After 1789, conservatism was the party of insecurity, pessimism and fear, liberalism the party of confidence, optimism and eager anticipation, down to the early years of the twenty-first century when the mood of hubristic triumph that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union deflated almost overnight, in the United States especially, where liberal democrats have come to resemble the “normal American of the pure-blooded type” whom Mencken described as going “to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed, and… [getting] up with a sickening fear that his underwear has been stolen.” Today, the liberal American imagines a white supremacist climbing down his chimney at night and someone wearing a MAGA hat getting elected president of the local school board.
What is the cause of this striking reversal of roles? The most obvious one is that, today, liberalism is the established interest in America and throughout the Western world, and conservatism the threatening opposition. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, especially when it understands that its chief support is located in the famously timid and flaccid liberal bourgeoisie, while the opposition is rooted in the working and lower-middle classes, well trained in the use of their fists and their firearms and, like Antaeus, taking their strength from the earth. Like every ruling class, the members of the New Class live in fear of challenge, revolution and dispossession.
Still, the thing goes deeper than that. Liberalism, for all the outward confidence it has displayed since the seventeenth century, is, as the secularist interest, the natural — indeed, the inevitable — prey of existential insecurity. More, as the scientifically and technologically oriented party dedicated to the mastery and conquest of nature, it has a keen sense of the natural world’s complete indifference to humanity and human interests. The present climate-related panic is three parts politically motivated hoax and one part the genuine terror that pagans, who view nature as a mortal threat to the human species, have always felt.
Environmentalist liberals do not really believe in a benign and nurturing Gaia — natural religion in Disneyface — but rather in a faceless demonic force, Joseph Conrad’s “The Horror.” Liberals believe this Horror can be appeased by humans through the practice of a vaguely voodooistic religion that operates simultaneously and in league with “The Science” and technology to placate nature, tame it and bend it to the human will and human welfare. One of the means it employs to this purpose is the sustained murmur of moral incantation that currently rises from across the liberal world. Ultimately, liberals’ overwhelming fear is of losing control of any and every sort, since without control liberalism, in a sense, ceases to exist. Yet even the most fanatical liberal, lying awake at three in the morning, suspects that absolute control and the security that comes with it are finally impossible in this world. Indeed, liberalism may be best understood as institutionalized insecurity. For liberals, everything that exists is a potential source of fear, and everything that occurs a threat of danger.
The late Colonel Jeff Cooper, the shooting expert and firearms trainer, claimed that the anti-gun and pro-gun-control lobby consists of “people who can’t cope.” I suspect he had in mind less people incapable of handling a handgun or rifle safely and efficiently than fearful people who can’t manage fear and uncertainty. Modern liberalism — liberalism as it has evolved since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — is a product of urbanization and suburbanization, indeed of a society the greater part of which has become progressively detached from nature and physical reality, and so deprived of a healthy sense of the radical weakness of human beings confronting the natural world and the ability to recognize and live with it, confidently and without fear.
The American conservationist movement was founded in the early years of the twentieth century by outdoorsmen widely experienced in the wilderness they sought to protect and manage and knowing how to survive in it. Since the 1970s, conservation — transformed into a gaseous concept called “environmentalism” — has been appropriated by urban bureaucrats, liberal politicos, government agencies and wealthy cranks who can’t read a topographical map or compass, start a campfire without matches or lighter, survive a mountain blizzard, picket a horse properly for the night, or pour piss out of a boot. Charles, Prince of Wales, no John Muir but also a man who cares sincerely for the natural world and has a deep appreciation of the value of agrarianism and the centrality of agrarian life to civilization, has formally predicted that “we” (he was not intending here the royal “we”) have only a few years remaining to “save the planet.” Yet what the Prince fears is chiefly an abstraction, a conceptual wraith bearing little or no relationship to flesh-and-blood reality.
The truth is that secularist liberals who categorically deny the existence of the supernatural believe nonetheless in phantoms. Were they willing to accept the fact or even the hypothesis of a deity, that might allow them a certain provisional peace of mind. Unfortunately for themselves, they are too obsessed with their idea of Him as a rival and an enemy, rather than a source of trust, to entertain the possibility of His being a metaphysical reality. Their reluctance is understandable. God, for them, would only mean another and final thing to fear: the ultimate denial of absolute liberal control.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.