Postmodern Conservative

Conservative Brands

The volatility of conservative identity politics

First off, I wrote a description of the various conservative factions for the Intercollegiate Review.  I know the descriptions are flat and only very subtextually ironic. I was really trying to be fair in an introductory way. Young people really are confused. And some of them want to be conservative in some sense, although very few of them want to vote for Trump. It ought to comfort them somehow that all those factions have a future.

The first question I got from an IR reader: Where would you put the followers of Harry Jaffa — the West Coast Straussians?

​That’s not a question most Americans would ask, although Jaffa himself would have insisted on his own category. That would be “Declaration of Independence Conservative.”

But here’s an answer: Some of the followers of Jaffa happily identify themselves as Natural-Law Conservatives. And they might indignantly deny that their position is incompatible with Classical Liberalism or Originalism. Hadley Arkes is in many ways a follower of Jaffa, and Robby George agrees with him for most practical purposes, if not exactly on the content of natural law.

It’s also true that some students of Jaffa are for Trump, because, they say, he is restoring the political dimension of America liberty — the consent of the governed — against the various elitists who drive the soft despotism of the unaccountable administrative state.

It goes without saying that I don’t think Trump is doing anything like that or much of anything at all. I would even say that Trump in various ways — most recently by identifying with Breitbart — has pretty much betrayed most of the civic-minded people who voted for him in good faith. Conservative populism is not white-identity politics. That sort of thing isn’t conservative at all.   

Still, it’s a blow to our democracy that populism doesn’t have a better voice. Thomas Frank (the guy who wondered what’s the matter with Kansas — always voting Republican against its economic self-interest) has written somewhat compellingly about the perception that both of our parties have been captured by irresponsible oligarchic elites. And he bemoans the fact that the alleged imperative to uncritically embrace Hillary Clinton to save the Constitution and civilization from Trump keeps that perception from getting a fair hearing anywhere in our public world right now. Sanders, of course, backed off. And Trump just keeps getting worse.

The Trump voters and the Sanders voters have many overlapping concerns, and together they were about half the country at one point. This election is not going to give them anything enduring, it would seem.

I don’t think populism ever expresses the whole truth. But it’s always part of the coalition of the party that wins. Republicans, for example, are always healthiest when they honor (and refine and enlarge) the spirited rebellion of dignified ordinary Americans against the condescending experts.  

Why did I leave out Postmodern Conservatism? It’s just not getting many votes. More on that later.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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