24 August 2002
Dean Esmay reports that in the last half of the 20th century conservatism ceased to be the red-headed stepchild of American political thought and then found itself at the dawn of the 21st to be the dominant strain.
Part of this, of course, is the fluidity of definition, especially political definition: the stance which was called "liberal" during the formative years of the Republic scarcely resembles late-20th century liberalism. Conservatives were old mossbacks or worse; conservatism wasn't stupid, in and of itself, exactly, but John Stuart Mill argued that "most stupid people [were] conservatives."
What happened in the interim isn't exactly clear, but Mr Esmay cites one particular factor that hadn't occurred to me: the decline of the purely-intellectual Left. Once upon a time, almost all of our philosopher types came from the left side of the spectrum; today, most of the left-wing voices we hear are spouting the same bunch of platitudes over and over. "Aside from a few rare exceptions," says Mr Esmay, "most 'liberal' argumentation seems to come from one of three places:"
This is the state of what once was the American intelligentsia: outflanked, then outnumbered, reduced to ad hominem arguments constructed for maximum cliché value.
I'm not about to argue that we've reached some sort of classical-liberal (let's call it "libertarian") Nirvana, or even that we're on the way. For one thing, there is still a substantial authoritarian component on the Right, and it has enough blind spots of its own to support the entire Western beam industry, let alone the odd mote. But with the American left in at least slightly self-inflicted decline, some benefits will clearly accrue. For one thing, there will be a lot less of that "Marx was right, but the Soviet/Chinese/whatever implementation was wrong" claptrap. And the leftist assumption that any conflict can be solved with an application of some sort of logic, especially their sort of logic, came crashing to the ground with the World Trade Center. "Increasingly," says Mr Esmay, "people associate 'liberal' with being just plain dumb." And with good reason, sometimes.