Behind the Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Donald Trump’s is a distinctly postmodern brand of right-wing politics.

Whereas conservatives have long defended the American experiment by appealing to the enduring truth and moral virtue of the timeless principles upon which the country was founded, the president’s nationalistic sentiment has little use for the traditional conservative interest in universal truths, whether they come in the form of religious doctrine or foundational moral and philosophical principles.

As Yuval Levin writes, Trump’s love of America “is not its ideals or its gradual self-improvement, but the simple fact that it is our country.” The president has even criticized the concept of American exceptionalism and instead views national loyalty as a tribal obligation. In Trump’s view, our citizenship is an immutable feature of our identity; therefore, to use his own words, Americans are compelled to give “a total allegiance to the United States of America.”

Trump’s divergent political understanding is symptomatic of a new form of right-wing politics, which Whitman College professor Matthew McManus describes as “postmodern conservatism.”

The postmodern right shares the traditional conservative concern for national identity and skepticism toward rationalism, but its distinct character emerges in its disposition towards truth and moral universalism. In his 2018 essay “The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism,” McManus writes:

Postmodern conservatives increasingly regard strong truth claims about knowledge and morality with active suspicion and even hostility. This is because they regard the intellectual and cultural “elites” who produce knowledge and popularize moral norms as progressive, abstract, and unlikely to sympathize with their concerns. Rather than attempting to formulate alternative claims about knowledge and morality which might have some epistemic and meta-ethical tenability, postmodern conservatives reject even these standards. Instead, they largely appeal to identity as the locus for epistemic and moral validity. This is, in turn, used to rally political support for a given agenda designed to restore that identity to power.

McManus goes on to suggest that postmodern conservatism is the result of “neoliberal” economic policy. But I would suggest that its root cause is the result of a deeper set of issues that his work leaves largely unacknowledged. These issues are not primarily the result of any specific policy agenda, nor are they easily remedied by simply repealing a particular set of ill-advised laws and replacing them with better ones.

Rather, they are derived from our fractured moral understanding, which has surreptitiously robbed us of a shared foundation and language for the conduct of our political discourse.

The Problem of Virtue

In his seminal 1981 book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre attributed “the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate” to the fact that “the language and the appearances of morality persist even though the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed.” Macintyre likened our moral understanding—and, consequently, much of our political and cultural discourse—to that of a scientist in a post-apocalyptic world where most of our scientific knowledge has been destroyed, save for a few incomplete remnants.

Hypothetically, this post-apocalyptic individual would assume he was able to continue to do effective science using the fragmented knowledge available to him, but in reality, his capacity to do so would be severely stunted. In this world, MacIntyre writes:

Many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of [scientific] expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no further argument could be given would abound. Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism.

Our modern moral understanding is similar to that of the post-apocalyptic scientist. Our framework for understanding the nature of truth, virtue, morality, and other foundational presuppositions has fractured into pieces, with some segments of our society holding onto one remnant and others adhering to another.

We are largely unaware of this fracturing, and are thus continually frustrated by other people’s inability to arrive at the same political, cultural, and social conclusions that we do despite our both ostensibly using legitimate modes of reasoning. The problem we often fail to understand, however, is that we are reasoning from entirely different moral premises.

MacIntyre subsequently argues that, despite the fact that we might be engaging in logically valid and good-faith argumentation with one another, we still “possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one against another” because “each [respective moral] premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others.” And it is from this moral confusion, I would contend, that the postmodern conservative impulse arises: though often crude and unsophisticated, it is the logical outcome of an aggrieved moral and philosophical understanding that has become frustrated with its inability to communicate itself in the democratic marketplace of ideas and feels powerless and unqualified to mount a defense against the corrosive threat of these broader developments.

The Authoritarianism of the Postmoderns

The Anglo-American conservative tradition has long seen itself as the defender of a classically liberal approach to politics, placing a concern for individual liberty and limited government at the center of its political understanding.

But conservatism has also traditionally recognized that, in the words of Edmund Burke, “liberty without wisdom and virtue . . . is the greatest of all possible evils, for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” Therefore, as virtue—or, at the very least, a collective shared understanding of what virtue constitutes—has declined, so too has the conservative affinity for liberty. The fractured morality that MacIntyre described has fomented a widespread decline in confidence regarding the capacity of our fractured culture to produce individuals capable of self-governance and has concomitantly increased an authoritarian disposition toward state power among a wide variety of political sensibilities.

Postmodern conservatism’s loss of interest in the principles of liberty and limited government can be understood as a sort of reconciliation with the fractured morality that MacIntyre described. The right has long seen itself as standing athwart the tide of postmodern culture, defending the idea of universal moral principles accessible to human reason against the postmodern attack on foundationalist narratives. But postmodern conservatism abandons the language of universal reason and nakedly embraces the anti-foundationalist impulse rather than continuing to resist it.

In the same way that the postmodern left has become increasingly preoccupied with so-called identity politics, the postmodern right sees identity rather than moral principles or political philosophy as its raison d’être—and insofar as it favors the limited government of the classical liberal or the traditionalist values of the religious right, it is a result of the fact that these interest groups and their desired policies are aspects of a coalitional tribal identity rather than being intrinsically and universally “good” or “right.”

With no shared agreement regarding the foundational constitution of a particular moral system, the possibility of reasoned argument is made practically impossible, and zero-sum authoritarianism increasingly seems to be a viable way to protect one’s own moral understanding against the imposition of various alternatives. But it bears recognizing that this crudely authoritarian attempt at imposing a particular moral understanding on a fractured society is not an innovation of the recently ascendant postmodern conservatives. In many ways, they are merely responding to the technocratic progressive impulse that has dominated our civilization’s elite institutions for the past century.

Under the guise of authoritative “expertise,” progressives have long seen their moral framework as more valid than the variety of alternatives and have consistently treated those who fall outside this framework as unreasonable, backward, and not deserving of serious consideration. As a consequence, the ostensibly tolerant, open-minded, and democratically egalitarian moral sensibility of the modern progressive is often anything but, seeing conservatism not as a valid political philosophy but merely a sophisticated rationalization of a reactionary tendency—a “series of irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” (Trilling)—which must be overcome in pursuit of a more enlightened and just society.

Given the fact that this progressive understanding has exercised a monopoly over many of our elite knowledge-producing institutions for decades, the angrily obstinate distrust that the postmodern right harbors toward truth claims is at least in part due to the fact that the “experts” who proclaim themselves the arbiters of “truth” often behave as if those who do not share their moral and philosophical premises are indisputably wrong, unreasonable, and immoral. As a result, progressives have routinely imposed their own moral preferences on others without admitting it, while simultaneously deriding any demurral as reactionary and dangerously authoritarian.

The recent moves to ban or restrict abortion access, for example, have been panned by the media and the progressive establishment as imposing the traditionalist Judeo-Christian view of life on an unconsenting polity—chants of “Get your religion off my body!” and activists dressed in costumes from The Handmaid’s Tale are a common feature of pro-abortion-rights demonstrations—but the Obama administration’s attempts to force religious nonprofits to pay for abortive agents (nearly forcing Catholic charities such as the Little Sisters of the Poor out of business) were cheered by the same institutions as a win for women’s rights.

Similarly, the progressive argument for the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage used a morally pluralistic “live and let live” justification—and yet simultaneously, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, many of the same left-wing activists argued that a Christian baker should be compelled by the state to endorse a same-sex union. One could be forgiven, then, for suspecting that the nominal moral pluralism of the progressives is often little more than opportunistic self-interest.

Against the Moral Autocracy

Because those who preside over our postmodern culture have yet to reckon with their own authoritarianism, a functional moral pluralism continues to elude us. The way to build an inhabitable political system capable of housing a diversity of moral premises would be through the cultivation of participatory institutions and deliberative democracy, but the continual expansion of an unaccountable administrative state that attempts to impose a rationalistic plan (in accordance with a particular moral vision) on our society has made this increasingly difficult.

The rising power of government bureaucracy has upped the stakes of politics: every election is now treated as “the most important election of our lives,” and every temporary ruling majority sees its primary objective as getting as much of its team’s agenda passed as possible instead of creating a workable shared order. And as our deliberative democratic institutions become increasingly performative and decreasingly functional, we turn to our judiciary to adjudicate an expanding number of our society’s most contentious issues, which in turn further damages our capacity for deliberative democracy.

This is, I would submit, the underlying condition that has given rise to the postmodern conservative phenomenon, which in many ways is not a novel development but rather the endmost result of postmodern culture. Traditional conservatives were the last vestiges of resistance to the postmodernization of Western civilization, and their demise (indicated by the ascendance of the postmodern right) is the final dissolution of an earlier world that, while rife with injustice, oppression, and suffering, was both simpler and easier to understand. Having abandoned their defense of neutrality and pluralism in the face of partisan adversaries who were largely uninterested in engaging with such principles in the first place, the postmodern conservatives have instead turned to the nihilistic pursuit of power to defend their own interests.

Our politics is now a nakedly self-serving affair, and the Nietzschean will to power has largely replaced attempts to pursue higher standards of liberty or justice: all politics are now identity politics, and our elections have been reduced to a struggle between two identitarian coalitions regarding which one will get to temporarily impose their moral premises on the other. We should hardly be surprised, then, that the sheer weight of our moral fragmentation has swept away the last of universalism’s defenders. The postmodernization of conservatism is merely the final casualty of our postmodern culture.

Toward a Moral Pluralism

There is no obvious answer to this division and moral fracturing, no ten-point plan to escape the increasingly partisan character of our postmodern politics. A first step, however, would be to seek a clearer understanding of the character of our predicament, which is often exacerbated and made exponentially worse by oblivious shortsightedness and a ubiquitous lack of self-awareness.

Our postmodern moral fragmentation is a challenge that does not yield easily satisfactory solutions, but the development of a respect for moral pluralism might allow us to find a way to live together in something approximating peace and prosperity. In this way, the right’s postmodern turn is exactly the wrong approach, but the left must also reckon with its own responsibility for the conditions that produced it. Moral authoritarianism and rank identarianism are self-reproducing, and the progressive tendency to impose their moral understanding on others without recognizing that they do so must be addressed if our escalating culture wars are to be subdued.

When we are forced to confront one another on inescapable moral questions for which we possess different premises, we should seek to do so through participatory democratic institutions rather than faceless bureaucrats and unelected judges. To this end, we should exercise a healthy distrust toward those self-proclaimed pragmatists who tell us that they are “simply interested in the facts” and just want to “follow the science” as an excuse for imposing their moral understanding on the vast diversity of human experiences and habits of conduct. Instead, we should celebrate this diversity, allowing it to thrive unmitigated by the stern hand of the rationalist planner who persistently desires to “reduce the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles which he will then attack or defend only upon rational grounds.”

In this way, a defense of pluralism and liberty need not be rooted in abstract and disprovable theories of natural rights and private property, Millsian utopianism about the free marketplace of ideas and its capacity for producing Truth, or any other grand philosophical proclamation. Instead, Michael Oakeshott writes, “something much smaller and less pretentious will do”:

The observation that this condition of human circumstance is, in fact, current, and that we have learned to enjoy it and how to manage it; that we are not children in statu pupillari but adults who do not consider themselves under any obligation to justify their preference for making their own choices; and that it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities and which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life. In short, if a [proponent of this view] is asked: Why ought governments to accept the current diversity of opinion and activity in preference to imposing upon their subjects a dream of their own? it is enough for him to reply: Why not? Their dreams are no different from those of anyone else; and if it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them.

Maybe this is how we can reconcile the postmodern humility about our epistemic capacity with the preservation of liberty.

And if we preserve liberty, we will not have entirely forgotten the tradition from whence we came: a tradition that, when taken seriously, points us toward a future where virtue is capable of flourishing once again.

About the Author

Nate Hochman is an undergraduate at Colorado College and a Young Voices contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @njhochman.

Image by Charles Deluvio via Unsplash.

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