A Conservative Phase Change
An overly simplistic description of liberalism and conservatism is that the former is a party of change, while the latter is the party of order. But this isn’t quite right.
“The early labels “party of movement” and “party of order” were catchy but misleading. Both liberals and conservatives were looking for order and stability, but they did not think of them alike. Liberals pictured modern order as achievable in a fluid society of self-possessed, mobile, and well-provided-for people. Authority under law in such an order would flow outward from the mutual accommodations of reasonable, live-and-let-live citizens. Authority, though established and effective, would be conditional and open to question. Conservatives kept to an older picture. Social order for them depended on stable institutions and social hierarchy with settled ranks and familiar duties. Authority on that picture flowed downward through fixed, recognized channels.” — Edmund Fawcett
In this analogy, liberalism can be thought of as a river, where the chaotic interaction of billions of independently moving particles form the contours of society that, while never the same in any given moment, nonetheless forms a predictable structure. Conservatism, by contrast, is a glacier. Billions of particles are kept locked in a structural tradition favored by nature, in a manner that can persevere through time.
This, of course is the book definition of conservatism. Anyone who has not spent the past four years in Antarctica knows today’s conservatism in America is something very different. It is a philosophically much bigger tent, including violent radicals who stormed the US Capitol, online conspiracy theorists who believe the Democratic Party is a cabal of pedophiles, and militant white nationalists. Its flags include the libertarian Gadsden flag with its immediately familiar “don’t tread on me” slogan, and the thin blue line flag which celebrates an authoritarian police state. The Conservative movement includes those who believe policemen in uniform are objects of celebration, and the Bugaloo boys who believe they are a threat, and have actively murdered those on the job. Where is the center of this philosophical tent?
I’ve thought about this for sometime from far outside the movement. Is it an outgoing politician’s cult of personality? Is it a rage at modernism, or the media? Increasingly, I’m led to believe the answer is increasingly “nowhere”. While in our historical analogy conservatism is a glacier, the modern cacophony of authoritarians and libertarians, of judges and conspiracy theorists, is anything but. This is because while historical conservatism was a glacier, modern conservatism is increasingly vapor.
When a glacier melts, it turns to liquid. But if conditions are just right, it instead sublimates into gas. A gas behaves fundamentally differently to liquid. While a liquid is held together by adhesion of particles, a gas is stochastic and unpredictable. It can occupy any volume, but the less space available to it, the temperature gets hotter and the pressure grows.
This is the proper way to view the decay of modern conservatism — where time-honored principles of family and faith are replaced with jarring narrative shifts from the latest Q drop. Modern online conservatism isn’t conservatism at all — it is instead a postmodern vacuum devoid of faith or tradition. While traditional conservatism stood athwart a crystalline glacier shouts “stop” to the rivers flowing below, it has missed the transformation into completely unmoored gas happening all around it.
Traditional conservatives should feel no need to defend online conspiracy theorists or the failed insurrection at the Capitol, just as ice has no obligation to make excuses for gas. Traditional conservatives can and should condemn these breaks from tradition with greater anger than it has so far reserved for the comparatively constrained fluidity of liberalism. But as long as traditional conservatives believe the steam is on the side of ice, they will fail to stop their erosion into nothing.