March 16th, 2019
If it feels like the political ground is shifting beneath your feet lately, it's because it is. If it looks like some figures you thought were standing comfortably in the mainstream—not in the middle, sure, but obeying the rule of thirds within the frame—are running to the edges of an expanding window, well, it's because they are. The coming apart of old coalitions and old alignments heralded by 2016 continues, and the contradictions are heightening. It's getting towards bullet-biting time.
The window of discourse widens when what would be an extreme position has postures even more extreme to point to in comparison, blazing the trail. Extreme sounds scary, but it only means going a bit further across a spectrum, or riding longer on some train of thought, than is expected. When establishments are strong and gatekeepers decisive, then the frame stays tidy and people line themselves up along the sill. That is not the situation of American politics now. Instead, on both left and right there are runs to take what space is given, and runs to create more space to give, to push the outside position to make the inside play.
It's an easy process to see in a progressive left looking for big changes. The Green New Deal kills cows so killing cars seems more reasonable. What Rep. Ilhan Omar says yesterday will let Rep. Rashida Tlaib off the hook tomorrow. On the right there are obvious instances, too. The Wall could become colder ICE, after all.
Last week saw what may turn out to be an important shift of the wide middle in conservative discourse. Patrick Deneen, whose book Why Liberalism Failed was blurbed by former president Barack Obama as offering "cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril," advocated the forceful populist confrontation of America's elites. In a speech entitled "Aristopopulism: A Political Proposal For America", a course of action that embraces populism and uses the power of the state for socially conservative ends—not too unlike the appeals of Tucker Carlson in his recent monologues—received the support of a distinguished, even popular, academic theorist.
For those familiar with Deneen's writing outside academia, whether essays in the American Conservative or speeches for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or his books, the expectation was that he would be offering a kind of theoretical solution to the primary whatnow problem suggested by last year's Why Liberalism Failed. The title word aristopopulism seemed to hint at the illiberal aristocratic inheritance Alexis de Tocqueville believed undergird the functioning of American liberal democracy. It was an inheritance of virtues and excellences—the respect for law and our common-law tradition, commitment to civil society and free association, and a pious reverence for religion and the inheritances of the dead and the unborn—that the Frenchman feared we would squander. Deneen has long argued convincingly we have.
In light of that, then, it seemed safe to anticipate some sort of call for the renewal of aristocratic virtues in American communities, perhaps through the classical education movement and robust civic localism. Safe perhaps, but a disservice to Deneen and a failure to take seriously the debates of just the last year. While Burkean in his admiration for community, all those little platoons, Deneen's idea of small government has never been the liberal-but-slower, pro-corporate federal minimalism pushed by the global free market part of conservatism's old alliance.
You might sum up Deneen's comments in the words of that Twitter mahatma, Dril: "Politic's sic is back baby. It's good again. Awoouu (wolf Howl)." Deneen declared the political tradition—from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli and beyond, at least until liberalism obscured this behind a veil of popular will and procedure—has always believed that the basic conflict of every regime is between the wealthy few and the many. "But class warfare is Marxism!" you say. It's also often reality. Marx was a Hegelian sort of Aristotelian, not stupid. Whether through the mixed regimes of classical and scholastic philosophy or the dynamism of the moderns, the threats of tyranny and anarchy have only ever been held in check by a balance between an aristocratic or oligarchic elite and the mass of common men.
Deneen argued that the United States today requires "Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends." Because elites are inevitable, those Aristotelian ends are a mixed regime aimed at fostering the common good: a renewed republic, forged by a politics that blends the interests and character of rich and poor to create a robust middle-class identity. America no longer supports that identity in practice, though in our political life all still reach for it in speech. A "meritocracy" corrupted the checks and balances and division of power (originally created to restrain competition amongst the country's de facto aristocracy, rather than between them and the people) in pursuit of plutocratic gain and the preservation of class interest. These elites have taken the language of equality and privilege to wage class warfare; in the name of diversity, they accuse workers and an alienated middle class who fail to ape their fashions of being oppressors and the enemies of liberty. By enshrining biological and sexual identities, they obscure their place as priests of mammon. Deneen:
Today with the elite adopting the banner of democracy and equality as the cover for further advancement of status and power, it is safe to conclude that the ennobling of our elite will not come from the voluntary showering of goodwill and generosity but rather through the force of a direct threat from the populi.
And so a time perhaps for Machiavellian means. While the classical tradition saw cooperation—and the prudent direction of the state and uplift of the masses by its best members—in pursuit of the common good as the goal of politics, Machiavelli set his sights a little lower, on negotiated give and take. In the dynamism of conflict between mob and oligarchs a synthetic approximation of a common good in the form of national greatness could be constructed. In his speech, Deneen proposed a policy of populist antagonism in order to force elites to the negotiating table, and maybe, through what would be painful habituation, to train them to restore a noblesse oblige politics of cooperation.
Other writers and public figures have endorsed wielding the political levers of federal power for the conservative ends of family, religion, and local life before, but Deneen's added voice is further evidence of the watershed moment we find ourselves in. Conservatism is dead; long live conservatism. The debates are only going to get more interesting. If the Notre Dame professor is right, and the capture of those levers is both our only recourse and requires a populist uprising, two questions emerge: First, who will be the Gracchi brothers of the American people, the elite class-traitors, a revolutionary vanguard guiding the masses? And second, what is to be done if there are no majoritarian means to Aristotelian ends? What if the greater part of the people refuse to see through the ignoble lie of elite equality-as-diversity, and will not be roused to demand—by legislation, referrenda, and amendment—aristocrats who serve not individual preferences, but the common good?