Politics & Media
Mar 28, 2024, 06:27AM

Fear and Radicalism

Looking at dangers facing America.

Fatehpur cows infected with lumpy skin disease at a farm in fatehpur pti phot .jpg.webp?ixlib=rails 2.1

You can tell a lot about people’ politics by what they’re afraid of. I was reading Instapundit, a group blog run by Glenn Reynolds, and saw a post by Mark Tapscott raising an alarm that “the invasion” (illegal immigration) threatens the U.S. food supply. This linked to an Epoch Times article on that topic: “Experts Warn Mass Migration Threatens US Food Security: Tuberculosis carried by illegal migrants has already infected Texas cattle, but a longtime veterinarian says flesh-eating parasites could be next.”

The article’s main source is a veterinarian named Michael Vickers (note: not the former defense official Michael G. Vickers), who makes statements like, “This [Biden] administration doesn’t want us to eat cattle. They want us to eat bugs.” The cases he notes of infected cattle were from 2015 and 2019, and much of the article’s about disease outbreaks that could happen but haven’t. But it’s the focus on undocumented Latinos that makes this such a tendentious worry. Bovine TB in humans is less than two percent of U.S. TB cases; it’s rare in U.S. cattle, and the bacterium that causes it, Mycobacterium bovis, is also found in deer, elk and bison, so hunters exposed to the blood of those animals might get and spread the disease.

If one’s worried about flesh-eating parasites, take climate change into consideration, not just illegal immigrants. If one’s worried about the food supply, give some thought to how food production would be affected by a massive crackdown on undocumented laborers. Those concerns, though, won’t get much traction among right-wing populists reading Instapundit and The Epoch Times. Moreover, the characterization of illegal immigration, a genuine problem, as an “invasion” is central to right-wing populism today, carrying authoritarian implications for what a second Trump administration or the right-wing more broadly might do to combat such a supposed threat to our country.

Recent Splice Today pieces by Crispin Sartwell and George Sarant analyze what left and right mean in politics, a subject I’ve pondered too. I don’t agree with Sartwell that there’s “no way to characterize the left/right spectrum or any position along it in a coherent way.” I think it’s difficult, rather than impossible, to do so, since it’s a cluster of attributes, not just one defining factor, that distinguish left and right. Generally, purporting to defend or resurrect some part of the past (real or imagined) places you on the right, while claiming to offer progress beyond some past practice or belief is a left-wing theme. There are exceptions, such as when libertarians extol future technologies along with pre-New Deal capitalism. Other attributes must be considered. For example, presuming to promote some sort of equality (however, ineffectually in practice) is a left-wing inclination; claiming to defend excellence against some leveling tendency is a right-wing one.

Sarant cogently points out limits and flaws in the left-right spectrum as a conceptual framework but also states: “My own view is that this sort of long-tested means of organization will likely continue to prevail and even increase in the future.” That seems likely to me as well. Efforts to rethink the political spectrum—creating a new dichotomy, such as Virginia Postrel’s dynamism vs. statism; or adding dimensions to left and right, such as authoritarian vs. libertarian, to make a four-quadrant plane—haven’t succeeded in overcoming the familiarity and intuitive appeal of the left-right spectrum. I suspect readers of my opening paragraph had little trouble realizing that I was discussing right-wingers.

Sarant also writes: “I’ve often stated: conservatism is fundamentally anti-radical above all else. That’s true in any place at any time from Ancient Greece until now.” I can agree with that only if it’s offered as a definition, not a description. In practice, entities that call themselves “conservative” can be radical. Today’s Republican Party, in my estimation, has shown unmistakable radicalism, in choosing a presidential nominee who sought to steal the previous election; in its admiration for foreign autocrats such as Viktor Orbán; and in its promotion of a plan, Project 2025, that would turn the federal civil service into an arm of an autocratic president and his political party. Those are right-wing ideas that’re anti-conservative, in that they’d rip away at established institutions and political checks and balances.

—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber

  • RE: conservatism vis a vis radicalism. Yes, that is a definition, not attribute; probably the only constant one across time. But when I referred to the long tested means of organization it was NOT about left-right dichotomy, but rather the ephemeral personality-based groupings that have persisted across time in all places, although less in the Anglosphere.

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  • Yes, as in Gaullism, Peronism, Trumpism. It does seem a persistent tendency.

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  • Totally OT, but seeing "that're" in print makes me wonder how one would contract "that were."

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  • Ha. You'll have to ask the editor who inserted that contraction. I have, I mean I've, been known to use contractions at Splice Today because they seem to fit the style, but this one wasn't me.

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