He has been one of the few voices in the conservative movement to speak out of actual conservative values and not out of the Consequentialism that dominates the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism. So I was interested in his description of “X-Cons“, the rising generation of conservatives (so-called) who have been coming of age in the past decade. I think his description is accurate, rather depressing, and a further proof that Chesterton is right when he says that each revolutionary movement is a reaction to the last revolution–and that it typically knows what is wrong but not what is right. I appreciate Carter’s clear-eyed analysis and suspect that he, like me, is not altogether thrilled that this is the desperate pass in which the Thing that Used to be Conservatism now finds itself. To wit:
• X-Cons do not have a broad grasp of history. If we have an interest in history, we are likely to have a read a few books which we hold in high esteem and consider authoritative (Paul Johnson’s Modern Times is among our favorites). At best, we may have done in-depth study on a particular historical era (the American founding, the Civil War, World War II) but we lack a deep understanding of general history. We have almost no comprehension of the intellectual history of conservatism.
• Talk radio has had a profound influence in shaping our political sensibilities. Just as William F. Buckley, Jr. provided the cast for conservatism in the 1950s, Rush Limbaugh shaped the conservatism of X-Cons in the 1980s and 1990s. Limbaugh provided not only the content but the style in which we conservatives would engage in political discourse: assured, confrontational, snarky. Talk radio taught us X-Cons to appreciate confirmation of our political views. Arguments needn’t be persuasive when you are certain not only that we are right and our opponents are wrong, but also that we are right and they are wrong-headed.
Think about these two paragraphs together. X-Cons know little about history and their deepest influence is disk jockeys, who “taught us X-Cons to appreciate confirmation of our political views.” The perfectly reasonable thing to ask in light of this crushing diagnosis is, “What, precisely, is being conserved by such a ‘conservatism’?” A conservatism that knows nothing of engagement with ideas outside the Talk Radio Noise Machine (including engagement with ideas from its own intellectual history) and which has learned, as it’s primary lesson, “to appreciate confirmation of our political views” is a conservatism that is intellectually barren and open to manipulation by demagogues who flatter its adherents and teach them to remain safe in the echo chamber.
• With confirmation came a sense of (virtual) community and a realization that a Ph.D in Political Science wasn’t required in order to express a valid opinion on politics. Imbued with a sense of confidence from a young age, we X-Cons grew comfortable expressing ourselves in a conversational style that imitated our talk radio mentors. Blogging was (and remains) a natural outlet for our mode of expression.
While it is true that one does not need a Ph.D. in Poli Sci to participate in the political process (a very Chestertonian sentiment), the notion that that the Buzz Lightyear Principle (“I’m Buzz Lightyear! I’m *always* sure!”) is a foundational conservative principle is dubious and founded, not on conservative thought (which is typically circumspect about Youthful Confidence vs. Seasoned Wisdom), but on contemporary therapeutic culture where the Highest Good is that we Feel Comfortable About Ourselves, not that we know what we are talking about. That this, again, traces its roots back to the fact that somebody like Glenn Beck has the gift of the gab and teaches our kids to be Just Like Him, does not inspire confidence that anything like what Burke or Kirk or Buckley called “conservative” is informing this phenomenon since, again, what is being conserved is not even mentioned.
• Having grown-up either in a broken home or surrounded by friends who did, we X-Cons recognize the value of traditional family structures. We may not always be successful in building permanent relationships ourselves, but we value the bonds of family more than the previous generation.
• Our pro-life convictions stem from knowing that we could have been legally killed in womb—and recognizing that we are missing brothers, sisters, and cousins because of abortion.
These two paragraphs point to the highly Chestertonian and paradoxical roots of present day Youth Conservatism: namely, that it is profoundly a reaction to Death Cult Liberalism and its Moloch Worship. Refugees from the social devastation wrought by Generation Narcissus and its perpetual self-congratulatory destruction of the family recognize that social conservatism and, in particular, religious conservatism and its celebration of stable, healthy families are a much friendlier and more supportive culture for their own dreams of a family than is the “do whatever feels right” culture that Generation Narcissus did so much to create and promote. In short, there is an immense amount of pain and suffering at the roots of X-Conservatism caused by my generation’s profoundly destructive selfishness and a deep longing for a stable family life feeds X-Conservatism. Here, above all, is a place where X-conservatism has a real point of contact with the Catholic faith, which likewise prizes the family as a huge and important natural good–and which roots the family in the revelation of the Triune God as His image and likeness. Here is the real beating human heart of X-Conservatism and the thing every Catholic should love about it and try to encourage above all.
• Irony is one of the most pervasive traits in Gen X culture. Not surprisingly, this has affected the outlook of X-Cons. For example, we tend to be ambivalent about heroes. While we have an intuitive understanding of the need for virtue and heroism, we are too realistic, and perhaps cynical, to place complete trust in politicians or statesmen. We prefer to champion ideas and principles over reliance on very real, very fallible leaders.
This is one of the more tragic aspects of X-Conservatism, in that irony and sarcasm are forms of humor that are native to the wounded, powerless and those with waning or no hope. (And yes, I am self-aware enough to know that I make use of them.) The tradition (like paganism and Judaism before it) holds out heroes for us to admire and emulate. It does not tell us they were perfect, but it does urge us to emulate, not perpetually deconstruct, their heroism. Looking for clay feet first and making it one’s especial boast, rather than seeing the ways in which clay men and women have overcome their sins and done great things, is a form of cowardice and a refusal of faith, hope and love. A life embracing irony as a good, rather than as a sort of spiritual limp that is compensating for pain, is a life that refuses to take the chance of love and having your heart broken. Flippancy, as Uncle Screwtape warns, is one of the finest forms of armor plating against love that Hell has produced. It’s understandable, of course, since X-Cons bear such deep wounds from Generation Narcissus. But it’s still something this generation will have to face and overcome (and will, by the grace of God).
• In theory, X-Cons have a preference for federalism and states’ rights. In actuality, our attention and focus is almost exclusively on the national level rather than on local and state politics.
Not a healthy sign. Conservatism is supposed to cherish the small, the local, and the old. A “conservatism” that is all about the big, the massive and the latest grab for all-dominating power is, as the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism demonstrates constantly, deeply corrupt–just like the Thing that Used to Be Liberalism.
• X-Cons are often apathetic about flag burning and displays of the Ten Commandments. We don’t remember when prayer was in schools and never paid much attention to the words “under God” in the pledge. Although we express an ironic detachment from the standard symbols of civil religion, we remain fiercely patriotic. Curiously, though we don’t get goose bumps upon hearing “The Star Spangled Banner,” we are often stirred by patriotic kitsch like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
I agree that there is still much in X-Conservatism that is rightly called “patriotic” (i.e., which loves America and its people and culture). There is also much that is merely nationalistic (ie., which exults in the strength and power of the state). What’s the difference? I’ll tell you when you tell me the difference between the virtue of love and the sin of Pride.
• Unlike previous generations, X-Cons do not necessarily associate conservatism with either the East Coast, the preppie-class, or Republicanism. William F. Buckley, Jr. and George Will may still command respect, but they are considered eccentric curiosities rather than exemplary models of conservative intelligentsia. X-Cons associate such elitism with liberalism and consider the GOP, rather than the Democrats, to be the party of the “little guy.”
The tortured relationship of a flattered therapeutic feel good conservatism (also known as “Talk Radio Demagoguery”) and its intellectual roots is nowhere clearer than here. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are your intelligentsia and Buckley is a sort of a ghostly eminence gris you no longer bother listening to, one must again ask what, exactly, is being conserved by such a conservatism. Much that bills itself as anti-elitist is just a celebration of intellectual laziness and a resentment of people who have done the hard work of thought. Yes, there are pointy headed intellectuals who pride themselves on their learning. That’s not an excuse to be a wahoo who prides himself on his ignorance.
• When we were young we read The American Spectator rather than National Review. Now that we’re older we read National Review Online rather than National Review.
• X-Cons tend to be extremely religious in a “mere Christianity” sort of way. Although our political views are often shaped by our theology, we are willing to cross theological lines to forge political alliances. We’re the children of the Moral Majority; we tend to be either Catholic-friendly evangelicals or evangelical-influenced Catholics. We can’t understand why conservative Protestants and Catholics fought each other rather than with the true enemy: godless liberalism.
That’s a reasonable question, except that when your conservatism is innocent of historical knowledge and massively informed by Talk Radio simplicities, you don’t know what you are talking about when you speak of “godless liberalism”, since a liberal of say, 1960, would have been quite as conversant in what conservatives today think of as obvious biblical thought.
Take, for instance, a typical Twilight Zone episode in which a Burgess Meredith goes up against some godless totalitarian FutureState. All of it is quite in line with the sentiments of “light and glory” Evangelicals and gung-ho First Things Catholics in its exaltation of the dignity of the human person. Yet all of it was written by Rod Serling, a convert from Judaism to Unitarianism. So was he a “godless liberal”? Anybody who self-identified by that tribal affiliation today would be written off by Talk Radio “conservatism” as a godless liberal before he said another word. Morever, even today, godless liberals do pretty well with history-innocent Talk Radio conservatives, if they happen to join in with GOP talking points disseminated via talk radio. Just ask Christopher Hitchens.
• We have an ambivalent attitude toward pop culture. We recognize the corrosive impact that race-to-the-bottom media can have on society. Yet we are as likely to be consumers of popular media as the rest of society. Although we may rail against the worst trash our culture has to offer, we will be intimately familiar with the rubbish we are criticizing.
Which again begs the question, “What is such a conservatism conserving?”
• X-Cons considered it axiomatic that that “mainstream media” have always had a liberal bias, which should be subverted rather than reformed. We truly believed that Fox News was the fair and balanced alternative to every new channel every on television.
Suggesting that, for this generation, “conservatism” is in fact something more like “imprinting like ducklings on whatever it sees first”, since only youthful naivete could possibly account for the irrational conviction that FOX News is fair or balanced or “conservative” in a sense intelligible to somebody like Russell Kirk. FOX New is, of course, a sort of ideological counter-weight that distorts reality as badly as other MSM outlets, only in different ways than other MSM outlets. It is, in short, a vendor of lies and half-truths calculated to ensnare a different demographic for the purpose of selling beer and shampoo to suckers. It has no more intention of telling you the truth than the NY Times editorial page. That X-Cons seriously believed otherwise is stunning testament to their failure to really engage one of the deepest insights of real conservatism: the belief in original sin and in the untrustworthiness of men–particularly rich men. It is, of course, understandable that they should do so since they had nothing to compare FOX to but the grotesque distortions provided by other MSM. When you are raised in a funhouse and have no idea what a normal mirror looks like, you will have difficulty telling when a natural reflection is shown you. That’s one of the many tragedies of having “almost no comprehension of the intellectual history of conservatism” and getting almost all your formation from Talk Radio as it teaches you to live and think in an ideological echo chamber.
• On matters of economics, X-Cons believe we stand on a firmly rooted foundation. We grew up in an era when socialism and communism where discredited as economic models, leading us to believe that free-market capitalism is not just preferred, but is the only route to freedom and prosperity. X-Cons believe that if liberals would only take a class on economics they would see the light and repent of their collectivist ways.
A conservatism that does not understand that capitalism is just a somewhat-less-flawed-than-others human system and which mistakes it for Sacred Tradition is a very impoverished form of conservatism. “Outliving communism” is something, but not a conferral of eternal divine sanction. In fact, Jesus Christ, not capitalism, is the only route to freedom and (spiritual) prosperity. Morever, failure to confess capitalism as “the only route to freedom and prosperity” is not a profession of faith in collectivism, but can be a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Some believers in Jesus Christ, indeed, think that there are other ways of ordering our economic housekeeping that are more in keeping with the teaching of the Church, and which are neither capitalist (though they do exalt human freedom) nor communist (though they do insist on the common good). We call some of these believers in Jesus “Popes”. We also call them “unrealistic”, ignore them as “ignorant about real life” and tell them to butt out of a private personal matter (money) in much the same way that enthusiasts for contraception do when Church teaching gets in the way of the very private and personal matter called “sex”.
• Like others from their generation, X-Cons are not “joiners” in the typical sense. We are often more motivated to align in opposition than join in agreement. X-Cons vote for Republicans not because we agree with the GOP’s platform (a document we’ve never read) but because we have a deep disdain for the views and values of Democrats.
Knowing what you hate better than what you love and are for is one of the marks of the revolutionary, according to Chesterton.
• X-Cons are often Goldwater-style conservatives, holding views that are more individualistic than aligned with historical conservatism. We also tend to have many cafeteria libertarians, those who pick and choose from the buffet of libertarian ideology. X-Cons may, for example, be in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana while opposing the legalization of prostitution. The libertarians in our cohort tend to be less pure than those that came before or after.
It’s a neat trick to be aligned with historical conservatism when you don’t know what it is and are primarily formed by Talk Radio. Given that much of what now is known as “conservatism” gets its “historical knowledge” from the daft ravings of Glenn Beck I suspect that what current conservatism means by “historicial conservatism” is would not recognizable to conservatives of even 50 years ago, much less to Burke. Libertarianism is not so much conservative as simply selfish. It is a philosophy for people with no history and no children. In pure form, it could be expressed in Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.” It seeks (as Catholic faith emphatically does not) simply to be left alone, free of responsibility to either carry on a tradition from its fathers, nor to take responsibility for its children. It concieves of the human person as an atomized individual who lives in hermetic isolation from responsibility to society or the state except for when and where he chooses to act. Given such an inhuman premise, then of course libertarians naturally side with “conservatism” in hostility to the state. But it is a hostility, not to a corrupt or over-reaching state, but to the idea of a state at all. Paul won’t go there (Romans 13). But a conservatism that is innocent of historical knowledge and which gets its ideas mainly from libertarianism can be given to crazy notions that all we need to do is get rid of “government” and our troubles will be over. It is to real politics as Wicca is to real religion and its motto is identical: “An it harme noone, do what thou wilt.”
• X-Cons are pragmatic idealists. We have strong faith in religion, small government, and the free market. Yet we are not Utopian and have no illusions that politics will make life much better (though we believe government can make it much worse).
And yet, X-Cons have demonstrated boundless Utopian faith in the power of the United States to build the Great Society on the barren soil of Islam for the past decade and continue to do so. Obama is the antichrist for most X-Cons, yet in large statistical percentages, they have no problem with Antichrist assuming the power to detain whoever he likes for as long as he likes and even murder them without evidence, arrest or trial. When it comes to the War on Terror, X-Cons retain a deathless faith in the omnicompetence of the Imperial Presidency.
Similarly, faith in religion is not, as Evangelicals and Catholics above all should know, capable of saving a fly, much less a human being. That’s what the epistle to the Romans is about. Faith in religion as a form of social control may indeed typify “conservatism”, but to the degree that this is what Catholics or Evangelicals believe, they do not seem to me to believe anything like historic Christianity, which does not come to bring peace or social control, but a sword and which offers not “religion” but the person of Jesus Christ as our salvation.
Nor do I see any evidence of a faith in small government except in a theoretical sense. The Party that XCons support vastly expanded both the power and cost of the State and only became thought of as “pro-small government” by being dwarfed by the titanic spending of the Obama Administration, which hopes to build the Great Society at home as well as abroad. A five hundred pound man is not rendered “thin” by rolling him up next to a 1000 pound man.
• X-Cons will soon be replacing the Boomers as the dominant cohort within the movement. We’ll be fielding presidential candidates in 2016 and dominating elections in 2020. We are, for better and for worse, the future of the movement. And of America.
Bleak words indeed. But not entirely hopeless. The openness to the gospel remains a powerful sign of hope, since there is no salvation in politics anyway. That there is a Lord Jesus and that he has disciples like Joe Carter is a much more hopeful sign than anything else I can point to.