When Conservatives Used to be Liberals
From Disney to Dobbs, American conservatives have begun flirting with the authoritarian-adjacent European conservatism of old. Francis Fukuyama's latest.
One of the staples of my teaching of comparative politics over the years was to point out the differences between European and American conservatives. The former were generally comfortable with the exercise of state power, and indeed sought to use power to enforce religious or cultural values (the old unity of “throne and altar”). American conservatives, on the other hand, were different by their emphasis on individual liberty, a small state, property rights, and a vigorous private sector. In Seymour Martin Lipset’s account of American exceptionalism, American politics were thoroughly imbued with a Lockean liberalism that saw the government limiting its own power through a strict rule of law. These principles defined the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, which wanted lower taxes, deregulation, federalism, and multiple limits on state power.
This understanding of conservatism has now been upended with the rise of Trumpist populism. Trump himself was perfectly comfortable with big government spending, promising to protect entitlements and approving a huge Covid relief package even as he cut taxes. He was happy to use the Justice Department to go after his enemies, and chafed at the restrictions on police powers in putting down protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing in 2020.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has in recent months been trying to outdo Trump in his willingness to deploy the state to combat “woke” values. He has sought to take control of education materials at multiple levels, banning gender studies and critical race theory in state universities, and singled out the Disney Company—Florida’s largest employer—for punishment because it was too woke. These actions were framed not in terms of general rules for corporations in Florida, but punitive actions applying to a single company.
Following the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade last summer, conservatives in a number of red states have launched initiatives to tighten anti-abortion rules, criminalizing the actions of both providers and women having abortions, and trying to extend the reach of these prohibitions beyond the red states where they are legislatively approved.
Conservative intellectuals have been trying to come up with a coherent justification for strong-state populist policies. Patrick Deneen has attacked the liberal project root and branch in his book Why Liberalism Failed, pointing to John Locke himself as the mistaken point at which Western thought turned away from religiously-defined (or what he calls “teleological”) political authority. He has also called for a conservative rethinking of its embrace of the private sector and capitalism. Catholic integralists like Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule have been open in their support for a more hierarchical system that would substantively define the “common good” in place of liberalism’s agnosticism about final ends.
Finally, there has been a lot of open admiration expressed for strong man leadership and authoritarian government. Rod Dreher moved to Budapest and sees Viktor Orbán’s Hungary as a model for the United States, while Tucker Carlson spent a week broadcasting from there. Donald Trump in a recent interview effusively praised Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un, all of whom were very “smart” and effective leaders. He has made various proposals for using violence and summary judgments against drug dealers and wants to round up homeless people and put them in special camps. Other conservatives have expressed admiration for El Salvador’s Nayyib Bukele (including Senator Marco Rubio), a democratically elected leader who has used extrajudicial means to round up tens of thousands of gang members.
Make no mistake: this is not your grandfather’s conservatism. American conservatives are now talking more like older European ones—not like, say, the German Christian Democrats, who today are in many ways to the left of the Democratic Party, but older ones like Spain’s Francisco Franco or Portugal’s Antonio Salazar who were happy to see democracy abolished in their countries altogether. There is plenty to criticize on the woke Left, but this new type of conservative is not talking about rolling back particular policies; they are challenging the very premises of the liberal state and toying with outright authoritarianism. They are not simply deluded by lies about the 2020 election, but willing to accept non-democratic outcomes to get their way. And they are providing ample support for a broad retreat in foreign policy away from liberal internationalism towards isolationism.
This type of authoritarian-adjacent conservatism was always present at the fringes of American politics, but was successfully marginalized in the period after 1945. What is puzzling is why it is taking over one of the two major U.S. political parties at this particular juncture in history.
The new illiberal conservatives talk about an “existential” crisis in American life: how the United States as traditionally understood will simply disappear under pressure from the woke Left, which then justifies extreme measures in response.
To the contrary, it is hard to think of a time when the United States has been more free than it is in 2023. The much-feared tyranny of the woke Left exists only in certain limited sectors of U.S. society—universities, Hollywood, and other cultural spaces, and it only touches on certain issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity. It can be bad in these spaces, but most Americans don’t live there. People on the right are able to practice their religion, criticize the government, and attack their fellow citizens as never before. It is the anti-woke Right and not the woke Left that is seeking to use state power to limit individual freedoms. In a debate a couple of years ago, I asked Patrick Deneen why he thought America had become such a tyrannical place, and he pointed to an order of Catholic sisters who were being compelled to provide services for gay couples. The rights and wrongs of this particular case are debatable. But if Deneen thinks this is tyranny, he might want to move to Russia or China where he can experience the real thing.
Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Image: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at a "Unite & Win Rally" at Arizona Financial Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. (Flickr: Gage Skidmore)
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