Like a lot of people in the Outer Right, I used to be a normie conservative who became slowly “radicalized”. And as with many in the Outer Right, I have a particular interest in the radicalization (or lack thereof) of some prominent media conservatives who only go so far and no farther. I do not speak of the #NeverTrump cucks, but rather the genuinely admirable and courageous figures in the wider Conservative sphere who produce insightful and useful work. Unlike me, they operate under their real names, and when they get called Nazis, it is often accompanied by threats to their families. They make a living in media or academia, but it would be unfair to describe them as careerist. They do what they love and are good at it and want to keep doing it.
These people are smart, educated and well read. They are not hucksters or e-book charlatans. They’ve read their Plato and Aristotle and know the big issues, if only academically. They are already to the right of your average American, or even your average Republican. But, for whatever reason, these figures have stopped their rightward movement, either after fits and starts or a long career. What are the contours of some of these self-imposed barriers? Rather than psychologize them as to why they refuse to take this step, we will examine their arguments on the merits. And boy are they weak.
Tucker Carlson is the epitome of the un-radical conservative pundit who balances on a knife’s edge. The Fox News host was once largely seen as a detestable Paycheck Conservative Inc. squish while working as a sidekick for Robert Novak at CNN, complete with a bow tie and tweed jacket. But since 2016 election cycle, Carlson has become perhaps the most prominent “upper class” voice supporting Donald Trump.
In Ship of Fools, Carlson’s newest book, a tale is spun of an America that was fundamentally sound until the last few decades, when growing income inequality ruined the whole thing. The tedious Beltway wisdom of “centrist” voters is celebrated, and Bill Clinton is retconned as a proto-Trump who gave the voters exactly what they wanted when he was wise enough to ignore Democrat ideologues (like his wife!). Carlson contends that the undermining of the middle class through deindustrialization, mass immigration and the squandering of their lives and treasure on pointless foreign adventures are the exact issues Trump ran on when no one else would. America’s problem is the elites won’t listen. But, as always with conservative pundits, everything can be boiled down to a series of policy mistakes. Fix the bad policies and everything will be fine.
In many paths to the Outer Right, a simple question is often proposed: Is Democracy itself a problem? Well, Carlson recognizes that Western democratic systems do not function well without some kind of middle class. American prosperity in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a result of the political stability created by a vast middle class, through infrastructure and industrial investments, immigration restrictions, and complex civic life. Political power was often dispersed between the hands of the rich, and the hands of ordinary people, as we see in de Tocqueville and especially after the Jacksonian Era. But Latin American income inequality, as is frequently observed in the contemporary United States, will lead to Latin American politics, as Venezuela’s descent into anarchy shows.
The book’s subtitle “How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution” is intended as a warning and not a threat, because the revolution that is coming is not one of Tea Party patriots or MAGA-ists. Carlson realizes that it is a socialist revolution of left-wing ideologues exploiting underclass disaffection and an envy to seize power, not unlike Chavez and Maduro. Furthermore, he asserts that egalitarianism is needed to assuage people’s envy. If they know they can get ahead, they won’t be angry. What matters is not absolute levels of prosperity, it is relative poverty. If you have more than me, you’re rich and I’m poor. It’s about living the American dream.
Now this is all fine as far as it goes. I would note in passing, as others have, that it smacks of leftism, but we can let that pass. But more importantly, Carlson glosses over a lot of questions and difficult issues.
Democracy and Power in America
One of Carlson’s analytical shortcomings deals with the relationship between rich people and power in the United States. If you’re Noam Chomsky, that’s easy: rich people have all of the power in America. This is totally false. Fellow un-radical conservative pundit Angelo Codevilla observed in his essay and book “The Ruling Class” that the nature of our present elites is defined by their relationship to government and the university, not necessarily their accumulated financial capital. In short, our ruling elites are not rich people: they are James Burnham’s “Managerial Class,” having been the case since at least the 1930s.
These are the insights Mencius Moldbug shaped into his metaphor “the Cathedral.” To review, “the Cathedral” is the “emergent conspiracy of government bureaucrats, NGOs, media, and academia to take and hold informal power in Western democracies.” So it is not rich people who have power, or politicians who really win elections. It is managerialists who hold certain beliefs and retain certain relationships with certain institutions. Larry Summers may have money, but his money is the result of his power, not the other way around. His power comes from his relationships with Harvard University, the DNC, and Wall Street.
If the problem is simply rich people, then the solution is easy: you tax, regulate and subsidize the current ones out of existence, while the economic dislocations elevate a new breed of rich people. But if the problem is the managerial elite, how to you replace THEM? How do you rid their minds of foolish and increasingly delusional beliefs? Beliefs that are the result of an education that imparts, as Codevilla describes “a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed”? You can’t vote them out of office. We tried that with Trump. Whatever the successes and failures of the Trump administration, it is quite clear that the managerial elites are not going to fall in line behind the new regime. They think it’s temporary and they’re going to wait it out.
Indeed, Codevilla devoted an entire book to the question of the relationship between a managerial regime and its elites, “The Character of Nations.” The regime is more than the government, but the nexus of political and civil society, what is celebrated and condemned, what is rewarded and what is punished. From him we learn that ALL regimes have elites, even democracies. The question is what the elites do and believe, how they act, their virtues and vices. Codevilla has long been a champion of the wisdom of the American voter over managerial elites who promulgate Progressivism. Perhaps this was true in 1988, when Reagan painted the map red. But who are today’s voters?
The Democrats never tire of pointing out Clinton’s victory in the popular vote by almost 3 million more than President Trump. This margin represents basically two groups: the Managerial Class and their hangers-on and wannabes, and the immigrant vote banks this class imported to swell Democrat electoral rolls. Are they angry about Trump’s issues of de-industrialization, immigration and foreign disasters? The answers are: not really (surprisingly), yes (they want more!), and no. Instead, there are angry about insufficiently slavish devotion to various academic theories with little practical evidence, such as race, gender and queer theory, global warming, and socialism. An insurgent Donald Trump represents an affront to the importance of these issues, given the President’s insistence on industrialism and infrastructure as more important than cultural sensitivity.
Un-radical pundits like Carlson, Codevilla, Mark Steyn, and Michael Anton are all prominent (and in Codevilla’s case, early) proponents of the thesis that the West’s ruling elites have become less democratic as they have become more Progressive. The regime elites are no longer willing to accept the correction of the remaining unaligned voters when their pet projects, whether the European Union or Hillary Clinton, are called into question.
In an Orwellian twist, these elites mouth platitudes about “Our Democracy” while decrying the results of elections that do not go their way. To understand how this circle is squared, reference should be made to Moldbug’s concepts of “cis” versus “trans” democracy. “Cis” democracy is a system of government. In contrast, “trans” democracy is a religion, and what is a religion without its priests to read and interpret the sacred texts?
Codevilla recognized this phenomenon of split-Democracy as early as 1992 with his book Informing Statecraft, wherein Codevilla observed that the CIA and the State Department’s Foreign Service were more interested in the opinions of the Harvard faculty regarding the strengths and weaknesses of their main enemy, the Warsaw Pact, than those of the American electorate or even the President. In 1983, Yale alumni and future head of the Brookings Institution Strobe Talbot told the Soviet Union in the pages of Time magazine that Ronald Reagan’s views on the Cold War (“we win, they lose”) were his personal opinions and did not represent those of the government of the United States. This all while Reagan was the sitting President. For those familiar with these events, nothing in #RussiaGate would come as a surprise.
The final commonality of the insufficiently radical pundit, after recognition of the profound problem affecting the American republic, is an unwillingness to imagine that the sun has set on the American Republic; that its time is over, that the theses on which the Founders built it have been negated by antitheses in the intervening centuries. Instead, these people provide us with illusions.
In a very short “Epilogue” to “Ship of Fools,” Carlson gives his assessment of what the American people can do in view of the elites’ incompetence, and what the elites can do in view of the people’s resentment. First, he observes that elite control is the rule rather than the exception throughout human history. “People who have power defend it from those who don’t.” Much to the occasional chagrin of the ruling class (particularly after the results of an unfavorable election outcome), America still retains democratic functions, so thereby the voters retain the power to destroy arrangements that offend them. “In order to survive, democracies must remain egalitarian. Left untended democracies self-destruct.” The danger is that Donald Trump is only the first of a series of populist leaders. Eventually, this process will produce “radical leaders who will destroy the ruling class.”
Carlson concludes: “There are two ways to end this cycle. The quickest is to suspend democracy. There are justifications for this. If your voters can’t reach responsible conclusions, you can’t let them vote.” He cites Jordan as an example of a country that would be destabilized by democracy because its people are not ready for it.
“But there’s a cost to ending the vote. You can’t install an autocracy without widespread repression and bloodshed, especially in a secular society.” To illustrate this difference between religious and secular, Carlson gives Saudi Arabia and East Germany as examples of each type. “Most Saudis accept that their royal family was installed by God,” so they accept authoritarianism. In contrast, “nobody in East Germany ever believed that about their government.” As a result, the Communist regime needed “machine guns and a wall” to keep its own citizens from leaving. In this view, there is no transitioning from democracy in America without a civil war.
“The other solution is simpler: attend to the population. Think about what they want. Care about them. Listen. Give them back some of their power. Don’t overrule them.”
Now, I want to commend Carlson for even being willing to consider suspending Democracy, given the word has become a religious talisman for the Progressives. The view of Democracy as a permeable system that is not necessary for survival is a huge leap down the path of radicalization. However, we have to acknowledge that the foregoing analysis is profoundly shallow.
How to deal with Democracy in America?
The first objection to Tucker’s theses is the distinction between “religious” and “secular.” True, people and nations may be more or less religious. But the proffered comparison begs the question of: what exactly is the difference between Islam and Marxism? Where does the political start in Islam, versus where the religious ends in Marxism?
The second is anacyclosis or the cycle of regimes. Michael Anton (under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus) worried in his classic essay “The Flight 93 Election” that America and the West were on a trajectory toward something very bad. The American elites’ bad decisions in recent years rest on a bed of other bad decisions made in recent decades. Rather than seeing a Hegelian end of history, this experience opens us to seeing history in a cyclical way, wherein elite failings leads us to a new cycle in American historical development.
Classical political theory, most notably in Polybius, took Aristotle’s scheme of regimes just (monarchy, aristocracy, polity) and unjust (tyranny, oligarchy, ochlocracy) and put it in historical order. A city or nation or empire moves through each form in turn, starting with monarchy and moving through mob rule. Then when a state of chaos was reached, the cycle would begin again.
While Carlson may think that intentionally removing a democratic government is not practical, America may not have any choice. France has had five republics and two empires since 1789. If things go badly enough, the current American political order will be replaced, whether we want it to or not. You would think we would want to prepare for this possibility, but so far Michael Anton has been the only one who has even entertained this notion, echoing the lasting vision of Sam Francis’s “revolution from the middle.”
The third is Moldbug’s “true election.” This is essentially a “jump start” of the cycle of regimes, moving from democracy to monarchy without passing through the messy and destructive anarchy phase. In a true election, a candidate or party would run on the basis of a platform of using the power of the State to restore order without any regard for constitutional niceties. This means without sharing power between competing power centers.
Reactionaries supported Donald Trump because his campaign had the smell of a “true election.” Trump was running as the people’s agent to assert their power over an irresponsible and dysfunctional government. Certainly in the eyes of his enemies one can see the naked fear that he would be fully empowered. Perhaps 2020 will finally be a “true election,” perhaps not. Perhaps Brazil is having one now. But Carlson is mistaken if he believes the only route to an authoritarian outcome for America is the current elites using police state tactics to disenfranchise voters. In fact, Carlson seems to never consider the idea that common Americans may support upending democracy to preemptively disenfranchise the ruling elites.
The fourth is Michels’s Iron Law of Oligarcy and Mosca’s elite theory. In 1911, Michels observed that all organizations, even professedly democratic ones, are really run by their leaders. Later, Mosca argued in his book “The Ruling Class” that all societies are in fact ruled by a numerically minority political class. No matter what happens, the “people” cannot rule. They don’t now, they haven’t in the past, and they won’t in the future. All regimes have elites. The only questions are: Who? Whom?
Contemporary America is cursed with one of the worst regime elites in human history. While we are grateful that they lack the homicidal vigor of the 20th century’s worst regimes, has there ever been an elite that acts more like a clique of petty, spiteful high school girls? Indeed, Carlson’s entire book is a detailed catalogue of colossal foolishness and short sightedness, but there is scant material as to how the citizenry should deal with this degenerating elite.
Why would these people ever heed his urgings to “listen,” to “care” about Americans? They obviously don’t! Rather than appeal to their better natures, we should be thinking seriously about getting them to respond to incentives. How do we construct an order where the elites have incentives, in terms of power, wealth, and status, to do what is good for the nation and its citizens? What is the point of spending an entire book calling them names, if you are only going to end it by begging them to be nice? “Before something really bad happens!”
The radicalization of our conservative pundits is far from complete.
One Comment Add yours
You make the same errors you’re decrying, here. The problem is much simpler than a ‘managerial elite’, and not nearly as organic. As cliche as ‘names and addresses’ is, it’s fundamentally true – the state of our society isn’t the result of economic or social forces, it’s the direct result and intention of a mid-sized handful of evil people, working as a group.
As for pundits’ books, it’s not really something to think a lot about. Every pundit has a book, because it’s free money (and the worse ones get their book bought a few thousand times over by AEI every time they recommend bombing Iran), but normal people don’t really read them. Tucker is a good guy, but I very much doubt that he wrote his own book, just on the basis that it isn’t an efficient use of his time. The ‘good’ right wing pundits aren’t (meaningfully) ideologically distinct from us, they’re just trying to find the optimal balance between ‘say things that are useful’ and ‘maintain access to your current audience’. The smartest thing to do isn’t proselytizing to people who are already more-or-less on board, it’s building infrastructure and networks that a Fox-watching boomer could and would use to follow one of his favorite hosts if he got kicked off for noticing too many things publicly.