Whenever an historical event of truly massive proportions not just manifests but reveals itself, the maneuvering begins. Existing interests do their best to position themselves to be the winning side of the arc of history in the small, and alignments change.
Our current age provides an example of such an event. A vast sea change has been underway for some time. The postwar order of world liberal democracy, seemingly the last man standing, has been in crisis since the 1980s, just one generation after the war ended.
Nonetheless it took time for the effects to become visible to more than those on the cutting edge. When your most intellectually sensitive citizens notice something, you are looking at the top one percent or less, and the rest will take years to figure it out.
When the war ended, it seemed that the world had finally united upon a common “System” that had outlasted all the others (think of the end of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory). We thought great benefits would come from this kind of connectivity.
Then in turn when the Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, we thought that our last opposition was gone, which allowed us to stop discriminating against our own home-grown versions of those ideas, like American and European socialism.
Europe, of course, had gone socialist in the years after the war because everyone was desperately poor and relied on the food trucks from government to survive since farms, businesses, and charities had all been demolished by the war.
This meant that by 1991 the world could unite on a “conservative” vision of the future that included both socialism and civil rights, despite those having origins in Leftist theory. Those Left-leaning ideas were substitutes for caste systems and natural rights, respectively.
Although its citizens were increasingly becoming miserable, this order moved ahead simply because nothing else could challenge it. Then only a decade later, it started to show signs of internal instability just as former third world powers rose to challenge it.
That shows us a fairly typical pattern which is that as soon as one system becomes dominant, it extends itself to its full logical conclusion, and at that point reveals its instability and begins to break down, encouraging others to challenge it.
Its inner doom came about through existential misery which was clear by the 1950s: on the surface, life was shiny, technology, safe, trustworthy, and new. Underneath, we saw the unfulfilled desires of humanity emerging in twisted ways.
Ours became a society of fetishes. Life under “capitalism” had become as regimented as life under “Communism”: you went to school, got some certs, then went to a job until you died. If you spoke out against the official dogma, you lost everything.
This quickly separated our political perspective into two groups: those who supported the status quo and therefore denied any serious problems with it, and those who saw the current state of things as moribund and destructive.
In this sense, the conservatives of today are acting out the role of the Leftists of yesterday by opposing established power and suggesting an alternate method. However, the conservative alternate is based on principle and history, not theory.
We have seen this kind of shift where the political “sides” changed roles before in American history:
One of them has to be the 1896 election, when the Democratic Party fused with the People’s Party, and the incumbent Grover Cleveland, a rather conservative Democrat, was displaced by the young and fiery William Jennings Bryan, whose rhetoric emphasized the importance of social justice in the priorities of the federal government. The next time the Democrats had a Congressional majority, with the start of Wilson’s presidency in 1913, they passed a raft of Bryanish legislation, including the income tax and the Federal Reserve Act. And the next Democratic president after that was FDR. So from Bryan onward, the Democratic Party looks much more like the modern Democratic Party than it does like the party of the 1870s.
Oddly though, during the first part of this period, i.e., the time of Bryan, the Republican Party does not immediately, in reaction, become the party of smaller government; there’s no do-si-do. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties are promising an augmented federal government devoted in various ways to the cause of social justice. It’s not until the 1920s, and the era of Coolidge especially, that the Republican Party begins to sound like the modern Republican Party, rhetorically devoted to smaller government.
In other words, government captured one party and made it the advocate for more government. Bureaucracy expands to fill all space and resources available, and so as government became more powerful and centralized following the Civil War, it captured the party whose nature beliefs were closest to those required by big government.
The thing about government is that it needs a pretext. Per the idea of the social contract, government offers something to its citizens; if that needs to be more than mere stewardship of the existing natural and organic culture, government must offer a promise of something better, sort of like Utopia.
With Abraham Lincoln, America found a Soviet-style leader who would promise ideological purity and a quest toward Utopia through equality in exchange for greater control. No previous president had exercised as much authority as Lincoln did, nor had any attempted to make government as close to a European-style dictatorship as he did.
Bureaucracy thrives on impossible missions like “make everyone equal.” Since it cannot be done, they can never fail, only come back with more reasons why they need more money and more power in order to keep fighting the problem.
Inevitably, bureaucracy falls back on the idea of “progress,” or coming out of the natural state into a humanistic one where everything is better or, if we are honest, safer. The individual will be safe from the judgments of others when we achieve equality.
This type of ideological quest always causes a shift in polarities when one side gains control of government (or vice-versa!) and therefore, becomes a target of reformers and naysayers:
The world, he argues, is now split into two bitterly opposed camps: the New Conservatives and the New Radicals.
Their essential critique is that Britain’s establishment — in politics, in culture, in the public sector, in some big businesses — is decadent: that it continues to party while Rome burns; that it is pathologically self-absorbed; that it behaves as if the world owes it a favour, as if it deserves all of its privileges, as if the current order will go on forever even though it is clear that it is fast unravelling.
Our opponents are the New Conservatives, people who are:
…wedded to the status quo, who don’t really believe that there is much that is wrong with our society that a few tweaks cannot address. Until the Brexit referendum, such people generally thought we were moving in the right direction; today, they drift in a state of shock, stunned that progress, as they define it, isn’t inevitable, and that many want to upset the applecart.
These New Conservatives (which I think is where the name falls down slightly) still cleave to the Whiggish narrative of history as a process of continual improvement known as “progress”.
In this case, conservatives are naysayers. They do not promise a better future by affirmatively doing something, but by negatively doing something. If we remove big government and ideology, they argue, life will be better.
The populist crusade can be summarized in that simple statement. It wants to revoke the ideological mandate and massive bureaucracies of the postwar era, and possibly tear down government further until we reach the 1800s America of few rules and much opportunity.
That directly clashes with egalitarianism and the notion of progress. Egalitarianism says that our goal is to make everyone equal; nothing about peeling back the layers of government says that we are going to try to make anyone equal. Instead, we are rejecting equality entirely.
Our founding fathers did the same thing when they used the curious language “all men are created equal.” This does not mean that they are equal, or can be equal, but that the only equality which they are going to get is that they were all created. In other words, the Creator has a plan, each of us has a place, and in that place, we should be able to do what is appropriate for our role.
That entirely clashes with the 1860s and 1960s era Civil Rights acts which make government into an agency dedicated entirely to promoting and enforcing equality. In that government, everyone must treat everyone else equally or government will come destroy them.
At this point in time, we have to ask who the establishment really is. Trump answers this by calling them the “deep state” or “entrenched bureaucracy,” meaning those who are employed by big government and persist across administrations to enforce the mutual mission of equality.
However, the Right has defected from the notions of equality and progress. To it, progress consists of removing progress, and sticking with what works by keeping government at bay. This creates a flip in alignments.
Where the Left once saw government as the enemy and feared mainstream society, therefore argued that as a minority, it deserved “tolerance,” it now sees the government and mainstream as united against radicals who want to remove bureaucratic government and its ideology.
Conservatives, who have traditionally tried to conserve the best of the past and therefore always try to preserve institutions, including government, against the Leftist desire to tear them up, can no longer defend government. They want it gone.
Rebels are defined relative to what they rebel against, which means that they must be a weaker party assailing a stronger power. However, not all rebels are alike. Some promise Utopia, and others want to escape that quest for Utopia that destroys all civilizations.
Our current crop of rebels are anti-liberal, meaning that they reject egalitarianism and everything associated with making it work. Where conservatives were Leftist during the last century, in this century they have turned back toward conservatism.
That in turn has forced the Left to consolidate from the center through the extremes and, since it is now the majority, it has no idea of what it believes, and so the extremes win out because they are clearer than any other statement from the Left.
There are no new Conservatives and new Radicals. There is only Left and Right. The Left are egalitarians; the Right want order larger than the individual. Now, however, wanting anything other than Leftism is a rebellion against the established order.
You can find out where you stand easily. If you want equal rights as the basis of government, you are a Leftist; if you would prefer a hierarchical society with roles and privileges instead, and want government to protect that instead of changing it, you are on the Right.
This shows us the importance of understanding historical flips so that we can understand our current one. The parties have not changed views, only changed from offense to defense and vice-versa.
That in turn means that we can look at who is playing defense and see which ideology currently grips the world, and in turn, realize that this ideology is falling and will soon be replaced. The only progress is to un-do “progress.”