On American Conservatism as an Esoteric Ideology
Or, A Thing I Do Not Understand about Conservatives
First preliminary note: I did not state, and I do not believe, that American conservatism is wholly an esoteric ideology. Only that some useful things can be learned by considering it as if it were one. There’s a resemblance here, rather like the opposite of libertarians and beryllium, which bear no resemblance to one another at all.
Second preliminary note: There is some chance that “esoteric” doesn’t mean what you think it means. We should clear that up first, so we’ll start the piece proper with the true, hidden meaning of the term.
Third preliminary note: I left out the bits about Leo Strauss. Or rather, I saved them for the advanced course, which is available for a modest fee.
“Esoteric” doesn’t mean “hard to grasp.” It’s used that way a lot, but that’s wrong. Esoteric means something more like “having a public and a private face that are quite radically different.” But without being hypocritical, if such is possible. The public face is always relatively easy to grasp, and the inner truth is either hidden, hard to understand, hard to accept, or some combination of the three.
I think that’s what American conservatism is very often like.
Scientology is an esoteric religion. Publicly, Scientologists deny that there is any such thing as Xenu, the dark overlord of the galaxy, who imprisoned the souls of billions of murdered space aliens on a planet called Teegeeack (later “Earth”) 75 million years ago. Privately, upper-level Scientologists affirm it. Which makes the Talk:Xenu page at Wikipedia that much funnier, of course.
Much more respectably, Hinduism and Buddhism both have an esoteric component. As did the Greco-Roman cults. The educated and philosophically minded in the Roman Empire understood metaphysics very differently from the illiterates who spilled blood for their crudely carved household gods. But the spilling of blood did two useful thingss—first, it kept the proles in line, and second, it paved the way for those who were ready to move on to better things. Or so the thinking went.
Conservatism’s exoteric face is the part that’s most accessible. It’s also the part that liberals love to mock, often with good reason. Exoteric conservatism is boldly creationist, Confederate-flag-waving, and cheerfully anti-PC. It’s sanguinely sexist, happily homophobic, and paranoid only about the least competent institution in our society, the federal government. Exoteric conservatism might actually think about giving up on crypto-racism, except that they know how it bothers the liberals, and, well, exoteric politics is a consumption good. It’s all for the lulz.
Elite conservatives are not like this. They know very well that exoteric conservatism is strictly for the proles. They know that exoteric conservatism is no way whatsoever to run a country. Elite conservatives are embarrassed about it, too — sometimes a little more loudly than would be altogether wise, tactically speaking.
Elite conservatives are college-educated, cosmopolitan, and — dare I say it — a good bit more liberal than the proles. They virtually have to be to run the country, which they are still occasionally called upon to do.
Elite conservatives probably aren’t actually creationists. They generally avoid overt racial slurs. We know this because the exceptions make the headlines. Still, they have to signal to the proles, a delicate business, and one prone to occasional very damaging screwups.
The elites would love to find some way out of the gay marriage issue, which is increasingly a millstone for them electorally. (Is it a personal embarrassment? Eh. Politicians don’t feel personal embarrassment.)
I know these things for facts. I’m not going to drop names here, but I’ve talked with, dined with, drank with, or even edited perhaps most of the major professional advocates on the anti-SSM side. They don’t wish me harm. No, my dear proles, they do not. At the very, very worst, they are convinced that I’m already unhappy, and they wish there was a way to change that. But maybe there isn’t. Life sometimes calls for fortitude, doesn’t it? Elite conservatives really do have gay friends, and that’s not just a thing that they say to deflect criticism.
Consider, my lefties: If you think Antonin Scalia really hates gay people, you’re wrong. Still less does he hate his liberal colleagues on the Supreme Court. By all indications, he likes them, and he works with them in an obvious mood of very good cheer. Sentenced to near-isolation with several poster children of liberal depravity, he’s doing way, way better than the average conservative professes that he could possibly do. To the proles, these people are traitors.
Scalia is on the inside. The typical talk radio listener isn’t. And that makes all the difference.
The divide between the elite and the proles is also why the GOP can turn weirdly aporetic when it comes to women, gays, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Commenter North writes:
The irony, especially regarding SSM, is how tone deaf it was. If anti-SSMers had offered an alternative, some sort of other option, maybe they could have either prevailed or at least slowed down their loss. It was their [absoluteness], however, that undermined them so badly. From your average SSM debater up to Maggie herself you’d see the question thrown “well if gays can’t get married what should they do?” and it would be answered either with a dodge or with silence.
That’s because at times like these “dodge” and “silence” are the only things that hold the coalition together. “Beat them into submission” doesn’t play well for the elites, but it does for the proles; “let them have normal lives, I guess” would be vice versa.
The proles want gays turned straight again through sodomy laws, coercive therapy, intimidation, — and even, in a pinch, through shockingly crude sex advice given all too freely on Twitter. Whatever it takes to shoehorn us back into the closet. The elites wish we would go away, perhaps, but then again, they might be equally happy if the proles’ attitudes went away instead. In either case, they wouldn’t have to pander so much. That would be a relief, because pandering is a chore.
Now Seneca observed the Roman cult, but he also wrote the Gourdification of the Emperor Claudius. Was he a hypocrite? No! He was a thoughtful, reflective man, and it seems as if there always eventually comes to such types an inability to tie everything neatly together.
Perhaps that time has come for the conservative elite. If so, then what they need to do is very clear: They need to educate the conservative base. Why they don’t is the thing that I simply do not understand. Elites on the left take up this difficult and thankless task all the time. They educate their proles and — even if I don’t always agree with what they’re teaching — the mere effort surely counts in their favor. And the idea that one’s betters can and must show the way forward is nothing if not conservative. Isn’t it?
So, conservatives, if any are left, what do you say?