Tomorrow is Election Day, and as Americans prepare to go to the polls—or not!—it is worth spending some time thinking about the fact that the characteristic quality of politics in our time is not populism, nationalism, socialism, illiberalism, or anything of that nature: It is immaturity.
Depending on how you do the math, the United States may boast of having the world’s oldest continuous democracy or its oldest codified constitution. (San Marino will complain, but I think the United States has the better claim.) But countries that have been around for a long time act the fool periodically—being long-lived is not the same as being mature. I am 50 years old, and during the course of my relatively brief years on this Earth, a lot of countries that we think of as being utterly normal—Spain, Portugal, Greece—were in thrall to some variety of fascist dictatorship or another: Francisco Franco ruled Spain until 1975, António de Oliveira Salazar kept Portugal under his heel until 1974, the Colonels’ junta ruled Greece until 1974. And just as those European countries were emerging from dictatorship in the mid-1970s, India—the world’s largest democracy—was sliding into dictatorship under Indira Gandhi and the “Emergency.” Liberty has been the exception: 16 million Germans lived under a brutal dictatorship until 1989, the “perfect dictatorship” ran Mexico until 2000, etc. If you take the span of my late father’s life rather than mine—84 short years—then you’d have an easier time counting the European countries that hadn’t been under some form of dictatorship at some time during that period than adding up the ones that had. And it wasn’t just the Nazis and the Soviets: If Charles de Gaulle wasn’t a dictator, then the words “rule by decree” have no meaning.
The English-speaking countries and a couple of small outliers (happy Switzerland) have enjoyed a run that is, in the historical context, very, very unusual. If you want to know what it is that American conservatives have conserved and mean to conserve, it is those aspects of our national life that have ensured that even when they achieve some measure of electoral success, such figures as Huey Long in days of old—or Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in our own time—do not succeed in their revolutionary ambitions. Even Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom took advantage of crisis and war to assume the closest thing to practical autocratic powers wielded by an American president, saw the most radical of their ambitions thwarted and many of their advances reversed. (FDR’s program has proved more durable than Wilson’s, in part because many conservatives ultimately embraced it.) The Anglophone world has a particular liberal mojo, expressed more intensely in the United States than elsewhere but obviously present in some considerable degree in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. And that is worth conserving.
Which is to say: You can count me out of the right-wing revolutionary talk.