The Republican Party is in the midst of an ideological insurrection that has mainstream conservative candidates for president languishing in the single digits. Meanwhile, the top three populist firebrands (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz) are polling at a combined 57 percent. On Capitol Hill, hardcore conservatives spent years making conservative John Boehner's life a living hell until he finally gave up and retired. These far-right congressmen's self-declared commitment to ideological purity was so fearsome, in fact, that the GOP spent weeks trying to find someone, anyone, who might dare to wield the speaker's gavel over them.
This seems like a good time to try and pin down exactly what conservatism means today.
I don't mean what makes a conservative pragmatically different from a liberal or progressive, because the answer is obvious: less government regulation of the economy instead of more, lower taxes instead of higher, and so forth. What makes these positions pragmatic is that they are based on empirical claims about what works better in the real world — which means they are open, at least in theory, to empirical refutation. If liberals could demonstrate to conservatives that more regulation of the economy and higher tax rates produced better economic outcomes, conservatives would be obliged to concede the point and change their views.
The reason why this almost never happens is that something deeper is at play: ideological commitments, a comprehensive moral outlook, something more fundamental that separates conservatives from their liberal opponents. That's what I mean when I pose the question of what defines conservatives today.
If you ask conservatives what this comprehensive moral outlook consists of, they'll likely say one of several things: Devotion to individual freedom. Constitutionalism. A concern with limited government. Fear of tyranny.
The disagreements with liberals in these areas are real and important, but they aren't completely distinctive either. Liberals believe in individual freedom, too — they just tend to become exercised about it in different areas. Likewise when it comes to revering the Constitution, upholding limited government, and fretting about the dangers of overweening federal power. Liberals and conservatives do all of these things, although they disagree about the meaning of the Constitution, and about whether government has a significant role to play in regulating the economy (as liberals believe) or policing sexual morality (as conservatives believe).
To grasp what is most distinctive about conservatism, you need to dig deeper — and listen in the right places. One such place is the barber shop near my house in suburban Philadelphia. It's a very old-fashioned business, from a world before discount haircut chains and high-end salons and day spas. Just a bunch of men cutting the hair of other men. At 46, I'm on the young end of the clientele. I usually say nothing and just listen to the conversations going on around me. They often focus on politics, and the prevailing ideology is conservatism. But what kind?
Last week, one customer made the following declaration to his barber, who nodded along in agreement: "You know, at least Trump and Carson and Cruz — they get it. Kids today think everyone on the playground deserves a medal. Parents think every kid should get an A. Their feelings are so precious. Life isn't like that. You've gotta work your ass off, and then you'll succeed. And if you don't, you're gonna fail, and that's the way it should be. All this babying, it's gotta stop. If not, the whole damn country's gonna end up going down the tubes."
That is the moral-ideological core of conservatism today. It presumes that life is a competition or race, that people are unequal in talent, drive, and ambition, and that those who end up on top deserve their victory and rewards — and those who come out on the bottom deserve their failure and hardships. Any attempt to overturn or even mitigate this moral order — whether through government regulation or changes in habits or assumptions in school or on the playground — amounts to an offense against justice itself.
The outlook isn't new. The most philosophically formidable versions of it can be found in Tocqueville's account of the "soft despotism" to which democracies are prone and Nietzsche's diatribe against the loathsome "last man" who lives for petty pleasures and considers it too much work to produce great works of art and culture. Less lofty forms of it fueled the social Darwinism that exercised such an influence on late 19th- and early 20th-century political and moral thinking. It also infused Ayn Rand's novelistic paeans to the creative genius of egotistic entrepreneurs.
Today it informs the anti-immigrant rants of Donald Trump, Ben Carson's conviction that an effort to expand health insurance coverage amounts to a rebirth of slavery, and Ted Cruz's visceral hostility to anything a liberal ever did, thought, or touched. It can be seen on a vulgar right-wing website that denounces contemporary America as a "wimp nation" that is "poised to fail" — and in a high-brow essay for The American Interest by a Georgetown professor who believes we've entered an "age of exhaustion":
In the time of The Great Exhaustion, EQ, not IQ, matters. "Sharing and caring" become paramount; Big Bird and Barney become our philosophers. Everybody gets an "A" because everybody is special in their own way. If we "feel good about ourselves," isn't that enough? Preparation for a hostile and ever-changing external world gives way to the celebration of a self-satisfied inner world. "Finding ourselves" becomes more important than building a world. The long chain of generations has already done that for us. Now let us play.
On our playgrounds, everybody gets a trophy…. [The American Interest]
Leaving aside the obvious moral objections to fostering nostalgia for a supposedly lost world of struggle and suffering, the most striking thing about this outlook is how selective it is in its vision. Ideology always tends toward simplification of a complex world, but in this case whole swaths of contemporary American experience are denied or ignored.
Yes, helicopter parenting, campus speech codes, and calls for trigger warnings may point to a distressing increase in emotional fragility and an excess of concern with personal safety. But what about countervailing trends? I certainly don't recognize my children's experience in the description offered by the author of this American Interest essay or by my fellow customer in the barber shop. My kids are subjected to a constant battery of tests in school that rank them, sort them, and track them. They are encouraged to rack up accomplishments in extracurricular activities to stand out from their peers. Many of those activities involve tryouts and cuts in which they are once again ranked, sorted, and tracked. My kids know that college is essential if they hope to get ahead — and that they will only get into a good school if they begin compiling an impressive record at a young age. And they know that no matter where they go to school, they will likely graduate into a working world without any form of job security.
The rat race starts earlier than ever in America today. From school to sports to college applications to the job search to dating and hookup apps, meritocratic standards and expectations increasingly prevail, turning ever-more dimensions of social life into a ruthless competition that raises up some to glory and leaves many others crushed in the dust.
This is the country that conservatives think has become soft, whiny, and wimpy?
The truth is that America has never come closer to realizing the very ideal from which today's conservatives are convinced we've fallen so far. And yet they appear not to see it. What they notice, instead, is any sign at all that someone, somewhere might be doing something to alleviate the struggle and the anxieties it breeds.
What remains to be seen is how many Americans share this selective vision and are ready to join a movement to make the country even more devoted to competition in all things, even more fixated on marks of achievement, even more indifferent to the plight of those who fail to win the race.
The 2016 presidential contest is about many things. But it is also, and especially, about that.