The lost conservative mind

The Coronavirus and the Conservative Mind” by Rous Douthat is worth reading, as a brief observation of the varying (and rather lost) “conservative” responses to COVID-19, though it centers on American conservatism. In terms of British conservatism, “Why coronavirus has deepened the crisis of the conservative mind” by Paul Mason also recently echoed this observation.

What can I say about myself? I remember that the economist Mariana Mazzucato once claimed that “a Norwegian conservative in reality amounts to being a communist in America”. I am not sure if too many will agree with this. But I know a few fellow Norwegian conservatives who were enthusiastic supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders during the US democratic primary in 2016 and 2020. Only a decade ago and more, it was Senator Mitt Romney who was huge among all of us. The boundaries of our ideological preferences have gotten a lot more eclectic and ambiguous ever since.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has been a watershed moment for many long-time liberal conservatives, on top of other pivotal events since the 2008 global financial crisis. A moment for disturbing and honest reflections on what it truly means to be a liberal conservative today compared to its intellectual traditions of thought. While its ideological foundations may not have changed much in principle throughout centuries, its interpretations, distortions, and awareness on the other hand certainly have so. While the “New Left” has been an intellectual movement to partly highlight the more humane foundations of left-wing politics, the so-called “New Right” is now moving in the opposite direction: away from pragmatism toward wanting to restore a glorious past of atrocities of their own.

Since childhood, I was drawn into Norwegian liberal conservatism for its pragmatic regard to empirical facts, no matter how much those facts countered to my own wishful thinking of the conditions in society. My political identity-building was never built on activism, as I used to think that activism could easily take me away from facts and lead me towards misplaced denial. My high school and university education in (positive) economics further constrained my temptations for activism and political romanticism, with lasting impacts. While the definitions of economics vary, I prefer the take by the economist Rachael Meager as being about “constrained optimization”. Whenever an idea is presented, the first thing that comes to my mind is constraints. I still have the habit of suppressing my desire to be more entertained by political ideas and visions. Not until recently did I realize how much I internalized this automated way of thinking, as an ideology itself (I still somewhat find it difficult to admit this). To my more left-wing friends, I still occasionally say: “as much as I dislike the current systemic political order and would like to become a X-ist, I cannot afford to be a X-ist“. In economics jargon, I am in a bad equilibrium. But while economists (including myself) might be very weak at thinking of grander questions and visions for a better society, I do believe that we seek the best implementation of an idea once a political decision has been made.

I can now count five years of “un-doing”, that is, unraveling my conservative heart by confronting past ideological beliefs against a more informed moral and policy compass. To many, this is a sign of political weakness, an easy prey for those who live by assassinating political opponents. Nevertheless, what matters to me the most these days is that I can live by my own consciousness and integrity, and not mind too much of the limitations posed by each ideology and its most vocal pundits.

On the other hand, what presently scares me the most? Blind loyalty to a transformed (twisted) ideology or political organization being misplaced and untimely to present-day conditions in society. I am not an opportunist. If I ever was, I would’ve praised these transformations above anything else. Such loyalty scares me more than any type of change that will emerge. Only a few months ago, I finally left a liberal conservative party that I had stood by and voted for in every school, local, and parliamentary election, out of fear that anti-immigration rhetorics imported from anti-factual Anglo-American “culture wars” are overtaking it. Some people say that trying to “change from within” is more effective. But recently, I have also come to be less proud than I used to of the history of conservative thought and political leaders. Anti-immigration sentiments are temporary. But by gradually turning back on history, a more fundamental component of anyone’s political identity, there is no future left to build from except for abandoning it and start anew.

This decision hurt. But it had to be made at some point in time, as part of myself seeking more clarity in my rather lost conservative mind. What I certainly know is that there is no way back. I thank Covid-19 for forcing me to re-examine my ideological beliefs.

“But the right’s varying responses to the pandemic also illustrate two further points. The first point is that what we call “American conservatism” is probably more ideologically and psychologically heterogeneous than the conservative mind-set that social scientists aspire to measure and pin down. (…) The second point is that on the fringes of the right, among QAnon devotees and believers in the satanic depravity of liberalism, the only psychology that matters is paranoia, not conservatism. And their minimizing response to the coronavirus illustrates the unwillingness of the conspiratorial mind to ever take yes for an answer — meaning that even true events that seem to vindicate a somewhat paranoid worldview will be dismissed as not true enough, not the deepest truth, not the Grandest of All Grand Conspiracies that will someday (someday) be unraveled.”

“The Coronavirus and the Conservative Mind” published in the New York Times, 31/03.

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