Rod tells me that Nate Silver, who gained fame as the best, most readable electoral statistician around, has made a mistake . And so he has:

Beck is a PoMoCon — a post-modern conservative. And his philosophy is not all that difficult to articulate. It borrows a couple of things from traditional American conservatism:

— It shares an extreme distrust for government, particularly the Federal Government.
— It shares the notion that American society is in some sort of state of existential decline.

On the other hand, it also features some important differences:

— It is much more distrustful of non-governmental institutions, such as labor unions, corporations, political parties, community groups, the media, and scientific institutions.
— It is largely indifferent toward ‘social issues’.
— It is much less explicitly aligned with the Republican Party.
— It has much less use for elites, which it also distrusts.

The PoMoCons are not so much less self-consistent as they are less concerned with consistency , as compared with traditional conservatives. Theirs is a bric-a-brac, skeptical (sometimes to the point of paranoid), play-it-by-ear, relatively spontaneous reaction to the here-and-now — not something cooked up by a K Street thinktank. There is no future, no past — there is only today. And today is a pretty good day to be Glenn Beck.

Silver’s thumbnail anatomy of Beck’s politics is plausible enough, but on its face there’s nothing here it makes any sense to call postmodern. From a wider view, this is perhaps an opportune time to set the record straight on a few points about what is and isn’t postmodern-conservative.

So first consider Silver’s list of differences. Distrust of the non-governmental institutions Silver identifies has been a hallmark of social conservatives now for decades, which makes it somewhat discordant for Silver to suggest that ‘indifference’ toward social issues is in some way postmodern. The postmodern left is obsessed with power, viewing politics through a lens in which all social relations are function of power relations; and since I imagine Silver’s understanding of postmodernism is, unlike the one we actual pomocons tend to share, based on left postmodernism — about which more later — it’s unclear how or why he thinks social-issue indifference is pomo. And anyone who has followed our recent long exchange with the Front Porch Republic community knows that they, not we, are “much less explicitly aligned with the Republican party,” and in some important ways have “much less use for elites” than we do. These traits are more likely to be evidence of left conservatism than postmodern conservatism well understood!

Which leaves us with Silver’s catchall claim that pomocons are simply eclectic or ecumenical. Silver seems to confuse or conflate ideological eclecticism with the sort of political posture or practice that people without consultants adopt. And he seems to confuse both of these with a disinterest in the future that, at least to my eye, would utterly suck the wind out of Beck’s sails. Glenn Beck’s fame and identity derive entirely from a gripping fear that They are Taking Our Country Away From Us — horrible not because life has become unbearable today (the cry of leftist revolutionaries) but because the life we have lived will be made irrecoverable tomorrow . That’s a good-old-fashioned, white-bread conservative trope, as far as I can tell.

Now: there’s another incorrect vision of postmodern conservatism making the rounds — one we could associate with someone like Alan Wolfe, whose bugaboo is Carl Schmitt. The story goes like this: conservatism is no longer popular enough to command electoral success on its own strength. Very smart conservatives who know this realize that the only way they can stay in power is by scaring America’s rubes into a heightened, unnatural, protracted state of activism. So politics becomes crisis theater, and the task of very smart conservatives is to convince a bare majority of people that we live in a world where only giving very smart conservatives arbitrary ‘emergency’ power can save us. Very smart conservatives, of course, may or may not believe this to be true; what matters is ensuring that they can rule and preserve their own way of life. Since there is no longer any legitimate or honest way of doing this, they must become actors first and statesmen or philosophers later, if at all.

This is the brush that some have used to tar the Straussians and neocons. We needn’t pass judgment on the wisdom or merits of their critique in order to observe that the kind of stance attacked really has to be called conservative postmodernism and not postmodern conservatism. It’s is a postmodern position through and through, assured that all social relations are power relations and that all individual identities are masks. The conservatism is incidental — the mere ‘preference’ that motivates the use and abuse of the ‘facts’.

But recall that Strauss’s own critique of Max Weber — one in which he was joined by Philip Rieff, no neocon — insisted that the strict separation of ‘facts’ and ‘values’ at the heart of Weber’s sociology created the very conditions under which all social relations could become power theater: Weber begets Foucault. One point we pomocons have made before is that warm fuzzy left postmoderns like Richard Rorty are actually hypermodernists. Unlike the Foucauldians, Rorty wants to map facts and values onto liberalism’s public/private divide such that we can be John Stuart Mill in our social realtions and Nietzsche in our own fantasies. Rorty tells us that this strategic polarization will allow us to carry on a politics in which fact and value can actually live in harmony. This is not to abandon secular modernism but to go to extremes in the hopes of redeeming it.

For we pomocons, a postmodern conservatism is postmodern because it rejects Rorty’s project as kookily devoted to the modern longing to eradicate even the concept of eternity from human life; it is postmodern because it rejects the extension of Weber’s modern scientific heuristic to a conviction about what human nature really is. But these postmodern approaches open us onto an understanding of the wisdom of conservative dispositions, commitments, and convictions. We’re not pomo for pomo’s sake; we’re not conservative for pomo’s sake; and we’re not conservative simply because we feel like it or wound up that way and pomo because we have to be in order to get what we want.

A word about Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck is the worst. But why? Not so much because of who he distrusts or why. From where I’m standing, Beck is so awful because he theatrically combines and conflates performances of ultimate sincerity with performances of ultimate sarcasm. I think this is a telltale sign of a soul disordered by a confusion of love, power, and resentment. It becomes impossible, in such a person, to tell quite where their selfless solidarity, their egotism, and their hatred borne of weakness begin or end. And the titillating quality of this unstable charisma is precisely what they latch onto and exploit to become less a famous person than a famous happening. Their individual being becomes incidental to the phenomenon they represent. They actually corrode or dissolve their own identity in order to experience some hugeness that seems impossible to experience as a normal, integral human being. Any actual pomocon looks on that kind of allure as troublesome and dangerous, and the kind of person in thrall to it as no pomocon.

( Cross-posted. )

Articles by James Poulos


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