continue to reward them.
The whole thing is powerful and provocative. Askonas is a Catholic University of America professor of politics. He says that conservatism must figure out how to “build technologies to fortify traditions and promote human flourishing” if it wants to survive. This should be what conservatives want to preserve — but to define what “human flourishing” means, we must be clear about what that is. It’s something far more important than “the freedom you choose to do what you like,” and that will require us to advocate for a solid definition of what it means to be human.
It’s a great time to be on Right. The old institutions and structures are crumbling; new ones are being built by creative thinkers who were once on the fringes but are now moving toward the center. The future is not in the hands of the right-leaning old-timers. Although we don’t know the future of Right, many people are working right now to make it happen. We don’t all agree; some people have better ideas than others. All hands are needed. I support the Christian Democracy of Viktor Orban–Giorgia Meloni school. This conservatism values localism and sovereignty, natural families, and religion. It is anti-woke, market-oriented, and sees the market as limited by a wider conception of the expected benefit. This is a right-wing, pro-family governing program that doesn’t hesitate to use the state’s power to advance its priorities.
John Daniel Davidson writes:
To put it bluntly, conservatives must rebuild the country and in a sense refound it if they want to save it. That means learning to accept the idea of power and not despising it. Why? Because compromise or accommodation with the left is impossible. It is impossible to compromise or accommodate with the left.
Leftists can only be stopped by conservatives. This means that conservatives must abandon outdated notions about “small government” and make the government an instrument of renewal in American lives.
He’s right. It will anger libertarians and cause small-government conservatives from the Reagan era to fall. They won’t be able. What choice do we have? This is what the Left does all the time. In a short time, we had moved from an era when the Right considered the State, an enemy to one in which the only major institution in American life over which the Left can exert any influence, which is the state.
Many conservatives look back fondly on places we once called home no longer exists. There is no way for the Right to predict the future. Jon Askonas, and many other thinkers who look beyond the old conservative lines, will get us there.