Why I Am Not A Conservative (Any More)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Perhaps it’s another sign of the Triumph of Selfishism, but Margaret Thatcher’s death got me thinking about myself, and my own political development. It’s the Benjamin Button version: I started off as an undergraduate who believed in free markets and gun rights, and as I grew older slowly became more open-minded and left-wing. I spent a decade immersed in conservative blogs and books, reading them with diminishing enthusiasm, before finally giving them up in disgust. 

No single thing sums up what made me break from conservatism (although a prominent American pundit suggesting demonic possession as a cause of school shootings comes close). It was more a process: absorbing an overall sense of conservative ideology, and with it, an overall sense that conservative ideology was stupid.

What attracted me to the right in the first place was the idea government was inherently inefficient, wasteful, thuggish, illiberal and dangerous, and should be treated accordingly. It’s an idea I still have sympathy for. But I quickly found that most on the right don’t actually believe this, and usually barely even pretend to. Matthew Yglesias wrote recently that a conservative is now someone who “thinks cigarette taxes are fascism, but torture and indefinite detention are great.” This, in my experience, is bitterly true.

The difference is violence. Violence, or the sniff of it, seemed to have an almost magical effect on the ‘thinkers’ I was reading. Any time the state picked up a gun or a baton, all the caution about big, stupid and dangerous disappeared, and was replaced with open, masturbatory enthusiasm for more thuggish, more dangerous, and above all, more powerful. The government was Mr Hyde when it was a doctor, and Dr Jekyll when it went on a killing spree.

As the Iraq War took off, I watched people who believed the government incapable of running a post office argue it could transform the Arab World into an oasis of democracy within a year. If the state built chicken factories in Alaska, paid ten times too much then staffed them with incompetents and felons, this was socialism, the ‘fatal conceit’ that events could be controlled by central planning. But in Basrah it was ‘reconstruction’, even as America’s own infrastructure deconstructed. Military and civilian deaths weren’t unfortunate, but instead treated as a kind of gauge of resolve (if they were treated at all).

I was dismayed. I had started reading conservatives thinking they wanted government so small it could drown in a bathtub. Instead I found they wanted it kept bound in a gimp box, then unleashed in the dark. It’s true there are many exceptions, and I watched people like Andrew Sullivan, John Cole and Charles Johnson leaving the movement even as the movement left them. In Australia, there are those within the IPA who do principled and coherent work, even though their ‘coming with the customers’ funding might be distasteful. But here, mainstream conservative thinking is much more closely aligned with someone like Miranda Devine.

Miranda Devine believes that Andrew Bolt and Geert Wilders have a right to free speech free from prosecution and threat. She also believes that internet trolls should be arrested, along with Muslims shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ outside courtrooms (a matter for the Police Minister). Miranda Devine believes that critics of her on Twitter are guilty of ‘jackboot totalitarianism’, but that it’s right for a logging executive to advocate assaulting protestors. “It may not be palatable to say so publicly but violence can sometimes be good,” she wrote.  “. . . There comes a point in any disagreement when diplomacy ceases to be of any use. That is when violence has its place.” Characteristically, she also believes that she has “never advocated violence”.

Her thinking on free speech is radically incoherent crazy-paving – except viewed as an exercise in protecting authority, where it suddenly makes harmonious sense. There’s persuasive research that finds support for authority, especially through aggression, is the real central organizing principle of modern conservatism. I’ve read it but didn’t need to. After all, I had already done a version of it myself, trawling through enough angry boilerplate to realise that the rage wasn’t a byproduct, but the product itself. Even reading just one column is enough, if it’s the right one. “In order to safeguard freedom… then every challenge to authority must be countered when it arises.” That’s Devine again, squaring a circle I ultimately found impossible.


Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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