A conservative politics faithful to its Burkean heritage must be rooted in more than an emphasis on prudence or skepticism: it needs natural law.
Against innovators and radicals, Emerson remarked, “conservatism always has the worst of the argument.” “Always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate,” conservatism “makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.” Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul accepts the Emersonian challenge, calling on Americans to retrieve their heritage from the progressive cultural elites who would consign it to oblivion. Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen are accomplished scholars of American intellectual and political history, but their slim and trenchant book addresses primarily their fellow citizens—and they do not mince words. Americans are in danger of forgetting the historical inheritance that sustains their identity as a self-governing people. This spiritual crisis calls for a “revolution,” in the classical sense of turning back to first principles.
The Conservative Predicament
Its title notwithstanding, Coming Home disavows nostalgia; its tone is combative, not elegiac. America suffers not from homesickness but homelessness—the alienation of a people from its true self. “A civilization is diseased when its people lose faith in its essential ideals and institutions, and when its elite loses or distorts its historical memory.” The conjunction is not accidental. Americans are assailed by what the philosopher Roger Scruton dubbed “the culture of repudiation,” a relentless negation of the traditional norms that leaves the world of human ties swept bare. In denigrating our cultural forebears, our elites have rendered our identity opaque and deprived us of a sense of home. The latter grows only from below, through people’s associative impulses and habits of affection, but it is easily destroyed from above when the state arrogates to itself the functions of civil society.
The entrenchment of a colossal regulatory system has enfeebled social institutions and Americans’ capacity for self-government. The conservative predicament is that the progressive transformations of American life have so hollowed-out the communities that might mediate between the emancipated individual and the omnicompetent state as to leave nothing to conserve. The rhetoric of “restoration,” “recovery” and “reclamation” (as opposed to “preservation”) indicates the authors’ keen awareness of this difficulty.
Coming Home is an outgrowth of “The American Project,” an initiative launched after the 2016 elections at Pepperdine University’s excellent Graduate School of Public Policy. Conservatism’s status was uncertain, but the American Project assumed that the country’s way forward depended on reaffirming conservative principles. These are “principles of connection,” attaching the American people by linking them to their common past and future. This conception of social contract derives from Burke rather than Locke and reflects the former’s suspicion of a priori and universal principles suitable only to a people that exists nowhere. Conservative precepts, in contrast, emerge belatedly from a nation’s historical negotiation of its shared way of life.
The book’s first half recaps the development of conservatism in America which was marked by a sibling rivalry and failed accommodation with liberalism. A “principled conservatism” struggled to express itself in rapidly changing circumstances and failed to prevent the Progressive transvaluation of American values that ushered in the post-constitutional order we now inhabit. Leaders of the conservative movement bear much of the blame for these failures. “Confounded by and complicit in” liberationist culture, they subordinated conservative principles to electoral success, as if conservatism were reducible to lower taxes and free trade.
By nature, conservatism is empirical rather than ideological, but its characteristic virtue makes it vulnerable to changing conditions. Conservative principles do not change, but they must be continuously adapted to shifting circumstances, and “the relation of principle to context” is perhaps the book’s dominant theme. Economic and social transformations crucially affect conservative prospects in the battle of ideas because they “alter the very experiences of daily life from which cultural norms emerge.” But since the disruptions that paved the way for progressivism have only intensified under a new wave of globalization, the challenge of restoring America’s conservative soul in an increasingly unfamiliar world is formidable. The progressive case was precisely that “modern conditions had made inherited constitutionalism obsolete.” The New Deal, the authors concede, was more than an ideological challenge to conservatives; it presented them with a fait accompli. And if the sudden expansion of federal powers eroded the people’s “formerly cherished principle of self-reliance,” it did so by convincing them that a massive government would better tend to their needs.
Despite their rhetoric of using Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends, progressives aimed at making government more powerful and not more democratic. For McAllister and Frohnen, progressivism is the disease of which it thinks itself the cure, and the second half of their book proposes a bracing regimen of policy reforms. Their general prescription is devolution, reversing the political centralization that began in response to a genuine crisis of economic security, but whose leverage over all aspects of life now “forces on us a transformation . . . [into] an entirely new society based on principles alien to our culture and our nature.” Everything conspires to undermine and delegitimize local government, and it seems inconceivable that increasingly cosmopolitan Americans would renew their historic attachment to it. The authors point out, however, that despite our immersion in the digital world, “we must all live and work in a specific place where we own or use property and interact with the physical world around us.” Most people take the idea of “place” seriously, and they feel that their lives are made poorer to the extent that they are, to use David Goodhart’s terms, “Somewheres” condemned to live as though they were “Anywheres.”
The estrangement from human nature is also the theme of an all too brief chapter on “The Forgotten Natural Family.” An ideology of “atomistic individualism” has redefined the family, as though it were the after-effect of a more significant drive for self-expression and not the foundation and locus of self-formation. But since “no people can govern itself . . . if its members have not learned to govern themselves as persons, which means as members of families,” the family is inevitably a political institution. Still, the family (or, more precisely, the conception of the family) is not so much forgotten as transformed, above all under the influence of feminist ideology, about which the authors are strangely silent.
Religion is another example of a need that is simultaneously individual and social. While faith must be personal, religion is essential to culture (as the Latin root cultus indicates). Religion is the paradigm of membership, and “if we will not have religious community we will have ersatz community, rooted in an ersatz religion of the state.” Beyond personal faith, the numerous expressions of religious association (church banquets, festivals, charities, and the rites of passage that are essential markers of any human community) are reminders of how a reflexive anti-religious prejudice deprives Americans of their sense of belonging to a common home. To consign religion to the purely private sphere, as contemporary liberalism aggressively does, assumes the state is the exclusive social authority. Neither our Constitution nor our tradition of religious freedom requires the naked public square.
The most controversial chapter in the book concerns “Work and the Global Economy.” Too solicitous of the needs of corporations, Americans have permitted economic structures to reconfigure their social order. The “creative destruction” of modern capitalism makes labor increasingly insecure and creates communal vulnerabilities beyond the mitigating reach of political and social institutions. On this subject especially the authors show their conservative mettle, calling out the ideological simplifications of a “neoliberalism” that “is anything but pro-liberty, let alone conducive to a humane market economics.” They locate the natural right to property in a moral tradition antedating Locke, and they relate private property to the public right of self-government without making it the latter’s purpose. But the problem of adjusting “principle” to “context” reappears in spades, for globalization respects neither the moral understanding of work nor the institutions of self-rule.
The authors refuse to sugar-coat the problem: “no simplistic defense of capitalism . . . can respond to the real issues of our time because the structure of our society has been compromised even as our economics has been dehumanized.” Economic modernization increases dependency but connects people only in “abstract relationships among sources of capital.” The last holdouts of economic independence were the small farmers valorized by the Southern Agrarians who understood that to be committed to technology is to invite constant disruption of customs and institutions that inhibit the next technological advance.
While localism has many virtues, only the national state can protect communities against disruptions of this magnitude, including the challenge of uncontrolled immigration. Globalists have little regard for the nation, and the flip side of their high-minded assertion of “a human right to immigrate” is the stigmatization of any concern to preserve national identity as “racist.” Against this charge, the authors protest that immigrants can be reasonably expected to integrate culturally and economically. Only ideological thinking would assume that merely being law-abiding, without embracing the political culture of the United States, should suffice for citizenship. “No nation or society can survive if its people do not share common norms and the mutual trust that grows from them.” America is indeed a nation of immigrants, but those who would become Americans must leave behind any traditional attitudes toward public morals “at odds with American liberty.”
Conservatism and Liberalism
The irony of traditionalism yielding to liberty points to an ambiguity about the relationship of conservatism to liberalism that dogs the argument of Coming Home. Conservatism may be “the most powerfully American tradition,” but the authors scrupulously admit that the American soul has always been divided between conservatism and liberalism and that their dynamic tension is “natural and healthy.” Conservatism and liberalism “shared common roots” in English practice, and both “recognized the necessity of social trust and ordered liberty.” Locke’s “abstract and rationalist argument” for traditional rights did not, furthermore, affect the substance of those rights, and Locke appreciated that “the prepolitical order existed within a sacred horizon.” Nevertheless, it is important to their argument to deny that the American founding was Lockean. The reason appears to be that in taking the state of nature as the touchstone for political obligation, Locke’s social vision remains “too liberal,” too liable to the dogma of self-ownership, too susceptible to an atomistic conception of human beings “detached from any natural relationships or identifiers.” Lockean liberalism is “legalistic,” and too encouraging of a “drive for self-assertion” that inevitably frays civic ties.
But if the American founders were not dyed-in-the-wool Lockeans, they were hardly Burkeans, and the authors’ resolve to tell the American story “as seen in its conservative tradition” underplays the appeal to reason and freedom in the founding. The Federalist defined the American experiment as establishing government based on reflection and choice not customary history, and Publius disdained “the blind veneration” of custom that would have deterred the revolutionaries from their unprecedented project. Burke sympathized with the American cause but not its revolutionary principle, and the “sacred veil” he would cast over political origins seems ill-suited to a people that reveres a beginning it can specify by date. Lincoln reminded Americans that their “ancient faith” was their revolutionary principle. For that reason, the founders’ conservative prudence in constitution-making could guide them only “as far as republican principles will admit.” As Michael Zuckert has vigorously argued, a strong case can be made that America’s paramount principle was and remains the idea of natural rights, and that conservative practices and institutions could enter the republican “amalgam” only so far as they could be made compatible with it.
It seems to me that nothing of practical importance in the authors’ compelling diagnosis of our present political condition would be lost by embracing Daniel Mahoney’s conception of a “conservative-minded liberalism,” one that stipulates the natural justice of equal liberties, while emphasizing that liberal order depends on conservative foundations. Resistance to such a formulation stems, perhaps, from doubt that any stable amalgam of the conservative and liberal traditions is possible. Their antipathy for the fusionist ambitions of the 1950s is palpable, and they deride the conservative movement’s “simple-minded reading of history as the rise of liberty and the victory of the individual over oppressive institutions.”
This brings us back to the conservative predicament in the face of transformations that leave little or nothing to conserve. As the French political philosopher Pierre Manent incisively argues, the modern revolution of the rights of man has succeeded and we have effectively become the individuals described in the theoretical fiction of the state of nature. Conservative admonitions about the trajectory of modern ideas toward both individualism and statism have been vindicated. Forgetful of how to attach themselves to anything in common, modern individuals have endorsed a state that spares anyone the responsibility of originating action by imposing obedience on all. This strangely depoliticized condition, Manent shows, produces a veritable crisis of the soul, leaving the individual emancipated from traditional ties only to face the question: “Freedom for what?”
McAllister and Frohnen have good reason, then, to doubt whether the liberal social contract can bear the weight of our contemporary problems and withstand the slide toward progressivism. The latter is hostile to inherited social forms, local communities, and the myriad other sources of popular values that appear to the progressive mind as impediments to the steady emancipation of the individual from traditional authorities. It bears remembering, however, that progressivism’s first manifestation was a philosophical attack on the idea of natural rights; and it appealed in its own way to “history” to pronounce benediction on an emergent consensus in favor of “social” justice. The authors note the irony that the “cold abstraction” of John Rawls’ social contract stokes a heated protest against inequalities and differences of any kind. But Rawls’ abstractions are the consequence of a thorough-going rejection of nature as a source of value. No natural quality, let alone superiority, is justified; all qualities of soul are reinterpreted as contingent effects of one’s environment, equally arbitrary from a moral point of view. A conservatism that turns too sharply from nature to tradition might well weaken opposition to the identity politics that separates people into ever more narrowly constructed categories in the name of “equality.”
“If we have learned anything over the last two and a half centuries,” the authors conclude, “it is that nothing is so dangerous to real, particular, breathing humans as moralism devoted to abstract notions of the good.” The conservative soul resists rationalistic schemes oblivious of home and the inarticulate loyalties on which politics depends. Nevertheless, in this moment when the culture of repudiation is leaning in and the distortions of the 1619 Project bid fair to entrench themselves in the public mind, the eponymous American Project surely calls for a whole-souled response that draws on nature and history, reason and tradition, creed and culture.
With their wise and timely book, Ted McAllister and Bruce Frohnen have pointed a way forward.