It's always tempting for those who study the American Conservative Movement to brush us off as a bunch of situational ideologues held together by anticommunism, and who were doomed to collapse with the Berlin Wall. Much as I believe this narrative to be wrong, it has an interesting point with regard to the fundamental nature of conservative criticism. That is, conservatism aims to "conserve." It has historically been a defensive ideology, which tries to beat back encroaching hordes by its nature. It was this defensive nature of conservatism which repelled the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who once wrote that conservatism was "a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change" while also noting, perhaps sadly, that "There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called "liberalism" was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense."
We can quibble with Hayek's usage of the word "liberal" to describe the American tradition, but even if he is correct, by his definition, even "liberal" conservatives seem to still fight with their backs to the proverbial wall. Thus, when there is nothing to fight, conservative ideology runs into the difficulty of flailing at phantoms. As such, along with the question of what we are fighting for (what to conserve, in other words), we also have to ask what we are fighting against.
In this regard, I believe the modern conservative movement has become confused. Stripped of communism, we have reverted to the most obvious option and decided that liberalism is not only an enemy, but the enemy. This is an absurd belief. Liberalism is not the enemy. Liberalism (or progressivism, depending on your choice of words), at least in its modern form, has neither the spine, the principle nor the conviction born of that principle to be the enemy. Indeed, even in the days of communism, liberalism was never the enemy, even domestically. The Alger Hisses of the world, the Owen Lattimores of the world, the Stalins, the Kruschevs, the bought-off newspaper columnists who opined about how they'd "seen the future, and it worked" - they were the enemy, and whatever else they were, they were not liberals. The liberals were men like Edward R. Murrow, who was too busy being angry at Joe McCarthy to spare a few nasty words for the real traitors in our midst. The liberals were men like Dean Acheson, who famously said "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." To be sure, these people were counterproductive, but they were only useful idiots, not the puppet masters pulling the strings.
The same goes for the strife on campuses that occurred in the 60's and 70's. The Eldridge Cleavers, the Huey Newtons, the Bill Ayerses, the Bernadine Dohrns and the Tom Haydens - these people were many things, but if you think they'd ever call themselves "liberals," you'd be mad. These people were radicals reacting against liberalism. They hated it. The only reason they got away with so much when attacking it was because of who the liberals actually were. They were the tolerant university Presidents, like Clark Kerr and Kingman Brewster, who dutifully caved in to every demand the radical exponents of negation made. Again, these people were not only counterproductive, but spineless and pathetic in their worst moments, but they were by no means the primary threat.
And even today, at the close of the war of culture and at the beginning of the war on terror, the liberals still cannot rightly be called the primary threat for a very simple reason - liberals are just too darn reasonable to threaten anyone intentionally. They're too obsessed with their own sophistication. Too blinded by their own (often imagined) intellectual superiority. Too "scientific." Too morally apathetic. These characteristics make them great toadies, but are poor qualities indeed to have in muscular ideological leaders. Throughout history, liberals have been at worst the battered wives of the enemies of conservatism, constantly protesting that their bedfellows are just misunderstood and that they don't hurt them that badly, while ignoring the bruises which slowly accumulate all over the body of civilization. If you want to look for the roots of this gutlessness, look at one of the founding members of contemporary liberalism, John Stuart Mill, whose faith in the power of rational discourse to change minds was perhaps the defining nature of his political philosophy. It's no surprise that his wife, a much more principled radical socialist, eventually ended up defining her husband's worldview.
To explain why liberals tend to assume this role would take too long, though I will suggest one option: for all their claims not to be superficial, liberals do have a shocking shallow and naive vision of human nature. For evidence of this, look at the contemporary liberal view of Sarah Palin, or the constant sneers that liberal comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert threw at George W. Bush for "thinking with his gut." For liberals, human beings are defined by two things - their capacity for reason and their capacity for empathy. Sarah Palin, who believed in such seemingly absurd things as creationism, and who could argue with a straight face that she supported small-town values while arguing for economic policies which were (in the liberals' view) shamelessly royalist, appeared so severely challenged in both regards that she was unacceptable. It was inconceivable to a liberal that a woman who couldn't rattle off Supreme Court cases she disagreed with could ever claim to be a fit potential leader of a country, because liberals simply don't understand any concept of superiority other than the purely intellectual. Some conservatives have this problem too, but it's much more pronounced among the "reasonable" exponents of center-Leftism. Their sense of morals, being defined primarily by emotive urges, is far too underdeveloped for them to use as an argument against someone, though they may mutter about it among themselves at cocktail parties.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that an emphasis on intellectual capability and knowledgeability is at all wrong. It's entirely reasonable, and quite desirable, and its absence can be potentially disastrous. But it's not the only thing that matters, and making a fetish of it is sheer stupidity. Liberals tend to side with the enemies of western civilization for a very important reason - frequently, the people supporting it are just too...well, vulgar. Worse yet, tradition is very difficult to defend intellectually as an end in itself (I've tried), and most liberals don't like the idea that something as potentially irrational as human experience could or should be allowed to trump scientific rationality. Sometimes (see also: segregation) they have a point. But that doesn't mean you should throw out tradition entirely. In fact, as postmodern radicals are far too fond of pointing out, the rules of logic and reason themselves are traditions which have evolved with time. Liberals are thus trapped in a completely self-refuting argument - they are trying to defeat tradition using tradition.
But if liberals aren't the threat, then what is? Unlike communism, there's no concrete "evil State" for conservatives to oppose, so the confusion is understandable. The threat we conservatives face today is something much more abstract, much more insidious, and doubly dangerous, especially in the age of international terrorism and postmodern education. This threat, much like communism (the "second oldest religion," according to Whittaker Chambers), is also timeless.
With all due respect to Mr. Chambers, communism is not the second-oldest religion (the oldest being worship of God and his Creation). It's actually the third oldest. God, in creating the universe, had to do it by forcing an amorphous, "formless and void" existence into patterns. To put it bluntly, God created the world from Chaos, and as such, the worship of Chaos is actually the oldest religion. It is this force - Chaos - that conservatives now have to fight.
And some conservatives - not the ones I usually like best - have recognized this threat, albeit incorrectly. Rod Dreher has written that "Today, the greatest threats to conservative interests come not from the Soviet Union or high taxes, but from too much individual freedom." With respect, I obviously disagree that individual freedom is to blame. The threat today comes not from too much individual freedom, but from the wrong individual freedom. To explain this, I offer the following hypothetical:
Suppose that, in a hypothetical society, people had the legal right to murder each other, but no right to free speech, or property, or assembly. Surely we couldn't criticize this society for having too much individual freedom. Rather, we would reproach it for protecting the wrong freedoms. Mr. Dreher's argument essentially boils down to the idea that because corporations are behaving irresponsibly, economic liberty is a dud. He's wrong. What is at fault is that we have rampantly deregulated some elements of corporate life while keeping other regulations in place which punish small businesses and shield larger corporations from competition. In other words, we've created an economic system where wealthy "philanthropists" can defund peoples' entire life savings using fraud, but where banks are still required to give bad loans to people who can't pay them back because of a redundant, obsolete economic policy from about three decades ago. This is not a system that protects too much individual freedom. This is a system that protects the wrong freedoms. And a society that protects the wrong freedoms is doomed to slide into chaos, which is what Dreher seems to be rightly reacting against.
The market is a wonderful tool for social improvement, but like most competitive games, economic action only improves the world when the rules make sense and in our rush to deregulate, we haven't considered the effects on the whole system, which has made the market an unwitting agent of chaos and caused it to become the scapegoat for all sorts of undeserved blame. I'm no friend of regulation, and I defy most people who tell me it's necessary, but it's only wrong situationally, not conceptually. Most free market economists support antitrust laws, for instance.
But as instruments of chaos go, financial deregulation is the least of our worries. There are much more conscious agents of chaos floating around. I have already alluded to two - postmodern education and terrorism. But these topics are so big (and this post is already so long) that I will save them for later. For now, it suffices to say that conservatives need double their usual amount of creativity to fight these threats, and more than anything else we need unity. As I did in a previous post, I will close on a plea to all those who use this site to think about how this unity might be achieved.