Are conservatives abandoning the free-market movement? Has the rise of populism changed the axis of American politics by convincing the political right to embrace neo-mercantilism? These are questions that many are asking, and if you want to understand where the culture is heading, it is best to start here.
Exit polls during the presidential election of 2016 showed that Donald Trump’s victory in the Rust Belt pointed to a political realignment in the United States. Suspicious of free-market ideas, politically conservative people with a blue-collar background voted overwhelmingly on Trump. The electoral swing was so significant that the counties corresponding to the so-called Upper Mississippi River Valley Anomaly, a phenomenon that has been intriguing political scientists for decades, was converted to Trump country. Wherever Bibles and weapons had any social significance — and many of these counties had voted blue for decades — President Trump’s conservative populism drew overwhelming support.
Pari passu the electoral change, a new wave of conservative intellectuals with anti-market leanings – prominently among them Notre Dame scholar Patrick Deneen and his book Why Liberalism Failed — have gained prominence. In general, these thinkers believe that capitalism has deleterious effects on the social fabric and eventually tends to destabilize traditional institutions. Therefore, according to this view, the defense of social structures and the free market cannot constitute a single coherent political action.
Before going into the political meaning of these two phenomena, let me emphasize two points that deserve reflection. First, the overwhelming support of blue-collar workers for Republican or conservative candidates is not new. Both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were elected with a 49 state landslide thanks to their ability to appeal to segments of the population that typically did not vote for the GOP. Recall the Reagan Democrats. Trump’s electoral triumph is so out of the slope because the contrast between his everyday man’s populist appeal with the extreme social insulation that the GOP has been through since President George H. W. Bush, the prototype of the country-club Republican, arrived at the White House.
Second, anti-capitalist or anti-free-market conservative intellectuals have been with us for a very long time. Outside the Anglo-Saxon world, a deep suspicion of the rise of the bourgeoisie and a fear of the adverse social effects of the Industrial Revolution was the rule, not the exception, among conservatives on the European continent. The French, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Spanish conservative intelligentsia understood capitalism as the economic unfolding of the ideas of the French Revolution. To them, the merchant, the industrialist, and the banker were wanna-be Robespierres who only believed in profits.
The alignment between economic libertarianism and cultural conservatism is unique to the post-World War II American political reality. There is no parallel in other countries, not even in the United Kingdom, where the Tories have always been reticent about the free-market system at least since Benjamin Disraeli.
The first step to understanding a problem is to seek to define the object under analysis. As far as I know, the best definition of conservatism was given by the German sociologist Karl Mannheim. According to him, conservatism is necessarily a reactive doctrine since it seeks to preserve a particular social order against changes that threaten the very nature of that order. This definition is good since it can apprehend the essence of a political movement beyond the phenomenological appearance of it.
Historically, European conservatism fought revolutionary ideas in defense of the Church and the Nobility. What mattered to them was to preserve this particular socio-political arrangement. Born of a political revolution, there was neither an established Church nor nobility to be preserved in America. Nevertheless, there was a constitutional order established by the Founding Fathers. To the extent that the progressive movement endangered this constitutional order, conservatism began to evolve from a diffuse feeling in society to a political doctrine. It is not surprising, therefore, that conservatism arose in the United States as a political movement in the second half of the 20th century. From this perspective, American conservatism is a dialectical reaction to the New Deal.
It makes sense that American conservatism is also libertarian because it has as its defining antagonist the growth of government power mainly over the economic life of the people. However, if Mannheim’s interpretation is right, the libertarian economic doctrine of American conservatives is an instrument of preservation of an established constitutional order. That said, a defense of the free market is not its ultimate goal.
There is another justification for aligning conservatism with capitalism. According to the Italian political theorist Norberto Bobbio, the difference between political right and left is the interpretation that each side makes of the concept of equality. While the left is egalitarian, the right believes that society is naturally organized following a hierarchical order. This hierarchy, according to conservatives, is present in both non-economic and economic relations due to the logical development of natural human inequality. What type of capitalism is best is the subject for debate, but socialism, which holds egalitarianism, must be rejected at once by the political right.
It is, therefore, appropriate to ask why there are a significant number of people in the United States who are sociologically conservative, but who oppose the free market. I believe there are several reasons for this. First of all, there is nothing conservative about defending the free market. The American conservative political movement developed with a strong libertarian orientation because the conservative ethos in the United States was the defense of an economically libertarian constitutional order. Since this order no longer exists, the proliferation of an anti-capitalist animus is not an anomaly. The Supreme Court, by banning school prayers and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, legalizing abortion and gay marriage, and ensuring uncontrolled growth of the federal government, buried the constitution. The rhetoric of the American conservative movement became only rhetoric, wholly dissociated from the existential reality of the modern American people.
Making things even worse, these conservatives outside of government and politics were systematically betrayed by the Republican establishment. Every two years, for the last three decades, cultural conservatives have supported the GOP and, as a payback, the GOP has worked to destroy these people. Why do I say destroy? Because there is no better word to describe the policies adopted by Republicans. The GOP, deeply influenced by egalitarian liberals known as neoconservatives, has undertaken a social engineering program aimed at subverting the traditional culture of the party’s electoral base — much of it evangelical and white — because party elites believe in a Messianic vision of annihilating national and religious identities across the world.
Hillary Clinton’s comment about how Trump’s constituents were a “basket of deplorables” is the neoconservative philosophy in a nutshell.
It was following this worldview that the Bush-Clinton consortium promoted NAFTA with Mexico, destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Rust Belt, and adopted open borders policies that resulted in the flattening of the wages of the poorest and the demographic catastrophic that America lives in today. The neoconservatives in the government promoted foreign wars in hopes of reshaping the world and pushed the liberalization of cultural values through an expansion of the welfare state and other deleterious policies. Needless to say, the neocons are at the forefront of anti-Western multiculturalism which denies the right of the cultural conservative to defend their social identity.
Insinuating that everyone that disagrees with their revolutionary Catechism is “white supremacists”, “bigotries,” and even “traitors,” neocons did it all under a strong rhetoric in favor of globalization and the free market. In truth, neocons do not support any of this. They are power-seeking crony capitalists who only believe in their Jacobin ideology. To establish their control, neocons purged from the conservative movement all the patriots and dissidents who opposed them like John O’Sullivan, Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis, Peter Brimelow, and Joseph Sobran.
Who can blame, therefore, the cultural conservatives for rejecting the free market since, thanks to the conservative media outlets such National Review and the pre-Trump Fox New, they associate the free-market with the neocon’s failed policies?
In deep America, the institutions that for more than a century were the axis of social existence of these people — churches, traditional family, the very feeling of belonging to a community — are collapsing on the pressure of the cultural revolution pushed by neocons, on the one hand, and the cultural left, on the other. They were politically orphaned until Trump showed up.
No wonder Evangelicals who see God as central to their lives, but who do not go to church – the epitome of an existential crisis -, are those most likely to be an anti-free market and Trump’s supports. In other words, Cultural conservatives who do not trust free-market ideas are precisely those who are most intensely living the spiritual crisis that is destroying the United States.
The libertarian philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe — hated by the neocons — wrote that the defense of the free market must unite libertarians and conservatives alike and the reason is simple: The greatest agent of destruction of the traditional institutions that the conservatives so much prize is precisely the government that, through wars and the welfare state, has been corrupting the social fabric. As the economist Thomas Sowell wrote, most of the social ills – alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, divorce – are directly associated with government growth.
Twenty-seven years ago, the great economist Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) — writing about the rebellion led by Pat Buchanan to unseat “country-club” President George H.W. Bush in 1992 — called the conservative populist Buchanan “our leader” and said that with him “we shall break the clock of social democracy.” This is the plain truth. What must unite conservatives, populists, and libertarians is the fight against the almighty modern state.
As a supporter of laissez-faire capitalism, I consider anti-free market sentiments a misguided response to the spiritual crisis of our era. It is certainly wrong, nonetheless conservative.
Homepage photo credit – WikiCommons.