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There are many different forms of conservatism besides the version on offer from the American conservative movement.
Conservatism is famously difficult to define. Some have suggested that the only thing unifying the right is opposition to the left. Others say that a rejection of pure egalitarianism, and the acceptance of some inequalities or hierarchies in society is the key theme of the right.
In the United States, conservatism does seem to have some basic content to it, however. This conservatism emerged after World War II. While it draws on some prewar threads like classical liberalism, in my view postwar American conservatism represents something basically new.
The content of this movement has been described as the “three-legged stool” consisting of free market economics, traditionalism (or social conservatism), and anti-communism (or an aggressive foreign policy posture).
In his book Right Wing Critics of American Conservatism, professor George Hawley astutely notes that there’s nothing about these three things that naturally seem to go together to make up conservatism. He writes:
In the contemporary context, when we describe an American as politically conservative, we typically mean that this person favors limited government intervention in the economy, adheres to a traditional religious faith and believes these religious values should influence public policy, and generally favors a strong military presence abroad. Without knowing any context, there is no a priori reason one would infer that these three attributes are correlated with each other, or even that they are necessarily right wing. These policy preferences were not always associated with each other. The formation of the coherent conservative movement we know today can be traced no farther than the mid-twentieth century.
The postwar conservative consensus is clearly in trouble, threatened by the collapse of the Soviet Union that removed the anti-communist “glue” holding the movement together, the decline of religion in the US (my “negative world”), and the rejection of this policy set by the voters of the Republican Party (populism).
Any sort of new, viable conservatism in the US needs to update the product on offer. In that regard, it’s good to look at other forms of conservatism - not necessarily to adopt them wholesale, but to stimulate our thinking about what conservatism could or should be.
Monocle Magazine’s Globalist Conservatism
At first glance, the international jet set magazine Moncole would not seem to be a place to look for a conservative ethos. Both its founder-editorial director Tyler Brûlé, and his right hand man, editor-in-chief Andrew Tuck, are gay, which codes left in our world. And the magazine is unapologetically globalist in orientation. While based in London and Zurich, each issue includes dispatches from every corner of the globe. Brûlé’s columns, which used to run in the Financial Times but now appear in Monocle’s Sunday newsletter, are typically filed from an airplane en route to some far flung business capital. The topics the magazine covers - architecture and design, contemporary art, travel, urban exploration, fashion, etc - tend to code left at first glance as well.
Yet a recent reader “quiz” that he put in his column suggests conservative undertones. Here are some of the questions:
Question #3: Have you noticed this one? Many booksellers still love wearing masks and working behind plexiglass. Why?
Question #4: One more on this theme. It was weird the first time round but why are there still people driving around alone in their vehicles wearing masks?
Question #6: As the northern hemisphere moves into cosy season, there’ll soon be a shift to more candlelight – real and LED. Like the question above, what’s better for the future of our fragile planet but also for our soul?
Question #8: Your head of HR has told you that one of your staffers in your sales team identifies as a Persian cat and would like a carpeted pole to rub against next to their desk. Who do you fire first?
These questions obviously code right in an American context.
Indeed, if we pan back and think about it a bit, Monocle magazine has a strong conservative ethos in important respects. Some of those are:
Monocle believes in natural hierarchy. Some things - whether it be a piece of furniture, the design of a hotel, or a transit system - are simply better than others. This is an aristocratic hierarchy of excellence, but a genuine hierarchy nevertheless. Monocle cares about and advocates for the best.
Monocle believes in objective reality. It’s not just that they think some things are better than others. They believe some things actually are better than others. Also, Brûlé retains a belief in objective reporting - a belief in objective truth - something he has had to insist on in the face of restless agitating by his younger staff. (He addresses this point in a podcast he did with the head of a Swiss media company). Monocle has a strong point of view it is very transparent about, but within that, it tries to get the facts straight. You see this, for example, in the way they might criticize Victor Orban, but yet continue to celebrate the virtues of Hungary and Budapest as well. Or how they openly disagree with the views on sexuality in Middle East countries, but don’t use that as an excuse to simply write off Gulf cities as horrible and retrograde.
Localism and affirming distinct local cultures. Monocle actually champions the unique local culture and traditions of the places it profiles. To be clear, when these localist values come into conflict with globalist ones, the globalist ones always triumph. But the magazine resists the homogenization of culture and the generic “AirSpace.”
A preference for small businesses. They don’t oppose big business, but want thriving small business and entrepreneurship sectors. (They produce an annual special issue called The Entrepreneurs as well as a podcast on the topic).
Favors artisanal, craft manufacturing. In fact, Monocle was an early supporter of preserving manufacturing in developed world countries and cities. (See cover image above).
Techno-skepticism. Monocle has never been luddite, and often features high tech gizmos and companies. At the same time, they were founded as a champion of print in an era of digital. They do not, I believe, even have social media accounts. The LED question above gets to this. Technology is great, but can’t be allowed to displace the human.
Monocle has resisted wokeness. Undoubtedly some wokeness has creeped it. It’s a matter of commercial necessity. But when the BLM movement blew up in much of the world, Monocle didn’t really join in. They feature many black people, coverage of African countries, etc. - but they always did that. As you can see from the questions about masks and transkittenism, Brûlé clearly thinks a lot of things have gone too far.
They have held frame. If you compare Monocle today to its original incarnation 15 years ago, it’s remarkably similar in terms of ethos and aesthetics. Compare it to Kinfolk magazine, which exploded in influence about the same time. Kinfolk was attacked for being too white, and the magazine radically changed to the point that it is no longer even the same publication. And, I should add, not worth reading today. Monocle has maintained what I have called “missional integrity”
Even their fashion spreads are pretty normal. Today’s fashion world tends to be either very outré or strongly streetwear inflected. Monocle’s fashion sensibility is very traditional, conservative, understated (though does adopt some trends, including some unfortunate ones like high water trousers). The models in Monocle’s own fashion shoots skew white and East Asian, mirroring the readership of the publication. Whereas most luxury labels today emphasize black models along with white ones, and have remarkably few Asian faces given the amount of luxury purchases being made by Asian consumers. This again shows the Monocle resistance to wokeness.
Some of these items like localism and techno-skepticism could definitely be left as well as right. In fact, until recently in America, you probably would have said they were on the left. But we’ve seen a recently rising right wing sensibility that embraces them as well. I certainly view them as inherently conservative in the sense of resisting change.
What I see here is a kind of traditionally aristocratic, elitist conservatism of the type that I imagine might have once thrived in Europe. It champions a hierarchy of genuine talent and excellence; defends the local, the small scale, and the analogue; and presents itself as high status.
This is quite the contrast with the increasingly proletarian and low status American conservatism, which seems doomed unless it is able to attract more elites. Monocle shows a path to a kind of conservative approach that is potentially high status and elite attractive.
I don’t want to claim Monocle is some bastion of conservatism from an American conservative perspective. And it also has its flaws, such as being too precious at times, and not infrequently coming across as a parody of itself. But there’s a lot to learn from their sort of de facto elite conservative ethos.
Monocle is also an interesting example of how recent cultural shifts have exposed things that were previously hidden. It’s no surprise to me that Brûlé (age 54) and Tuck (55) are Generation X. Generation X figures have become disruptors in our world today. And we now can see that there’s often a conservative sensibility in Generation X gay culture. Multiple Gen X gays who would never have previously been viewed as conservative have now been reclassified as such. Think novelist Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho) or journalist Glenn Greenwald.
I put Brûlé and Tuck into this same category. In a proper country, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brûlé voted for the center-right party. I also suspect both of them are even more conservative than they let on publicly, but they are disciplined enough to limit their public statements to what doesn’t threaten their commercial interests.
E. Digby Baltzell’s Aristocratic Conservatism
I wrote a lengthy article on E. Digby Baltzell, the sociologist who popularized the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) before. So I won’t repeat everything here. But Baltzell represented another form a aristocratic conservatism. He believed that members of a hereditary upper class should dominate the elite positions of society. His criticism of the WASPs was not that they did dominate, but rather that they refused to assimilate new men of merit into their ranks for reason of religion or race, and that they were actually not engaging in the public leadership he wanted.
An interviewer with Pennsylvania History magazine wrote in 1996:
The brief discussion about Penn not only set the tone for much of our conversation. It encapsulated in less than a minute the moral Baltzell has been trying to convey to Americans for his entire scholarly life: democracy requires a responsible, civic-minded elite - and therefore an elite open to talent - which conveys standards by precept and example to a populace which must be led by someone. The alternative is not egalitarian, benign pluralism or participatory democracy, but a deteriorating situation in which money becomes the only measure of success, and an irresponsible, selfish elite sets the tone for everyone.
Although he didn’t take much notice of it over his life, Baltzell was pretty contemptuous of the postwar conservative movement and the modern Republican Party:
A reviewer of my book for the [Philadelphia] Inquirer said: don’t think that because Baltzell is a conservative that he’s sympathetic with [Newt] Gingrich. The answer to that is: I’m a conservative; Gingrich is a rightist. He’s not a conservative, he’s a populist, and no conservative was ever a populist. I think in that way he might be dangerous.
Note here the fundamentally elitist, anti-populist idea of what it mean to be conservative.
A part of Baltzell’s conservative vision was that the elite (which, remember, should be dominated by members of an upper class), needed to have divided politics, both liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. In this he deliberately takes on Marx, who would have said the elite must be uniform in their politics because of class interest. This was not historically true in the US, but unfortunately is becoming increasingly the case. In Baltzell’s world, the fact that leaders of both political factions would come from the same upper class would prevent political conflict from blowing the country apart. He says (drawing on his book Sporting Gentlemen about tennis that was released at the time of this interview):
Well, the conservatives are in now but there’s a lot of paranoia. A very important thing is not to hate the opposition. That’s where sports are terrible important, and I think we are losing that, because now winning is everything. That’s hopeless, and in politics to win permanently is a totalitarian state. You want to win, shake hands, and fight another day, and also know you’re not always right.
Baltzell also describes a theme I’ve returned to many times, which is the loss of genuine locally rooted, locally committed, civic minded elites:
WB: The general thrust of the book is that tennis has gone the way of many things, from a gentleman’s game to a way to make money. Tennis illustrates your general point about America, that there used to be local elites with at least some sense of civic responsibility, whereas now money is all that matters.
DB: That’s true for everybody, even college presidents. When Sheldon Hackney left as President of Penn, he was the only man in the upper administration who had been there ten years. And none of them were graduates of Penn. Thirty years ago, almost all of them were. Now I don’t approve of that, but I don’t approve of having nobody, and they come and go, they have no loyalty, and they’re like business executives.
Baltzell also points out that the American upper class, which was conservative at the time, did not understand the value of the culture center - did not value the center cities. They left for their country estates and turned their backs on the city. This disconnected them from the other classes of society, from what was going on in the country. And ceded the highest value geography of the country to more liberal elements.
DB: I live here in the city [Rittenhouse Square], not on the Main Line. I feel I ought to be confronted with crime, street begging, and the tragedy of what’s happening to this city….There are now families on the Main Line who have never been in town.
WP: Is this because the elite abdicated or have they been pushed out?
DB: They haven’t been pushed out. They can live here. I’m living here. I’m breathing. I hate to tell you, Rittenhouse Square when I was a kid young was entirely WASP. Now it’s predominantly Jewish. I hand it to the Jewish people - they’ve always stayed in town. Now they’re an infinitely urban people. One of the things about the WASP is he’s a frontiersman. He’s a country person. The average Frenchman can’t want to get into Paris and get on the back of a woman. The average Englishman can wait to get into the country and get on the back of his horse. My woman students go crazy at that, but it’s true!
It’s also clear that Baltzell believes in traditional morality and WASP restraint. He notes positively that the girls he grew up with were mostly virgins when they got married. In another essay included in his anthology Judgment and Sensibility he wrote:
Finally, if one may be allowed to bare one’s private fantasies, I should suggest that if all the young girls growing up in America today were to marry the first boy they every kissed, in the style of our First Lady [Barbara Bush], our beleaguered land would be well on its way to solving the tragic problems of poverty, AIDS, and abortion.
Back to the Pennsylvania History interview, he inveighs against political correctness, and particularly how group identity had replaced personal morality:
One of the tragedies now is that to be anti-black, anti-Semitic, or anti-any group is more of a transgression than to be a bloody liar or an adulterer. Personal morality is changed into group morality, and it will never work.
Keep in mind that Baltzell wrote entire books criticizing ethnic and religious bias. His point is the decline of personal morality.
Baltzell provides another important perspective that can help us rethink what it means to be a conservative. His vision is elite, high status oriented; based on high standards for personal virtue, conduct, and civic mindedness; and a more urban friendly point of view that understands the power of the cultural center. He understands clearly that it’s not possible to build a nation on populism, which is a race to the bottom in standards. (What various people have referred to as the Jerry Springerization of conservatism is a direct outgrowth of this).
I don’t agree with everything Baltzell says. Although I am not a populist, populism is a needed force in society, too, in its proper place. It provides an important signal to the elite that all is not well, and that the elites are misgoverning. It can at least hope to disrupt an ossified system. Baltzell also was never able to provide the same critical assessment of the minorities he championed that he gave to the WASPs. At the same time, he was deeply insightful about America and provides lessons that America’s postwar conservative movement never understood.
These are just two alternative conservative visions to the ones on offer in America. There are surely many others we could have looked at as well. I do think it’s important to look at society and the failed American conservative project through these other lenses to help understand what went wrong and what elements might need to be incorporated into any healthier future conservative vision.
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