COVID-19 and the Unveiling of American “Conservatism”





I try to read insights from conservative perspectives on several issues: policing, war, and so-called cultural conflicts. I do not consult sites that are mere propaganda machines for the Trump administration. Still, I check out The American ConservativeThe Wall Street Journal opinion pages, and The National Review. And I used to read First Things also, but in the Post-9/11 period, I became so enraged with their war-mongering that I stopped.

There are times I find the opinion and commentary enlightening, and on some occasions, like this recent piece on policing in The American Conservative, I agree with the writers.

Over the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen a framing of the issues around the US response that has bothered me, and today I found a prime example in this piece by Tony Woodlief entitled “A Masked Consensus,” so I thought I would jot some notes about it.

I have been struck, increasingly in recent years, by what masquerades as “conservatism” but is, in fact, libertarianism and, in the worst cases, a crude objectivism a la Ayn Rand.

Patrick Deneen has done a much better job teasing out the historical meanings of liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism than I ever could, but if conservatism is anything, it is about place, community, the value of traditions, and the need to learn from history. Also, a more Burkean understanding of conservatism would include a suspicion about building public actions around abstract ideas (Burke critiqued the French Revolution on these grounds).

In much of what I am reading these days from conservatives, I see few appeals to these ideals. Instead, I see straw-man arguments, and a dishonest framing of issues that makes, in the case of COVID-19, public health practitioners out as bent on social control, and “conservatives” as the guarantors of the sincere commitments of the Republic.

Woodlief claims his piece is about ultimate ends and the lack of attention to them that characterizes Americans at this point in our history. This is a critique I have made in this blog, and so, on the face of it, I would agree with Woodlief.

However, Woodlief provides no real evidence that people are unconcerned about ends. Instead, he seems to scour social media and what passes as the news for outrageous stories of people abused for not wearing masks or outed for inappropriately visiting elderly relatives in nursing homes. Do these things happen? Yes. Do they characterize how we collectively and overwhelmingly deal with this crisis in real communities where most of us live? Not at all.

The first problem with Woodlief’s piece is that, while decrying the loss of the “why”–the American “why”–he never once proposes a meaningful end of his own. One can infer it in his call for a return to liturgies and acknowledgments of things more significant than ourselves. I assume that Woodlief is referring to the need to return to faith traditions of a particular kind. And while I value the contribution that people of faith make to solving the real challenges in my community, I am not naive enough to believe that a return to an imagined past of shared faith values will ever come to define the “why” of America; simply because it never did.

This is common in what I am reading in “conservative” publications these days: lots of decrying what others are doing wrong and very little proposing about how to make it right.

And then there are the “straw-men,” or perhaps I should say “straw-man” because, on the right, there is only one “man” one bogeyman–Tony Fauci. Woodlief lumps him in with “overweening governors… and the various other busybody puritans” who make everybody feel bad about not wearing a mask.

But the straw-man is even worse than that.  Woodlief decries an imagined “technocratic sleight of hand whereby our nation’s chief epidemiologist has become our chief ethicist.”

Wrong and wrong. Dr. Tony Fauci presents evidence, makes recommendations, and prepares us for what will happen if we don’t follow them. His power is in his ability to articulate an end we can, together, achieve (sounds like a conservative), and point the way to get there.

He neither collects and disseminates spicy takedowns of those nasty eschewers of facemasks, nor scolds the American people for not following his recommendations.

And finally, there is the dishonest framing of what Fauci, and public health officials, and the whole liberal project (I suppose) are all about. I have seen this framing before–the claim that those who want to take vigorous actions to stem the spread of a novel coronavirus 6-10 times more deadly than flu are merely “worshippers of the body,” obsessed with preserving the lives of those who are near death, or as Woodlief puts it: “extending man’s years and pleasure.”

How about this: the end that those of us who recommend and support actions such as physical distancing, wearing masks, and well-run programs to test, trace and isolate sick people seek is to avoid unnecessary suffering and death.  Sounds like a great end.  Sounds pro-life, actually. Sounds conservative.

It is time for the “conservatives” following this script to step up and be honest about their project. They are not conservative; they are Randist. They do not want ends; they want to be left alone. They want what Joan Didion referred to as the “dream we won’t admit”–autonomy.

They do not want well-reasoned plans built upon proven historical strategies to solve an actual (not an abstract) problem: COVID-19. They want to go about their lives without anyone telling them what to do. They don’t care about the community; they care about themselves.

Here is the “why of America” they pursue: personal autonomy. And they are willing to shorten life unnecessarily to achieve it.

One thought on “COVID-19 and the Unveiling of American “Conservatism”

  1. I’ve been thinking much the same. I now distinguish from the traditional principled conservatives two other groups that have come to overshadow them: reactionaries and objectivists (Randian acolytes). The first group just wants to protect their own personal interests, privileges and powers, and use a grabbag of “principles” to justify their need ultimately for an authoritarian regime. The second group believes they deserve their privileges because they are superior to everyone else, and that they got where they did with no help from anyone else. Everyone else is a parasite on their deserved wealth. And yes, both “…don’t care about the community; they care about themselves.” They are abandoning a core American principle and have been encouraged to do so for four decades by GOP political consultants.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.