Tories Should not be Afraid to be Radical

McConnell, Newton, Library and Archives Canada / Public Domain

There are almost as many political compass tests online as there are fish in the sea. The traditional four-quadrant one was incredibly popular around 2016, (I suspect a year of political ‘awakening’ for many people, myself included) but its star has kind of faded over time as people recognized that there were problems with it. What even are “plant genetic resources,” and how would I know that large corporations are exploiting them? The intuition of those trying to create a more precise compass was correct on that line, however they too fall into much the same error as the original: they conceive of politics as essentially a line with two extremes, with every difference in politics being a difference in degree away from the centre. Andrew Scheer is 1 notch closer to fascism than Justin Trudeau, for example, while Jagmeet Singh is 1 notch closer to communism.

Some readers might be wondering why I brought political compasses up at all. Aren’t these just glorified Buzzfeed tests for people who have read 1984 and decided to become libertarians? Yes, but I think that the error that the testmakers make in evaluating politics is continuous with the way most of us talk and think about politics. Whether it’s deliberate or accidental I couldn’t tell you, but we act as if ‘moderation’ is a good in and of itself, that to be moderate is to be liberal, and everyone who is not precisely liberal is one degree closer to communism, fascism, or anarchism.

Now, before I continue, I should specify what I mean when I talk about moderation. There are two ways that a person can be immoderate in politics. The first is in means — a terrorist or a revolutionary is a political extremist in that sense — and the second is in ends. I think the little truth that can be found in this error is in addressing the first sort. There is a proper and an improper way to effect political change, and I think almost everyone agrees that the proper way is the constitutional way. It is the second type that is troublesome, for a number of reasons.

To be perceived as ‘moderate’ in both senses of the word has been quite a coup for liberalism, especially seeing as historically it was neither. Liberalism began as a revolutionary ideology, overthrowing a legitimate government and leading to the terreur in France. In Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie led an open revolt against the Crown that sought to turn Canada into a republic. The sort we’re used to in electoral politics has, thankfully, avoided this type of violence, but retains many of its extreme ends. Liberalism in the 21st century counts among its aims an extreme laissez-faire capitalism, a duty to topple illiberal regimes around the world, and a radical form of individualism that seeks to destroy any legal or cultural barriers to individuals’ creating their own reality. All of this is extreme, and most liberals are not at all lukewarm in their defense of it: Justin Trudeau went so far as to declare anathema anyone who wishes to create even a single restriction on abortion (there are zero laws regulating abortion in Canada).

What inspired this piece was a section from Ben Shaprio’s new book, How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps. Ben is an extremist in the sense I just described: banning hardcore pornography would be for him “inherently immoral” and tantamount to an attack on free speech, for example. Ben described elsewhere an interesting debate going on within the right between the nationalist (I will call them radical) wing and people like him on the libertarian wing of the right, and attempts to present their side of the argument and a rebuttal in the book.

The radical wing of the party is identified by Ben as including a few figures, a lot of them informed deeply by Catholic social teaching. Included in this group are: Terry Schilling, Joseph Shumpeter, Patrick Deneen, Rod Dresher, Marco Rubio, Pope Leo XIII, and Tucker Carlson. That Ben doesn’t identify the Catholicness of this group is quite surprising, (Tucker is the lone non-Catholic, First Things is an explicitly Catholic magazine, and Rubio was openly citing an encyclical) but I suppose his critique is meant to be broad and not confined to just Catholic Social Teaching. Deneen and Dresher wrote in First Things that:

“Our society must not prioritize the needs of the childless, the healthy, and the intellectually competitive… [over] workers and citizens… Economic and welfare policy should prioritize work over consumption.” (The Right Side of History, p. 114).

Rather than engage with the argument on its own terms — as a Tory critique of laissez-faire capitalism — Ben rips it as “language with which socialists are all too familiar and all too comfortable” and “a basic restatement of the labour theory of value” (ibid). He describes their proposal as aiming to “coercively reorient markets toward top-down estimated labour value,” a concept that appears nowehre in the text (ibid, 114–115).

Ben goes on to call Rerum Novarum, one of the strongest anti-communist texts ever produced, the “language of the left,” all for Rubio using it to identify “the indivisible tie between culture and economics” (ibid). The worst of Ben’s attacks, however, was saved for Tucker Carlson. He says that Tucker’s error was claiming that there in claiming there is a “collective ‘we’ damaged by the free market,” Tucker “embrace[s] leftist rhetoric in pursuit of socially conservative ends” and falls “wholesale into Marxist materialism.” (ibid, 116–117). In seeking to have the conversation within the right about the role of the state, Ben anathematizes his opponents, as he views them as being a degree closer to communism than him and therefore extreme. This is all nonsense of course. Lord Randolph Churchill (grandfather of Winston), John A. MacDonald, Benjamin Disraeli, and almost all English-speaking conservatives that lived before the 1960s would agree that there is a connection between culture and economics, that certain people can be left behind, and that promoting virtue and solidarity are roles for the state. Before Barry Goldwater burst onto the scene, Ben would have been considered the extreme leftist and Tucker Carlson would be a mainstream Tory!

In Christianity, lukewarmness is a vice. Christ says he will “spit” those who are “neither hot nor cold” out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16). We should regard politics much the same. A liberal will never accept someone as being moderate unless he agrees wholeheartedly with them, in which case they no longer represent anything except liberalism. Since liberalism being a moderate ideology is a lie, and being opposed to any aspect of liberalism gets you called extreme, genuine Tories should embrace their radicalism rather than run from it. The only other choice is surrender.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.