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Post-modern conservatism: Or how the right became what it hated

Few things rile up today’s conservatives like the boogeyman of post-modernism. 

Associated with identity politics, political correctness, social justice warriors, and relativistic cultural Marxism, post-modernism is often degraded as the locus of everything that is wrong with society. Jordan Peterson, now a right wing hero, has characterized it as “dangerous” and “radical.” The National Security Council claimed post-modern “cultural Marxism” was at the root of opposition to Trump.  And Ben Shapiro, not to be outdone, called Obama the first “post-modern” President. Where, one might ask, does all this hatred come from?

The right on post-modernism

The root of most conservative critiques of post-modernism are its alleged attacks on the idea of universal truth.  In lieu of believing that there are universal scientific and moral truths that apply everyone and to everyone, regardless of their background, critics claim that post-modernism leads to the belief that everything is dependent on social context.  This leads to the belief that, rather than being singular, truth is fundamentally pluralistic.  What counts as truth for a wealthy white male like Donald Trump might not count as truth for a black single mother living in Chicago.  This, it is claimed, leads quickly to the kind of identity politics and politically correct culture prominently associated with the Left. Since there are no universal truths which everyone is beholden true, identity becomes singularly important since it is now the locus for what we think and why.  This means that identity becomes the primary driver behind politics as different groups compete to have their identity-specific truths reflected in the law and social behavior.

We are witnessing the emergence of post-modern conservatism.

This conservative accounts has always been more of a superficial caricature of post-modern thought than an accurate description. For the most part it seems derived mostly from a desire to clamp down on the scourge of campus politics-surely the most pressing social issue today!-than any thorough look at post-modern thought. There is little in this account of post-modernism, for example, that would be recognizable to Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard or any of the other major authors in the tradition. But my point in this article isn’t to criticize conservatives for getting post-modernism wrong. It is for not recognizing that many conservatives have started to move closer and closer to the ideology and stereotypes of post-modernism they claim to criticize. In other words, we are witnessing the emergence of post-modern conservatism.

Post-modern conservatism

Contrary to popular belief, identity politics and a distrust of truth is hardly foreign to conservatism. The great English conservative thinker Edmund Burke made his name asserting the primacy of cultural identity and tradition over the hyper rationalism of the elite intellectuals who brought about the French Revolution.  Echoing today’s anti-elitism Burke worried that the age of chivalry and respect for tradition was coming to an end, replaced by the age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators.”  Burke was followed in these sentiments by generations of conservative thinkers, from Oakshott to Robert Bork, arguing that conservatism, promotes identity, history and particularity against the rationalism and universalism of arrogant liberals. Or as the British Lord Devlin put it when opposing support for gay rights against the claims of the liberal H.L.A Hart, society should accept the values “the man on the Clapham omnibus” would accept.  Not because they are right.  But because his identity is reflective of the national identity.

Today’s post-modern conservatives are the (often) unknowing heirs to this tradition, but par usual, have radicalized it. These promotors of “alternative facts” are like their left wing cousins in arguing for a kind of identity politics against the universalism of modern values.  But where left wing post-modernism argues that we need a society that respects a plurality of different identities, post-modern conservatives want a return to a singular national identity. Post-modern conservatism claim that the Left has marginalized people who hold to the traditional and legitimate “truths”, and that this this is deeply wrong. Not because there are better arguments or reasons for these “truths” than any others. Post-modern conservatism is characterized by its disdain for intellectual authority, preferring ties of identity and commonality.  But because these “truths” are those that historically held society together.

Post-modern conservatism is characterized by its disdain for intellectual authority.

In practice, this means that post-modern conservatives have mobilized their identity to push for a retrenchment of traditional values against the demands of both classical liberals who believe in the objective truth of liberalism, and post-modern leftists who want a more pluralistic society.  The rise of Donald Trump, the identity politics of Brexit and the French National Front, and the development of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and Poland, are all symptoms of the rights embrace of post-modern tropes.  These political actors and movement demonstrate contempt for their opponents. They affiliate with people who think, look, and talk like them, and are wary of outsiders who don’t share that identity.  And above all else, they are dismissive of possible facts “truths” that don’t accord with tradition and “common sense”, calling them “fake news” and other cute neologisms.  In other words, they’ve become what they claimed to hate. We’re all the poorer for it.

Matt McManus recently completed his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies. He is currently a Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at [email protected]