Prudence—that ability to see dimly through the fog that envelops political life—combines humility with the decisiveness that statesmanship requires.
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on vindicating a prudent politics within the GOP.
At the beginning of Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh’s great novel of the Second World War, his protagonist Guy Crouchback sees a headline in the morning newspaper announcing the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939. While news of the pact causes heartache to intellectuals on the left—how could the leader of world socialism agree to a non-aggression pact with that monster Hitler?—it “brought deep peace to one English heart.” Crouchback had been suffering an anguish of his own thanks to the estrangement between the country of his ancestors, England, and the country of his heart, Italy. Though he despised Nazis, he had not been able to regard the Fascist regime of Italy in quite the same black-and-white terms as his fellow Englishmen. “But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy was at last in plain view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” Now he could return and fight for his country with full commitment against the twin evils of Nazism and Communism.
Many conservatives over the last year have had, I think, a similar moment of clarification. Such moments are rare for us. The conservative temperament in politics ordinarily aims to make prudent choices between the least unsatisfactory alternatives. We conservatives expect politics to be morally murky, up to a point. It’s not our way to proclaim utopian futures or swear fealty to politicians urging ethical perfection upon the citizenry.
So as a conservative it was hard for me to muster much enthusiasm as we entered the election year. President Trump was not my cup of tea and I saw little to admire in his behavior, but the behavior of his opponents was no better. Both sides marked new lows in verbal incontinence and mendacity. I didn’t like all the president’s policies, either, but those of his opponents, where they could be discovered, seemed worse. In politics one also has to consider the kinds of people supporting either side, and the persons likely to hold office under a successful candidate. Though there were some competent, even admirable figures on both sides, the thought of having to join either tribe was painful.
But at a certain point this year the enemy came at last into plain view, huge and hateful. The disguises of history were cast off. It became clear that we were being governed by a corrupt oligarchy out of tune with traditional American political norms. All government, as Pareto noted, is in the end oligarchical; it’s in the nature of government for the few to rule over the many. But it matters what kind of oligarchy governs. And the new oligarchy that has revealed itself this year looks suddenly very different from any that has governed us before.
America was founded as an agrarian republic with a mixed constitution. Its government was supposed to reflect the popular will, tempered by the wisdom of senior statesmen in the Senate, by wise laws, and by an independent judiciary, allowing citizens an ordered liberty. Beginning in the later 19th century, however, as the country became industrialized and wealthy, it inclined towards oligarchy. Progressives supported a powerful government to check abuses of great private wealth but in the end, after the Second World War, political and economic power merged. (Some scholars think this began much earlier.) We were then said to have a “mixed economy.” The mixed economy all too easily was tempted into crony capitalism, as politicians and the elite of wealth and power recognized their common interests.
Politically, the saving grace of the postwar American oligarchy was that the elite of wealth and power did not appear to side wholly with either major party or against the people. Its way of life was not dramatically different from that of the middle classes. There was still a strong ethic of public service, and most people were left alone. Both parties had to compete for the votes of the middle and working classes and this kept the oligarchy’s political wing from ignoring the interests of non-elite citizens. Democracy still counted for something. We also had a strong national culture, especially in sports and entertainment, which most Americans could enjoy in common. A large majority of Americans were at least nominally Christian, and political attacks on religion were deemed suicidal.
Moreover, the Cold War gave most of us a sense of shared political values. The slippage in the direction of socialism during the early Roosevelt administration was given a hard push by the challenges of wartime, but the outbreak of the Cold War with the Soviet Union immediately after the war’s end made socialisim a much harder sell. Liberals (as they were then called) scrambled to distinguish their ideas from Marxists. A new, more persuasive defense of capitalism and free markets arose, led by economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. The rise of the military-industrial complex offered incentives to the wealthy to align their interests with the nation’s.
After the end of the Cold War, however, the oligarchy began to change in character—first gradually, then suddenly. It became globalist in outlook; its economic interests diverged from those of the nation-state. Socialism was the perfect disguise for international corporations profiting from cheap foreign labor; corporate commitments to ‘social justice’ assuaged consciences in executive suites as well. Socialism thus became the opium of the moneyed elites, even while they continued, in practice, the old crony capitalism.
Elite socialism, unsurprisingly, showed no real interest in the welfare of the working poor. Instead, the new oligarchy paraded its partisanship on behalf of those minorities it needed for electoral success. The New Left’s Holy Trinity of race, gender, and class was dogma in the universities, but the praxis of the credentialed elite paid little attention to class. Opposing racial and gender discrimination—no matter how microscopic—was the core of the new religion of social justice. Celebrating a diversity which excluded at least a third of the population, elites built up a set of cultural norms and behaviors that separated them more and more perceptibly from the multitude.
The Great Recession of 2008 was a thunderbolt that briefly illuminated the landscape of economic power in America. The nation watched dumbstruck as politicians of both parties rushed to shore up the wealth of the few with the taxes of the many. The frightening plunge in the market indexes proved in the end a mild recession for the haves but a depression for the have-nots. Outwardly, little had changed. The tech oligopoly was still consolidating its control of social media, holding aloof from politics. Wall Street continued to keep both political parties in its portfolio.
Now came 2020. Last year revealed that the structure of the oligarchy had changed and its strategy for dominance had shifted. It had become more overtly political. It now included Silicon Valley as a full member, along with the big media companies, global corporations, most of the financial industry, and academe. More ominously, the oligarchy showed in the plainest possible terms that it was no longer willing to take chances with democracy or freedom of speech. It wanted one-party rule, like its friends in China. It was willing to control the flow of information in the interests of its favored party. Its dominance in social media made this strategy far more effective than ever before. With one eye cast admiringly on the European Union, it was now ready to practice the dark arts of managed democracy.
But Silicon Valley soon far surpassed its mentor. The billionaire class, hiding behind an alphabet soup of NGOs, rapidly deployed a vast online ecosystem of young, easily-influenced influencers “to substitute paid or subsidized content for actual support, and thereby flip an entire political culture on to a different track, by amplifying some voices and drowning out others.” The goal was for the oligarchy to control “‘the dominant political alignment’ that defines ‘the common sense of society’ and ‘directs social and economic policy.’”
The Democrats were happy to be made the beneficiaries of the oligarchy’s new political investments. Making Trumpified Republicans walk the plank meant throwing overboard too the last commitments to an inclusive democratic culture, to be replaced by the culture (if one can call it that) of the “woke.” Wokery was a way of thinking (if one can call it that) that had been cultivated in the Petri dish of the university but was now escaping the laboratory and spreading rapidly throughout elite culture. Everywhere it was, and remains, bent on destroying the American past, tearing down statues of its heroes and rewriting its history.
The demonstrations and riots following the death of George Floyd proved the perfect vehicle for branding traditional American culture as “structurally racist” and “white-supremacist” and for signaling that woke values were now to be considered elite values. All across America universities, large corporations, labor unions, sports teams, museums, and professional organizations bowed the knee to Black Lives Matter. It was a shocking moment to conservative Americans. Many of the great national institutions we grew up with were competing to perform acts of fealty to a radical organization professedly committed to destroying the traditional family, organized religion, capitalism and public safety. The civil rights movement we admired from the 1960s was led by black Protestant ministers whose values we could share; BLM was led by self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxists.
So now the enemy is in plain sight. What should conservatives do to turn the tide of battle? Let me make just one suggestion. In the current situation we need to be prudent in a more Machiavellian sense: to consider what battles can be won, and which victories could do the most to restore American freedoms. With the federal government now back in the hands of the oligarchy and the next national election two years away, conservatives who hope to be effective will have to act on the state and local levels. It’s at that level, where its power is least effective, that opposition to the oligarchy is most likely to succeed.
The best way forward for conservatism, I suggest, is to take a firm stand against the Covid dictatorships. The emergence of these obscene violations of every American principle of governance is both a great danger and a great political opportunity. As history teaches, emergency government is the high road to tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that the current pandemic will be the last. Indeed, given the way the rollout of the vaccines has proceeded pari passu with the multiplication of new viral strains, there is no reason to suppose that the current emergency can ever be brought to an end without political intervention. More than a few of our governors seem reluctant to sound the “all clear” and let us get back to normal. The progressive oligarchy regards the imposition of government by experts, unencumbered by the popular will, with deep satisfaction, obviously. Its easy to select and control the experts you want. But we who value freedom can’t afford to let authoritarian government become the new normal.
So it’s time for we the people to seize control of our lives again. The GOP could provide leadership. It should abandon its current stance of offering less oppressive dictatorships and take the high ground. It should do this by appealing to democratic principles and using constitutional procedures. Most emergency legislation currently on the books was meant to deal with situations lasting for a few days only: strikes, riots, nuclear attacks, natural disasters. Pandemics that last many months, if not years, call for a different political framework. New legislation is needed requiring emergency powers to be reauthorized at regular intervals by state legislatures. During longer emergencies, legislatures should hold regular public hearings with a wide range of scientific authorities, and not allow governors to cherry-pick their preferred experts. If the science seems settled, then it’s not science. There must be accountability for bad performance from the executive.
All this should be hugely popular. The Covid dictatorships have revealed the elites at their worst. It’s not simply that many governors and health officials failed to observe their own orders. They have also shown that their primary loyalty is to the zooming classes who share their high risk sensitivity, and that they are willing to destroy the lives and livelihoods of huge numbers of working Americans, and the education of their children, to confer tiny marginal protections on the like-minded. Most normal people hate all the restrictions, many of them obviously useless, and all the elite virtue-signaling that goes with them. They are ready to fight to regain their liberties against arbitrary government. But they need a person or a party to focus their frustrations and direct opposition to the status quo.
Some might doubt this: as a rule, average citizens know little and care less about what goes on in state capitals. And as a rule, admittedly, this is rational ignorance. It’s rarely worth our time to get involved with the kinds of small-bore issues state legislatures usually address. But Covid restrictions are something everyone cares about. They touch every aspect of our lives. We are all too aware of how we the people have lost control of our lives to persons we have elected but who are not responsive to our interests. We’ve learned that staying alive is not the same as living, and the state doesn’t have the right to tell us how to live. We now know that if we want our lives back, we are going to have to take them back.
So fighting the Covid dictatorships should be a real opportunity for conservatives to score some victories. We have a chance to demonstrate to a new generation why democracy, the constitution, and the rule of law were invented in the first place: to keep rulers with tyrannical impulses from taking away our freedom without debate, without seeking the consent of the people, and without any accountability for their disastrous mistakes.