For my first job out of college, I worked at a political training organization that mostly catered to a conservative audience, teaching would-be activists how to run for office, manage campaigns, communicate effectively, and the like. This organization also worked with libertarians, seeing us as allies on fiscal issues, and that’s how I ended up there.
I only stayed a year in that role for a number of reasons, most of which were about my own goals and not anything negative about my workplace, where I met many lovely people. But one contributing factor in my exit was something I saw in a few of my coworkers and some of the activists we trained: Their primary interest in politics was defeating “the left.”
In fact, for a subset of the conservatives I encountered, to be conservative meant to be an anti-leftist more than it meant loyalty to any clear set of principles about how government should run and what society should be like.
As a result, for these people, the definition of “conservative” was always a moving target. To some extent that’s just the nature of the beast — as I’ve explained over at The Week, conservatism is inherently referential, because it’s about conserving valued aspects of the present or recent past. Still, there’s a big difference between that positive reference point (“This is something I think is good, and I want to save it”) and the negative reference point of reflexive anti-leftism (“I hate these people, and I want to make them fail”).
Since I worked at that organization, it seems that sort of conservatism has only become more common. It’s a big part of the internal debate within the conservative movement, broadly understood, occasioned by the rise of President Trump, who has been credibly accused of having no governing philosophy beyond “pissing off liberals” and undoing whatever former President Obama did.
As I wrote earlier this year, much of conservatism now seems to function as an alliance against shared fears of leftism rather than a positive commitment to shared views. If there is, as a historian named John Lukacs wrote in 2005, a contest “between people on the Right whose binding belief is their contempt for Leftists, who hate liberals more than they love liberty, and others who love liberty more than they fear liberals,” the former group looks to be winning.
Of course, this dynamic is by no means unique to conservatism, which brings me to a thought-provoking new piece by Shadi Hamid at The Atlantic on the “political thrill of having an enemy.” Here’s an excerpt:
An adversary, whether it’s the status quo (capitalism), a person (Trump), a religion (Islam), a religious ideology (Islamism after September 11th), or a secular religion (communism during the Cold War), can be a nice thing to have. It’s difficult to understand yourself, or what you believe in, in absolute terms. Knowing what you’re against has a way of clarifying the mind and sharpening the focus. […] Being in a constant state of alarm, wanting to be alarmed, can be unusually thrilling.
But is a constant, long-term thrill a good thing? John Adams famously wrote to his wife, Abigail, that he studied politics so his children could have the luxury of ignoring it and studying nobler topics instead: math, philosophy, history, and even finer arts of music, painting, and architecture. For Adams and other Founders, the thrill of politics was a means to an end, not an end unto itself.
Indeed, as Hamid notes in the Atlantic article, life with functional, representative politics is not supposed to be exciting. It is supposed to be boring (in a good way). “The world wouldn’t fall apart (or end) while you took a short nap,” he writes. “The government, for the most part, wouldn’t intrude on your personal life. In this age of relative boredom, you would be free to pursue pleasure and contentment.”
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it should be evident that is not our present circumstance. (Trump is unquestionably a major contributing factor here, but not the only factor.) Too many people in politics are more interested in spiting their enemies than advancing good principles. We’re always drifting from one outrage to the next, and so much of our political conversation and action is preoccupied more with making our enemies unhappy than with actually doing good.
This is not normal, healthy, productive, or virtuous; I can only hope it is also not sustainable.