The era of Progressive mythology is over.
Without stronger individual character and deeper social cohesion, Americans are poised to stumble away from revival and into revolution.
“Our cold civil war and partisan rancor,” writes Ryan Williams, “will only end when one party finally wins the argument about these fundamentals in a decisive and conclusive victory and uses that victory to solidify and sustain an enduring electoral coalition for a generation or more.” I’m skeptical such a “decisive and conclusive” victory is possible—and I suspect that Ryan has his own doubts as well. Also, what that victory would look like remains unclear.
I’d be worried that the means needed to attain a victory most conservatives would find satisfying would be rather revolutionary. Given we’re not content with the status quo, our campaign would entail, not conservation at all, but instead revival or restoration. Conservatives, extraordinarily sensitive to the fragility of human nature and the complexity of society—and hence, the likelihood of unintended consequences—have conventionally been wary of sweeping change. But even if we were able to achieve this aforementioned victory, I’d be most concerned that it would be almost impossible to maintain given the current state of American conservatism writ large.
If what passes these days as the conservative movement, particularly in high schools and on college campuses, is any indication of what’s to come for the right, I fear we’d be unable to sustain any wins that might arise in the foreseeable future. “Owning the libs”—that is, achieving the rhetorical or even psychological destruction of one’s ideological adversary—has become not only a main practice of many young conservatives, it has become an end in itself. Yet neither that soul-draining exercise nor mere slogans about “free markets” and “limited government,” no matter how often they’re repeated, will succeed in cultivating the character needed to defend those very systems—or at least defend those systems in the face of the varied and relentless attacks they face in our time.
Of course, it’s critical that we continue both to support candidates and current elected officials who champion first principles, national sovereignty, and sound policies, and to oppose the left’s living constitutionalism and legal realism. But it’s essential that, every day, we actively consider what it means to live “conservatively,” putting our philosophy into practice with regard to personal conduct and interactions with others. If conservatism is taught as merely certain political ideas to be revered, the connections between the micro and macro will continue to be less obvious, and our cherished institutions will crumble. Indeed, we’d eventually find there are very few candidates, if any, interested in conservatism, as the majority of the readers of this publication conceive it.
It’s impossible to quantify the extent to which it has happened, but conservatism has been weakened by the widening disconnect between principle and praxis. Many of us do grasp it. Perhaps this waning has been happening for quite some time. But I’d venture to say it’s been drastically accelerated by a combination of social media, a cable-news industry driven by theatrical polemics, and, last but not least, secularism. As much as conservative intellectuals in The Swamp and elsewhere criticize proponents of strict “separation of church and state,” they themselves too often are atomizing social relations, focusing on touting official “rights” at the expense of advocating for unofficial obligations among citizens, parents, siblings, and neighbors. The Old Testament, the foundation of Western civilization, does not speak of “rights.” Rather, that sacred document, which the giants of the Canon not just took seriously philosophically but usually also observed, concerned itself what we owe others and, of course, God.
Unadulterated “liberty,” one of the highest aims of a particular type of progressivism, has in turn entered the mainstream conservative mind. Yet it is a treacherous aim that, in view of the powerful yearnings of human nature, is bound to subjugate us to primal instincts. We exist in a world inhabited by other individuals. It is nearly impossible not to enter into relationships, and relationships by definition entail responsibility. At the bare minimum, we are required to treat others as we wish to be treated.
Above and beyond this, though, we have the chance to live virtuous lives by fulfilling moral commitments that are central to the Judeo-Christian tradition and, accordingly, prerequisites to the survival of democracy. Interestingly enough, the Talmudic tractate Avot (“Fathers”) instructs that “engraved” is to be read as “freedom” in the famed Exodus passage, “And the tablets were made by God, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved on the tablets.” In short, restrictions, by preventing us from succumbing to base instincts, are what allow us to be free, to live our fullest lives, to realize our truest purposes.
One effect of the eschewing of this knowledge is that conservatives of the traditionalist persuasion, despite going to great lengths to distinguish themselves from libertarians, largely avoid outlining the areas in which even local government could play a positive role in our lives. And not just a role in terms of direct benefits accrued by individuals, but one that, by catering to local tastes and preferences, serves what most conservatives would deem an indispensable aim: social cohesion. Without social cohesion, there is disunity and discord with the potential for upheaval. “The perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state,” noted John B. Judis in his recent New York Times op-ed, “which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.” He might have added an even greater sacrifice for fellow citizens than that of one’s own pocketbook: one’s own life.
Another effect of ceasing to fully respect the underpinnings of principles is the sense that nothing is merely “private,” that all of our affairs are inherently political. A number of conservatives, especially in their attitude toward President Trump, have shown themselves to be just as prone to partisan zealotry as progressives. This indeed appears to be a result of boredom and isolation stemming from the decline of faith and voluntary association and the not unrelated ascent of forms of communication that demur face-to-face interaction. What ever happened to the notion of the common good (the best for the most people)? That involved empathy, perspective, and compromise. Without a better grasp of what makes up the good life, those qualities have been eroded by a mentality of devout conviction that sees all human affairs as zero-sum and a loss, no matter how minor, as an apocalyptic failure.
This is all to say that while playing the political game, we conservatives have to play the long game too—and play it by adhering to our own rules publicly as well as privately, not just by going through the motions. For the character needed to preserve victories, whether big or small, needs to be developed, first and foremost, at the individual level. A much more holistic approach to our ideas must be taken, one with moderation at its core. Rights should be understood in relation to each other and in relation to the context of obligations. And though a “decisive and conclusive” victory sounds appealing to some, we should greet such a prospective outcome with reservation, recognizing it would mean diminished diversity of thought and belief. Variation challenges, checks, and refreshes, making possible a robust discourse that animates a constitutional republic and fuels the moral imagination.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.