A key difference between liberalism and conservatism

Left intellectuals are expected to be more extreme than liberal voters; Right intellectuals are expected to be more moderate than conservative voters.

I’m not sure if anyone has pointed this out before, but it explains a lot about the different dynamics of the two movements.  A member of the intellectual leadership on the Left will generally be a Marxist or at least have had his mind formed by the Marxist tradition.  The elite then tone down the atheism, free love, and private property abolition stuff when it comes time to court the masses, and they insist they just want a higher minimum wage and more free college.  Right intellectuals are either

  1. neoconservatives:  moderate Leftists who use some liberal premise to justify some conservative or right-liberal practice (e.g. civil rights to oppose affirmative action, feminism to justify Muslim-baiting)
  2. outright Leftists like David Brooks or Andrew Sullivan who agree with the far-Left on basically everything but for some reason call themselves conservatives
Right intellectuals are always promising the Republican party a bright future if only it will throw away its conservative and populist supporters and embrace a Leftist agenda, relabeling it “conservatism”.
Left intellectuals are attached to the substance of liberalism rather than the label.  The will call themselves “progressives” or “antifascists” or whatever else they need to do to sell the substance of their programs.  Right intellectuals have already removed all substance from conservatism.  All they have left is the name, which they will use to anoint anything.
Left intellectuals are proud of their familiarity with the larger currents of European thought:  Hegelianism, Marxism, postmodernism, etc.  Right intellectuals are proud that their intellectual formation has not been effected by the continental European counterrevolutionary tradition at all.  In fact, they like to trace their beliefs back no further than the late eighteenth century and the Founding Traitors.
Left intellectuals respect their base.  Even if they think feminist, pro-choice, and gay-rights activists lack perspective, they agree with their stands and respect their conviction.  Right intellectuals despise their base.  Not only do they think pro-lifers and gender essentialists are a distraction from the most important issues, they regard them as stupid and embarrassing.
Overall, the Left intelligensia is a far more respectable organization.  It’s hard to see in the Right intelligensia anything better than cynical careerism.  The Right will never make progress until it is arranged more like the Left.

28 Responses

  1. Brilliant. You are exactly correct and I had not thought of it in those terms before.
    That was truly insightful.

  2. Excellent.

    I suppose the explanation is that being an intellectual is intrinsically a Left-tending thing.

  3. “Left intellectuals are proud of their familiarity with the larger currents of European thought: Hegelianism, Marxism, postmodernism, etc. Right intellectuals are proud that their intellectual formation has not been effected by the continental European counterrevolutionary tradition at all.”

    This raises an obvious question:
    Left intellectuals love philosophers like Rousseau, Marx, Beauvoir, Foucault.
    Right-liberal intellectuals love British empiricists.
    Now obviously there’s a long tradition of widely-read philosophers outside these lists. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and the rationalists. (Maistre was an explicitly conservative capstone to this line, though everyone who reads him knows all too well than no one reads him.)
    Don’t they still have disciples, and if so, do the disciples have any politics?

  4. Facepalm.

    Maybe the right would be in a better position if it had more intellectuals. Especially those who could separate the crypto-right from the true right. Brains are a gift from God. Stupidity a privation.

  5. Brilliant post. But… what would be better would be to say that Left intellectuals are rewarded for being outrageous (Peter Singer giving rights to chimpanzees), Right intellectuals are punished for sticking to what is right and proper (David Stove arguing that semiotics, feminism and marxism are all tosh)

    The commonwealth conservatives are deeply empirical because conservatism eschews the delusion that the our ancestors were dumber than us. Instead, it tries to preserve solutions that work, traditions that work, and preserve the ancient virtues of pietas,, veritas and dignitas. Destroying these things is now standard operating procedure in the (rapidly becoming irrelevant) arts faculty. Defending them is now revolutionary, and revolutionaries get punished.

  6. Brains are a gift and a responsibility – and neither are brains an especially-valuable gift from the Christian perspective.

    Love, Courage, Humility, Devoutness – all are vastly more important than brains – all are conspicuously lacking among the average intellectual. Brains *without* the necessary LCHD are more of a curse (to the individual, to society) than a benefit.

    I continue to hope; but am pessimistic that intellectuals will either reform en masse, or that Trad intellectuals will provide leadership out of the morass.

    Such optimism as I have, not much, is pinned on brave and simple people who are clearheaded enough to see what is in front of their faces and respond to what is in their hearts: Hobbits not Elves, Harry not Hermione.

    The intellectuals job will mostly be negative – to know enough not to get in the way; to lend background support rather than helping to crush.

  7. @BGC

    Love, Courage, Humility, Devoutness

    The word you’re looking for is charity, or more specifically caritas. Brains are not the enemy, bad thinking is. Or more importantly, not recognising a bad train of thought. That is usually attributable to pride.

    Privation and Sin are the enemy, not intelligence.

  8. Translation: no one who is at all intellectual will subscribe to the super-conservative views that you hold.

    Shouldn’t that tell you something? You know, kind of like if no swim teacher or Olympic competitor adopted your “flop around” stroke? Maybe there’s a reason for it?

  9. Bonald just showed us one problem with intellectuals. So the solution to a problem is more of the problem?

  10. Conservative intellectuals labor with an inherent handicap because conservatism is, at heart, an endless reminder that the eternal verities are, well, eternal verities. All the old platitudes are true. This is, at the very least, boring, and it is very often depressing, since the conservative says the basic human condition has not changed and will not change. You can’t make conservatism exciting because people have heard it all before, and they didn’t like it the first time.

    Progressives, on the other hand, have the easy job of (a) assuring us that all our ills and disappointments can be remedied, and (b) trotting out novel ideas that are “interesting” simply because they are new. Of course they are all riffs on the basic Doctrine of Oppression, but there’s no end to the possibilities for novel twists to the Emancipatory Project.

    Conservative intellectuals can, of course, spend their time criticizing the inane novelties that are cranked out by the left, but this simply adds to the impression that they are grumpy killjoys.

    We conservatives will not win recruits with brilliant ideas, because we’re really not into brilliant ideas. We’re into dull ideas. The attraction of a dull idea is found in the desirable consequences that attend a life lived in accord with it. It’s an idea that works. Its all that working that made the idea dull.

    (This relates to your earlier post about liberals as good men. A great many leftists live their lives according to conservative platitudes. Their leftism is all talk. This should be pointed out more often, since these bourgeois radicals are like the drug pusher who does not take the drugs he sells.)

  11. The cardinal maxim of socialism, ever since the days of Jaurès has been “No enemies on the Left.” On principle, no socialist will attack another for being too extreme.

    The Right has no such inhibitions. To Legitimists, an Orléaniste, like Charles Maurras was little better than a Trotskyist.

  12. Alas, this sort of internecine warfare is not a monopoly of the right. The left, all the way from soft liberalism to Stalinist communism, is riven with endless factional rivalries. If I were invited to a dinner party at which Nancy Pelosi, Slavoj Zizek, Tony Blair, George Galloway, Polly Toynbee and Hugo Chávez were seated next to each other, I would wear a bullet-proof vest.

    In his history of the Second World War, Churchill talks about naively appointing a Labour politician as ambassador to Moscow, thinking that the Russians would get on well with a fellow leftist. Churchill then discovered, to his apparently sincere surprise, that communists hate social democrats even more than they hate right-wingers.

  13. I think this phenomenon is related to the Overton Window. Because Leftists control the pinnacles of the educational and media establishment, Rightists lose their jobs, or are never hired, and thusly, their views are not propagated popularly.

    It has little to do with intellectual respectability, and is hardly a cause for Rightist hand wringing about their intellectual tradition. Such is an example of an “inferiority complex” that is intentionally planted by those in power into the minds of those who would oppose them.

    Once you come to grips with the fact that the intellectual market is not “free”, there is no surprise or wonder in seeing our viewpoint under-represented. It is being intentionally and systematically suppressed.

  14. This is the best reply of the set.

    Liberalism/Progessivism/Leftism is basically the sexy lie. It’s sexy because who doesn’t like free ice cream, free sex, and promises of manmade daffodils and paradises?

    Conservatism is the unsexy truth. It’s unsexy because people know it’s true, but they don’t like it, because they prefer free sex, ice cream and dreams of manmade daffodil futures. Whether it’s inside your head when some life event crops up and smacks you in the face with the lies of the left, or if it’s simply the realization of how one wishes to order one’s personal, romantic, familial, professional and financial life, conservative principles come home to roost, one way or the other. This is why even most of the left intelligentsia lead lives that are very conservative in many respects, despite their fruitless and, over the course of a lifetime, increasingly desperate protestations to the contrary.

    This is why the task of the conservative intellectual is different from that of the leftist intellectual. The leftist intellectual is essentially a follower of a relatively recent philosophical fashion in the West — his task is to further the development of this fashion, and its penetration into the culture. The conservative intellectual’s task is fundamentally different in that it consists of bearing intellectual witness to the timelessness of conservative truths while at the same time applying them appropriately in a contemporary idiom. While the latter is hardly an easy task, it is fundamentally the task of the conservative thinker and intellectual, and it is vastly different from that of the leftist intellectual. Conservative thinkers and intellectuals run into trouble when they lust after the sexiness of the product of the left — this is like banging one’s head into a brick wall repeatedly or urinating into the coming gust of wind. Instead, conservative thinkers need to align themselves around the much deeper and less fashionable tradition, identifying those places where it interfaces with contemporary life (often where people are dismayed about or in some degree of dissonance about) and expound and apply appropriately in context. The task is not one of propagandist (as it is on the left). The task is more one of diagnostician and physician, in the intellectual sense.

  15. I think a lot of it has to do with the essence of both. I think the left is a true “movement” in the sense that it is “moving toward” progress/equality/chaos. The word “revolution” itself is about movement, and the idea of perpetual revolution was first hatched by Hobbes who argued for a man who was perpetually in motion.

    The right on the other hand, has been about resisting that movement and finding order (rest). As something focused on rest, the right’s intellectuals both face more resistance (everyone likes change) and tend to oppose movement of any kind.

    The counterrevolutionary right is a little different; any adherence to that tradition will necessarily overthrow the status quo. Unfortunately for their popularity, their new condition for humanity isn’t liked much by the anarchists running around. The intellectuals in that tradition tend to be guarded, so most don’t advertise their radicalism.

  16. That question overlooks the difference between “intellectual” and “intelligent”. There are many intelligent, educated, and well-informed “super conservatives”. Look at the people who contribute to Chronicles Magazine for example.

    An intellectual is not just someone who is intelligent and while intelligence is supposed to be a prerequisite for being an intellectual many of them are just plain stupid. An intellectual is part of a clique that considers itself to be an elite that is entitled to boss the rest of us around because of its intellectual and moral superiority. That “intellectual and moral superiority” is entirely self-proclaimed and members of the clique prove their worthiness by holding liberal and progressive ideas and by having degrees from the right universities.

  17. You can’t make conservatism exciting because people have heard it all before, and they didn’t like it the first time.

    I disagree. See here.

    Mel Gibson’s Passion was in a similar vein. It showed that the faith was not a religion for pussies. The conservative movement needs to stop arguing within the leftist frame. Immortality, nobility and honour, trump sex, drugs and rock and roll.

  18. Bonald has an interesting old post on traditionalist movies. He seems to agree with slumlord that there is a rich vein of artistic themes here which Hollywood is incapable of exploiting properly b/c they are not able to actually see it. As he says:

    they will occasionally make a conservative movie completely by mistake, without knowing what they’ve done.

  19. That was a neat video clip, but I think it actually supports the argument I made above. I didn’t say conservatism could never be attractive, only that it was not especially attractive when presented as well-worn platitudes. A life lived in accord with those platitudes is, however, very attractive. The virtues of the white boxer in the video clip are, clearly, hard work, perseverance, filial piety, and concentration. These are all very attractive when embodied in a real life, or depicted as they are on the video clip. The white boxer is clearly an admirable man, the black boxer apparently a narcissistic buffoon who’s about to have his clock cleaned. It’s just that there is nothing intellectually exciting about saying things like “work hard,” “stick to it,” “honor your parents,” “keep your eye on the ball.”

    What this suggests to me is that the truth of conservatism is best conveyed through what we might call the “moral beauty” of a life lived in accord with conservative platitudes. As they tell aspiring novelists, show, don’t tell. The Left actually recognizes this, and so has generated a vast literature on what they call “aestheticization” by the Right. The best answer to the philosophy of William Godwin may not be Burke, but rather the novels of Jane Austen

  20. Thanks.

  21. Hi JMsmith,

    I’ve actually found reactionary theorizing–both reading that of the greats and my own amateur efforts–quite thrilling. On the other hand, I might not find it so if it weren’t for liberals already stirring things up by attacking these eternal verities. I may belong to the first generation that could be thrilled by seeing someone lay out the rationale for, say, patriarchy. To previous generations, that would be like reading a detailed argument for why kindness is better than cruelty or why it’s better to walk forwards than backwards. Sure, there may be subtleties in the rationale, but who wants to waste time on something where the conclusion is so obvious?

    Still, I think there are subjects that only conservatives can really explore, such as the nature of authority (which liberals can’t discuss because they don’t believe in it and always substitute something completely different, like the majority’s will), that would be fascinating even in a world where there were no liberals. Our world view may be old, but it’s not simple or dull.

  22. In a paradoxical way the greatest gift that the conservative movement has been given is the institutionalisation of Leftism. Conservatives now are the new radicals and rebels.

    I may belong to the first generation that could be thrilled by seeing someone lay out the rationale for, say, patriarchy.

    Ropke energises the soul and Roissy is seditious in an exciting way. (I know, I know, many people find his writings offensive) The trick is to use the Christian tradition to know which parts to accept and which parts to reject. Hypergamy for instance is a perfectly legitimate Christian concept, hedonism is not.

  23. Bonald: Since I find conservative thought fascinating, I can’t very well disagree with you about this. It is very exciting to read a rational defense of something one has always heard ridiculed, particularly when one has always had an intuition that the ridiculed thing is true. It’s like seeing a loved one rescued from a sinking ship. Of course, if one begins with a hatred for reverence, or authority, or tradition, or whatever else, rational defenses of these ideals will not be so pleasant.

  24. My response to this would be that there’s nothing new under the sun. Conservative ideas are old, but liberal ideas are old too. The concepts of democracy, civil rights, personal freedom, constitutional governance and the multi-ethnic state go back at least to Graeco-Roman times.

    As to liberals living their lives according to conservative values, that’s true if you mean that most liberals aren’t caricatured drug-addled satanists – but then that was never what the liberal project was about. After all, Voltaire and Mill weren’t hippy anarchists. Mary Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have gone on a Slut Walk. Thomas Jefferson may have taken up arms against the Crown (which I find it somewhat difficult to forgive him for), but he was a serious man who believed in social order and responsible government. These are shared values, and I would counsel conservatives against seeking to monopolise them.

  25. Dan’s basic claim seems to be that TradCon views are discredited. But sometimes “discredited” is just a euphemism for “banned from power.”

    Assume TradCon views rest on some kind of institutional discrimination: religious, sexual, ethnic, moral, etc. But if you look around, there are a whole lot of anti-discrimination laws today which prevent “discriminatory” policies at educational institutions and other opinion-forming establishments, like newspapers.

    This suggests that TradCon institutions are de facto banned, and that there are actual regulations which are preferring our enemies and suppressing our friends.

    Once we’ve recognized the frames of the “Overton window,” naming and explaining the impact of these regulations is the next step. The marketplace of ideas is indeed rigged, as Justin says below.

  26. Tom Sowell explained this fallacy very well: “Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler were both imperfect human beings.”

  27. […] the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism.  I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected […]

  28. […] the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism.  I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected […]

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