… it’s a meaningless term for understanding our politics, with almost no remaining descriptive power.
There is still a narrow slice of the political spectrum that has relegated itself, with its strict readings and narrow legalism, to the role of useful idiot for nihilists of assorted stripes. Those people espouse “conservative” ideological beliefs and adhere to rigid “conservative” principles, and they are being gamed by people do not, themselves, have a particularly conservative world view.
Those nihilists are not “conservative,” because they are hostile not only to how institutions are run when in the hands of Democrats or “progressives” or “liberals,” but are hostile to the institutions themselves. They’ve spent the past few decades chipping away at our faith in public education, and in the current circumstances are busy going after the Postal Service partially because of a mania for privatization, and partially because it could be a vehicle for enhanced voter participation and they don’t like that.
If you want, you can recurse even further into that nihilist tendency and unearth a number of camps: “watch the world burn” nihilists, “liberal democracy is a failed experiment” nihilists, and “we could probably just privatize police and military and be safe on our compounds” nihilists. These are not “conservative” positions.
We need better words than what we are using now, because the nihilists have captured people who are not, themselves, nihilists. They’ve done that partially by hijacking conservative institutions, and partially because our outmoded language and failed categories are blinding us to potential allies.
In this country, the conservative program won decades ago. That happened with Reagan and then Clinton. Democrats do not, with the exception of what passes for a “far left” in that party, talk in terms that are hostile to basic main street/Chamber of Commerce conservatism. The fundamental program of the Clinton-era Democratic party (I’d argue that’s the current era given this year’s nominee) is to triangulate enough to peel off what we refer to as “independent” voters and eke out wins.
That doesn’t all mean the “no material difference” people in the fever swamps are right. They’re wrong. It’s just that the difference between the two parties isn’t “liberal” or “progressive” vs. “conservative,” because the Republican Party isn’t a conservative institution. It is a nihilist institution that will burn any tradition or norm to the ground in order to eradicate any law that impedes the accumulation of wealth at the expense of all other concerns. In the taxonomy I put out above, that’d be the “we could probably just privatize police and military and be safe on our compounds” wing of the nihilist faction. When the Republican Party was still a conservative institution, it resisted that outlook: It saw some institutions as good things that guaranteed, if nothing else, the reinforcement of certain ideological constants.
Because that nihilist faction has to coalition with social conservatives, there are also some differences in terms of social agenda, and the Democratic Party is a more reliable ally in that regard. That’s why I’m not arguing that we need to destroy the Democratic Party, or sit out elections, or whatever left-nihilist formulations we could recount here.
I think instead I’m arguing that our politics have shifted and evolved to a point where there are people committed to what we widely understand as “civilization,” and people who are trying to destroy any of its trappings either because they have decided it is a failed project, or because it is keeping them from making as much money as they could without large parts of it.
I don’t know what language I would propose instead of “conservative” vs. “liberal,” but I do think the puck is pretty close to being where it is headed and we’re using language from a bygone era to categorize people and their beliefs in a way that is causing us to miss a huge political realignment.
See also this one, which is along the same lines of thinking:
Not a historian, but I imagine every time a society or system has undergone radical, shocking change, there have surely been people who were sitting around thinking that the radicals clamoring for change had no chance because they simply weren’t being realistic. I’m sure the radicals who ultimately upended those societies were glad they didn’t stop to listen to the “realists” as they set about defining the new reality, grateful they understood the truths of the old one well enough to destroy it.