Where the Right Went Wrong

Ryan Andrews

Ever since the shuttening of Radix, I have intended to re-run this essay at some point. And with the recent publication of James Lawrence’s Are We Right?, now seems to be as good a time as any. I wrote this piece over two years ago, and if I were to do it over again today there are certain portions I would phrase differently—my explanation of particularism would be more precise, for instance. And while my understanding of the nature of the Left has not much changed, my opinion of that nature has become much more disdainful. But I stand by my main conclusion about the reasons for the meta-political failure of the Right throughout history, and I think that conclusion is relevant to the questions raised by Lawrence in his essay.

Lawrence is correct that the Right, historically, has had a more concrete socio-political vision than the Left, that it has been concerned with maintaining the existing social order (or restoring one recently passed). In my estimation though, that is where the Right went wrong. In practice, most ideologies of the Right have been forms of social conservatism, and lack a metaphysical fixed point. At first glance, one might think that being unencumbered by any adherence to an abstract system of thought would make the Right more nimble and adaptable to the times, and it does have its benefits in the area of electoral politics, but the “first glance” counts for little in the more important field of meta-politics. Without an abstract fixed point to guide its response to inevitable social changes, the Right has been left rudderless, and its adaptability amounts to adapting to the social changes of the previous generation—changes which were initiated by the Left.

The following is a slightly altered version of an essay that appeared in Radix in the summer of 2015.

“The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Our President [Obama] seems to be particularly fond of this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (or whoever might have actually originally said it). Those of us on the far-Right, and the far-Left too, reflexively recoil at this sort of whiggish interpretation of history, but for most people it is just commonsense. Some people and ideas are “ahead of their time,” and some are “on the wrong side of history.” The vast majority of Westerners achieve an intuitive understanding of this at a very young age, and whether they grow up to become university professors or adults who are unable to locate France on a map, most maintain this belief all their lives.

Of course this outlook is simplistic, but if we limit our historical timeline to the Modern Age, it is basically true (relative to contemporary moral opinion). The problem with this view is that it is treated as some deep teleological truth, when it is essentially just a tautology. The whole point of dividing history into “ages” is to identify and demarcate eras according to their guiding socio-political spirit. So naturally a man-of-his-time will feel like his immediate ancestors were moving in the right direction—his beliefs are the result of their actions. Socio-political evolution moves in one direction until a powerful enough force ends it, and creates a new age. The spirit that has guided our civilization since at least the Enlightenment is egalitarian universalism; but why? Why has the Right failed to overthrow this verdict, or turn it in its favor? Why, since the Enlightenment, are those on the Left generally “ahead of their time,” while the Right is “on the wrong side of history?”

The answer, I think, is that the Right has always been practically synonymous with conservatism, which has always been a ramshackle collection of contradictory positions that can not rationally defend itself. The Left is also a very diverse grouping, but unlike the Right, everything that is of the Left flows from, and is mostly logically consistent with, their articulated first principle. Which, again, is egalitarianism. The specific points of emphasis may change, certain issues may be discarded, and they may even at times appear to contradict their own expressed ideals, but every manifestation of the Left is a coherent extension of a foundational belief in equality. In contrast, “the Right” is just a name we give to any reaction against the Left. For most of modern history, the Right has simply defended the status quo against attack from the Left, or argued for a return to a previous arrangement. In hindsight, we can say that the Right is usually defined by its relative support for inequality, but this is more a coincidence of favoring old ways over new than it is a coherent abstract ideal.

This is important because an ideology without an attractive abstract core to direct it will always be a house of cards, especially if the ideology is coming from the Right. Unlike that of the Left, the morality of the Right is not in-step with human intuition; it can only be arrived at intellectually, and even here, the path is not straightforward. Our circle often derides Conservatism as retrograde Liberalism, but perhaps the Right should have embraced Liberalism (though not Leftism) from the start.

The (Pre)Existing Institutional Morality (The Right) vs Our Intuitive Morality (The Left)

To be fair to the Right, the Left has a lot of built-in advantages. First of all, they were the first-in-the-field. The modern Right-Left dichotomy only exists because the Left emerged to challenge the existing regime. This regime, essentially a Medieval holdover of warlords and priests, was in a terrible position to defend itself in an age of scientific discovery and commercial expansion. Of course that did not stop them from trying. The modern Right is descended from this futile defense, and it has been on-the-back-foot ever since. And really, the basic ideas of the Left have always appealed to people. The requirement to be kind to the stranger is a common thread throughout history, and populist politics thrived in the ancient world. Most fundamentally—and perhaps this opinion reflects my white privilege in assuming my experiences to be universal, but it seems to me that in any civilization that has reached a certain level of moral sophistication, egalitarian universalism is the default ideal. It is, to quote my own book, “the path of least intellectual resistance.”

Universalist morality as the ideal is a truism to most people, not just because of the triumph of liberalism, but because it is an easy-to-follow and convincing logical justification of what most people are already emotionally and intuitively inclined to believe is true. They may be instinctively uncomfortable with the logical implications of universalistic morality, but their conscience concedes it is the ideal. The only question left on-the-table is whether or not implementation of the latest leftist innovation is practical, or practical at this time.

From the beginning, the modern Right has been caught in a vicious nature-nurture cycle. Again, the Right began its life defending an outmoded societal model. Advances in scientific understanding directly contradicted Church teachings, and it was hard to argue that de facto power of the rising commercial class did not entitle them to some measure increased political power. An aristocracy of warlords to maintain order was plainly less vital in the Post-Westphalian world (even to the royal administration); homicide rates were a tiny fraction of what they were in Medieval times†, and technological changes undermined the necessity of a privileged warrior class.

And one disadvantage leads to another; when one side champions reason and the other side champions faith, which side do you think is going to attract more intelligent partisans? When one side is content with the world they already know, and the other side is restless for ‘justice and the liberation of the individual,’ which side do you think is going to collect the more dedicated and idealistic followers? And so for most of modern history the Right has gathered in those who instinctively fear change, or who have too practical a cast-of-mind to entertain it. While those who are more open to the world of ideas have, by and large, found their home on the Left.

The casual observer might expect that in an age of mass democracy, instinctive fear would win out over intellect. In the short term, it often does, but only in the short term. It begins losing its power over us almost from the moment we first feel it. The politics of the intellect follow the exact opposite trajectory. Remote from our immediate concerns, and contrary to our habits, our initial impulse is to ignore it or rationalize it away and continue on the familiar way, but the argument remains lodged our mind until our conscience can no longer deny its truth. So the Right wins plenty of elections, but the political center keeps moving to the Left. And it is not as if the Left must rely only on pure intellect; they have their own emotional arguments—even outside of the intuitive morality mentioned above (e.g. envy of the historic in-group).

Toward a More Mature Liberalism

Contemporary conservatism as a whole may not be a coherent ideology, but it does contain a coherent political ideology: freedom. Tellingly, mainstream Conservatism’s more literal understanding of freedom (relative to leftist ideas) has attracted more able defenders and stood-up over time a lot better than has their social agenda. Their battle against expanding government in general may be a Sisyphean struggle, but in many significant areas—welfare, tax rates, gun control, school choice, specific business regulations—the political tide moves back and forth. There are monied interests behind many of these issues, and it helps that these are not all-or-nothing disagreements, but the exception is great enough that it must at least be recognized. And once recognized, I do not think it can be explained away so simply. The “freedom agenda” has a reasonably attractive and coherent abstract core and an appreciable number of smart idealistic adherents.

It is impossible to prove a negative, but every ideological movement that is able to stand its ground across multiple generations has had those two traits (an abstract core and idealistic smart people) in common. I am going to assume that that is not a coincidence. I make this assumption because, well, it seems to be commonsense, but also because I have known a few smart people in my time, and this seems to be the way they think, especially if morality is the primary object of their contemplation.

Social conservatism, conversely, does not spring from an abstract first principle, and so does not have the force of smart idealistic crusaders behind it. It is nothing more than an instinctive defense of what was. Their ideological explanations are rationalizations of their prejudices (in the true meaning of the word), and this is transparent to every discerning observer. So, again and again, they lose. I happen to agree with social conservatives on many issues, but rarely have I been convinced by the eloquence of their arguments. (Their interpretation of the law is a notable exception to this rule, as the logical framework of law is squarely in conservatives’ intellectual wheelhouse—a happy coincidence of poetical symbolism and objective expectations. Here, social conservatives are capable of forming abstract first principles because those principles must be induced from particular precedents.)

To be sure, the freedom agenda exists entirely under the umbrella of liberalism. One may assign many demerits to the libertarian wing of the Right, but I dare say that its adherence to liberalism should not be included among them. I think, perhaps, that the Right’s “original sin” is that it is grounded in a rejection of liberalism. As I hope I have explained in such a way that my audience can understand, an ideological movement must have a logical, moral, abstract first principle, if it is to be successful—and again, this goes double if the ideology is coming from a place on the Right. Achieving this seems to almost require some level of obedience to liberalism. Reason over faith and freedom of speech are so logically impregnable that they may as well be scientific laws. Meritocracy, democracy, a first principle founded on individual happiness, if carefully designed, are very near the same status, technically still theories perhaps, but without any serious rivals.

Instead of embracing the truths offered by Liberalism/The Enlightenment, and carving its own path from there, the Right chose to defend an outmoded order, and we have all been the worse for it. The Right refused Kant’s call for man to emerge from his ‘self-imposed immaturity.’ Given that the dominant political wing of Enlightenment thought soon morphed into a direct challenge to the preexisting order, the path taken by the Right was “natural,” if I may be permitted to use that word to describe a thing which I disparage, but the result has been a stunting of the West’s moral philosophical development. Without a worthy challenger, a logical and idealistic challenger, the Left is rarely forced to rethink its foundational assumptions, so it simply continues to extrapolate from the same base of beliefs. The Enlightenment should have offered boundless moral possibilities, but instead Western man is left with a false either/or choice.Ω If it seems like I am repeating myself, it is only because since the Right made its initial wrong turn, the same dilemmas plague it at every turn. (And having listened to my share of conservative talk radio, I know that right-wing audiences need to have each point repeated for them at least three times before they get it.)

Yes, the essence of the Right is inegalitarian. But the first principle must not be because it is natural, or in keeping with any given tradition; these rationales crumble under logical examination.∞ It must not be a reality that is accepted, but an ideal that is worth achieving. It must be an ideal that has human happiness as its aim; it must consider what the individual does want, and attempt to answer what he should want.

To make this concrete, there is no intrinsic conflict between ethnonationalism and the core spirit of Liberalism. Ethnonationalism flows from a logical, idealistic, abstract ideology of individual happiness: Particularism. The starting point for Particularism is that the individual should want to perpetuate himself, and therefore the state should be a means to this end. However, self-perpetuation means different things to different people. So the idea is that there ought to be a far greater multiplicity of states, representing as many human spirits as possible in order that the state may represent the individual’s will as closely as possible. The nature of the individual’s bond with his fellow citizens could be ethnic, religious, ideological, anything that is willed with sufficient power. The only limiting principle is the viability of the state, and its society, to perpetuate itself.

I do not run from the fact that ethnonationalism is unyieldingly unequal: if you do not have the right lineage, you can not be part of the ethnostate. For the same reason, it permits less freedom. But looked at another way, it is profoundly egalitarian in that it attempts to provide a far more intimate happiness to the individual, and it is far more liberating in that it allows far more space for individual expression to actually make itself felt. The libertarian will counter that his proposals go further on both these fronts, but if it does not create or contribute to a lasting community, the individual will is not really willing anything. (This formulation, by the way, is entirely in sync with the Enlightened Social Contract theory of limiting a thing in order to preserve it.) In practice, Particularism could get messy sometimes, but basing our arguments on the preservation of order has just gotten us where we are today.

______________________________________________________________________________________

†The homicide rate in seventeenth century England was only three times higher than it is now—which is about the same as the current US rate. Three or four centuries earlier, it would have been several times that high. The homicide rate in Amsterdam plummeted from 47 per 100,000 in the mid-fifteenth century to between 1 and 1.5 per 100,000 in the early nineteenth century.

Ω The rise of a multi-party system in many European countries, in which parties sometimes blend ideas that are conventionally thought of as Right and Left, may be a very small step toward correcting this situation.

∞Truth be told, the ideological constructions of the Dark Enlightenment are based on little more than aesthetic preference, which its adherents attempt to justify by a utilitarian theory built on flimsy first-order philosophizing. Just a few tugs on its loose threads, and the whole thing is reduced to rubble. Which is utterly unsurprising, given the fate of the model on which they have based their recreation.

11 comments

  • I am sorry but i think this to be a terribly flawed argurment. Conservatives beleive in freedom because they consider life to be organically developing. They argue for tradition because they think forms of social structure have derived thru generations of activity and thus represent far more experiential knowledge then arbitrary ideas of some random modern. They consider a universal moraltiy as grounded in natural law and exposed with time thru understanding. They do not consider all people equal except in the sense that this law would by definition be the situation of all peoples but they expect that each people adapts and lives within it according to their natures and awareness.

    There have been no catastrophically revealed physical laws that contradict anything the church teaches.

    Abstract metephysical goals are exactly what has led us into the trouble we find ourselves. They are the province of the left. They lead toward utopian ideas which end in a totalitarian worldview. Look at sexual harassement. Some metaphysical concept about the perfect human male leads an entire society to denigrate all males since none acheive the goal. Soon there will be more law, more regulation, more watchfulness, new teaching technigues to preform young boys and new punishments for failure. Why because the application of natural law is ignored in favor of reality denial. There is no comprehension regarding the role of male behavior and the propagation of the species. There is no understanding of the role of play in society. There is no awareness of the stress and struggle foisted upon men in order to acheive an arbitrary, abstract metaphysical goal.

    Conservatives beleive in freedom and organic culture because they have little faith in the ability of man to understand the totality of our existence let alone manage it within their limited frames of reference. Only maniac totalitarians would ever consider trying to so and thus we have the modern left.

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  • “There have been no catastrophically revealed physical laws that contradict anything the church teaches.”

    I guess that depends on how you define “catastrophic.” Is the the revelation of a heliocentric universe catastrophic? Darwinian evolution? The big bang theory? Probably none of these things are catastrophic on their own, and I know many Christians attempt to shoehorn these ideas into conformity with church teaching, sometimes more plausibly than others. But I think it is relatively uncontroversial to say that this drip-drip of revelations slowly undermined the faith. More emotion-based responses also played a part in this too—war, natural disasters, suffering in general, etc.

    You say that ideology is wrong-headed because the wisdom of long experience reveals some kind of objective true way—natural law, and understanding the “totality of existence” is a fool’s-errand, given our limited frame of reference. (How religious faith fits into this view with any coherency is beyond my frame of reference, but I’ll set that to one side.) Then you say that all people are equal, but only in the eyes of the law. Once you say that, the gig is up; you’re being ideological.

    Whether you think equality under the law is a truth revealed by the long course of history or you dreamed the idea up one night apropos of nothing, it is an ideological proposition in that it is a subjective value. The truth of equality before the law is not the same as the truth that 2+2=4. Laws of any kind must flow from an ideological belief structure. Obviously, most laws have very practical ends in mind, but ultimately, no matter how far you go down the MacInyreian rabbit hole, choosing those ends can only be a value (i.e. ideological) judgement. And trying to escape that logic is truly a fool’s-errand. So all civilizations, always, have an ideological foundation. Some of these foundations have been more coherent and compelling than others, but all have an ideological foundation.

    It seems that you are imagining ideology as some kind of dogmatic, and inherently totalitarian, theory of everything, but that is obviously not what I’m talking about. This suspicion of yours, and your general deference to experiential knowledge is largely inline with conservatism, but you take a much more essentialist position than most conservatives. Most conservatives simply think it is prudent to treat new ideas skeptically, that we should think through proposed changes before we rush into things. To them, ideological change is not necessarily bad, they are just more careful about these things. Which in and of itself is a healthy outlook, but human nature being what it is, this means that conservatism tends to attract the kind of people who are not inclined to think up new paradigms. And it becomes a vicious cycle.

    I understand why conservatives think their attitude makes sense, but I think it is pretty clear at this point that you can’t beat something with nothing. The Right has centuries of meta-political defeat to show for its (lack of) efforts. My hope is that eventually they will learn something from that experience.

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  • There is no conflict between Catholic theology and science. The Church has always maintained that man is prone to error and that the Creator reveals himself thru His Creation.

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  • The world is of infinite complexity and any trend sought can be found. It is rather dangerous then to conclude that one thought system can capture it all and assure certainty of truth. We are placed in the world in such a way as to keep a certain cloud over our eyes. Religion acknowledges that and seeks only to provide comfort and assurances of meaning so as to resist hopelessness and nihilism.

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    • “The world is of infinite complexity and any trend sought can be found. It is rather dangerous then to conclude that one thought system can capture it all and assure certainty of truth.”

      I agree. And that (among other reasons) is why freedom of speech is so important and why I consider totalitarianism to be an inherently inept socio-political arrangement. That being said:

      An ideological belief is a belief in what ought to be, not in what is. The idea of what ought to be may be (and usually is) based in some way on a belief in what is, but ultimately, what is can never offer a definitive answer to what ought to be. At the end of the line, whether consciously or not, you must make an arbitrary value judgement. Incomplete knowledge of the world does not count against ideological belief because ideological belief does not really come from the outside; it is a law we give ourselves.

      If an ideological principle is created with enough care, then no amount of new knowledge can ever prove it wrong. This is not because the ideologue is closed-off from the real world, but because if he has done his job properly, his ideological system is not at all dependent on what is. I know that sounds like another form of being closed off from reality (and I know it is for some ideologues), but the total separation of the ought from the is is not a denial or rejection of the is, it is (or should be) an acknowledgement of the limitations of the explanatory powers of the ought. It is (or should be) an acknowledgement that you will not allow your ideological beliefs to distort your attempts to understand objective reality.

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      • We are in agreement on the need for free speech, and so would be all conservatives.

        Now to your other point, that ideology is about what ought to be, that is the crux of our differences. You do acknowledge that it should be cognizant of reality but consider that it need not reflect reality. Now we are back at my original statement of ideology being the province of the left. It is precisely the “ought to be” that opens the door to trouble. I see this as leftist liberlalism. It is enlightenment theory. It easily becomes subjectivism or relativism.

        What i also think is that there is a place for such an “ought to be” but under the discipline of theology. To some extent you have allowed for the role of religion which studies the mind of God in order to divine the “ought of mankinds life. But religion in its effort of understanding seeks the mind of God in order to ground its thought in the objective and thus in truth. When man tried to become the objective therein lies danger.

        Let me try another way at this by proposing to you an “ideology” that i think works and is total and sufficient as a guide for every mans life. I will use my four primary influences in life, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu and Aquinas. But we will have to exit the forms of modern dialog and perhaps enter the poetic realm. Try this….

        The entire worldview of Jesus would be explained in one word love. I, by way of explanation would expand this upon this word to define it as, being open toward, to embrace and to care.

        Buddha if asked to explain the world would likely say, “It Is” or he might say, “It is Raining somewhere.”

        Lao Tzu if asked how should one live would likely say, “Follow the Way,” which i would expand upon to mean, if the sun is shining be with the sun, if it is raining be with the rain, waste no energy trying to push water and do not stand in the way of the arrow.

        Aquinas if asked to explain Being might say, “All material things exist in form and essence, in present time they are actual, in future time they are potential depending upon the cause acting upon it.”

        That is the most, i think one can safely say without exposure to grave errors yet from these four perspectives one can navigate the world if one ponders those four ideas.

        Does that make sense?

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  • Conservatives have always allowed for change and yes they caution that it should come with serious consideration. They support freedom because they support change. They allow for a multitude of paths because they are aware that it is difficult to discern the correct one. Yet truth is found in three things, valid tradition, observation of the natural world and that contained in the heart of man, i would add another for the religious because they would add scriptures. Men are equal before the law because this is the natural desire of every normal man even as the law itself is impose imperfectly.

    It seems to me that conservatives may always appear to be losing but only when the truth itself is violated as we see so often today in beleifs like men and women are the same, there are many genders, a person is whoever they think they are, marriage between same sex partners is the same as marriage between opposite sexes.

    Truth is revealed but certain things are only ideological and not necessarily truth. One can think an idea that is absurd, i can propose many that are insane and conflict with reality. Reality is the basis of truth not what one man considers truth. No fully human man is perfect, no people are perfect and no idea is perfect. I do wish you were my next door neighbor. I would love talking with you.

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  • I wouldn’t say the Right defends the social order because it doesn’t have abstract principles. The problem is that the social order – like an original language, a religion, or a Spenglerian High Culture – cannot be created out of nowhere by artificial means, and certainly not by state power. (For the contradiction in terms, at least from a Rightist perspective, of a social order engineered by state power, see the second part of ‘Are We Right’.)

    Dissolving the pre-existing order in favour of various utopian plans is, of course, something that lends itself much more easily to human action and abstract thought. Which is why abstraction tends to be seen as “of the Left”, although it need not always be so, and the mental pathology of the Left involves a tendency to over-abstraction. Of course, the opposite Rightist tendency – towards blindly defending anything that has been around a few years – is just as pathological in its own way.

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    • I think you put it correctly Mr Lawrence. My antipathy to ideology is because i have seen ideological abstraction do so much harm. I always think of Communism. Societies i believe develop organically over time via a slow rather painstaking process of observing, trying and deciding. This modernist world we live in i think is built mostly upon the thin ice of the dreams of madmen.

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    • “I wouldn’t say the Right defends the social order because it doesn’t have abstract principles.”

      I wouldn’t say that either, but if you flipped it around to “The Right doesn’t have abstract principles because it defends the social order;” I think that would be pretty close to the truth.

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