On its surface, the recent British election may have appeared easily comprehensible to the water-cooler-and-Facebook-level observer of politics in our own country. A brash, round man with a shock of bad hair was running as something called a “Conservative,” against a spittling graybeard from “Labour” whose fondest attachments were to failed social experiments from the bell-bottoms era. If you knew that much, it seemed, then you knew on which side to line up (or queue, as it were).
And indeed, there was much gloom among some American liberals and glee among some American conservatives over the Tories’ commanding majority and Labour’s major collapse. Along with wish-casting and doomsaying about what it all means for our own impending contest. But as soon as you get just beneath those superficialities, you see that the British election and its results have no ready-made lessons for American politics.
For one thing, the “Conservatives” who won in Britain ran on a muscular defense of the National Health System — think of it as Medicare for the Lot of Us, Oi — and a broader promise to hold the welfare state harmless. They also ran on getting Brexit done, and Brexit has turned into a single-issue vote-maker for a sizeable swath of the British electorate whose sympathies might otherwise lie with Labour or the Lib Dems. This, among umpteen other nuances — how did working-class, Jewish, Scotch-nationalist Brexiteers vote? — makes the electoral result largely illegible.
Indeed, because the British have neither a two-party system nor a presidential one, we can’t girdle their politics into the Manicheanism we impose on our own. They’re plainly incoherent, not binary choices but Mexican standoffs whose victors are the factions that sustain the fewest casualties when the bullets start flying. Ours are incoherent, too. It’s a little easier, given our system, to pretend that they aren’t, but with just a little push inane formulations such as “The American people like divided government” fall apart. There is nothing — no thing, that is — that the American people “like.” There are just the 150 million things that 150 million Americans like, and those things are themselves a kind of quantum flux of incommensurable opinions that collapse, because they must, into some definite state only for a few seconds in the privacy of a voting booth.
The week of Thanksgiving, I attended a football game in New Jersey with a recent acquaintance. He supports the president’s reelection and is currently devouring Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I submit that this man is not the exception but the rule.
I’d add, and it’s not an original thought, that the world generally, and the world of power and the powerful in particular, is far less lucid and more incoherent than most assume. Insofar as there really is a deep state, or a neoliberal order, or an establishment, or whatever you want to call it, its defining feature is that it is fluent in a language that imposes a kind of regulative fiction on all this chaos. It speaks the incantations and the shibboleths that give our rules and our norms their shape and, until recently, their legitimacy and their power.
Our current president and a lot of the people around him lack this fluency and have no interest in cultivating it. What’s more, they’ve spent a lot of time arguing, or at least emoting, that the language of the elites is profane, corrupt. And when you see things like the recent Horowitz report on the FISA warrants that set the entire Russia investigation in motion — outlining the many ways in which this language has been abused by those elites to, it seems, protect their priorities — it’s hard not to concede that they may have a point.
But whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not, even those on the right who think the current regulative fiction is hopelessly decadent or obsolete want and need some new fiction to emerge in its place. Because we want and need the world to make sense again.
The crowd complaining loudest about the inadequacy of the current ways of ordering our politics has yet to cohere around a single alternative. There are a few candidates on offer — “common-good capitalism,” “national conservatism,” “conservative populism,” Tucker Carlson’s list of people and corporations to hate. But the only conservatism I’ve ever known or subscribed to is suspicious of all these novelties insofar as they are novel. Many of their adherents retain at least a nub of such a conservatism, or at least know that their audience does, and so they explain — to themselves and to their would-be catechumens — that what appears an innovation is in fact the rediscovery of some ancient truth. But conservatism isn’t reactionism, and ancient truths in disuse are no less remote from our present location than are the utopian destinations to which Bernie Sanders and his friends would steer us.
One of the best explanations for the acquiescence of so much of the party and its appendages to the current presidency is that we can’t stand to live long in chaos, and so we seek to make sense of nonsense. But not all regulative fictions are equal, and not all post-MAGA futures are equally plausible or desirable. Take care, then, my common-good conservative-nationalist-populist friends, to choose your next fiction wisely.