EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 19, 2005, issue of National Review.
“I n the late 20th century,” wrote the cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, “there has been a quickening ’speciation’ among social groups. Teens, for example, were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren’t. But in a guided tour of mall life a few years ago, I had 15 types of teen lifestyle pointed out to me, including heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths, and punks. Each of these groups sported their own fashion and listened to their own music. The day of the universally known Top 40 list is gone.”
McCracken wrote that way back in 1998. There are, no doubt, many more types of teenagers now. If he ever turned his gaze toward conservatives, he would find the same pattern. The modern conservative was invented a few generations after the teenager, but from the start there have been several types. In the 1950s, conservatism was made up of libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists, with the odd (usually very odd) monarchist sprinkled in.
They have been speciating since then, and the rate of speciation has risen. In just the last few years, we have been introduced to “crunchy cons” and “South Park conservatives.” I try to keep up with the conservative tribes, but I’m afraid I have only a hazy sense of these two groups. I gather that the crunchy cons fault other conservatives for their relative indifference to the aesthetics of everyday life, and that the South Park conservatives like cursing and raunchy entertainment. But I could be wrong–and I am beginning to sympathize with all those political reporters who, looking at conservatism from the outside, can’t quite figure us out.
In this respect as in others, the Internet has been the servant of plenitude. It has made it easy to form and sustain overlapping but distinct subcultures within conservatism. Some of these worlds within worlds have naturally fallen prey to the temptation to imagine themselves larger than they are. “If only the Right were not led by impostors,” the bloggers tell themselves, “and the public were exposed to real conservatism”–defined in the subculture’s terms: say, pro-war paleolibertarianism–”why, then we would prevail.” So the effect has been to increase not only the number of factions but also their factionalism.
It would be foolish, because futile, to seek to impose an artificial conceptual unity on the Right. Whatever holds the conservative coalition together, it is clearly not any of the most intense passions that immediately motivate its factions. Conservatives are not held together by the Christianity of the social Right or the free-market faith of the libertarians or the aggressive nationalism of the hawks.
Yet I think that most American conservatives, of whatever stripe, can reasonably be described as engaged in a common enterprise, even if the fact that it engages them in common sometimes eludes them. That enterprise is the conservation of the political inheritance of the American Founders…
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