The Importance of Substance in the Left-Right Myth Battle


Rod Dreher makes some intriguing, important points in arguing that our culture war has become a battle between two mythologies (emphasis in original):

It strikes many of us conservatives (and old-school liberals) as bizarre, hysterical, and manipulative when SJWs react to skeptical questioning of their claims with some version of, “You are trying to debate my right to exist!” But as Kolakowski et al. would say, that’s because we outsiders are trying to subject mythological knowledge to technocratic analysis. Since the Enlightenment, generally, and certainly since the 19th century, Christians have had to get accustomed to our beliefs treated not as facts, but as myth. SJWs react to the same thing, when applied to their core beliefs, with the fervor of a fundamentalist mob. Those who challenge them are not just wrong, they’re evil. They’re blasphemous. …

… SJWs, as postmodernists, are trying to create an order based on considering left-wing ideological beliefs as if they bore the force of metaphysical truth.

Dreher goes on to apply this philosophical topic to a New York Times column by David Brooks that ponders the correct thing to do if faced with an electoral choice between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren.  Here’s Dreher (emphasis in original):

I have said that I would either vote for Trump, or not vote. But it’s not hard to imagine that Trump could lead us into a situation in which I could be persuaded, like Brooks, that the threat a second Trump term poses to the country is greater than what a President Warren would mean. It’s possible.

But if Warren wins, there will be millions of people like [Deher reader] Matt in VA who do not see her as legitimate. As he puts it, this is a “matter of the heart.” He believes establishment people like Brooks are guilty of “treason” — a claim that Matt seems to concede in his comment quoted above he holds to as a Mythological claim. I think that is extreme and irrational, but that’s beside the point. The point is that people like Matt in VA — and there are a lot of them — have lost a lot of faith in classical liberalism, which is a Technological system.

Likewise, Dreher suggests that vast swaths of the Left will reject a second Trump term for the same reasons, leading to an untenable tension.  He goes on to express the certainty of an essentially religious war in the United States and to bemoan conservatives’ lack of strength for that war.  For the most part, I agree with Dreher on those points, but I think he’s missing a key point in his analysis.

Namely, there is a substantive difference between the mythologies of the Left and Right.  The Left feels Trump is illegitimate because they believe the right to rule is theirs alone.  We aren’t permitted to reverse the course of their “progress” or even slow down very much.  By contrast, the Right would feel Warren is illegitimate precisely because that’s the view she represents.  She will be the emblem of those who believe conservatives have no right to govern and Americans have no right to be left alone, even more so than President Obama was.

The Left, in other words, is fighting against self-rule, while the Right sees Trump as a way to punch the elite in the nose in order to get back to self rule.  Conservatives who align with Dreher and, even more, David French, seem to believe that they can declare a pox on both houses without having to differentiate between them.  That’s why Trump supporters see them as traitors — not because their views are more mild or hesitant, but because when it comes down to it, they equate freedom fighters with totalitarians.

In light of its disadvantages in the current culture war, the Right needs its intellectuals to flesh out this point and advocate its conclusions.  As people in the center are forced to choose a side, they must understand that conservatives are on the side of pluralism.  As the institutional strength moves left, the prioritization of accepting differences will increasingly characterize the Right.

The fading liberal order — referred to, in Dreher’s essay, as “technocratic” — still has adherents even in places like the New York Times, but David Brooks has it backwards:  Warren, not Trump, is the leading edge of a movement that will take off the table the possibility of policy differences.  He and his peers — who actually like Warren’s policies — must be brought to see that it is worth some lost ground on their policy and aesthetic preferences in order to salvage a pluralistic society.

The sooner this happens, the better, and it won’t happen as long as people as conservative as Rod Dreher resist the conclusion.