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whither conservatism?

January 10th, 2019 | 2 min read

By Matthew Loftus

While there’s a lot more that could be said and a lot of things that could be said differently (as I hope to in a forthcoming essay for Mere-O), I appreciated this assessment from Timothy Shenk at Dissent of where things are in conserva-world:

The gap between those two parties—the conservative party Republican elites thought they were part of, and the vessel of racial animus and economic frustration they’ve become—defines the crisis of the American right. This tension has been there from the founding of modern conservatism, when Buckley was defending Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy. But political movements talk about the death of ideology when they’re in retreat; it was true when ex-Marxists sprinted toward liberalism in the fifties, and again when Third-Way Democrats made their peace with Reaganism in the nineties, and it’s happening on the right today.

American politics has entered a new phase, where the things called liberalism and conservatism are both powerful and weak, decadent and not altogether viable. There’s a complicated lesson here. From one perspective, the breakdown of conservatism is a parable in the pitfalls of ideological politics. Start believing in something too much, the argument goes, and pretty soon you’ll start lying to yourself, too. The best option is to focus on Trump’s worst decisions and pray that a recession hits before Election Day 2020.

If only it were that simple. More than ever, the left needs a total critique of its own that shows the way beyond a broken status quo. It’s a point brought into relief by watching the right’s funhouse mirror version of the left’s ongoing argument over race and class. Worried that emphasizing the importance of race will minimize the real failures of elites? There’s Max Boot living up to the caricature. Concerned that focusing on economic inequality will push every other issue to the margins? Here’s Tucker Carlson telling Democrats they’ll have an ally in the battle against the neoliberal elite if they’ll only shut up about identity politics. Doubt that any solution is politically viable? Welcome to Reihan Salam’s world. Think that establishment politicians have no idea what they’re talking about? Let me introduce you to Ben Sasse.

More than anything, what “conservative” means seems to be up for grabs — it seems practically meaningless for a great number of people whose chief interest is “owning the libs” or keeping out immigrants, whereas those who have thought deeply about what conservatism as a philosophy is are divided on what’s most important: liberty and free markets, a respect for order and tradition, an appreciation for teleology, our obligations to one another as human beings, the value of institutions, what Marilynne Robinson called “the givenness of things”, or… something else entirely. Most of these seem to run together, but the inability of conservatism to pull together a meaningful post-fusionism suggests that we have figure out what takes priority.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at