DeMint’s Remnant

Senator Jim DeMint is not so interested in bipartisan cooperation:

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is the kind of uncompromising conservative who can make the leaders’ life difficult. Mr. DeMint thinks, among other things, that some of his Republican colleagues are helping Democrats push America far to the left.

“We have to have a remnant of the Republican Party who are recognizable as freedom fighters,” Mr. DeMint said. “What I’m looking to do as a conservative leader in the Senate is to identify those Republicans, and even some Democrats, and put together a consensus of people who can help stop this slide toward socialism.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase regarding the need for “a remnant” of the GOP, since this is a well-known idea from the work of Albert Jay Nock who’s kind of a predecessor figure for the modern, Buckley-and-forward version of the conservative movement. Nock was writing in 1936, and his idea was that the mid-thirties opponents of the inevitable slide toward socialism were being insuperably hampered by the need to appeal to a mass audience:

One evening last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance while he expounded a political-economic doctrine which seemed sound as a nut and in which I could find no defect. At the end, he said with great earnestness: “I have a mission to the masses. I feel that I am called to get the ear of the people. I shall devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the population. What do you think?”

An embarrassing question in any case, and doubly so under the circumstances, because my acquaintance is a very learned man, one of the three or four really first-class minds that Europe produced in his generation; and naturally I, as one of the unlearned, was inclined to regard his lightest word with reverence amounting to awe. Still, I reflected, even the greatest mind can not possibly know everything, and I was pretty sure he had not had my opportunities for observing the masses of mankind, and that therefore I probably knew them better than he did. So I mustered courage to say that he had no such mission and would do well to get the idea out of his head at once; he would find that the masses would not care two pins for his doctrine, and still less for himself, since in such circumstances the popular favourite is generally some Barabbas. I even went so far as to say (he is a Jew) that his idea seemed to show that he was not very well up on his own native literature. He smiled at my jest, and asked what I meant by it; and I referred him to the story of the prophet Isaiah.

It occurred to me then that this story is much worth recalling just now when so many wise men and soothsayers appear to be burdened with a message to the masses. Dr. Townsend has a message, Father Coughlin has one, Mr. Upton Sinclair, Mr. Lippmann, Mr. Chase and the planned economy brethren, Mr. Tugwell and the New Dealers, Mr. Smith and Liberty Leaguers — the list is endless. I can not remember a time when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the multitude and telling them what they must do to be saved.

Nock goes on to offer a reading of the story of the Prophet Isaiah in which the moral of the story turns out to be the need to spend less time focusing on the appeal to the masses on more time on preserving a pure “remnant” of conservatism that could return at some long-distant future point. At the time of Nock’s writing, of course, the country was near the high-tide of the New Deal after the unified Republican rule of the 1920s resulted in the Great Depression. Eventually, of course, the conservative movement did make a comeback — though I’d hardly say it eschewed efforts at appealing to the masses — and resulted in another giant economic crisis.


At any rate, “remnant” thinking is naturally seductive for any out-of-power political movement. But I do think it has a special kind of appeal to the right. Whether or not you think progressive economic works in practice, and whether or not progressive economic policy is popular in practice at any given time, the progressive idea is that we’re setting about to make sure that prosperity is more broadly shared — to improve the material condition of the broad mass of people. That’s something that ought to appeal to people. So progressives cling pretty dearly to the notion that our views can and should be made broadly popular. Conservative thinking doesn’t really have that element. It appeals, on both a theoretical and practical level, to the idea of the natural right of the wealthy to their wealth. At its most politically successful, conservatism in the voice of Ronald Reagan made the argument that libertarianish economic policy would in fact produce the results that progressive economic policy claimed for itself — broader and more robust prosperity. But conservatism isn’t committed to that objective as a matter of principle, so it needs to be open to “remnant”-style arguments about the need to just chill out in the woods for a few decades while the masses go off on a wild socialistic ride.

John Holbo’s classic post on Donner Party conservatism is also relevant here.