Sunday, September 16, 2007

Free-floating authoritarianism

While answering another blogger's apparent misinterpretation of a remark I made on yet another blog, I said this:
I'm not a conservative (except in comparison to Mencius Moldbug's plans to replace the entire sociopolitical system with something he's designing from first principles) so I'm not sure why you are directing your flames at me. In fact, if there are any actual conservatives in the Burke or William Buckley mode in American politics they are almost invisible. What we have instead in the Republican party is a sort of free-floating authoritarianism, with no tradition to appeal to.
which struck me as insightful, if I do say so myself. Why does neoconservatism seem so unconservative? The modern Republican party seems composed of equal parts imperialist maniacs and religious yahoos. Neither of these factions seem very conservative, in the sense of a respect for traditional authority. But that's not surprising, since there are no strong traditions in America to adhere to. The essence of classical conservatism is a more or less irrational cleaving to tradition and traditional authority. What traditional authorities do we have here in America? The old WASP power structure, which was the closest we had, is mostly gone. Conservatism minus tradition becomes, in my new pet phrase, free-floating authoritarianism. Pity the poor conservatively-minded citizen with no reliable ruling class to show fealty to! He's liable to latch onto all sorts of ridiculous authority substitutes, such as TV preachers or George Bush or the Rudy Giulani.

A related issue comes up again in this Reason article, where libertarians are confused by how conservatives claim to oppose a strong executive while simultaneously doing everything they can to strengthen it. The answer is, conservatism was never in principle about limiting executive power. The fact that they adopted that meme at all in the post-WWII years was just a reaction to Roosevelt and the New Deal, when the executive power was wielded for the benefit of the wrong kind of people. Now they are reverting to type, while still posing as somehow opposed to government. Conservatism craves strong government, preferably in the form of a daddy figure (check out the idiotic gushing over Fred Thompson's manly aromas for a window into this kind of thinking, which entirely eludes me).

The mystery is not their internal contradictions but that they can keep up the counterfactual marketing for this long, and how ostensible "libertarians" could play along with such authoritarian elements. But nobody every went broke underestimating the political acuity of the American public.


goatchowder said...

That's really good.

I think Lakoff made a similar observation in his little "Elephant" book of essays and speeches in 2004.

He pointed out that the only thing that defines "conservatives" these days is a weird kind of daddy-worshipping Rambo complex.

"Free-floating authoritarianism" is a pithy way of putting it.

And it's really scary to see so many people pining away for Strong Manly Man of Action, to make it simple and tell them what to do.

I'll stop just short of Godwin.

tggp said...

Anyone that votes at all is a lost cause in my book.

tggp said...

That actually reminded me of a talk you might like which is mostly about Nisbet but deals with a lot of this stuff. It's called The Right and the 'Fuhrerprinzip'.

johnsal said...

This is mostly a "free floating" rant. The British historian Paul Johnson said it best, I believe, in his book Modern Times, that the invention of the "professional politician" in the 20th Century is the greatest calamity to befall modern man. See Woodrow Wilson and the philosophy of Progressives. His choice of the term "professional politician" was meant to highlight the fact that government then took on the characteristics of an industry. By its very nature it sought to expand its "market" and to ensure its survivability. The Republican and Democrat parties in the U.S., as are all governments world-wide, are dominated by professional politicians. Their tactics are different but the "Compassionate Conservative" is at heart not any different from your run-of-the-mill leftist Democrat. In other words, the rationing of health care by the bureaucrats of the USG proposed by our next President, Hillary Clinton, may be slowed slightly unless the Repubs get what they want, but it is as inevitable as death and, yes, taxes.