This morning I was thinking back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; back then, in the winter of 2020 and through March 2020, various right-wing personalities and influencers, particularly the “smart right”, the “mainstream conservatives”, and the like, were equivocating about lockdowns and restrictions or even actively cheering them on! More populist and pugilistic characters like Candace Owens, meanwhile, were coming out forcefully against the whole idea of tyrannically altering human life as we knew it:
One day, we will look back and study the impact of the coronavirus. Not the virus itself of course, but the mass global mental breakdown that it inspired. Because people think it’s novel that 80 year olds are dying at a high rate from a flu. This tweet will age well.
That was March 10, 2020, right when lockdown had just begun to spread into the United States. Here’s a link to the original tweet and a screenshot, just in case the link goes dead someday:
What of Conservatism when there’s Nothing left to conserve…
Owens was far from the only example of course, but you can search e.g. James Lindsay’s twitter feed from that period; quite equivocal, his stance was. And yeah yeah, Lindsay might not really count as a conservative, but here’s the really interesting part: Candace Owens might not either. As J.J. McCullough points out in his 2018 article “The Changing Conservative Disposition”, the very word “conservative” is starting to describe an attitude of suspicious revolt against anything in a position of authority, which is especially overt among younger people (like Candace Owens, age 32) who’ve spent more of their lives marinated in this more modern mentality of “the Right”:
In an earlier era, a persistent inclination to assume the worst of America’s leaders and institutions wouldn’t be considered particularly conservative. Nor would an observable antipathy for public policy, economics, patriotism, the Constitution, or faith. Yet through a mix of affinity for the current Republican president’s anti-establishment bona fides and contempt for the Democratic partisans who hold leading positions in American culture, government, technology, and business, an instinct of apolitical recalcitrance is fast becoming how a sizable chunk of tech-savvy Millennials conceptualize what it means to be of “the Right.” […]
At present, there remain enough competing poles and institutions of conservative thought to counter and compete with this uniquely resentful, paranoid, and policy-blind strain. Yet as a generation raised to conceptualize rightist politics as knee-jerk nonconformism begins to assert a larger role in conservative activism, media, and politics — as it is already doing, buoyed or, in some cases, employed by President Trump — it will become an inescapable part of the alliance. Those whose conservatism grows from some other impulse should expect an uncomfortable future.
My prediction is even more pessimistic for conservatism in any meaningful sense of the word than McCullough’s: in my 2021 blog post “The Twilight of Conservatism” I predict conservatism as we knew it will disappear altogether in the near future, with reaction, libertarian populism, and fealty to the Establishment’s new values dividing up the pieces.
Back to the pandemic, it’s also interesting to note that R.R. Reno was also on the side of the individual against the state, as he detailed in his fulminating article at First Things: “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion”. Interesting because clerical fascism wouldn’t be too far off the mark as a description of Reno’s and First Things’s politics; these “post-liberals” spearheading “common good conservatism” are no friends of individual liberty, but it doesn’t seem like their concept of the common good includes lockdown as a response to a virus with a mortality rate under 1%, so on the side of liberty most of them went. A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.
Why wasn’t the Right the Wing for Lockdown?
Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder why the Right coalesced against lockdown. After all, shutting down society for a scary new threat is a conservative staple; they’re the ones who were in hypnotic thrall to the Bush regime’s cry that everything changed after 9/11 so therefore we can’t cross into Canada without a passport anymore or not take our shoes off when we board an airplane and whatever else they spat out in their decade-long blizzard of police-statism. As late as the ebola epidemic of 2014 they were loudly crying that the liberals weren’t taking it seriously enough, and they called for restrictions on travel, harsh quarantines, and so forth to contain the threat.
So pronounced was this right-wing flirtation with disease control as a pillar of their ideology that people like Jonathan Haidt proposed that the entire conservative mentality was driven by a fear of germs. Well, if that were true we’d expect conservatives to be the most fearful of COVID-19, the most supportive of any restriction, the most prone to virtue-signal about how safe they were keeping everybody else. Yet just the opposite happened!
At least in the fullness of time; yet at the beginning of the pandemic we saw conservatives enthusiastically embrace travel bans to control the spread of the disease. As late as the 2020 election Trump and his surrogates were still blathering about how his travel ban on China saved millions of lives, despite the virus already spreading inside the US anyway (so the measure was obviously useless). Also at the beginning of the pandemic we saw liberals loudly virtue-signal about how much they loved Asians, all but ordering their woke legions to go into Chinatowns and mingle with people for the 2020 Chinese New Year. They were profusely worried at how the virus might provoke an outbreak of racism and xenophobia, up to and including violence, against East Asians.
On paper these initial reactions made sense; liberalism and the left are all about equality and the individual doing whatever they want, whereas conservatism and the right are all about preserving established power and privilege against threats to their safety, security, and stability. These initial reactions made sense in a way the world after March 2020 just doesn’t.
Folkways from our Past return
Obviously there’s something else going on, and I suspect it’s deeper folkways coming to the surface. Consider that the heartland of modern liberalism and the left wing in America is Yankeedom, places like New England, which were settled by puritans eager to sacrifice the liberty of the individual for the common good under a benevolent government of experts. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, the heartland of modern conservatism and the right wing in America is Transappalachia, places settled by the Scotch-Irish, contemptuous of the very idea of a common good, jealously guarding the freedom of the individual to do whatever he pleases. Doesn’t that also sound familiar?
Lockdown is reactionary, conservative, authoritarian, and collectivist, all of which makes it naturally very right-wing; opposition to lockdown is visionary, progressive, libertarian, and individualist, all of which makes it naturally very left-wing. The alignment of Transappalachia with the naturally left-wing position and Yankeedom with the fundamentally right-wing position makes perfect sense when one realizes that that was the original political alignment in America!
There’s a reason why Transappalachian places like the upper South were the Democratic Party’s heartland, and places like New England were the Federalist, Whig, and Republican Parties’ heartlands in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it’s not because Republicans jealousy guarding traditional social mores and corporate power and privilege were somehow liberal or Democrats agitating for liberating the workers against big corporations and tearing down anti-individualist traditional strictures were somehow conservative. No, it’s because those people literally were the liberal and conservative bases at the time!
These regions’ and demographics’ superficial ideological presentation might have inverted over the centuries, but the underlying folkways haven’t changed that much. Thus each group’s deep culture exerts a countervailing influence against its ostensible ideology. Where the paper ideology prevails we get things like the initial reactions to COVID-19, but where the underlying folkways prevail we get things like the political landscape today: Yankee “leftists” supporting expert-led (clergy in the 17th century, scientists in the 21st century) authoritarianism in the name of the common good, Transappalachian “rightists” supporting folk libertarianism in the name of the individual’s freedom to do whatever he wants.
This doesn’t explain every country of course, but it might account for why the lockdown debate is so polarized along left=pro and right=anti lines in the United States, more so than most (all?) other countries. Most other countries don’t seem to have a right wing that draws upon naturally individualistic cultures like America’s does.
The more recent, possibly related, phenomenon of conservatism’s twilight as the ideological citadel of the Establishment’s power and privilege in society has accentuated the redefinition of “conservatism” to reflexive opposition to authority, especially “elites”, which is where characters like Candace Owens come from. This too is a much more advanced process in the United States than it is elsewhere, even if the rise of separate right-wing populist parties make the phenomenon much more obvious in Europe. Helping to obscure it even further is how the GOP has always (at least since the 1930s) been a tick or two more populist than the average western European center-right party, hence US Republicans’ reputation as being so much crazily further to the right even though their actual policy substance isn’t that different.
Both of these phenomena, the twilight of conservatism worldwide and conservatives in America drawing upon a naturally individualistic voter base, mean individual freedom perennially has an excellent chance to break through and become Republican policy for, to all outward appearances, no rhyme or reason. This might especially be true in times of great stress, where policy is a question not of virtue signaling but rather what the barest rudiments of everyday life are going to be.
Post-9/11 police-statism and the ongoing bordermania (like their rabid support of e-Verify (see also voter ID), which affects everyday life) militate against this, hence my qualifier of “might”, but we’ve never really had an attempt to rewrite the rules of society nearly as extensively as the ruling class have with the COVID-19 pandemic, so who knows for sure?
A Breakthrough Case of Freedom
In any case it seems the breakthrough of folk libertarianism from the Republican base that was spearheaded by their most populist leaders has provided a vast refuge in the red states for people like me who despise lockdowns and never want to see another face in a surgical mask again. A refuge that in some sense I don’t even want! I like artsy and cosmopolitan atmospheres, which (no offense intended) is not a description of heavily-Republican rural areas in red states, which have been the heartland of normalcy for the whole pandemic post-spring-2020.
Though Red America might yet have a trick up its sleeve for people like me: Las Vegas. Both the city and the state it’s in, Nevada, have an exceptionally low number of people with college degrees for such an artsy and cosmopolitan place, which in this environment (where education polarization rules all, even swinging minorities and immigrants rightward!) should make it heavily Republican over time, the crown jewel of Red America. Miami has the Cuban factor driving it to the right, not to mention, like Las Vegas, a paucity of college-educated Anglo professional types; so there may be two truly world-class “red” cities in the near future.
Two more than there are now; indeed, if the GOP becomes a multiracial working-class party they’ll be doing much better in urban areas and inner cities in general than they do now, but this will come at the cost of losing their affluent white suburban strongholds. In this future places like the Bronx are deep red (!) but places like Williamson County, Tennessee and Montgomery County, Texas are deep blue.
Toward the Political Apocalypse
Will this be the future? I don’t know, but it certainly correlates with the Republicans and “the Right” in general abandoning conservatism altogether. After all, why should a party of workers and immigrants even pretend to be conservative when that means nothing anymore and in any case libertarian populism would do much better to weld the pieces of the coalition together?
The way the future coalitions are shaping up, any form of “common good conservatism” would be an even more awkward fit for the Republican coalition than it is now. Post-liberalism is puritanical to the core, and finds its natural constituency not among the working-class Scotch-Irish of the backcountry but rather among the middle-class Yankees of New England, a group that since the 20th century has been more interested in pretending to be liberals than embracing any kind of conservative rhetoric.
If they end up opposed by a populist movement assuming the mantle of radical liberalism and individualism, though, Yankeedom might snap back to overt right-wing collectivism, especially if, as Frank Furedi predicts, the political battlefield of the future is the moral desirability of individual liberty as such in explicit terms, rather than being the dark matter of partisan politics like it has been.
Indeed, the categories of liberal and conservative, left and right, as we know them might break down altogether, even as society becomes ever more polarized and fragmented over the years. We have already passed the event horizon: for the political landscape to make sense again to most people, for most people to wage the political battle they ache to fight, all the categories, labels, and coalitions as we know them will have to be swept aside and made new again in some kind of political apocalypse. The dam must break; it will break. Someway, somehow, it will break. The reaction to COVID-19 has drawn this moment nearer, and I for one look forward to seeing it unfold.