Conservatives finally have something to talk about again. That is how I recently heard the current moment in American conservatism described. Indeed, uncertainty swirls around conservatism today. The old “fusionism” has—for better or worse—cracked apart. Political and judicial victories are balanced against cultural defeats. Debates rage over economic protectionism and free trade. The aims and principles of the American founding—long treated as sacrosanct—have been brought into question. And, of course, the figure of Donald Trump—rescuer of national greatness or shameless demagogue—hovers over it all.
The Power of Ideas?
There is a tendency in many of these arguments—sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit—to see the current political crisis in terms of comprehensive sets of ideas that purport to explain all of political life. We are often encouraged to understand the past, present, and future in terms of what set of ideas has been or will be adopted. These ideas, in turn, mold our social and political life after their own image.
There are countless examples, often from subtle and perceptive critics of our political climate. Consider the opening lines of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which speak of “a political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States.” The political and cultural decay we see around us today, the book goes on to explain, is simply the logical conclusion to the liberal premises accepted at the American founding.
Likewise, Ryan P. Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute—one of the hubs of intellectual conservatism—argued in a 2018 essay on the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings that the extreme partisanship on display there was the result of differences on “fundamental questions of human nature, constitutionalism, and justice.” These underlying worldview differences will determine the future of America: “Our cold civil war and partisan rancor will only end when one party finally wins the argument about these fundamentals in a decisive and conclusive victory…” (emphasis in original).
Such language becomes most stark among Catholic “integralists.” In 2018, Thomas Pink defended integralism by arguing that states are inherently “confessors”—either of truth or falsity: “For if a state is not so committed [to the Roman Catholic faith]…the state will give false witness about the bonum commune and what would further it.” The state must be committed to the Truth, or it will inevitably attach itself to and promote a false notion of the good. Again, the state is defined by a definite, comprehensive dogma. This inordinate emphasis on universal ideas has implications for the way we think about our past and our future.
Mainstream conservatism was heavily mixed with classical liberalism in the 20th century, and it had a distinctive way of understanding America’s past. The essence of America was to be found in the few philosophical, Lockean lines of the Declaration of Independence. America is an idea, they taught, and its institutions, practices, and historical evolutions all were to be understood in light of that idea. Interestingly, this insistence on the vital importance of “founding principles” seems to be shared by those who now attack the old consensus. Post-liberal conservatives increasingly define America by the atomistic liberal theory which purportedly informed its founding and see our present discontents as the inevitable result of the embrace of such principles. America is an idea, they argue—just a bad one.
There are also implications for the way we think about the future. Inordinate emphasis is placed on a winner-take-all “war of ideas” which will determine the outcome of all our political and cultural tensions. The coercive power of the state, moreover, is seen as the key to winning this war: we must control the levers of power and use them to promote and enforce our vision of the good. Some conservatives, then, have begun to argue that we ought to treat politics like an actual war—identifying political rivals as enemies and using any means necessary (including the abandonment of civility, dignity, institutional norms, and the traditional conception of statesmanship) to win. If everything we hold dear hinges on the outcome of this war of ideas, we ought to be willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary in order to make sure the right ideas prevail.
The Limits of Universal Theory
Do political ideas have this kind of power? As Daniel E. Burns has argued in his excellent essay in National Affairs, the societies (including America) that are sometimes defined by their “liberalism” often do not at all reflect the characteristics of liberal theory, classical or modern. America utilizes many institutions that have no grounds in liberal theory. Its federal system does not fit liberal assumptions all. The American people, by and large, have no conception whatsoever of what liberal theory prescribes. Politicians routinely challenge liberal assumptions. A theory, he concludes, is not an “authoritative interpreter” of practice. One might go a step further: A polity is not (or, at least, is very rarely) defined by any particular set of ideas.
When arguing over the extent of Parliamentary sovereignty over the American colonies, Burke warned his opponents against the tendency to try to fit reality into a comprehensive theory. Defenders of parliamentary authority presented the American crisis as a simple “either-or” question: Either accept the theory of Parliamentary sovereignty and allow Parliament to tax the colonies at its leisure, or deny the sovereignty of the head of the empire over its parts. Burke, however, argued that the politics of the empire ought not be subjected to any single theory: “The old building stands well enough,” he wrote in his Observations on a Late State of the Nation, “though part Gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come crashing down upon our heads in much uniformity of ruin.”
A strong case can be made that America is much like the building Burke described. Liberal ideas have played a role in its development. So have classical ideas and Christian ideas. Liberal rights and institutions have shaped it. So have uniquely English ones and uniquely American ones that may not fit the “liberal” label. None of these necessarily cohere theoretically with one another, nor need they.
Burke’s language—both substance and style—is reminiscent of that which he would later use in his denunciations of revolutionaries. It is noteworthy, however, that he also thought such admonitions were needed for those who saw themselves as conservative defenders of order and authority. The desire to generalize and fit our political life into a single form is often a two-way street.
Tocqueville is also informative. He described the formation of “general ideas” and noted how the excesses that may sometimes come from their use can be tempered. Importantly, he saw these universal theories arising from the social state of a people which, in turn, is the product of “fact and law.” The generally-prevailing ideas that the people of any given society tend to profess come from their observation of the “facts” they see in front of them—from the practical reality in which they live. Democratic citizens, he notes, can be prone to understanding the world through rigid ideologies, not realizing that they are usually superimposing their own reality on all of humanity. This is particularly true, he observes, of the “Cartesian” Americans who have a strong tendency to generalize from their own personal experiences. Our ideas, then, are not typically the first cause of the successes or failures of our political institutions and practices. It is rather the other way around. Understanding this origin of our ideologies also allows their influence to be tempered:
When there is a subject on which it is particularly dangerous for democratic peoples to give themselves to general ideas blindly and beyond measure, the best corrective that you can employ is to make them concern themselves with it every day and in a practical way; then it will be very necessary for them to enter into details, and the details will make them see the weak aspects of the theory.
If there is a tendency in our society to see the world through a rigid, corrosive ideology, the solution is not the inculcation of a different ideology, but an examination and rededication to the details of life which have given these ideas currency. Rather than focus on what set of ideas America must revive, embrace, or reject, we ought to examine carefully the political and social experiences that have given rise to the dysfunctional cultural and political ideas that seem to reign. We might then work toward reforms that engage the people with these details of life, that seek to adapt them to the felt needs of society, and that may, incidentally, change people’s perceptions of their culture and their government (tasks that many are undertaking). Theory will adapt to or give way to a government and society which keeps the “old building” standing and working well.
Ideas and Consequences
None of this, of course, is to suggest that ideas do not have any impact on political outcomes. To be sure, they do. Those committed to particularly bad theories of politics are likely to have a destructive effect on our political life (though the inverse may not always be true). But it is important to remember that their impact passes through a filter—the actual people promoting them. At certain moments in history—the French or Bolshevik Revolutions, for example—a distinct, cohesive set of ideas takes hold of a people in such a powerful way that it might make sense to describe the events as driven by ideas. But politics usually doesn’t operate that way.
Compared to 20 years ago, there are plenty of radicalized ideologues looking to impose their will upon society by any means necessary. But a broader historical perspective may provide reassurance that all is not lost and that cockpit storming is not necessary. As Burns points out, after all, the vast majority of Americans have no clue about the teachings of liberal theory—classical or modern. It is all well and good to compare today’s social justice warriors to French or communist revolutionaries until you consider that the guillotines and Gulags of the latter were real, not metaphorical. Most of America’s left-wing radicals today are just a little too dependent on their lattes, iPhones, and other comforts of modern life to do the yeoman’s work of real revolution.
I also do not mean to suggest that thinking about political theory is unimportant. (That would certainly make my days much more boring.) The conservative debates now raging are bringing up important questions that haven’t been asked enough. Indeed, much good can come from this questioning of long-held conservative beliefs, and we may emerge with a better framework with which to understand and discuss our polity, the meaning of conservatism, and the common good. But the common good is not an abstract dogma, and we should not expect the present discontents to be solved by the promotion of a new theory or the intellectual defeat of an old one.
The late Roger Scruton often argued that the core essence of a nation need not be defined by the ideology propagated by the state or the intellectual class. And Tocqueville seemed to agree, observing in a draft manuscript that “you must not judge the state of a people by a few adventurous minds that appear within it.” There are destructive, poisonous ideologies at work today, to be sure, and they have had a pernicious influence on our politics and law. But conservative habits, conservative instincts, conservative associations, and conservative institutions remain. Study of, investment in, and—critically—improvement of these, rather than an intellectual war of ideas, may be the most productive way forward.