Let It Go

Barring some new evidence that the Omicron variant is more dangerous, justifications for social control are over.

Dear Reader (Especially the DCCC’s social media team, which for a brief moment managed to unite the warring factions of Twitter in joyful mockery),

I’m just gonna throw it out there: If I had to guess—and it’s just a guess—Omicron is good news. The panic and the economic tumult caused by the panic isn’t good news. But I’m betting that weird new spiky dude probably is.

Let’s say—as we so often do these days—you’re a maverick scientist with a god complex who plays by his own rules. You’re not interested in making death rays or finding a new place to put cheese on a pizza,  but you do want to help humanity by getting rid of COVID as quickly as possible. Maybe you’d make a vaccine you could slip into the water supply. Or maybe you’d make an aerosol version and release an army of drones to spray it over population centers. Or maybe, just maybe, you’d genetically engineer the coronavirus itself to be super contagious but also much, much more harmless; virtually no deaths and very few hospitalizations, just some sniffles and maybe a head cold. Gain of function for contagiousness, loss of function for killing people.

Now, this would obviously be super unethical, with lots of opportunities for you to say, a la Ron Burgundy in the bear pit, “I immediately regret this decision.” Pretty much any science fiction story with a premise remotely like this ends with the world plunged into a new ice age and the last scraps of humanity living out a kind of Marxist Hieronymus Bosch nightmare on a stratified-by-class super train or, more likely in this case, with the well-intentioned scientist screaming as the COVID zombies eat his face. So, I implore you not to try this at home.

But the point remains: COVID-19 is here. It’s not going anywhere. For quite a while now, the hope for the long-term has been for the virus to evolve into something relatively harmless, like the cold, or at least relatively manageable, like the flu. As of now, Omicron looks a lot like that.. Omicron might be—we’re still not totally sure—more contagious than the Delta variant, but also less harmful.

In an excellent recent edition of the Morning Dispatch, Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California-San Francisco, suggested this might—just might—be the case:

Gandhi sees a historical parallel. “It’s really hard for a variant to become more transmissible and more virulent,” she said. “For it to be more mild, that would be an amazing hope, because in a way, that’s how the 1918 influenza pandemic ended. It just became more mild and burned out.”

Obviously, I hope I’m right about this. And just as obviously, I might not be. But you know what? The evidence that has emerged over the last week or so since Omicron burst into the headlines is more supportive of my theory than the idea that Omicron is a disaster requiring consideration of more lockdowns, travel bans, mask and vax mandates, emergency declarations, and other forms of panic.

In other words, the immediate response from media outlets, stock markets, and government officials was more disconnected from reality than my hopeful scenario.

Now, I get it. Governments and markets often respond more immediately and impulsively to risks and threats than to potential good news. And you know what? The same is true of the human brain. The prehistoric dude who assumed every rustle of the bushes was a saber-toothed tiger ready to pounce might have been overly paranoid, but he was more likely to live long enough to pass on his paranoid genes than the always upbeat caveman who assumed every rustle was fresh evidence that the gods had just gifted him a puppy. If every day he shouted, “Where’s my puppy!?” and leapt toward the sound in the bushes, he’d eventually encounter a tiger, or a bear, or a snake, or a jerk with a spear.

Similarly, the government that responds to every possible threat—troop movements, pandemics, shoddy nuclear power plant design, terrorist fatwah, whatever—with Christmas pony optimism is going to run into trouble.

My only point here is that this thing has gone on long enough that a certain kind of elite panic has set in to the point where it has become institutionalized. Very broadly speaking, the people who didn’t take the pandemic seriously enough were in the wrong a year and a half ago. And just as broadly speaking, the people who can’t conceive of loosening their grip are in the wrong now.

Habit formation.

Cultures are formed by what Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart.” It’s a concept that I wish had more currency in current ideological debates. Ideas matter - a lot. But most people don’t get out of bed, get married, stay married, help their friends, work hard, or refuse to work at all because of abstract ideas. They do so because people are embedded in a specific culture, a rich cobweb of personal, familial, and communal expectations, instincts, and, well, habits written into their hearts.

I’m not going to go further down that rabbit hole right now. I merely bring it up because while macro-cultures are very hard to change, micro-cultures are a different story. They’re also hard to manufacture along predictable lines (despite what thousands of management and leadership books claim) but they are much more malleable. A bad apple can ruin the office culture for everyone. One jerk on the basketball team can make everyone miserable.

Various elites have their own cultures. For instance, for years, a significant slice of the conservative elite was stuck on a bunch of assumptions about politics and policy that were formed during the Reagan era. And while I think a lot of what is said about “zombie Reaganism” is wrong, that doesn’t mean such a thing doesn’t exist.

My point is that these factional subcultures often have a lag time. I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s podcast on the Russian Revolution(s), and it’s amazing how the court of Nicholas II held onto a set of assumptions about the facts on the ground that became wholly untethered from the rapidly changing reality on the ground. “The Russian people will rally to their czar!” Nicholas essentially said long after the Russian people were done with him. (I think this kind of elite disconnect dynamic is central to pretty much every successful revolution.)

Contrary to a lot of idiotic rhetoric out there, America is not in a pre-revolutionary mood, even if there are many who feel like a little revolting is in order. But I do think progressive elites and Democratic politicians have found themselves in a subcultural cul de sac. 

A lot of Democratic politicians live in a bubble. Reinforced by a friendly media that lives in the same milieu, they’ve concluded that the response to every new COVID development is to take action, to declare states of emergency as the governor of New York did in response to Omicron, to hold onto mask requirements, etc. This despite the fact the reality below them has moved on.

The way the left responded to the sudden arrival of COVID, particularly amid its already well-established freakout over Trump reminds me a little bit of progressives in the lead-up to World War I. They were already chomping at the bit to be social engineers and economic planners before the war broke out. Randolph Bourne noticed the “peculiar congeniality between the war and these men.” He added, “It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.”

Now, I’m on the record having defended a lot of the early responses to the pandemic—not because I think, or thought, they were all correct in every regard. But at the outset of a pandemic, laissez-faire-ness is not the right response. When you see the Chinese army welding people into their apartment buildings, American government officials shouldn’t say, “We should do that too,” but nor should they say, “There’s nothing to worry about here.”

Still, it feels like there was a peculiar geniality between a lot of technocratic liberals and the pandemic. And whatever the justifications for their gusto for social control might have been, I think those justifications have exceeded their shelf-life. Barring some new evidence—evidence not on display in the Omicron breakout—it’s time to let go.

The same goes for the Republicans who can’t give up on their strange obsessions with the plight of the unvaccinated. A bunch of Republicans tried to force a repeal of Biden’s vaccine mandates—some of which I opposed, too—in the recent fight over the debt ceiling. Now, I think all government shutdown fights are stupid. My indictment of these theatrics is total and bipartisan. I blame everybody involved, because even if you’re on the right side of an argument now, you—and certainly your party—were probably on the wrong side of the last one, or the one before that.

But as John Podhoretz recently noted on his niche podcast, the argument over vaccinations is amazingly disconnected with the reality on the ground. More than eight in 10 Americans (83 percent) over the age of 18 have received at least one vaccine dose, and 81 percent of the population over 12 years old has. The CDC even claims that 99 percent of people over 65 have. (I’m a bit skeptical, but if that number is true, that means for huge swaths of cable and talk radio audiences—like early bird customers at Denny’s, they skew old—this whole debate is fairly moot for them personally.) 

So what the hell is everyone arguing about? The 17 percent of the population that has received no doses may be disproportionately Republican, but plenty aren’t the MAGA hat wearing anti-vaxxers whom some Democrats are determined to demonize and some Republicans are determined to defend as civil rights martyrs. And remember, a significant portion of people who refuse to get vaccinated aren’t reluctant because they think the vaccine will make you magnetic or because it’s a deep state conspiracy of some kind. They reasonably—albeit incorrectly in my opinion—don’t want to get it because they already had COVID and thus think they don’t need it, or because they’re young and healthy and don’t think it’s worth the hassle.

In other words, this whole “debate” is shadow boxing among a bunch of elites who can’t let go of the argument even though reality has moved on. It’s like a bunch of Hungarians, Serbians, Austrians, and Italians arguing over who should control Trieste.

Indeed, most of the politicians and pundits getting worked up about the authoritarianism of vaccine requirements are vaccinated. If they say they aren’t vaccinated, I’m inclined to believe them. But if they refuse to say because that’s a “private decision,” I generally assume it’s because they’re afraid to admit they are vaccinated (It’s sort of like the old rule that if you meet someone who says they’re “European,” it means they’re German). And many of the politicians and pundits who insist on more mask mandates and bans on large gatherings are even worse because they don’t follow the policies they want to impose on others. 

At this point, if you don’t want to get vaccinated, I think you’re wrong. But I also really just don’t care. Similarly, if you really, really think everyone should wear a mask or that things can’t go back to normal unless everyone is vaccinated, I just don’t care (so long as you’re not a policymaker). If you want to stay home, stay home. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, don’t get vaccinated. You can deal with the consequences yourself. Don’t drag me into it. And please, until there are new facts worthy of freaking out over in either direction, just shut up about it already.

Canine update: A lot has happened since the last canine update. The dingo and spaniel have marked vast swaths of territory. They chased rabbits in Ohio and rats in Iowa. They played in snow in the Cascades and did some predawn urban exploring in Spokane. They gamboled throughout the heartland, took to being prairie dogs, and monitored the Columbia River for pirates. And everywhere they went, they relied on the kindness of strangers

At my hotel in Sturgis, the lady at the reception desk offered Pippa a biscuit, which she politely refused, opting to wrap herself around the lady’s feet and asking for a belly rub instead. I think they really liked Montana best, though it’s hard to say because they really, really love it here in the San Juan Islands, even on rainy days. When I took them to the beach for the first time, I felt like Morgan Freeman should be narrating the whole thing like at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. There’s tall grass for the dingo to hunt in and there are more sticks than any dog could use in a lifetime. 

Speaking of Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, one unexpected concern is that they really got used to being in the car. One might even say, in Freeman’s voice, that they became “institutionalized.” When in doubt, they were happy to return to the car. For the first few days, every time I took them for a patrol around the perimeter, they asked to get back in the car instead of going back into the house. I could even leave the car door open and they’d just stay in the car. It’s worn off a bit. But as we’re getting back on the road soon, I worry the tendency will return. The upside is that I feel much less guilty leaving them in the car when I have to go to the store or eat at a restaurant. Other than that, I think these have been some of the happiest days of their pretty happy doggie lives.

ICYMI

Everyone around me is a total stranger

A man for all ‘isms

The road to serfdom is paved with B.S. 

Breaking bread with Bahnsen

Chris Stirewalt and I recount how we’ve wasted our lives

Build Back Better’s hypocritical tax cut

The Dispatch Podcast on the future of Roe v. Wade

Wednesday’s weird G-File of weirdness

Thursday’s solo Remnant, the worst episode ever produced?

And now, the weird stuff

Love’s a loaded gun

Roll with it

Best headline ever

What a croc

Italian ingenuity

Hi, Dr. Nick!

I Think We’re Turning Japanese … I Really Think So

Thoughts on social breakdown and how technology lets people isolate themselves.

Dear Reader (Including you truly blessed souls who’ve dreamed of listening to Kevin McCarthy for eight straight hours. Congrats on your cowbell moment!), 

Okay, strap in, because we’re going for a ride. Well, you, dear reader, are figuratively going for a ride—I’m literally going for a ride. I’m filing this from a rest stop off I-70 in Somerset, Pennsylvania, en route to Washington state.

Yuval Levin wrote a brilliant piece for The Dispatch earlier this week. Two of our AEI colleagues, Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox, issued a fascinating report on fertility and family formation identifying the centrifugal forces dividing America. It’s worth reading.

“But,” Yuval writes, “I was most struck by something else about the portrait they paint. The report embodies a significant change in how we think about the basic character of social breakdown in America, and what we take to be the obstacles to human flourishing in our time.”

“Not long ago,” he continues, “it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power.”  

I don’t want to cut and paste the whole piece here, so I’ll summarize. When conservatives used to talk about social breakdown, we pointed at things like crime, sexual promiscuity—both heterosexual and homosexual—drug use and the violence it produces, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, etc. When progressives used to talk about social breakdown—not their preferred term—they pointed to greed, capitalism run amok, and a lack of social welfare policies that provided “security.”

Obviously, we still talk about such things, because these are still problems and always will be when dealing with human beings. But something is different. As the report documents, divorce rates are down because marriage rates are down. Fewer people get married and the ones that do are more committed to it, so fewer people get divorced. Out-of-wedlock births and abortion are down in part because fewer people are having sex. Drug use is a real problem, but the overall rate of drug use has been trending down and the kinds of drugs people use have shifted from stimulants like cocaine and meth to opiates like heroin and its prescription substitutes.

Say what you will about cocaine, it’s a social drug for people on the go. Heroin is like a pharmacological beanbag chair that lets you check out from the hassles of life.

I’m reminded of Susan McWilliams’ observation that 2006 marked a terrible turn in American civic life. That was the year when Americans started drinking bottled water more than beer. “Why is this important?” she asked. “It’s important because beer is a socially oriented beverage, and bottled water is a privately oriented one.” Beer commercials have happy fun people doing stuff together. Bottled water commercials, meanwhile, “tend to include lone individuals climbing things and running around by themselves, usually on a beach at sunrise—even though they are not being chased.”

In the famous (or infamous) Moynihan Report, Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified the problems that came with rapid urbanization: “It was this abrupt transition that produced the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Northeast. Drunkenness, crime, corruption, discrimination, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency were the routine of that era.” The rapid urbanization of American blacks, Moynihan argued, was a replay of the same problems.

Yesterday’s dysfunction was a byproduct of too much bad dynamism. Today’s dysfunction is a byproduct of too much bad lethargy. Technology is obviously part of the explanation. Yuval writes:

Particularly for Americans who live in cities, the internet has also come to mediate different parts of our real-world experience (from dating to calling a taxi to getting food at a restaurant) in ways that have let more people live as functional loners, meeting their needs with a minimum of eye contact or interpersonal risk. And countless younger Americans dissipate their erotic energies in similar seemingly riskless substitutes for human contact, particularly video games and pornography—the latter of which has grown into a hideous, colossal scourge that our society has inexplicably decided to pretend it can do nothing about.

Yuval doesn’t use the word “entropy” (or Ross Douthat’s “decadence”) but that’s what he’s talking about.

Japansclerosis.

Which brings me to Japan. About a decade ago, people started noticing that something was amiss in the Land of the Rising Sun. People weren’t having sex, at least not a lot of it. A 2013 survey by the Japan Family Planning Association found that 45 percent of women aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.”  More than 1 in 4 men felt the same way. Terms like “hikikomori”—shut-ins or hermits—and “parasito shingurus”—“parasite singles,” adults who are still living with their parents into their mid-30s—became popular buzzwords. “Otakus”—geeks—cared more about playing esports than playing the field at bars. Soshoku danshi—“herbivore men” or “grass eater men”—are passive, unassertive men who have lost any interest in marriage or “manliness” as traditionally understood.

A lot has been written about all of this, and many of the factors Yuval identifies are often part of the diagnosis.

I’ve been to Japan only once. It was in the mid-1990s and the internet really wasn’t a big thing yet. But man, porn was. I was amazed by the depravity and ubiquity of it. And I was—I swear—only going by the cover art on DVDs and the stuff in comic books (though Rapeman was no longer on the shelves when I got there). What really amazed me—beyond the grotesque images of nurses hung on meat hooks and pedophilic school girl scenes—was that these things were on display right next to the sections with Disney movies and the like. It reminded me of Bart Simpson scolding his sister, Lisa, for covering her eyes during a bloody scene in a movie: “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it.” 

One major theory has to do with the structure of Japan’s economy and its work culture generally. The emphasis on careerism and working your way up the system leaves little room or energy for family formation. Other theories cover the waterfront, from the vacuum left by the abandonment of militarism, to the culture shock of feminism, to hypofrontality caused by large scale porn addiction. I have no idea how to weigh the different variables. Porn probably plays a big role for some people and not for others. Ditto video games, the internet, political economy, etc.

Cultural norms are weird.

An idea or custom can emerge for specific reasons and then catch on and grow because others emulate it. Once a critical mass is reached, the thing that originally caused it becomes incidental. Suggestibility and social contagion are real things and not just for yawning and laughing. Consider, for instance, the recent weird rise in Tourette’s syndrome—or Tourette’s-like behavior. Some people have Tourette’s for physiological reasons beyond their control. Others, apparently, consciously or unconsciously mimic it when exposed to it through TikTok videos. In 1374, Europe saw sudden outbreaks of uncontrolled dancing. It wasn’t an early version of Footloose, but a bizarre contagious act of mimicry remembered as St. Vitus’ Dance. No one knows what sparked it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it started with a few people who actually had Sydenham chorea (colloquially known as St. Vitus’ Dance, named after the weird event). Personally, I think the sudden onset of transgenderism in teenagers can be at least partially explained by this kind of thing.

Velocity of life.

But let’s move on to inflation. My friend David Bahnsen, after many attempts, has finally persuaded me that the thing to really worry about is deflation, not inflation (our podcast conversation about this will come out next week). I’m not going to get in the weeds—this is a math-free zone—but the basic problem is that there are trillions of dollars sitting in bank accounts like so many Otakus playing video games in their parents’ basements. Our current bout of inflation is mostly a supply-side problem driven by supply chain snags. As with all inflationary periods, too much money is chasing too few goods (and services). But unlike the 1970s, the problem today isn’t the “too much money” part; it’s the “too few goods” part. That may sound strange given that since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the Fed has pumped trillions of dollars—at least on paper—into the economy.

But here’s the thing: The word people don’t focus on enough in Uncle Milton’s famous dictum about too much money chasing too few goods is “chase.” The velocity of money—how often a unit of currency changes hands and circulates around the economy—is the key here. There’s so much money sitting in banks because lenders can’t find good and productive ways to invest it. In effect, it doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of money out there if it’s not chasing anything. This is why David worries that the real danger is that we will become like Japan, which has been “printing money” for 30 years and its economy has been stagnant that whole time.

As with declining fertility, I’m sure the internet is part of the problem. The internet (and automation generally) is incredibly good at cutting out middlemen. Why go to the store in your car and pay for stuff when you can have it delivered to your house? Why go to the movies when you can “Netflix and chill”? Why deal with the social awkwardness—fueled by how we raise kids to be fragile—of dating when you can watch porn?

You see what I’m getting at? David is worried about the velocity of money, Yuval is worried about the velocity of people. The pandemic magnified both problems in very similar ways. This is why I sincerely believe that part—but not all—of the answer to both problems is real, robust, and sustained economic growth. Economic growth fuels both the velocity of money and the velocity of people. It creates avenues for real life satisfaction through a sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from honest work and improving the lives of those you care about.

Nationalism and the last man.

Which brings me to nationalism. The other day, I reluctantly wrote a very long piece (now available to everybody) criticizing my friend Christopher DeMuth’s embrace of “national conservatism.” One point I didn’t address was DeMuth’s strange embrace of bombastic or “excessive” politics.

Demuth believes that the proper response to left-wing radicalism is to lean into nationalistic, populist fury, though he puts it more soberly: “National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.” To me, this is a polite way of saying the right should give into the dark side. Let the rage and anger flow, because persuasion and reformist approaches are no longer adequate to the task.

The reference to Burke’s (justified) opposition to the French Revolution is telling. Burke was writing about dismaying affairs in another country. For many nationalists, the “blue” parts of the country are simply enemy territory, which is why so many nationalist demagogues and buffoons (though obviously not DeMuth) give rhetorical oxygen to the idea of secession. But blue America is America too. Indeed, some of the best places in America are governed by Democrats. I’m happy to argue that they vote wrong. But I reject the idea that they aren’t my fellow countrymen. I think it’s better to engage in the pre-French Revolutionary Burkeanism of persuading voters to vote better than to pay lip-service to the idea that they’re not really Americans at all.

When I wrote Liberal Fascism, I insisted that there was simply no appetite for the “traditional” militaristic fascism we saw in mid-century Europe. The American right was too wedded to classical liberal dogma to tolerate such stuff, at least for long (though we came close under Woodrow Wilson, whose “ardent nationalism” Chris admires). The real danger wasn’t Orwell’s 1984 but Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people grew soft from soma use and prepackaged joy delivered to their doorstep. The only way real fascism could arrive is if we so drained life of meaning and the quotidian glories of earned success that a new generation would find itself attracted to manufactured political or ideological sources of meaning and glory.

Raise enough “men without chests,” in C.S. Lewis’ famous phrase, and one day a man on a white horse will seem like a thrilling way to find meaning deprived to them by the lack of velocity in their lives.  

The most famous passage of Lewis’ lament is depressingly apt for our current moment:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to

clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open

a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs

is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly

simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without

chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are

shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

The attraction of nationalism, like identity politics and many political “movements,” is that it allows people to buy meaning on the cheap. Unable to chart a path for your individual pursuit of happiness, you hitch your wagon to a great cause that, via the transitive properties of tribalism and identitarianism, gives you a poor substitute for individually earned success. When starved for food, you’ll eat whatever is on offer. When starved for meaning, you’ll sign up for whatever you can find. But nationalist or socialist victory won’t make you any less lonely when you leave the crowd or the mob. Only those little platoons of friends, family, faith, and the freedom to pursue happiness as you see it can provide those things.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls were very, very excited to see the materfamilias arrive last night and had no idea what was in store for them this morning. And now I think they believe this is how their life will be for the rest of time. Anyway, I really do have to get back on the road. But expect cross country canine updates later.

ICYMI

Last Friday’s G-File

Feeling ambivalent?

Ridley me this

What inflation and CRT have in common

Curb your inflation with The Dispatch Podcast

A regrettable midweek “news”letter, released to the masses

The week’s second Remnant with gold jacket wearer Will Saletan

And now, the weird stuff

Punk rock

Divine providence 

High times

Fearless

Special delivery

Democracy manifest

Mugged by Fallacy

The national conservatism movement is drenched in nostalgia for a past that never was.

This isn’t really a column I want to write.

I admire Christopher DeMuth deeply. He is, without qualification, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve spent my whole career surrounded by very smart people. He was the president of the American Enterprise Institute when I first started working there as a larval policy gnome in the 1990s. He often knew more about various policy issues than the specialists studying them. He’s charming, friendly, and again, quite brilliant.

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that smart people can be wrong. And it’s because I respect him so much that I think it’s worth engaging him at some (possibly unforgivable) length. If “national conservatism” is going to succeed, it will be because people like DeMuth put their well-deserved reputations behind it.

Last week, he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed based on his remarks to the National Conservatism Conference—which he chaired.

It’s a very strange piece, one that has caused a lot of head scratching among friends and admirers.

Read in a friendly light, it makes national conservatism seem fairly anodyne. As Matt Continetti notes in a letter to the editor:

Christopher DeMuth’s “Why America Needs National Conservatism” (op-ed, Nov. 13) was so fascinating I read it twice—and the second time I conducted an experiment. I removed the adjective “national” whenever it modified “conservatism” and found that it didn’t make much of a difference to his case.

You should definitely read the whole letter. I think Matt nails the generous, albeit skeptical, interpretation of DeMuth’s essay.

I, regrettably, want to shine a less forgiving light on it.

“Natcons are conservatives who have been mugged by reality,” Demuth writes in a nod to Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative. He goes on:

When the American left was liberal and reformist, conservatives played our customary role as moderators of change. We too breathed the air of liberalism, and there are always things that could stand a little reforming. We could be Burkeans—with an emphasis on incremental improvement, continuity with the past, avoiding unintended consequences, and working within a budget.

But now the American left is so radical that the Burkean “conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive.” The new progressive enemy we face cannot be reasoned with because “compromise is antithetical to their goals and methods.”

“National conservatism”—which we never get a good definition of—is the answer because progressives are anti-nationalist. He asks, “Why national conservatism?” and then answers the question thus:

Have you noticed that almost every progressive initiative subverts the American nation? Explicitly so in opening national borders, disabling immigration controls, and transferring sovereignty to international bureaucracies. But it also works from within—elevating group identity above citizenship; fomenting racial, ethnic and religious divisions; disparaging common culture and the common man; throwing away energy independence; defaming our national history as a story of unmitigated injustice; hobbling our national future with gargantuan debts that will constrain our capacity for action.

The left’s anti-nationalism is another sharp break with the past. Democratic presidents of previous eras—including the original progressive, Woodrow Wilson —were ardent nationalists.

As you might guess, this is where I heard the record scratch. But we’ll get to Woodrow Wilson in a moment.

First, to Matt’s point, there is literally nothing in this “national conservative” indictment of the left that is at all new or distinct. I could find you dozens of examples of AEI scholars from the DeMuth years—or decades earlier—who made these arguments. There are probably 10 National Review articles, per decade if not per year, on each of these topics. Even the idea that the concept of the American nation is central to the conservative project is nothing new. (Heck, I was railing against progressive cosmopolitanism in the pages of NR almost 20 years ago.) 

Our mutual hero, Irving Kristol, often made the point that nationalism could and should be husbanded to the conservative project (or vice versa): “The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth.” It was also central to his understanding of neoconservatism: “Neoconservatism is not merely patriotic—that goes without saying—but also nationalist. Patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness.”

I have my conceptual and terminological quibbles here, but suffice it to say any definition of nationalism that Irving Kristol could embrace, I probably could too (and the same might go for DeMuth’s if I understood it better). But that raises plenty of questions about DeMuth’s thesis. What does he mean by national conservatism? Why and how is it new? It remains a mystery.  

His first example of how Biden isn’t a nationalist is odd. He writes that “in 2021 President Biden gazed on his countrymen’s epic invention of COVID vaccines and concluded that he should help the World Health Organization seize their patents.” But this is a conservative complaint, not a nationalist one. A nationalist president could conclude that throwing “greedy” American corporations under the bus in order to paint America as the savior of the world is in the national interest. The conservative argument against this is the traditional one of property rights, moral hazard, and the glories of the free market.

The nationalism comes out when DeMuth talks about Big Tech, making the case for unspecified regulation. He doesn’t explicitly embrace industrial policy and protectionism, but there are several passages that advocates of such an approach would reasonably assume are supportive of just that. “Private enterprise is the source of cornucopian blessings, but it needs boundaries and discipline,” DeMuth writes. This is true, but it’s not new.

The left were what now?

Which brings me to DeMuth’s larger story.

I should note that DeMuth’s argument about the voraciousness of the Democrats stumbles on the fact that the Democrats elected the most moderate candidate available. And while Biden’s moderation has not lived up to the hype, the fact that Biden is so unpopular stems in no small part from his failure to stand up to the left. Republicans are poised to punish Democrats with perhaps historical severity, suggesting that the stakes are not so steep nor the situation so dire as DeMuth suggests.

But put that aside. DeMuth’s argument suffers fatally from recency bias. I understand the desire to argue that today’s left is worse than ever, and in some cases I’m happy to concede the point (I did write several books on such stuff). But DeMuth needs to make the case that progressive radicalism is not just a difference of degree, but a difference in kind. This categorical transformation of the left is required to justify a categorical transformation of the right. This is why he buys into the “Flight 93” and “American carnage” talk. What was once a justification for Trump becomes a justification of Trumpist nationalism without Trump.

In order to make this plausible, he slaps a gauzy nostalgia on, of all people, Woodrow Wilson, because Wilson was, DeMuth writes approvingly, an “ardent nationalist.”

Wilson was indeed a nationalist of sorts. But his nationalism was firmly rooted in his belief that America should emulate European countries, specifically Bismarck’s Prussia. He was a champion of the administrative state DeMuth decries. He was also a terrible person. 

It’s worth recalling Wilson lamented that the wrong side won the Civil War. He admired Lincoln’s means—wartime autocracy—while lamenting his ends: ending slavery. Wilson also fomented ethnic divisions—see his denunciations of “hyphenated Americans”—and reimposed Jim Crow in the federal government and the District of Columbia. He threw dissidents into prison, unleashed paramilitary goons on protestors, censored the press, and created the first modern propaganda ministry of the 20th century. Even as an educator, Wilson was a radical who believed the purpose of a “university should be to make a son as unlike his father as possible”—something the woke progressives the NatCons are at war with could get behind.

One might think that the specific policies of Wilson’s “ardent nationalism” might cause DeMuth to have second thoughts about embracing nationalism at all rather than seeing it as Wilson’s saving grace.

The progressives of Wilson’s era were also quite radical. “We must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement,” insisted activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, “and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many.” Herbert Croly, the intellectual godfather of progressive nationalism, was a eugenicist, with seething contempt for checks on nationalist fervor. He wanted a president who was a “national reformer … in the guise of St. Michael, armed with a flaming sword and winged for flight,” to heal decadent America from above. He also believed that the ideal of “blind justice”—i.e. the rule of law and the idea of equality before the law—needed to give way to a more modern faith. He celebrated that the “idea of individual justice is being supplemented by the idea of social justice.” He wanted the old symbol of Lady Justice, with her balancing scales and blindfold, to be replaced by something more modern:

Instead of having her eyes blindfolded, she would wear perched upon her nose a most searching and forbidding pair of spectacles, one which combined the vision of a mi- croscope, a telescope, and a photographic camera. Instead of holding scales in her hand, she might perhaps be figured as possessing a much more homely and serviceable set of tools. She would have a hoe with which to cultivate the social garden, a watering-pot with which to refresh it, a barometer with which to measure the pressure of the social air, and the indispensable type- writer and filing cabinet with which to record the behavior of society. . . . [H]aving within her the heart of a mother and the passion for taking sides, she has disliked the inhuman and mechanical task of holding a balance between verbal weights and measures.

I could go on about FDR—another ardent nationalist admired by many NatCons these days—who scaled up Wilson’s administrative state.

But let’s move on to the era that gave birth to the supposedly purely “reformist” conservatism that has outlived its usefulness. Historian George Nash begins that story with the “Revolt of Libertarians” and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. A short while later, William F. Buckley launched National Review (not Transnational Review, I should note) with a declaration about “standing athwart History, yelling ‘Stop.’” It rallied around Barry Goldwater, who offered a “choice, not an echo” and spoke of “rollback, not containment” in international affairs. Shortly before the launch of National Review, Buckley was enticed by McCarthyism and the widespread conservative belief—sometimes warranted—that parts of the left were dedicated to an even more fundamental destruction of American institutions than that contemplated by woke activists today. His friend, Whitaker Chambers, famously believed his move to the right was a move to the losing side.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the neoconservatives joined the ranks of the right, disgusted by the anti-Americanism of the New Left. These were the days when the militant left wasn’t dedicated merely to blowing up binary gender categories with tweeted “truth bombs,” but to blowing up buildings, and occasionally people, with real bombs. During the summer of 1970 alone, there were 20 bombings a week in California. “It’s a wonderful feeling to hit a pig,” Mark Rudd of the Weather Underground mused. “It must be a really wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building.” Jane Fonda held “F*** the Army” rallies and in 1972 let herself be used by the enemy as a propaganda tool, even posing behind the trigger of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. The Black Panthers—lionized even by many liberals—made Black Lives Matter seem like a debating society. And as bad as the BLM and Antifa riots of 2020 were—and they were very bad—they pale in comparison to many riots in our past.

The primary point of this detour down memory lane is to illustrate that DeMuth’s version of American history is drenched in nostalgia for a past that never was. But it’s also to note that it colors his view of the present. By his own account, national conservatism is required to deal with a wholly new threat that traditional American conservatism is not equipped to deal with.

This not only leads him to rehabilitate the left of the past, it requires denigrating or minimizing the success of the right. His tale of conservatives being little more than speed bumps and reformist brakes on progressive excess mirrors Sam Tanenhaus’ version of conservative history. But that’s not how conservatives themselves saw it. Indeed, DeMuth himself was a vital warrior in what he himself called the “Reagan Revolution,” not the Reagan Piecemeal Reform Movement.

Demuth ends by noting that “the originalist in me notes that the president is not only CEO of the executive bureaucracies but also, and primarily, head of state, responsible for the nation’s success and all of its citizens’ welfare.” Reading in a favorable light, this is defensible enough. But one of the things I learned from DeMuth himself is that the economy is too complex, America too diverse—both in the modern sense but also in the Madisonian sense—to be managed by any president or by Washington itself. Our most nationalist presidents—Wilson, the Roosevelts, even LBJ—rejected this view, and understandably so. There is no limiting principle within generic nationalism. Turning presidents into nationalist tribunes of “the people” responsible for all of the nation’s successes and the peoples’ welfare, by its own logic means denigrating restraints on his power. I don’t want a St. Michael in the White House with an R or D after his name.

When Irving Kristol said neoconservatives were liberals mugged by reality, he had in mind the realization that the unconstrained vision of progressivism led to folly. The laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reform, and what Friedrich Hayek called “the knowledge problem” were too powerful to overcome (at least predictably and reliably) with even the most well-intentioned planning from above. This is why he considered the American Revolution a “successful revolution”—because it took human nature into account.  

DeMuth makes it sound like conservatives embraced market-based policies only because the left wasn’t all that bad. But that’s not how it worked. They embraced market-based policies partly out of principled conviction, but also because they thought the left’s approach, based in technocratic arrogance and the blunt use of political force, was both wrong and dangerous (particularly in the context of the Cold War). In short, they were realists. DeMuth’s “mugging” inverts Kristol’s. The “NatCon” realists are now mugged by nationalism, and fantasies of total and permanent victories for the “highest good” defined entirely on their terms. They forget that Hayek’s warnings against planning were universal in application. Conservative planners don’t skirt the knowledge problem because their intentions are “better.”

Maybe the left is worse than ever in some ways, but I think in other ways it’s almost certainly not. Things are complicated. But what is obvious to me is that the threat to the country is not lessened when conservatives think the answer to that threat is to emulate progressive tactics and categories of thought. To his credit, DeMuth doesn’t embrace some of the more sectarian and identitarian ideas swirling around national conservatism, but he ignores the fact that the nationalist populism fueling this movement is itself a form of identity politics. “We” must defeat “them” is its defining ethos, and if classically liberal or constitutional rules get in the way, they must be circumvented. As Donald Trump put it in 2016, “the only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.”

The threats to constitutionalism and American exceptionalism are only new if you cut yourself off from the past. In reality they’re the same threats they’ve always been, just in different garb and with new buzz phrases. The political answers to those threats will change in some ways with the changes in partisan fashion. But the more fundamental problems—and answers—are the same as they have always been, because human nature does not change. As Ronald Reagan said in 1967, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”

In Defense of Both Sides—and Neither

Too often people selectively invoke principles when it serves their purposes and discard them when it doesn’t.

Dear Reader (including Britney Spears, who is finally free to read the G-File unsupervised),

Russia, Russia, Russia.

So I often write about how alienated I am from a lot of mainstream politics these days. This annoys a lot of people who think I’m under some obligation to pick a side, particularly the people who think that if I’m not wholly on their side I must be the other side. Anger at both-sides-ism is ironically one of the few areas of agreement between, well, both sides.

But let me take a moment to speak in praise of both-sides-ism.

Consider the “Russia collusion hoax.” Going by what we know, the Steele dossier was a travesty. It was an outrageous, indefensible, dirty trick. And even if you believe that Steele operated in something like good faith, the shoddiness of his work should have been self-disqualifying for the political operators who tried to weaponize it. Instead, the shoddiness was almost a feature, not a bug; just get the accusations out there and don’t worry if they’re true. The important part was to do the political damage. I can’t find anything meaningful to  disagree with in this editorial on the subject over at National Review.

Likewise, I think Adam Schiff is a dishonorable and dishonest hack. The only thing that impresses me about him is his gift for flinging hyperpartisan innuendo while seeming to be a studious and serious legislator. He’s got the tone down just right. Rhetorically he’s like a Gucci bag filled with bullsh-t. If you define McCarthyism by Joseph McCarthy’s actual tactics—pretending to have damning information he can’t reveal right now—Schiff is a McCarthyite. The fact that he doesn’t sound like one is substantively irrelevant. Eli Lake’s excellent review of Schiff’s book captures the man well.

So there you go. I’m with the right—at least the serious right—on all of these points.

But …

There’s the other side of the ledger. Donald Trump openly called on the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump declared at a press conference. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” That same day, Russian hackers went after Clinton’s server.

The Trump campaign held a meeting at the Trump Tower with pretty much the entire senior staff, because a Russian woman promised to deliver the goods on Hillary. It came to nothing, but it certainly demonstrated that a lot of the outrage over the allegation that Trump would ever work with the Russians was exceedingly selective.

Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, gave internal polling and campaign data over to Russian “businessman” Konstantin Kilimnik, who, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, is a Russian intelligence officer and “part of a cadre of individuals ostensibly operating outside of the Russian government but who nonetheless implement Kremlin-directed influence operations.”

It hardly ends there. There was inexplicable sketchiness with Michael Flynn that may have been amateur hour stuff, but he did confess to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. And, of course, there was Trump’s weird Champ Kind/Ron Burgundy man-crush on Putin, his grotesque siding with Russia over the U.S. at the Helsinki summit, and so on.

Now you can make as much or as little about all of this as you want—and many people have, in both pro- and anti-Trump tribes. My only point is that just because Team A misbehaved, that doesn’t mean Team B’s misbehavior didn’t exist.

The other night I caught a conversation on The Five about Schiff’s recent appearance on The View (which I missed). If that was all you listened to, you’d think it was insane to believe Trump ever did anything to encourage the media feeding frenzy about Russia. Again, I have no objection to their attacks on Schiff—he has it coming. But the entire discussion was one way. It was also a bit otherworldly. In the telling of Jesse Watters, Jeanine Pirro, and Geraldo Rivera, the country was torn apart by it. “This really destroyed the country,” Watters declared. Rivera rightly noted that the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier, Schiff’s conduct, etc., damaged the credibility of our institutions.

But when Pirro said, “We have never been torn apart as a country as we were by this Russia collusion delusion,” I had to wonder what country she was in. Really? The Civil War? The fight over civil rights? McCarthyism? Gallup polled Americans throughout 2018 on what the most important problem facing the country was. “The situation with Russia” ranked 46 out of 48, narrowly beating out “care for the elderly” and “child abuse” with less that 0.5 percent of respondents mentioning it. A Morning Consult poll showed that 35 percent of Americans thought it should be a “top” priority to investigate allegations of Russian involvement in the election. But that still put it below plenty of other priorities like infrastructure and immigration reform (but not building a wall on the Mexican border).

Anyway, my only point here is that you don’t have to buy into the nonsense people say defines our national disagreements. Well, I guess that’s not my only point. Every time I turn on cable news I’m told that America is split between those who think Kyle Rittenhouse is a patriot who bravely defended the country against lawlessness and those who think he’s some kind of white supremacist fascist (even though he didn’t shoot any black people). There’s room to believe that both sides have a few facts on their side of the equation. There’s also room—right next to me—to believe that he was an idiot who did something really stupid, but that doesn’t make him a cold-blooded murderer.

This is not some passionate case for difference splitting. There’s no categorical imperative that says holding a position in the center is right or even superior to taking a principled stand firmly on the right or the left. As I wrote in my underrated book The Tyranny of Clichés, sometimes the compromise position in the “center” is worse than either ideological alternative:

If I say we need one hundred feet of bridge to cross a one-hundred- foot chasm that makes me an extremist. Somebody else says we don’t need to build a bridge at all because we don’t need to cross the chasm in the first place. That makes him an extremist. The third guy is the centrist because he insists that we compromise by building a fifty-foot bridge that ends in the middle of thin air? As an extremist I’ll tell you that the other extremist has a much better grasp on reality than the centrist does. The extremists have a serious disagreement about what to do. The independent who splits the difference has no idea what to do and doesn’t want to bother with figuring it out.

Lots of people get into trouble by confusing or conflating political compromise and compromising principles. I’m 100 percent against wealth taxes of any kind. I think they’re terrible policy, unjust, and unconstitutional, among other things. If Elizabeth Warren says she wants a 10 percent wealth tax on unrealized gains, I’m against it. Saying, “Let’s compromise and make it 5 percent” is still a 100 percent abdication of principle, even if it’s a 50 percent compromise on her initial bid.

We all know the surely apocryphal conversation between a woman and Winston Churchill (or George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, or Groucho Marx):

Churchill tells the woman: “I’ll pay you a million pounds to sleep with me.”

Woman: “Okay!”

Churchill: “How about five pounds?”

Woman: “Well, I never! What kind of woman do you take me for?”

Churchill: “We’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over price.”

If you think prostitution is wrong as a matter of principle, the price shouldn’t matter.

This doesn’t mean you should never compromise on principle. It depends on the principle and on the context. If you’re truly pro-life, you’ll be opposed to legalized abortion in the first trimester. But accepting restrictions on the second or third trimester in exchange for legal abortion in the first trimester is, from a pro-life standpoint, better than nothing because it would yield fewer abortions. In other words, context and prudential considerations matter. Distinctions matter.

But let’s get back to both-sides-ism. I disagree with a lot of the principles of the left. I agree with many, though not all, of the principles of the right (depending on which right we’re talking about). But I’ve lost my patience with the way both sides selectively invoke principles—particularly the ones we’re all supposed to agree on like due process, democracy, constitutionalism, etc.—when it serves their purposes and discard them when it doesn’t. For years, many liberals have been content (or at least quiet) as woke activists demand certain books be removed from schools because they contain “triggering” material. At the same time, conservatives have emptied their spleens decrying this stuff as censorship. But last week’s Virginia election was like some kind of halftime requiring the two teams to switch sides. Now I hear MSNBC people decrying fascist censorship of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Fox people touting the need to police school reading materials.

This is the problem with so many of our infotainment-soaked political battles. Partisans switch weapons constantly. For four years under Trump, people like Mike Pence would invoke decency and honesty to criticize Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats when they violated norms of decency and honesty (“She tore up Trump’s speech! The horror!”). But when Trump treated the Oval Office like a urinal, Pence would argue that he was elected to be a “disruptor.”

What Democrats did to pin the Russia collusion narrative on him was indefensible. What Trump did to make that effort so easy was also indefensible.

And so, you know what? I’m not going to defend any of it.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Pippa is really pushing it. She has convinced herself that if I want her to do anything—go for a walk, have dinner, whatever—the first thing I must do is rub her belly. It’s like we’re two magnets and when I get close to her, I repel her onto her back. The only reason that explanation doesn’t make sense—okay, not the only reason—is that she also hits me with the “rub mah belly!” spaniel eyes. 

In other news, while I was in Dallas, the Fair Jessica handled the morning walks. On one trip to the park, someone recognized Pippa (“I follow her on Twitter!”) but not Zoë! This is really outrageous (though also a little confusing), and I take all the blame. Expect more Dingo content in the future. The really exciting news for the girls—which they don’t know yet—is that I will be driving them both out to the Pacific Northwest for Thanksgiving. It’s gonna be pretty brutal since Jess probably can’t drive with me on the way out (she’s killing herself on a book deadline). But it will probably generate some excellent canine content. 

ICYMI

Last Friday’s G-File

The Ruminant’s seventh drive-time broadcast

Kwizatz haderach?

Jay Cost and I discuss James Madison on AEI’s Viewpoint

David French guest-hosts The Remnant and previews Good Faith, a new Dispatch podcast

The Trump factor

It’s time to move on

Jay Cost returns to The Remnant for more extreme nerdery

And now, the weird stuff

Brief emotion

Three leaf clover

Faith and devotion

Hanging around

The right stuff

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