“Given the potential for a more populist conservatism that appeals to those seeking to mend America’s weakened bonds of mutual social and economic loyalty, the right-wing liberalism of Murray and others is the exact opposite of what is needed. and desired.
he American right is experiencing a ferment of ideas and coalitions with the potential to fundamentally reshape the way conservative politics is conducted in the United States. Or the swirling tumult could be tamed, bought off, and subsumed by the forces of capital and vested business interests that still guide the hand of GOP policymaking toward neoliberal ends. The outcome is uncertain, history not yet written. But we can say that things are happening, even if we don’t all like what we see.
One of those with doubts is British writer and political commentator Douglas Murray. Having appeared on a panel at NatCon II alongside Yoram Hazony, Sohrab Ahmari and Dave Rubin last fall in Orlando, Florida, Murray published a recent article on A herd to ask “Why is the right so unattractive” to so many non-conservatives. Unfortunately, the piece is poorly argued and based on a misrepresentation. It also demonstrates the fundamental divide between right-wing liberalism and a more communal conservatism.
Murray begins by asking why left-liberals like Bari Weiss and Bill Maher don’t want to join the emerging new right. Given that many leftists made the shift to the right in the 20th century, primarily the first generation of neoconservatives, why, Murray wonders, isn’t this happening now? After all, people like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Q. Wilson weren’t intellectual starves, so there must have been something appealing to them in the mid-twentieth-century American right. So what is missing and what is keeping those who hold a similar dissenting liberal position from now on making the journey?
refer to a speech made by Patrick Deneen at the same conference, Murray writes that Deneen proclaimed “a lament for the 1950s; for changing people’s dress habits, mannerisms and sexual etiquette. Murray says he “couldn’t help but think that in a nutshell, that was the main reason disenchanted liberals like Maher would never join the American right a million years from now.” For Murray, the American right is too focused on illiberal issues related to reproductive rights (and other burning social issues) to attract anyone across the aisle.
He also castigates national conservatives for wanting to repudiate the classic American separation of church and state, seeking instead to interweave religion and state in a semi-theocracy, describing the presence of Catholics at the conference as representative of an “encroachment”. This intertwining is both repugnant to liberals and, therefore, allegedly electorally disastrous. Murray is right to say that Americans are less and less religious and less likely to belong to a religious congregation. This is why the assertions of Catholic fundamentalism must be treated with a certain skepticism. However, that’s not the whole story.
The way Murray invoked Deneen’s speech suggested that Murray had listened to a different speech than mine. The lecture I watched saw Deneen focus primarily on issues concerning political economy, covering themes familiar to anyone who has read his book 2018 Why Liberalism Failed or listened to his talks or interviews. Deneen rose up against a bipartisan ruling class, which Michael Lind calls the overclass, which pursues economic policies that atomize and impoverish the multiracial working class for its own benefit, branding as fanatics all who disagree or protest their growing proletarianization. This economic destruction is accompanied by the liquidation of the bonds of social solidarity by socially liberal legislation aimed at placing individual autonomy as the supreme good. This resulted in lonely and economically weakened individuals, cut off from communal sources of belonging and purpose.
Murray mentions none of this in his article. Instead, Deneen, and by extension his compatriots, are labeled as leave it to the beaver the nostalgic ones. And yet, what exactly is so wrong with wanting people to behave appropriately? Why engage in the nostalgia of saying that there were publicly enforced norms and mores that encouraged and enabled the formation of good character, and enabled a functioning society greased with the lubricant of decorum that made life more enjoyable ? Maybe Murray’s next book should be called The strange death of decorumin which the old ways have passed and there is nothing to be done.
The efforts of those like Hazony, Deneen et al. were abstract by David Brooks, writing in the Atlantic last November: “continued to its logical conclusion [means] using state power to break and humiliate big business and push back coastal cultural values. The culture war merges with the economic class war and a new law emerges. Deneen’s speech concerned the pre-liberal history of American society, and those lessons learned for a post-liberal era. For example, in 1778, the Continental Congress recommended that states encourage “true religion and good morals”, considering them “the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness”. There was no American national church, but state structures were steeped in faith, from the school to the 1960s.
Deneen does not propose a return to this exact order; instead, it recognizes the role of the state in enforcing the norms that exist under any form of political and cultural authority. If race is, as Shelby Steele says, a corruption that is only a means of power, then institutional and values neutrality is a fiction that only serves to sail the post-war liberal hegemony, a veil that must be torn for the Law to achieve institutional and cultural hegemony in the service of the common good.
Speaking of the post-war order, the mention of neoconservatives as a rational counterpoint to the malign forces of American popery is interesting. Since Murray author of the 2006 book Neoconservatism and Why We Need It it seems odd that he apparently forgot virtually everything the neoconservatives wrote and said. The whole point of first-generation neoconservatism was to reaffirm the need for publicly enforced standards, achieved through secular instruments of social science and good public policy rather than based primarily on transcendent truths communicated by religious authority and underlying government action.
Murray bemoans the national conservatives’ prudery and obsession with people’s sex lives, conveniently unaware that Kristol wrote the most powerful secular case to ban pornography and that Himmelfarb looked like a modern fundamentalist in it social commentary regarding behavior and conduct in a demoralized society. Meanwhile, as Paul Gottfried notedneoconservative writers and publications of the 20and century as Remark were not exactly in favor of homosexuality. Also, as Deneen mentioned in his speech, Tipper Gore, that arch-liberal, called for censorship of explicit music.
Despite the decline in religious affiliation and attendance, the United States still has a very large socially conservative share among its population. Of course, it is no longer a majority and was not even at the time of the “moral majority”. But it would seem rather odd for the conservative wing of American politics to avoid appealing to this constituency. It also reflects the fact that many ethnic minority communities are more conservative than average. Attracting these voters within the framework of a developing politics based on a multiracial working class requires a more communitarian politics allied to a less liberal, more interventionist, dare I say developmentalist form of economy.
This more socially united and economically interventionist orientation is also much less favorable to foreign intervention as a first resort. Of course, the neoconservatism of Kristol and Jean Kirkpatrick is far from the internationalist consensus that still holds strong in both parties, even if concern is growing among some members of the GOP. Conservative national disapproval of engaging in adventures abroad as America collapses socially, economically and even physically is a sign of conservative empiricism adapting to reality, but bipartisan interventionist dogma is tough to break. Arguments about what role, if any, America should play in Ukraine show the continuing strength of the crowd “invading the world.”
It seems to me that the divide is between a threatened and increasingly redundant right-wing liberalism and a rapidly growing but still young post-liberal national conservatism. Murray’s article neatly encapsulates this ideological conflict, with the myopia displayed by those on the defensive. After all, the solution offered by this side amounts to the same thing that produced the conditions that allowed the national conservatives to strike a chord in the first place.
Given the potential for a more populist conservatism that appeals to those seeking to mend America’s weakened bonds of mutual social and economic loyalty, the right-wing liberalism of Murray and others is the exact opposite of what is needed. and desired. I can not imagine Hispanic Americans to be very favorable to it, for example. The answer to Murray’s question is that trying to draw ideological opposites seems like a dead end: if the tent gets so big in accommodations that it blows away, what good are ideological distinctions? Political tribes must evolve to survive in the political arena, but this indicates embracing populist nationalist themes and moving away from neoliberal republican politics. Proposed right-wing liberalism won’t cut it.
Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, specializing in politics, political philosophy and culture. He has also written for Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman and Intercollegiate Review.