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MacIntyre: How the neocon cycle inevitably moves conservatism to the left

I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me. Ronald Reagan’s famous turn of phrase has been adopted by many who find themselves suddenly and inexplicably identified as right-wing. We like to think that the current explosion of wokeness that has forced many moderate liberals out of the Democratic Party is a unique phenomenon, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Every generation, the radical acceleration of the left forces it to shed a certain percentage of liberals who are not willing to adopt the newest progressive dogma, and due to the binary nature of the American political landscape, those individuals inevitably find themselves identified with the conservative movement. The discarded revolutionaries are often bewildered by their sudden ejection from the movement they identified with for most of their lives and are slow to embrace their new allies.

Despite their initial hesitance, the newly minted conservatives are often thrust into positions of power and notoriety in the movement, which is subsequently altered by the residual left-wing views of its new leaders. This neoconservative cycle is one of the key reasons why the American conservative movement finds itself slowly but inevitably moving to the left.

Republican leadership is consistently out of step with the positions of its voting base. Conservative politicians, pundits, and thought leaders now hold social positions that are radically to the left of moderate Democrats in the 1990s. In 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton publicly confirmed their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, but in 2022, twelve GOP senators crossed the aisle to pass a bill redefining marriage. Utah Governor Spencer Cox, the current Republican leader of one of the most conservative states in the nation, announces his pronouns before speeches and vigorously supports the progressive narrative of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

I have written about a number of political ratchets that assure the consistent leftward drift of American politics, but one of the most powerful is the mechanism that places disaffected progressives in key positions of leadership inside the conservative movement. Without addressing this failure of gatekeeping, there is very little chance that the right will conserve anything of value.

Every revolution eventually eats its own, and this is very evident on the left. Because progressivism is about the deconstruction of civilization and the institutions that support it, someone is always being left behind. Feminists loved the revolution as it deconstructed gender roles and emancipated women from traditional bonds, but suddenly found themselves labeled bigots if they opposed the redefinition of what a woman is.

Many atheists were happy to cheer the left as it stripped God from the public square, but were shocked when universities started firing professors for doing research or holding political positions that violated the new religion that took the place of the old one. These former revolutionaries found themselves in the classic neoconservative position, standing athwart a movement they once led and begging it stop now that it had reached something they held sacred. But the revolution stops for no one, and these once trendy and virtuous individuals suddenly found themselves cast down into the social status abyss of red America.

When the freshly minted batch of neocons arrive on the right, they are generally surprised to find that it is not that bad. The people are nice, welcoming, and genuinely excited to see someone from the left realize how insane things have gotten over there. The former revolutionaries are still hesitant to identify as conservatives, because conservatives still have very backward and dangerous ideas, but they do start to believe that if they could just reform the right, there could be a home for the now-moderate liberals of this generation.

The key thing to remember is that most of these discarded revolutionaries do not think they did anything wrong. The neoconservatives believe that they were correct to support the progressive moment up until the point where they were dismissed from it. They do not understand that the values they supported would always inevitably lead to the attack on what they held sacred. There is no repentance, because there is nothing to repent of. So the neoconservatives seek to reconstruct their older version of the movement they were just ejected from by pulling their new conservative allies to the left.

The right tends to follow neoconservative leadership for a very simple reason: In America, progressive credentials determine social and moral standing. Those with the skills for modern technocratic and media-driven leadership tend to acquire them at institutions that transmit progressive values. Those who have most recently fallen from grace are also closest to the progressive zeitgeist and therefore closer to power and prestige. Whenever a high-status defector moves right, conservatives rush to appease their new ally, thinking that the left has finally gone too far and sanity will soon be restored. Conservatives can be quickly convinced to shift key elements of their worldview in the hope that if they capture the disaffected center, the popular majority will swing their direction. But that victory never comes, and the right commits, issue by issue, to shift farther to the left in each iteration of the cycle.

The progressive opposition is more than happy to play its role in this process. Nothing is more hated than a recent apostate. Defectors are a threat to the revolution, no matter how moderate their objections might be, and so an example must be made. Every progressive must be shown what happens to those who betray the movement. This public persecution only raises the profile of those attacked, making it increasingly likely that they will be seen as important and worthy of elevation on the right. Anyone treated as this dangerous by the progressives must be saying something very important.

This all-out attack on recent defectors also has the very valuable effect of anchoring the right-most edge of the Overton window. Donald Trump is, by all reasonable measures, a blue-dog Democrat. He is socially progressive on some issues but not totally radical, and he has the protectionist and immigration positions of moderate leftists from a few decades ago. This is not an attack on Trump — sadly, a blue-dog Democrat is to the right of most of the GOP today — but it is the truth. There is just nothing radical about his positions.

The media, however, are willing to shriek relentlessly about how Trump is the most radical authoritarian reactionary ever to win office. They declare him the second coming of Hitler on a daily basis. Conservatives defend him passionately because they see the fervent vitriol of these heinous attacks, but they also onboard the framing. Trump has now been successfully redefined as the right-most edge of political discourse, and anything beyond must, by definition, be unacceptable. That is how a moderate Democrat from the 2000s becomes the most radical conservative in 2023.

Unless conservatism can define itself, it will always be, as the author Michael Malice has famously labeled it, progressivism going the speed limit. It will always be the trailing edge of the left-wing revolution that drives American politics. The right cannot exist simply in opposition to the left, and frankly, it cannot see itself as strictly conserving a culture it failed to defend long ago. Those who seek to defeat the left must first understand what leftists are fighting for — and who they are fighting for — and offer a better vision of the future. That should not be too hard; the future the left offers now is rather ugly. But it means that the time of purely reacting to the left is over. The right cannot simply accept the cast-off leadership class and ideology of the left from 20 years ago and call it a movement. It must be something more.

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