Philosophy, Politics, recent

Michael Oakeshott and the Intellectual Roots of Postmodern Conservatism

To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown,
to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the
possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant,
the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect,
present laughter to utopian bliss.
~
Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative.

In his seminal essay “The Intransigent Right at the End of the Century” in the London Review of Books, the historian Perry Anderson listed Michael Oakeshott as one of the four great right-wing thinkers of the twentieth century. Anderson acknowledges that while the other three—F.A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt—remain well known amongst the literate public across the Western world, Oakeshott remains a somewhat elusive figure. That is unfortunate. Not only was his thinking highly interesting on its own merits, it was also ahead of its time in anticipating the emergence of postmodern conservatism.

Oakeshott’s Life and Thinking

On the surface, it might appear odd to characterize Oakeshott as a predecessor to postmodern conservatism. While the polemical thinking of today is often characterized by shrill denunciations and partisan vitriol, Oakeshott was ever the model of an impartial academic. His writings were evenhanded and curious, even where he gives in to a distinctively English propensity for biting sarcasm and sardonic wit. Moreover, although his life was framed by the apocalyptic events of the Second World War and the epic ideological contest with the Soviet Union that followed it, Oakeshott was not given to outbursts of hyperbole or grandstanding. Nonetheless, it is in his epistemological and moral orientation that one can find a specific kind of conservatism that anticipated the postmodern variants ascendant today.

Michael Oakeshott was born in 1901, the son of a socialist civil servant. As a young man he enrolled at Cambridge University, where he studied history and became attracted to the philosophical theories of the British idealists. At the time, these writers were the subject of ferocious criticism by the logical positivists led by the socialist Bertrand Russell. Although Oakeshott would later move on from the idealists’ heady Hegelian tropes, he remained sympathetic to their emphasis on history, particularity, and especially their criticisms of utilitarian reason. He served in the Second World War before assuming a series of academic appointments at Oxford and the London School of Economics. Through the 1960s to the 1980s, he wrote the political works which made him famous, including Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays in 1962 and On Human Conduct in 1975. He died in 1990 at the age of 89.

Throughout his life, Oakeshott contended with the aspirations of the rationalistic utilitarians and the expansion of the welfare state during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Classical utilitarianism originated in the work of Jeremy Bentham and his followers, and aspired to be a fully rational “science” of morality. According to Bentham, all moral questions could be resolved through an appeal to empirical facts concerning what maximized pleasure and minimized pain for moral agents. By contrast, all forms of moral reasoning that could not be reduced to this simple calculus were often dismissed by Bentham as nonsensical. As it developed, utilitarianism quickly developed a radical political edge. Figures like John and Harriet Taylor Mill were prominent early suffragettes, and in Oakeshott’s own lifetime, authors like H.L.A. Hart came to be affiliated with campaigns to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. Concurrently, many utilitarians expressed disdain for conservative efforts to prevent what they considered to be utility maximizing change. This is nicely expressed in J.S. Mill’s infamous characterization of Conservatives, uttered during a Parliamentary debate with the Conservative MP, John Pakington, in 1866:

I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.

The influence of these rationalizing reformers was seen in the efforts of the ascendant post-war Labour Party to construct an expansive British welfare state. Starting with the Beveridge Report in 1942, there was a growing sense that the state should assume responsibility for maximizing overall utility by securing the welfare of all citizens. Tradition and history, not to mention an emphasis on individual responsibility, were to be ignored or swept aside and technocratic bureaucrats were to rationally evaluate all social policies and practices to determine whether they effectively maximized utility.

To combat this, Oakeshott developed an epistemological and moral outlook that rivals that of Richard Rorty in his most postmodern moments. He did not deny that the reasoning deployed by utilitarians was eminently rational in most respects; it suggested that all moral questions could be answered through a hedonistic calculus deployed with utter impartiality and rigor. But Oakeshott argued that this kind of reasoning could be exceptionally destructive to the affective bases of our lives. It had little interest in traditions which could not be shown to maximize utility, even if many people had an irrational attachment to them because they emerged as part of their cultural history. In contrast to this rationalism, Oakeshott stressed the attractions of a traditionalist reason based on our commitments to a particular and historically engendered way of life. These could never be fully explained rationalistically, and certainly could not be universal. They were based on our emotional attachments to traditions and affiliated practices, in which we engaged even if they seemed to have no firmly rational basis.

Consider the practice of granting greater moral weight to the concerns people belonging to one’s own nation rather than those of others. From the hyper-rationalistic perspective of a Utilitarian, this is a highly partial way of regarding the world, reflective of an intense and superstitious irrationalism. If we are solely concerned with maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, then entirely arbitrary factors like belonging to the same nation state cannot be granted significant moral weight. Indeed, this is precisely the argument of contemporary utilitarians like Peter Singer:

By contrast, Oakeshott firmly insisted that many of us do not wish and indeed cannot even think of morality in this manner. We come into the world embedded in highly particular cultures and engage in traditional practices which are specific to the groups with which we affiliate. Many of these practices may have little rational basis; for instance flying a particular flag or taking pride in our nation’s accomplishments even when we did not contribute to them. Nonetheless, they provide life with a greater sense of meaning. Rationalizing them away would strip people of much of what stabilized their identity and their sense of what is of morally valuable.

Oakeshott formulates much the same point in a somewhat different manner in his essay “The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism.” There he concedes that the traditionalist reason with which he is contrasting rationalism is predicated on a kind of “faith.” We morally privilege those individuals and practices emerging from our traditions because they provide us with a sense of constancy and stability. Echoing Russell Kirk’s claim that a progressive is someone who rationalistically asks “What is?” while a conservative asks “What does this mean?” Oakeshott conceded that the practices flowing from these traditions could not be defended by pure reason. But that is not their chief virtue. Traditions help us establish a continuity with the past, and so emphasize what is familiar and known in the present and future.

By contrast, a politics of skepticism must continuously criticize the present by showcasing how many of our beliefs and practices have no rational epistemic or normative basis. Politically, this leads the skeptical rationalist to demand traditions be overturned where they cannot be shown to conform to their conception of reason. As Oakeshott put it in Rationalism in Politics:

For the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment. He waits upon circumstance to provide him with his problems, but rejects its aid in their solution. That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense. And his politics are, in fact, the rational solution of those practical conundrums which the recognition of the sovereignty of the felt need perpetually creates in the life of a society. Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of “reason.” Each generation, indeed, each administration, should see unrolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility. And if by chance this tablula vasa has been defaced by the irrational scribblings of tradition-ridden ancestors, then the first task of the Rationalist must be to scrub it clean; as Voltaire remarked, the only way to have good laws is to burn all existing laws and start afresh.

Conclusion: Oakeshott and Postmodern Conservatism

In his 1996 book, The Illusions of Postmodernism, the Marxist literary theorist wrote:

Postmodernism then, is wary of History but enthusiastic on the whole about history. To historicize is a positive move and History only stands in its way. If postmodern theory really does believe that historicizing is ipso facto radical, then it is certainly mistaken. It assumes that historicizing belongs largely on the Left, which is by no means the case. You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans-Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical contexts. For a whole lineage of liberal or right-wing thinkers, a sensitive attunement to historical context, to the cultural moldings of the self, to the subliminal voice of tradition and the force of the local or idiosyncratic, has been a way of discrediting what they take to be the anemic ahistorical rationality of the radicals. Burke’s appeal to prescription, venerable custom and immemorial heritage is in this sense much the same as contemporary pragmatisms’ appeal to our received social practices, even if the former is thinking of the House of Lords and the latter of baseball and free enterprise. For both schools of thought, history—which comes down to something like “the way we happen to do things and have done so for rather a long time”—is a form of rationality in itself, immeasurably superior to such jejune notions as universal freedom and justice.

Eagleton’s observation about the odd coincidence of postmodern theorizing with a certain kind of conservatism was largely ignored, despite its galvanizing implications. Perhaps the reason was that the Oakeshottian conservatism invoked by Eagleton itself seemed like a relic of the past by that point. By the 1990s, Oakeshott himself was considered something of an oddity amongst right-wing intellectuals. He was clearly immensely learned and intelligent, but his anti-rationalism and emphasis on a politics of “faith” and emotional attachment to tradition seemed like superstition in accordance with the spirit of the age. Economically minded neoliberals like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman were more to the taste of conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who was often eager to give her reforms a rationalistic quality. Oakeshott might have seemed a venerable artifact from an earlier era, doomed to fade out with the century he witnessed almost in full.

History has arguably disproven this conceit. Oakeshott’s thinking now seems not so much a phantom of the past as an anticipation of conservatism’s postmodern future. In particular, he argued that the basis of conservatism is not ultimately in some form of rationalism. This is because traditionalist reason provides us with a greater sense of affective satisfaction than rationalism, which can only ever destroy the meaningful attachments in our lives with its insistent skepticism and lust to know the world purely as it is. Traditionalist reason provides us with a sense of historical constancy and identity which may not in fact exist, but is reflected in our practices and commitments. This includes our commitment to groups like the “nation.” These may be highly arbitrary, but they are nonetheless how we frame our sense of who we are and what we owe to those like us. This provides a greater sense of meaning than rationalism, which for Oakeshott was an almost inhuman way of looking at things.

This position of course echoes the writings of many postmodern theorists, who were similarly keen to emphasize the impotence of reason relative to history and traditions. Perhaps the most prominent point of comparison is with the writings of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. Both these authors stressed that the project of trying to formulate a universal moral reason had failed. Instead, we must analyze the historically contingent ways different societies and traditions understood personal and political morality, without trying to interrogate them based on some conceited rationalistic standard applicable in all places at all times. Oakeshott would not have agreed with the radical political implications they drew from these epistemic and moral positions, but his philosophical thinking largely accorded with theirs.

More importantly, Oakeshott anticipated the positions of many postmodern conservatives today. For instance, postmodern conservatives are reticent to trust rationalistic arguments made by cosmopolitan “elites” who stress that we have moral obligations to all individuals, regardless of where they come from. Instead, politicians like Donald Trump and Victor Orban stress that they are “nationalists” who believe that our primary moral obligations will always be to those who look and act like us. Of course, a rationalist might counter that these factors are highly arbitrary. It is purely an accident that one is born an American or Hungarian, as it is purely accidental that refugees from Latin America or Syria were born into unstable countries where they faced serious risk of violence.

Nonetheless, these factors matter to postmodern conservatives for reasons that would have been familiar to Oakeshott. The insistence that we concern ourselves with individuals with whom we have little in common is implicitly an insistence that maintaining traditional practices, and the sense of identity and meaning they provide, is at best a secondary concern next to our universal obligations. This rationalistic emphasis that we accept the “unfamiliar” into our communities, along with the skeptical injunction that we examine why we attach so much moral significance to arbitrary factors like who belongs to what nation, destabilize the postmodern conservative worldview. For this reason, postmodern conservatives are committed to combatting such positions wherever possible.

 

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

76 Comments

  1. Morgan Foster says

    “J.S. Mill’s infamous characterization of Conservatives …”

    Infamous in that it was made for the sole purpose of insulting people he didn’t like, and bears a striking resemblance to the sort of thing Nancy Pelosi, among others, says in public about Republicans.

    It’s an amusing story, but hardly something to be taken seriously or used to illustrate a point in a serious article. Stupid people were also to be found in Mills’ party, after all.

    I can only think that the author included this for the sheer joy of being unpleasant.

      • Dear Victoria, Thank you for your post. I read the Helen Andrews article, and am currently watching her interview on C-Span.

        I shall purchase and read her oncoming book on Conservatism. There is an interesting book (a psycho-biography, if you will) by Bruce Mazlish, James and John Stuart Mill ; Father and son in the 19th C. which you might find of some interest.

        Here is Helen’s interview ; https://www.c-span.org/video/?456640-1/qa-helen-andrews

        Best wishes,

        Keith

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Sensitive, are you? And dumb as a rock if you think that Republicans have been any less insulting than the left. You’ve apparently never heard of the right-wing media, and have you forgotten who is currently president?

      But Mills was generally correct, it seems. Most stupid people gravitate towards the right, and the right very much benefits from this arrangement.

      • Barney Doran says

        NP Therefore, most smart people gravitate towards the left, and the left very much benefits from this arrangement. If that was the case, the right would have disappeared into history long ago. Read the article again and check your elitist privilege.

      • Toni Pereira says

        I wouldn’t be so sure of that.After all,it is idiots like you who really believe in “pregnant” men and 72 flavours of gender (among other arrange phenomena…)

      • gda53 says

        I would suggest that the really stupid people are those who adhere to “rationalistic” propaganda that we “owe” the world.

        Practically speaking, that approach has simply never worked.

        And what “works” is what’s important.

        You may have noticed that philosophers are not currently in charge of getting anything done in this world.

        The people who get things done adhere to the practical. Because it’s the only thing that works.

        Medically insuring the whole world? Guaranteed income for the whole world?

        That’s the definition of stupid.

        Methinks Morgan Foster nailed it.

      • scribblerg says

        The nasty trope that conservatives are not as cognitively gifted as Leftists has been destroyed in serious research work. Nice summary here on what happens when you look at responses to actual questions not aggregated by faulty assumption about ideology, you see the idea that conservative ideas are held by dummies disappears. In fact, people of the highest intelligence in the U.S. are adherents of classical liberalism, not socialism, which is the position of the Right in general. The Left starts with the position that the classical liberal order is insufficient to support a moral society.

        Top .5% IQ here and hard core conservative. Care to debate say the morality of socialism versus classical liberalism live, streaming on YouTube? I’ll post the whole thing with now editing. You can show off your glistening, superior intellect for all to see while you beat up a conservative dummy like me.

        https://reason.com/2014/06/13/are-conservatives-dumber-than-liberals/

  2. Matt says

    I brought it in for quite the opposite purpose; to demonstrate the sometimes dogmatic quality to the rationalists Oakeshott confronted.

  3. codadmin says

    Conservatives love change.

    They just hate the change their enemies insist on.

  4. Klaus C. says

    One problem (amongst many) for this worldview is: what happens when this or that aspect of “tradition” fades away, to the extent that its followers become a dwindling and “exotic” minority within the culture that once harboured them?

    Societies that are vigorous and creative inevitably progress, and what was once traditional often eventually becomes uncommon and unfamiliar, to the point of seeming alien and even intrusive. This is a problem for conservatives when they fail to perceive how far contemporary culture has legitimately moved on from earlier beliefs and practises.

    A good example is religion in the West. It has been in steep decline for some time: the offspring of those with no religion remain non-religious at a much higher rate than the offspring of believers remain religious, in a seemingly terminal descent that the Churches are powerless to prevent.

    The result already is that religious morality is increasingly seen as alien to the nature of contemporary Western culture, and those religious lobbies that once claimed much influence in society are increasingly seen as troublesome dwellers of the social fringe.

    When the cultural status of various “traditionalists” becomes that of “unwelcome weirdos”, presumably the postmodern conservatives would say of them: these people don’t look or act like the majority, they have beliefs that are alien to our concerns, so we owe less allegiance to them and should regard them with suspicion and ensure they remain on the social margins.

    But of course conservatives rarely take that attitude – they tend to hang onto dead traditions long after they’ve gained the status of unwelcome intrusions into a world that has profoundly changed, so the “rejection of the unfamiliar” that they supposedly uphold will always come back to bite them in the end.

  5. Hi Matt,

    I’ve read a few of your pieces–very interesting project you have. Quick question–any comment as to where MacIntyre falls in your taxonomy of post modern conservatism? I’m especially interested in his criticism of modern burkean conservatives, and that they are in truth simply recalling an earlier period of liberalism, and protect only a dead tradition.

    Thanks–

    • Matt says

      His critique of Burkeanism is similar to the one leveled by Frank Meyer’s. Essentially it is not a principled moral position so much as an outlook with views change critically. Macintyre claims that a Burekean outlook misunderstands that tradition is always inherently dynamic and constantly changing. Indeed one can only have a dynamic society where thick traditions exist to draw from for inspiration and criticism.

      I think this is a bit unfair to Burke, but Macintyre is not a fan.

  6. Farris says

    Is it rational to insist people are not linked to the past, traditions and customs, when heritage and lineage would suggest otherwise? Wouldn’t denial of this linkage be a denial of one’s self? Is it rational to deny the cultural forces which shape one’s opinions and identity? If national, state or community bonds are irrational, wouldn’t familia bonds likewise be irrational? To attempt to disregard these bonds may be considered rational but it is also unrealistic.

    Interesting article though.

    • Stephanie says

      Farris, I thought the same thing. The natural conclusion of the argument that we should value people from other countries as much as we do people from our country (and worse, that the government should give both sets of people the same treatment) is that we should value someone we’ve never met as much as our own children. How is this supposed to be rational? Perhaps if you ignore all the social science and strip the humanity of people, as the Marxists the author quotes would like.

      This argument is the backbone of this article and it is clearly absurd. Of course the only purpose is to slap Trump over supposedly valuing people based on their looks. Which of course itself is absurd, because Americans come in all races, and Latinos are a common varient of white people. Shouldn’t it be eminently rational to enforce the law?

  7. Victoria says

    “…postmodern conservatives are reticent to trust rationalistic arguments made by cosmopolitan “elites” who stress that we have moral obligations to all individuals, regardless of where they come from.”

    This is an unintentionally revealing passage. What is self-conceptualized as a “rational” argument is in fact really a “moral” one. Whether this is lack of self-awareness, or a deliberate bait-and-switch, is something only McManus can answer.

    I lean towards the former, because a recent book by Bryan Caplan, advocating open borders, makes the same mistake, lauding its supposed rationality (which promises utopian outcomes), while admitting that its entire premise rests on moral propositions of emotional and metaphysical origin.

    Beyond that, the advocacy of internationalism is conspicuously disengaged from concepts of behavioral genetics, sustainability, carrying capacity, tipping points, and other economic, ecological, and sociological factors, which just might be impediments on the road to utopia.

  8. Me, innit says

    Oakeshott as post-modernist. Good grief. Now I’ve heard everything.

    Next up – “Von Mises and the roots of socialism”
    “The radical libertarian capitalism of Karl Marx”
    “Karl Popper as a precursor of modern totalitarians”

    etc.

    What rubbish.

    • scribblerg says

      Well said. As for Popper, see what Soros has done with his ideas…

      • Me, innit says

        As a reader of Popper, Soros’ interpretation is a travesty. It seems to depend on one or two lines in the Poverty of Historicism about “reflexivity” (which Soros attributes his investing success to!) and confusing the term Open Society with open borders. In fact, Popper was a great defender of democracy and democratic institutions – the sort of thing Soros tries to trample over with his trans-national organisations.

    • Stephanie says

      Isn’t it obvious that valuing tradition and culture is an invention of post-modernists? No one ever though of that before, it’s such a radical new idea.

  9. Jesse says

    I can’t agree that someone who was consciously anti-rational ought to be counted among the greatest conservative thinkers of the 20th century. I am both a conservative and a rationalist, and I see no contradiction there. Conservativism is ultimately an attitude, not necessarily a political orientation. From my point of view, the only thing that makes certain of my fellow rationalists liberal rather than conservative is—charitably—an attitudinal difference, or—less charitably—hubris.

  10. Brian says

    The attachment to something like a nation-state could very well be an evolutionary adaptation.

    After all, it is MUCH easier to solve societal problems within a smaller, more homogenous group than it is to try to apply blanket solutions to problems affecting populations with widely variable circumstances.

    It also seems to be easier to keep corruption at bay when it is addressed within smaller groups.

    We see this with the EU at the moment. A cancerous institution if ever there was one, that body’s attempt to impose arbitrary regulation on the disparate countries within that union seem to rankle with many of the subject countries. I expect the EU to either completely crumble or be a shadow of it’s former self within a decade.

    The “reason uber alles” types seem to want to disregard basic human psychological needs in favor of what they perceive to be a utopia.

    I also take umbrage at the assumption that people are “abandoning religion”. No they aren’t. They’re replacing traditional religion with an ideology. Most ideologies fit right into a religious framework.

    Personally I think that religion exists inside of us as an instinct, and like any instinct, resides in some more than others.

    • Jairo Melchor says

      Traditional religion is, per se, an ideology. Ideology is merely a set of values, traditions, ideas and beliefs.

      To be more precise, they are changing an ideology for another. Now, that doesn’t mean that any ideology is “good”, if we’re talking about progressive ideology, it is certainly not. But if we were to, let’s say, talk about an ideology based on the enlightenment, i would say that it is good.

      Now, people are indeed abandoning religion. The numbers of religious people have been on steady decline for decades now, it is a fact based on statistics.

      It is very likely that religion can come as an instinct, but i certainly do not believe that we have to listen and carry that instinct through out our lives.

      Don’t get me wrong, if religion is gonna disappear, it should come as a natural process, not as a sort of movement like the so-called “atheists” of the progressive wing try to do at any given moment.

      • Nakatomi Plaza says

        What is “progressive ideology?” You understand that Jesus was a rebel and extremely progressive? Your personal religion is quite clear, despite your predictable and transparent attempt to sound objective. And you’re clearly as biased and judgmental as any evangelical; you’re just lying about your motives.

        And the religion of the right is capitalism. Markets are always correct, and no amount of evidence or common sense will convince then their god is fallible.

        • Quinton Peralta says

          Hello Nakatomi,

          When you refer to the right, which right are you referring to? I mean this in the sense of state, as I, personally, am Canadian and the right wing of our federal government is not very much like the right wing of the US. I think that this also could be used to question Dr. McManus's statement of what progressivism is, as he does not tie it directly to any country which I would argue is a necessary thing to do for this conversation to be viable.

          Cheers,
          Quin

      • Daniel V says

        Jairo – I enthusiastically agree religion is identical to ideology. I view it as a sub set along with culture, politics, and any other grouping of narratives you could define. The mythology is just a means to express ideas that could otherwise by expressed in more detailed complex language.

        I think people are less moving to a new ideology and more seeing their existing one mutate. Consider the upsurge in astrology and alternative medicine. A trip to the acupuncturist isn’t just about getting needles stuck into you, it’s also comes along with an explanation of spiritual ideas that help a person make sense of the world. In the modern era we’d be getting these from our Sunday excursion to church but in the post modern era those institutions at crumbling.

        I’d also argue there is nothing inherently wrong with progressive ideology and the problem has more to do with some specific qualities of an ideology. Mainly the extent of the influence of manicheanism. SocJus ideology puts a strong emphasis on this despite post modernism being a rejection of grand narratives. Of course self reflection and turning our critical eye inwards is a hard thing to do so I think it’s understandable they’d overlook it.

        I’d go further to say that emphasis appear elsewhere including with the new atheists you mentioned. It’s exactly why their attempts at progressing their atheist cause will continue to fail to do much of anything. Demanding a Nativity scene be removed is little more than a demand their personal Manchiean myths be accepted by everyone. Religion is evil and terrible and we’d all be weekending on Mars if it wasn’t for religion! Also worth noting they exhibit a sort of monotheism by seeing their one truth as the only truth.

        That’s the thing with evolution. While some things that prevent an organism from functioning might fall away others that pose no direct harm can linger. An atheist may have discarded the idea of a literal God but that doesn’t mean all of the framework supporting that idea. Changing the surface appearance of something is just optics.

  11. Respek Wahmen says

    This “socio-legal studies” tard uses Trump support, Brexit and euroskepticism generally as examples of “conservative postmodernism,” when those are all things Liberals (but not regressives) can and do support.

    It’s a blatant attempt to muddy the waters. Elbows too pointy. 2/10 at best.

  12. Quinton Peralta says

    Hello Dr. McManus,

    I have typically found your pieces on postmodernism to be rather convincing and have largely agreed with them. This article, however, I have some concern with in light of the reference to Oakeshott. Firstly, I want to point to a couple things and then ask a couple questions about the points in your piece.
    The first major thing that I would want to discuss is how you did make it seem as if Oakeshott relies entirely on the past. I don't believe this is accurate. Much like Hegel, Oakeshott typically attempts to treat history in its historical place, but doing so in a manner in which it teaches us something about ourselves in the present. This is a fundamental distinction, as it protects against the Payne-esqe critique of the "past ruling over the present." If you want a reference for this, I recommend Oakeshott's essay from 1929, "Religion and the World." Secondly, I think it would have been important for you to discuss precisely how Oakeshott deals with combatting the rationalist basis of thinking. In my reading, Oakeshott appeals to the experience of life itself; in this way, it becomes nearly self-evident to oneself why your family (for example) would be of greater importance to you than a stranger on the street. Family helps to build your experience of the world, and the nation is much like this in relation to foreign nations.
    As for my questions to you, is the point here that Oakeshott anticipates or is a postmodern conservative? Your essay never directly states that he is in the postmodern camp, however, the tone often seems to affiliate the two. Secondly, given what I mentioned about experience, would you say that he is skeptical in the ways in which a postmodernist is? It seems to me that there is a significant difference between them. One of the excellent essays which you cited, "Rationalism in Politics," really is antithetical to something like Michel Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish.' Foucault entirely criticizes and nearly advocates for the fall of society as it is in its "panopticon" manifestation, while Oakeshott is usually criticizing such reason for believing it to be self-aggrandizing. Your essay simply seemed not to discuss that distinction quite enough, though I'd be interest to hear your take on that.

    Cheers,

    Quin

    • Matt says

      Hello Quin. Why dont you email me your questions so I can respond in more detail. But in answer to your most pertinent question; yes. I would say he anticipates the emergence of PMV without himself falling into the camp. Joseph de Maistre would be more proximate to the political outlook I’m describing than Oakeshott. But I recently completed a serious of essays on him and decided to take a different route in this piece.

  13. E. Olson says

    If some process could erase all natural instincts of the human brain to seek out, trust, and congregate with the familiar, and to work with the most effort and selflessness to help ourselves and immediate family and community, then everything the Left advocates would be entirely rational in maximizing utility.

    Unfortunately, it is this lack of understanding of human nature and/or inability to change/erase it that ALWAYS dooms Leftist policy preferences. Look at the rise of fall of all major empires – they developed a successful culture that gave them knowledge and technical advantages over neighbors, whom they proceed to take over by persuasion or force, until at some point the differences between peoples and overall size of empire become so great the empire collapses due to the costs of bribing/coercing the “deplorable” and “savages” to be good citizens.

    Tribalism/nationalism exists and persists because tribalism/nationalism works with human nature as it is, not as we wish it to be.

    • another fred says

      @ E. Olson

      Excellent comment, but I would also put “good citizen” in mockery quotes. Moral sentiments (the basis of “good citizenship”) are most often about getting people to do things contrary to their own narrow self interest but for the good of the society at large. Sometimes these are quite benign (obeying traffic laws, e.g.) but sometimes they come with a heavy burden (risking life and limb in war or even more benign acts like firefighting).

      Being a “good citizen” requires a constant struggle against our instincts. Our susceptibility to moral suasion is always opposed by self interest.

      • E. Olson says

        AF – thank you for the kinds words and suggested mockery quotes, and I agree with your point to a degree. I would argue that being a good citizen is very often in our self-interest at the smallish tribal, or even larger national setting when facing a serious common threat, but you are absolutely correct that it often goes against our self-interest in larger groups and/or when their is no common threat, which is why Leftism doesn’t work.

        Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” sounds good in theory, but goes against human nature in almost all settings beyond immediate family. The Pilgrims found this out when they almost starved to death their first year at Plymouth Rock with their communal gardening program.

    • staticnoise says

      So there is a problem, apparently, with holding to traditions and gravitating toward people who are like you. It’s anti-rational to keep national borders and resist the influx of outsiders – who are again apparently – no different from you and yours except by the accident of being born elsewhere.You are being told that your irrational traditions and way of life must be torn down in order to welcome unfortunate immigrants. However, said immigrants carry their traditions and flocking instinct into your country, separating themselves by the same mechanisms you are criticized for, but that’s perfectly all right. Hmmm… This seems highly irrational…

  14. AJ says

    It seems elementary to characterise political conservatism as conservative that is to be reluctant and cautious in moving away from existing and traditional ways of doing things. However what strikes me as most distinctive about modern conservative politics is the extent to which it praises policies as radical and seeks to overturn existing conventions and norms.

    I first noticed this in Britain with Margaret Thatcher and you can certainly see this in Trump. There is much to be said for a political philosphy which emphasises caution and staying close to tradition but that does not characetrise modern conservative politics at all which seems more characetrised by a believe in the moral and practical benefits of unfettered capatilism and deregulation of all aspects of society.

    It is strange in many ways I consider myself left wing and classically liberal yet I would welcome a truely conservative force in politics rather than two radical parties pulling in different directions.

    Overall the article misses the mark badly in how it characterises post-modern conservatism.

    • Quinton Peralta says

      I think you are quite apt on this. Do you think that the issue might be that we have accidentally continued to call this modern “conservatism” conservative, meanwhile it is nothing of the sort?

      • Just Sayin' says

        And would you say that anything the American Leftists are currently doing is Liberal?

      • Harbinger says

        @QP…given that the status quo in the Common Law countries at least, predominantly features mixed economy and secular, rationalist culture, those who would conserve things as they are and where they are headed are the politically “progressive” or traditionally “Leftist/Liberal ” This seems to be especially the case in Canada.

        As you intimate, that casts those who would change the status quo, and dismantle Progressive iconology in culture and its ideology in economic activity, as the radicals.

        In many ways, the relevant binary for understanding what is going on in the push and pull over the role of the nation state and the reach of the Rules Based World Order, is no longer “Left/ Right” or “Conservative/ Radical” but “Insider/Outsider.

    • codadmin says

      @AJ

      Exactly. Marx himself said capitalism was the most revolutionary force in history, and what we call ‘conservatives’ are it’s champions. The labels we give people are just meaningless.

      If you wanted to conserve the status who, you would completely reject capitalism, but so called ‘conservatives’ don’t.

      It’s ironic that the most Marxist state in the world, North Korea, is the most stagnant. It’s stuck in a time capsule.

      I made a comment above, ‘conservatives’ love change. Just as leftists are not liberal, right wingers are not conservative.

      The battle between left and right is not about change verses un-change. It’s about what the change will look like.

      As an aside, I don’t think the western mind is capable of a true Conservatism.

      • Peter from Oz says

        Codamin
        The irony is that the conservatives want to repair the old ways, whilst the progressives want to throw out the old and try something new. In other words the left can’t seem to understand the importance of recycling. They are thus wasteful of time and treasure.

      • staticnoise says

        Ironic? North Korea? ironic in what sense? You would call NK conservative then? Not even a little bit. Conservatism is about conserving the rights of the individual over the collective. I start there as the basis of conservatism. The so-called liberals and leftists who are all about collective control over the individual have more in common with NK than any flavor of the right-wing or conservatism.

    • Stephanie says

      AJ, sadly this comment is uninformative. I would like to understand your point, but you fall short of making it. Yes, you don’t like Trump or Thatcher, that’s a banal sentiment, but what exactly is not traditional about unfettered capitalism, and what have Trump or Thatcher done to bring it about? Tarrifs and trade wars seems to be the distinctive characteristic of Trump’s economic policy, and those are certainly not hallmarks of unfettered capitalism. His actual capitalist policies have brought about recovery Obama said was impossible: what is your problem with low unemployment?

  15. Mysterion says

    The problem with any intellectual project that starts ‘All attempts at building rational frameworks have failed, hence X’. Is that either

    X is itself a rational framework and, thus founders immediately, or
    X is not a rational framework and is then neither comprehensible or actionable

    The way these arguments actually function in the wild is ‘All attempts at building rational frameworks have failed, hence I am entitled to my own intellectual prejudices and I won’t take any sh t from you rationalists’

    This is an attractive position for an intellectual scammer like Foucault. It also has considerable draw for religious conservatives. So its not surprising to see it feature as a kind of lowest common denominator between the two.

    “To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible”. Note that this does not itself provide the basis for a political philosophy. It is politically neutral.

    Applying this principle alone, a Russian Oakeshott would have aligned himself with the soviet military coup of 1991 against Gorbachev’s reforms. A Russian conservative would have allied themselves with the far left.

    In the contemporary world, Oakshott’s principle can only generate confusion. Consider the UK conservative position on the welfare state. During the postwar Labour administration Conservatives stood against Atlee’s programme of reform. Later Tory administrations made peace with the welfare state. However, by the start of the 21st century the welfare state was as baked into the fabric of British society as any Burkean institution. It is far more important to daily life than monarchy or church.

    This creates a paradox for conservatives on the right. If they insist on changing this settlement they risk an inversion in which the left becomes the party of organic development and the right the party of social revolution.

    Neither are the Tories able to take a purely Burkean line and leave the welfare state to evolve without conscious design. Individual bureaucratic organisations aren’t subject to the same forces of competition and cooperation that shape the private economy. There is only one HMRC, one Home Office and one Department of Health. Experience shows that these organisations turn inwards and focus on their own interests without external pressure.

    Thus, as a political philosophy, Oakeshott’s vision is hopeless.

    http://www.zwilo.com/future-everyone-will-conservative-economys-evolving-complexity-undermines-right-left/

  16. Harbinger says

    @NP….darling, I think you’ll find that that Matt is actually a secular Leftie by faith, judging by his other contributions at Quillette and elsewhere. But in my view he’s as good as you get when it comes to clear and objective thinking on matters philosophical.

    But hey, I don’t want to ruin your trolling day or anything.

    I’ll tell you what NP here’s something to trollerate over. Markets with workable competition are always correct, because left alone, they are always correcting, in response to human irrationality no less. Many markets lack workable competition of course, and this is overwhelming because of supposed rational political interventions in favour of a particular interest groups. The putative beneficiaries are often at least, nominally, “consumers”. However, the animal spirits of the market, which are really the sum of the human herd’s collective subconscious intelligence, have a nasty habit of feasting on such unnatural behaviours with unintended adverse consequences. Markets need to be left to fail. That’s the correct reward for human thoughtlessness and greed.

    If you don’t like markets NP, it seems to me you really don’t really like people much. But that is okay, since your mentor, dear old Karl, had not the slightest clue about human nature either.

    Enjoy your day.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Harbinger
      That was a very good summation of the truth

    • gda53 says

      Yes, those nasty “unintended consequences”. Funny how they tend to be almost always “adverse” when they emanate from leftie “solutions”.

  17. McManus has been pushing his unique phrase, “postmodern conservatism”, repeatedly, in Quillette and elsewhere. But all “postmodern” appears to mean to him is any sort of notion that reason has limits, which not only long predates postmodernism, but is, ironically, quite a rational understanding. McManus, on the other hand, tends to trivialize both postmodernism and reason — he once, for example, took an offhand remark by Newt Gingrich in a TV interview that he was “going with his gut” as a serious example of “postmodern conservatism”. Postmodernism, despite its many flaws, doesn’t deserve this sort of dumbing down, and neither does conservatism.

    It’s interesting, however, that he chooses Quillette as an outlet for such repeated usage. What he seems to be after isn’t really a concocted “postmodern conservatism” but rather the populist resurgence cum reform movement that is spreading widely, of which nationalism is but one facet. The spread of that reformism, of course, is also widely denounced by orthodox media and institutions in increasingly alarmist rhetoric, and McManus is just one voice in that. To give him credit, he uses calmer words, but it seems like he’s hit on the word “postmodern” more as what he no doubt considers a novel rhetorical strategy — to attack supporters of populist reform by pinning an annoying label on them — than because the term carries any real meaning.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Metamorf

      “…to attack supporters of populist reform by pinning an annoying label on them …”

      McManus is annoyed at being accused of postmodernism and he responds by saying, “Well, you’re postmodern, too!”?

    • Klaus C. says

      It seems to me an anachronistic term that isn’t required. Oakeshott was a follower of Objective Idealism, one of the strands of thinking influenced by Romanticism, a sprawling movement that attracted many conservatives for its often-backward looking, subjectivist and anti-rational tendencies.

      Thinkers who favoured tradition over reason in worldly affairs included some prominent philosophers, including Wittgenstein, a logician who ended up advocating faith and tradition in an essentially Romantic rejection of the rise of reason and science as the dominant intellectual authorities. European politics in the 1920s and 30s saw such tendencies decay into the extreme forms of fascism and Nazism.

      It makes more sense to try to understand postmodernism in a context that includes all the schools of thought that preceded it, rather than impose it on earlier thinkers influenced by earlier subjectivist ideas.

    • Matt says

      Metamorf; I dont recall ever using that quote. My reference was to Rudy Giuliani and his “Truth isnt Truth” comment, which I invoke largely as a rhetorical summation of the position I am referring to. Secondly, I never denied other traditions suggest reason has limitations. In fact many of my articles distinguish the particular kind of anti-foundationalism characteristic of post-modern conservatism from other variants. For instance the mature Enlightenment approach of figures like Hayek and others. What I am suggesting is that post-modern conservatism is a distinct kind of skepticism which reflects its roots as a product of the surrounding culture. I then suggest that precedents to post-modern conservatism can be seen in the work of certain earlier conservative figures.

      • Matt: The Gingrich quote was in a comment from someone else to another of your pieces, to which you responded, “Indeed that is an ideal example of appealing to identity as the source of epistemic and meta-ethical validity while dismissing other, more valid, sources of judgement for political reasons.” The problem with such “excellent examples” as that and the Giuliani quote is that such off-hand remarks would make everyone a post-modern something or other at one time or another, and that in turn just makes the term itself meaningless.

        Two further points: first, since Hayek has made a point of distinguishing himself from conservatism, bringing him into a discussion of conservatism as such tends to confuse rather than clarify. Second, every version of conservatism I know of, including all those that precede not just postmodernism but modernism, manifests skepticism regarding rationalist designs which reflects its roots in the surrounding culture — that is, all conservatism is already and always “postmodern conservatism” as you appear to define the phrase. Which again renders it meaningless, except as a rhetorical ploy.

        • Klaus C. says

          Yes, “traditional conservatism” by definition has always been expected to show a strong tendency to favour tradition over new ideas, which is impossible to do while also demanding that one’s views be rationally defensible.

          • Mysterion says

            @Klaus C. Interesting observations. Per my post above, “Traditional conservatism” can’t function in the modern world without intolerable contradictions.
            Our traditions, from the constitution of the US, to the European Welfare State, already incorporate rationalist elements. If the conservative rejects them, he becomes the radical, seeking to impose radical change on society. If they accept them, they are yesterday’s radical.
            There hasn’t been a safe place for ‘traditional conservatism’ since the enlightenment was baked into our culture, centuries ago.

    • Stephanie says

      Metamorf, I think you are precisely correct.

  18. TheSnark says

    I don’t know what people mean by “post-modern conservatism”, but I do know that the current Republican party’s policies have nothing in common with what Oakeshott recommended.

    I also don’t know if Oakeshott-type conservatives are less intelligent than the “progressives”, but I am quite sure they have far more common sense.

  19. Sean Leith says

    I want to point out two things: Every conservatives I know of, heard of, read of are brilliant, reasonable, logical, starting from Lincoln, Reagan of past, to Larry Elder, Ben Shapiro, to everyday Trump supporters and pro-life protestors. Every liberal I know of, heard of, read of are extreme, emotional, dim wit, violent, can’t form a sentence, from Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Obama to Nance, Schiff, Walters, AOC, to ANTIFA protesters. What have I got wrong here?

  20. asdf says

    “Of course, a rationalist might counter that these factors are highly arbitrary.”

    No, liking similar people whose existence benefits you more then non-similar people whose existence harms you is very rational.

    “It is purely an accident that one is born an American or Hungarian”

    “as it is purely accidental that refugees from Latin America or Syria were born into unstable countries where they faced serious risk of violence.”

    No, countries full of low IQ people tend to be basket cases. It’s not an accident. It’s a biological reality.

    “taking pride in our nation’s accomplishments even when we did not contribute to them”

    If you paid taxes, then you contributed to the nations accomplishments. Do you think the rockets that took men to the moon paid for themselves?

    Somebody prepared the astronauts lunch. Drove the truck that delivered the rocket parts. Their contribution is certainly different then an astronauts, but without it there would be no moon landing.

    People are what they are. Not a veil of ignorance. Given that they are what they are, it seems only natural that they favor those it makes sense for them to favor because it’s in their own interest to do so.

    Also, there isn’t much of a utilitarian case for caring about the world’s underclass. Even Rawl’s noted that (paraphrasing here) “in a multi-generational model of view of ignorance utility, improving or least maintaining the genetic quality of the population maximizes utility.”

    So you can’t get human rights or equality from merely asserting the veil of ignorance. Preventing the dumb from breeding and helping the smart to breed is the only “fair” thing for the well being of the next generation. Oops, autistic utilitarianism fails again.

    The conservative argument is that society is too complex to be analyzed with perfect, or even sometimes passable, rationality. “Traditions” have passed a market test of “working” over the long haul. This gives them a kind of “experimental and experiential” rationality that pure cognitive abstraction can’t always improve on.

    • Harbinger says

      …your last para nails it for sure. What Matt seems to be insensitive to, is the supporting role which credible evolutionary and neuroscience is playing in the burgeoning resistance to global government,universal culture, and unrestrained migration.

      I do value his contributions though.

  21. Itzik Basman says

    @MM:

    Intriguing, meaty essay, I enjoyed it.

    I’ll restrict myself to a question and an observation. I do so as an interested layman in these matters, without academic or professional expertise.

    My question is: do I correctly assume that the reasoning expanding utilitarianism to its “radical edge” manifest in, say, for one example, the 19th century advocacy of universal suffrage is essentially that it increases utility, namely a greater happiness for a greater number?

    My observation is that I’m at sea with your claim of significant connection between on on hand post modern theory and on the other Oakeshott’s conservatism, (“cultural conservatism”) arguing for embedded reasoning as against a kind ahistorical rationalism aka a “politics of skepticism.”

    I argue your attempt significantly to link the two betrays an instance of the logical fallacy of composition, here elevating something somewhat descriptively comparable between the two into their binding commonality, that binding evident in the very nomenclature you use, namely, “postmodern conservatism.”

    It’s reasonable to contrast economic libertarians like Friedman and Hayek with cultural conservatives like Burke and Oakeshott and to contrast technocratic, history-skeptics with post modern theorists. But where does the connection between cultural conservatism and postmodernism go beyond this comparison?

    Postmodernism, in a main iteration, there are others, is a specific analysis of culture and events shaped by forces rooted in power —though the analysis of what comprises power and how it works out varies with different groups of theorists—perpetually and dynamically impinging on and determining human life and events.

    The comparison you draw is post modernism’s insistence that human events and change are historically located as do the conservative thinkers you quote Eagleton to list. But I argue your comparison starts and stops with this observation. The line of thought running from Burke to Oakeshott is an incrementalist claim, going slow, privileging our organic link to our past manifest in our habits and traditions, fearing unintended consequences, skeptical—speaking of a politics of skepticism—of technocratic expertise conferring/imposing solutions from on high. In fact Eagleton characterizes this line of thought well, (edited to make the point):

    …You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans-Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical contexts…a sensitive attunement to historical context, to the cultural moldings of the self, to the subliminal voice of tradition and the force of the local or idiosyncratic…

    But, contra you, this, cultural conservatism, has nothing to do with an analysis of determinative forces rooted in power, be it the power of ownership of the means of production, or the power of hegemonic race, class and gender, or to do with any notion of culture as superstructure, all of which in different iterations and emphases are hallmarks of varieties of post modern theory.

    So your fallacy of composition, in a nutshell, resides in taking some descriptive similarity in the insistence on historical embeddedness and mistakenly elevating that similarity into a prescriptive conflation of post modernism and conservatism, again the evidence of that conflation is your own terminology, “postmodern conservatism” when in toto they are radically distinct from each other.

  22. Brian in Brooklyn says

    “The insistence that we concern ourselves with individuals with whom we have little in common is implicitly an insistence that maintaining traditional practices, and the sense of identity and meaning they provide, is at best a secondary concern next to our universal obligations.”

    No it is not. As a Buddhist, I equally maintain both traditional practices and concern for people with whom I have little in common (and after all, what more does a person need in common than the shared reality of a human rebirth? A person may choose to give into the desire to identify only with those like himself–hence the disastrous rise of identitarian politics on both the left and right–but once started on such a narrow path of personal desire fulfillment, the eventual end is the hyper-individualization that plagues today’s society/culture. People valorizing what they wish and wish not to do engenders suffering).

  23. Academy 23 says

    I’ve always got to take exception to the idea that we were somehow born by chance. No, we were born because of the conscious act of our parents conceiving us. None of us are the embodiment of souls waiting in a queue to be born somewhere, anywhere. None of us had to be. Everyone is alive not by chance but by purposeful action of people.

  24. Cedar Reuben says

    As best I can fathom this article is a jumbled mess of intellectual concepts that don’t produce a coherent framework for any sort of meaningful discussion, an interpretation that many of the comments seem to amplify. Even those commentators that try to take the article seriously offer confused and contradictory insights. I only say this because it’s an uncommon experience for me to carefully read an article on Quillette and still feel like almost nothing contained within it made sense.

    Of course, it’s entirely possible that the material is so far above my level of comprehension that it reads like nonsense to me. If that is the case, I sincerely and humbly apologize to the author.

  25. John Ashton says

    This whole article and the comments seem to be based on a huge misunderstanding. Oakeshott wasn’t anti-rational in the sense of being against reason, being irrational. He was against Rationalism (with a capital R) in the sense opposed to Empiricism, as a basis for politics. Much of his writing about politics emphasizes the importance of experience, both in the sense of experience built up over a lifetime in the job, and in the sense of experience as practical knowledge transmitted from one person to another, and in the sense of that embedded in tradition. This isn’t irrational in the sense that post-modernists are at all.

    Oakshott is pretty straightforward. (i.) The conservative temperament is distinct from the conservative movement, (ii.) the former is based on the sentiment that change is loss,and that loss means loss of identity (individual, particular identity, not necessarily group identity), (iii.) complex matters are better guided by experience than by armchair philosophizing.

    Has anyone here actually read Oakshott? Has the author read Oakshott without the “shove it all into the post-modernist story shoehorn”?

    • Itzik Basman says

      While I have a basic and massive problem with MM’s thesis of postmodern conservatism, I think he’s pretty clear that Oakeshott isn’t against reason as such. He’s pretty clear that Oakeshott argues for reason that’s historically, culturally and traditionally embedded. He’s pretty clear that Oakeshott argues against a (typically technocratic) denuded, acontextual reason or rationality that is skeptical of history and roots itself in its own presumed expertise in order to impose its solutions from on high, blithe about unintended consequences. I don’t know how you come away from reading this essay and so mischaracterize what MM is so clear about.

      (I know Oakeshott no longer walks the earth but I use the present tense to signify that his thought is a living thing,)

  26. Guillermo says

    Thank you, John Ashton, for pointing this out.
    It’s surprising how Quillette has published this.
    Michael Oakeshott is NOT against the politics of skepticism, but a defender of it. Michael Oakeshott is NOT in favor of the politics of faith, but against it. Politics of skepticism is precisely skeptic towards the possibilities of maximalist and rationalistic social change –a view that Oakeshott calls the politics of faith.
    This is not a matter of interpretation, it is the unambiguous central point of his essay. How can anyone not have noticed this before?

  27. Itzik Basman says

    I hereby declare this thread closed unless someone opens it up, which any old post can do.

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  32. Visi Guest says

    It would be great if every time there is to be a critique of conservatism or socialism, an overt definition would be included…

    The battle I see is between those who
    Believe & Remember
    Know & Learn

    Bear in mind the remembering is very much in the mold of the game of telephone, where one person tells a story to another & the 2nd person & 2nd person to #3 and so forth
    The story changes until it may have very little in common with the original facts the story was drawn from

    The battle cuts across all party lines

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