Over the years, attending conservative conferences and events both in the UK and abroad, I’ve detected a divide between the Right’s boomers (those born sometime between 1946 and ’64) and its younger people, especially those from the millennial generation (1981-96) onwards. This divide is almost never addressed publicly, but both groups are generally aware of it. They routinely look suspiciously at each other, whilst claiming to be on the same side of political debates and culture wars. Of course, it’s true that they share many sympathies in these polemics. Nonetheless, the divide is there, and as time rolls on it is becoming ever more evident.
I owe the conservatives of the latter half of the 20th century a debt of gratitude, for so many of them have formed my own convictions, but I have come to realise that I stand firmly in the camp of the young conservatives, as my age would suggest (I’m a late ’80s child). This divide was made clear during a wonderful conference in Brussels recently, organised by The European Conservative. A journalist of the boomer generation was on a panel, and during the discussion he repeatedly criticised ‘woke’ culture, the trans-movement, and the rise of censorship. Another speaker on the panel, a millennial, connected with the brilliant IM—1776 journal, challenged the first speaker with suggestions that perhaps we need to think less about freedom of speech, and certainly privilege ‘the good’ over freedom of speech, and take more seriously the underlying reasons for the civilisational collapse that we’re all worried about.
The boomer conservative journalist eventually said that, as he saw things, the imperative was that of restoring the tradition of Western civilisation initiated with the free and open thinking exemplified by Spinoza. Later in the day, I argued that it was precisely with people like Spinoza that we began to see the explicit signs of rot that eventually became the comprehensive decline of our civilisation. “The process of modernity is coming to an end,” I said, “and it has all been a deeply unhappy story. We can’t refute late modernity by defending its prior stages; it’s high time for a full refutation of the entire modern project.”
With comments like mine, others inevitably respond, “Oh, so you want to throw away modern medical science, or even your smart phone?” And herein lies the problem. We have deeply imbibed the lie that technological innovation is a correlative principle with moral progress. We think that because we have iPhones, we must be morally superior to our forebears. Thus, we believe we must accept the moral dogmas of modernity, or it seems like ingratitude for modern medicine and telephones. In fact, it is precisely because modernity’s moral dogmas have been enforced alongside technological innovation that the latter has been such a colossal danger to us all. One only needs a couple of minutes to entertain the thought that technology has brought about moral betterment to be disabused of such an error.
This, it seems to me, is what accounts for the fundamental divide that exists between typical boomer conservatives and typical young conservatives: the former believe that there is at root nothing fundamentally wrong with the modern project, only that there are some issues at the surface level that are frustrating the lives of ordinary people. Young conservatives, on the other hand, think that our civilisation is sick, festering with old tumours of which the cysts of transgenderism and critical race theory are mere symptoms—and it is precisely ‘ordinary people’ who are the problem, capitulating as they do at every stage of our civilisation’s self-destruction.
Boomer-cons still believe that the problems we face can be solved by a moderate sense of patriotism, the freedom of the market, and the procedures of old institutions. Young-cons can’t see how even moderate patriotism can be sustained in a world of free movement, in which settled Western populations are routinely told that every culture is valuable but their own; they don’t see how the market can become the benign force that boomers want it to be when it is led by massive monopolising forces that possess colossal political power, and which operate to destroy basic conservative sentiments; they can’t grasp how the old institutions of state and civil society can change the trajectory of civilisational decay whilst such institutions are themselves the great engines taking us down this path to perdition. Young-cons may often argue for the necessity of state intervention to protect civil society, but the sort of state they have in mind is a radically different one to that which governs us at present.
Where boomer-cons talk of free-speech, young-cons talk of virtue. Where boomer-cons talk of national interest, young-cons talk of the ‘common good.’ Where boomer-cons talk of the primacy of the individual, young-cons talk of the family and the need for cohesive tradition-based communities. Where boomer-cons talk of state intervention to protect freedom, young-cons talk of state coercion to promote and protect human flourishing. Where boomer-cons talk of ‘Judeo-Christian values,’ young-cons talk of conversion, holiness, and Christendom.
Of course, there are millennial conservatives who look to Thatcher and Reagan as the paradigmatic stars of conservatism, and there are boomer-aged conservatives who speak with the purist blaze of so many of the Right’s youth. A good example of the latter is Peter Hitchens, who is routinely mocked on mainstream media channels, paraded out to be jeered at by boomer liberals and boomer Tories alike, as if he were an eccentric Jacobite from one of Disraeli’s novels, there only for comedic effect. But there are many young-cons who aren’t laughing. They hold Hitchens to be someone who has seen perhaps better than anyone of his generation that our problems are not superficial ones, but belong to a long and escalating spiritual crisis that’s been engulfing the West for centuries. As Hitchens has put it, focusing on his own country, “I belonged to the last generation of Englishmen to see real England before it was finally destroyed altogether.”
Many a time I have been in conversation with a boomer-con, agreeing with his observations on the ‘woke’ indoctrination of young people in universities, the rise of pernicious activist movements, the absurdity of transgenderism, and so forth. Then, whenever a possible solution is proposed to such problems, the boomer will interject with, “Well yes, but of course, we must maintain a liberal approach to all that.”
It is as if, in the boomer-con’s mind, liberalism is a ‘nice principle’ that ought to temper the ‘nasty but necessary principle’ of conservatism. Young-cons, however, don’t identify liberalism with niceness at all. They have suffered for decades the nastiness and antagonism of self-identified liberals. They’ve watched as so-called liberal values wrecked their parents’ marriages, turned them into wage-slaves, isolated them from their neighbours, unanchored them from their civilisational inheritance, provided them with porn, emasculated them, encouraged them to treat others like objects of use, and told them to abort the offspring that they sired in the process. They’ve come out the other side of this nihilistic mayhem—with stories of terrible decisions from which they were never protected—covered in moral scars, and often mortal scars. When they hear ‘liberalism’ they don’t think ‘nice,’ they think pure, unadulterated evil.
This is why, under the surface, at any given conservative conference or event, there is an unmistakeable division. Boomer-cons and young-cons nod along to each other’s comments, but they know that were the conversation to continue for too long, that underlying division would emerge, exposed for all to see. Actually, one can never wholly hide it. These two groups necessarily look suspiciously at each other. When the boomer-con speaks, the young-con can hear that his words are laced with liberal commitments that he detests. When the young-con speaks, the boomer-con picks up on the seeds of reactionism and traditionalism that he inevitably identifies with fascism, and therefore fears that the intemperance of the young-con will undermine the whole movement.
This, it seems to me, is the other problem that underpins this generation-based divide among conservatives: boomer conservative discourse remains framed by the political and social concepts initiated by the 20th century’s first half. Boomer-cons still think that the threats to the West are Marxism and fascism, and that a liberal-conservative hybrid is what will protect the West, and that this is in any case what we fought for from 1939-45. They see transgenderism and attacks on free speech as fundamentally Marxist, and they see the young-con response to such phenomena as borderline fascist. Hence, they have recourse to a theoretical liberal-conservative hybrid—that can now only be found among them and in the smoking rooms of Pall Mall clubs.
The boomer-cons fail to see that, whilst they’re right that wokeness is driven by Marxist theory, it is aided and abetted by the most powerful institutions of State and society because the materialism and nihilism of both Marxist and national socialism won the ideological battle of the 20th century. Socialism won, because the ideology that had the military power (and later the financial power) to win out—namely that very liberal-conservatism that boomers want to defend—offered no coherent model for morally uniting the West in the latter half of that century. Liberal-conservatism could do little more than privatise the common goods of society and re-establish public life on competitive goods, commodifying all it touched. That was never going to provide the moral vision to revive the West. Its competitors, then, won the moral war. Hence, in the West we now suffer the statism, thought-policing, and eugenic programmes of which Bolsheviks and Nazis could only have dreamed, and for good measure we enjoy the class-tensions and race-conflicts which were those ideologies’ gifts to the world.
The political and cultural polemics of the first half of the 20th century are over, and it seems to me that this is what the boomer-con doesn’t understand. The boomer-con still believes that an admixture of ‘conservative values’ and ‘liberal approaches’ is going to save the West from the fascistic ‘reactionary populists’ on the Right and the Marxist, socialist woke mob on the Left. But the young-con is stood asking, ‘What West?’ The West is gone. Its cities are crumbling, its political life is a vision-vacuum steeped in petty ideological aggression, its populations are rapidly disappearing and being replaced, and its national stories are derided. The vision of the post-war conservatives was insufficient to prevent this decay because they conceded so much to liberalism, and thus were left with little to say in the face of the socialist take-over that has irreparably distorted their countries.
The worldview of the boomer-con continues to be informed by the project he embarked on of repairing the post-war, devastated world. The worldview of the young-con, however, is informed by the scars he carries in large part due to the failure of that project. The boomer was the last to see the final remnants of a tradition-based society, and because he encounters it occasionally in his London club or on a driven grouse shoot, he thinks that that tradition-based society will always be there. The young-con, however, will likely never get a mortgage, let alone pay one off; he’s terrified to begin a family because he has no money and he barely knows his own father, who left in a messy divorce when he was five; he knows that his society has disappeared and will radically change even in his lifetime; and he feels that he has no civilisation to pass on to his offspring for none was given to him. In fact, he knows of his civilisational tradition not because he was inducted into it by his family, his school, or his parish—quite the contrary—but because he occasionally encounters discussions of it in the comments sections of blog posts.
When the boomer-con and the young-con meet each other, they can’t help but be suspicious of one another. They affirm each other’s critical comments about transgenderism, critical race theory, cancel culture, and so on. But the boomer-con thinks that these are infections attacking an otherwise healthy organism. The young-con, however, thinks that the whole organism is failing, and that what the boomer diagnoses as infections are in fact symptoms of a far more serious disease that has taken over the whole body of Western civilisation. In order to treat this disease, according to the young-con, one has to do the hard work of studying the terrible diet, harmful habits, and deleterious lifestyle that this body has undergone for a long time, and then apply a very aggressive treatment in the hope of restoring health, and such a restoration is very far from certain. The boomer knows that this is what his younger equivalent really thinks, and he worries that this marks a return of fascism. Fascism, however, and all forms of noxious socialism, are precisely what the young-con can’t stomach any longer.
Paradoxically, rather than liberalism bringing about the end of history, as the Fukuyaman adage has it, it brought about the end of modernity, largely by eating itself. Liberalism had no power to withstand the moral force of socialism. Now, the young-con holds, there is only one power that possesses the moral force to break the great socialist machine that operates as one device across the whole world: Tradition. Between boomer-cons and young-cons there will ever be a distance, until the former give up on the dogmas of modernity altogether—and there’s little chance of that. If young-cons keep to their convictions, the conservatism of future decades looks to be more realistic and aggressive, based on transcendent goods, a shared history, and a return of genuine culture. It will be a conservatism of the traditions of our civilisation, the traditions of Tradition if you like. In fact, the conservatism of the future may be something like a new Throne and Altar conservatism. Let’s hope so.