Vanishing Conservatism

Independent thinkers must contend with hostility from both the left and the right

Topics

Politics

Edmund Burke described society as “a partnership… between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Conservatives feel this keenly, believing they have obligations to generations past and to come. Enemies of conservatism, often driven by deep resentment of traditional values, prefer to uproot established customs and replace them with something — anything — perceived to be better. And these enemies of conservatism now dominate both wings of politics. To my mind the most dangerous are those whose confident materialism has almost smothered their social consciences, yet left behind a spark of guilt which is tidily assuaged by devotion to the modern pseudo-religion of political correctness.

Can you spot a person’s beliefs from one bumper sticker? It’s a safe bet. One favorite fashionable belief usually lines up with a whole raft of other superficially unrelated but predictable dogmas. For example, left-leaners think that climate change is the most serious “existential threat,” that the killing of infants prior to natural birth is okay and may even be socially responsible, that conventional bonds such as marriage are outmoded, that gender is fluid, that animals should have rights commensurate with our own (particularly if they’re whales or koalas), and that opinions deemed false should be cancelled and silenced.

What do right-leaners believe? Conservatives now struggle to find much difference between left and right. Sure, they have different heroes and villains, but neither group seems to hang on to a strong belief in what used to be called the sanctity of marriage. Abortion has never been a big concern for either the left or the secular right. All are sentimental about animals — you can find plenty of vegetarians on both sides of the socio-political divide. You would have to be seriously naive to imagine that susceptibility to tyranny is the exclusive property of either wing. And if you think that the right is keener on freedom of speech you’re dreaming: they might disagree on what constitutes misinformation, but they would suppress it if they could. Arthur Calwell once insulted an American diplomat by saying that US voters had to choose between two bottles (Democrat and Republican) with the same contents but different labels. It’s not very different now in Australia.

There was a time when the gulf was wider. The left was the natural orientation of the poor and the workers; the right the preserve of wealthier people with business interests. It wasn’t a hard and fast distinction (Hitler was a hero to many working-class Germans) but there was some truth in it. In recent decades that gulf has narrowed to vanishing point, at least in the prosperous West.

Virtue-signaling is the new test of probity. Today dedicated devotion to a noble cause may be a less powerful driver than the urge to distance yourself from something that embarrasses you. People on the left seem to have no ongoing interest in nationalizing industries, in fact they’re as likely as anybody else to invest in industry, property, and shares. People on the right also want to be on trend, distancing themselves from any whiff of old-fashioned social conservatism.

This is bad news for genuine conservatives who have a principal orientation and focus that is neither politically left nor right. They are more likely to think for themselves and make decisions that are not fashion-driven, but based on ethical, religious, or scientific criteria. In consequence they have to contend with a high degree of hostility from both the left and the right spectra; for many today conservative has become a dirty word.

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has been sworn in and is taking up his heavy duties with verve, energy, and much personal charm. We wish him well and hope that he will have the strength to strike a just balance between those who long for radical change and those who fear for the erosion of our Christian heritage.

 

David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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