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Can We Patch Up the Right?

I am grateful to Law & Liberty for the opportunity to discuss whether we should patch up the Right.

Asking whether the Right can be repaired seems strange; to some, the Right seems resurgent. There is a Republican in the White House, Senator Mitch McConnell is confirming judges as fast as his Republican majority can vote for them, the economy, while not without its problems, seems to be doing well, and some of the controversies of the Obama years (such as religious liberty) seem to be moving in a conservative direction. Indeed, given these factors, there are pretty good odds we will have another Trump term. Our friends on the left would also likely argue that the 2016 presidential election announced the triumph of the Right. The 1950s are here again, rights are being “rolled back,” and the secular, progressive future cleansed of “deplorables” and enforced by bureaucrats wielding “dear colleague” letters, health regulations, and activist judges has been thrown into turmoil, if not jeopardy.

But as is well known now, inside the Right, the situation looks much different. The Trump presidency threw the “official” Right into turmoil. Establishment magazines such as The Weekly Standard and National Review took anti-Trump stances, while others were more cautious. After the demise of The Weekly Standard, several online sites arose to stake a claim as the anti-Trump right, while National Review pivoted to allow more favorable coverage of the president. But this foment is only partially about ideas.

The “Right” is a combination of the political movement embedded in the Republican Party, whose aim is to win elections, and the conservative intellectual movement, which is supposed to explain why the elections are worth winning.  Part of the current argument simply reflects the recognition that the conservative firmament — the well-funded ecosystem of think tanks, pundits, position papers, conferences, and the like that has grown up over the past thirty years — did not really foresee, and had little directly to do with, Trump’s victory. That was a political failing, but that failing revealed more serious intellectual issues. The old unities have broken up, and hidden divisions, along economic, political, and cultural lines, are again in the open. Conservatives love to write think-pieces about the history of various factions, exploring the nature of conservatism and proposing new juxtapositions; I’ve written a few myself, and there have been such pieces as long as there has been a conservatism. But as evidenced by the repudiation of the mainstream conservative candidates in 2016, this work has become detached from the concerns of actual Americans.

Since at least the early 1990s, when I first became involved in conservative intellectual work, the Reagan collection of cultural conservatives, economic libertarians, and anticommunists was the lamented lost three-legged stool that had brought conservatism to victories in 1980 and 1988, even as the world that created that coalition dissolved. The three Reagan-era groups were united by a common enemy.  Communism was godless, so the cultural conservatives were on board. Communism was, well, communist, so the libertarians signed up to resist “big government” back home, and as for the anti-communists that speaks for itself, although the energy in defeating communism too often spilled over into expanding America’s power (hard or “soft”) abroad just because we could. After the Clinton years, a brief glimmer of hope arose in 2000 that George W. Bush, himself a believing Christian, would temper the country’s foreign policy adventurism and cultural decay. But this was lost in the aftermath of September 11.

Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism discussed the relationship between conservative thinking and conservative practice in this way: “if it is true that conservatism becomes conscious only when it is forced to be so, then it is inevitable that the passage from practice to theory will not be rewarded by any immediate influence from theory back to what is done.” A lot of the history of conservatism since is reflected in that sentence. There has been much conservative theorizing since the 1980s, but its success as translated back into conservative practice is disputable. For reasons Dan McCarthy spells out here, political elites, including conservative ones, have been sleepwalking through the twenty-first century and many had not, until the election of 2016, realized the world had changed. This rupture had been building way before Trump. In 2012, for example, I noted in Perspectives on Political Science that the emergence of the Tea Party may have represented a different type of conservative renascence, because the issues motivating them might cause them to avoid capture by Washington and Beltway conservatism.

So in different ways, conservatives have been trying to patch themselves up again for the better part of three decades. Even in the wake of Trump, traces of the old Reaganism survive.  Some think the answer is to return to Reagan — this time as Democrats (the problem of rightwing pundits equating conservatism with presidential elections is a subject for another time). The 2020 National Conservatism conference, whose inaugural conference last year made such a splash as illustrative of the new conservative turn, invokes both Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II, a headline that could have been used for a DC conservative convention through the 1990s.  Others want conservatives to avoid tribalism, but conclude conservatives are just being mean these days. And you can still find the occasional paean to global capitalism. Indeed, one prominent conservative writer threw up his hands in trying to find out “What Unites The Right?”

But the success of that postwar patchwork was always overstated, and one should be cautious in using that as an example of how conservatism should conduct itself today.  There is perhaps a reasonable argument that government is smaller than it would have been had liberals won in 1980 or 1988, but one cannot argue that government is small as such or that its power has not grown to levels unimaginable to 1950s or 1960s conservatives (or liberals for that matter).  But it is almost impossible to argue that culturally America is a more conservative place, in almost any sense of the term, than it was in 1980, which is simply a crushing blow to large parts of the conservative intellectual project. The progressive left has essentially won the culture war, although that victory was only cemented when corporations began (as Timothy Crimmins wrote recently in American Affairs) to “engage in progressive (rather than transgressive) culture-warring, to distract from rising discontent with rising inequality and dwindling wages.” In other words, as Bruce Frohnen and Ted McAllister state in their recent book, Coming Home, “Cold War conservatism gained the world and lost its soul.” The strains of conservative thought that stressed locality, hostility to militarism, and suspicion of “free markets” were submerged into a narrative that stressed instead global capitalism and democracy export.

We do not need to pause too long on the charge that patching up the Right would mean “going back.” Entering into that argument is a progressive trap: sing the praises of the past, and one is a reactionary. But agree that settled political or cultural arrangements should be retained, and conservatism is accused of lacking principle and simply accepting whatever the current arrangements happen to be. Now, as Chesterton once said, the objection that one cannot turn back the clock is misplaced. A society, like a clock, is human-made, and we can turn it to wherever we like. But trying to patch together an alliance when the motivating forces that made that alliance worthwhile have dissipated or disappeared will end up being a fruitless enterprise. We need instead to think about what conservatism is for, before we can figure out who the allies may be.  Conservatives would do well to focus once again on Scruton’s “what is done,” which I take to mean how Americans actually live today and what set of economic and political arrangements available in our constitutional system make the most sense. Some have already started to do that, but not all of them are conservatives in the expected sense.

So the old patchwork no longer works; it represents, as a group of First Things writers suggest, a “dead consensus.” Is a new one worthwhile? As I have suggested, one positive thing about the (most recent) break-up of conservatism is that it has allowed some of the old profusion of conservative thought back into the conversation. The biggest example of this perhaps is the antiwar tradition that bloomed after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reflected in the founding of The American Conservative. But that is not the only opportunity for a return to the rich sources of American conservatism.

Kenneth Kersch, in his recent book Conservatives and the Constitution, cites a number of different ways conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s approached the Constitution. Not all conservative thinkers were what would today be considered originalists, for example, and some had a robust view of the connection between culture and the Constitution that differs from contemporary conservatives. And George Hawley discusses several groups, from paleoconservatives to radical libertarians, who have critiqued mainstream conservatives from the right. I would also note here the emergence of a more fully articulated black conservatism, which differs at crucial points from mainstream conservatism. This body of thought, I would argue, might very well have remained muted under the old dispensation, heavily indebted as conservative intellectual life was to white Southern influence. If there is one thing conservatism can do in this still-new century, it would be to integrate the African American experience into its defense of communities.

The role of government, for example, is rapidly shifting in conservative debate. Since the 1980s, if not before, the Right has been obsessed (with some exceptions) with reducing government, of any size, at every level, for any purpose, in order to counteract creeping socialism which in any event did not resonate with most Americans. But in fact, conservatives have often been just as interested in the power of government to coerce behavior as liberals have been, but too often have not really thought about what that means, except perhaps as an instrument to an ill-defined “liberty.” “Law and order” conservatives, so popular in the 1980s of my youth, was simply another way of saying that power matters, and deciding what is legal and permissible, or illegal and prohibited, is in part a reflection of the common good of that community.

Russell Kirk often connected order in the individual with order in the commonwealth. As a localist — and a somewhat eccentric individual himself — Kirk primarily looked at this question from the bottom up; if individuals were well ordered, the commonwealth would also be. But he also understood the power of government, and knew that sometimes people come together to reflect the good they have in common through government. As Kirk wrote in his Prospects for Conservatives, he offered that this view of order, which he called Johnsonian, should be combined with what he called the Burkean. “Burke, however, though awake to the moral climate of opinion, believed that the particular system of social organization under which a people exist helps to shape their moral character, and therefore must receive the most sedulous attention.” I had always understood this insight as part of the conservative critique of endless war. Conservatives opposed war, and especially the indeterminate occupation of various countries, not just because such wars were unjust and caused harm to the people in those countries at great cost to ours. Military occupation destroys the character of the people doing the occupying as well; the nation becomes militaristic, used to the casual cruelties of war and the solvent to family, locality, and culture such militarism brings.

Scruton similarly noted the intertwining of private society and the power of the state through the power of the law. Concepts like freedom do not exist in the abstract, and are embedded in the particular constitutions and customs of the particular nations in which they exist. Law is there to enforce and express the boundaries of those concepts in accordance with how the people see themselves and, ultimately, in accordance with their common good.  Indeed, Scruton writes that contrary to a liberal individualistic view of the law, “the legitimate sphere of law will be all that matters to social continuity, all that can be taken as standing in need of state protection.”

This fits nicely with the American federalist system properly understood; as Frohnen and McAllister recognize, Americans’ dedication to local government “was prior to, and higher than, their love of individual freedom.” Limited government need not be powerless government, and that at governmental levels closer to the people, government can do more. Now this claim has a natural objection: as someone on social media phrased it, the Shire needs Gondor. That is, for localities to be preserved or thrive, a strong state must stand above them. And that state must be run by people with the good of their people in mind; as political thinkers from Xenophon to James Burnham have written, the character of the regime is set by those who run it.  A kind of nationalism, therefore, is not inconsistent with conservatism, but I suppose I am only a faint-hearted nationalist. Gondor only makes sense because it allows for Shires to thrive and it is even better that the Shire is only half aware of Gondor’s protection.

Conservatives used to join the concept of nationalism with the countervailing factor of patriotism, which was more clearly articulated in the work of the late historian John Lukacs. He wrote that patriotism “is the love of one’s land and its history,” while “nationalism is a viscous cement that binds formless masses together.” Nationalism faces outward, contrasting our nation with others, while patriotism at its best is inward. Moreover, although loyalty to one’s nation in the abstract is one thing all America have in common, it must not be the only thing. Other loyalties need to be cultivated as well.  Although many conservatives are finding nationalism attractive, more work needs to be done on developing a nationalism that puts America’s interests first while reviving the country’s heritage of devotion to and participation in local governments of real power. The patchwork between nationalists and localists needs to be a little more finely threaded.

The stolid Republican industrialists who did not want to rock the cultural boat have been replaced by Silicon Valley disruptors and woke global corporations. The anticommunists have had careers as Middle East experts and adjuncts to empire. The libertarians win victories, but are at risk of losing the war. Simply put, we need to cultivate new sources of conservative thinking, but conservative sentiment as well.

When I was writing my book on “postmodern conservatism,” I found writers who shared conservative sentiments without adopting the Right’s political commitments; indeed, one of the inspirations of the book was an essay by David Rieff on the easy alliance between multiculturalism (which conservatives are supposed to dislike) and capitalism (which conservatives were supposed to like). Some of these were also described in books like Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Since writing that book, there is now a large middle ground where people are feeling their way for new answers: they know community is dissolving but are trapped in a discourse (on both right and left) that assumes rights are prior to responsibilities, and are told to disdain obligations in favor of self-fulfillment.  Looking at the contemporary situation, where writers like Peter Augustine Lawler landed was that modernity had, in a very real sense, ended, and that conservatism was the only worldview that could survive the transformation. Modernity was about transcending limits, but postmodernity will be about recognizing ourselves as bounded, relational individuals once again. The narrative and unifying principles for that “postmodern” world have yet to be developed, but would not likely replicate the political allegiances of the preceding periods.

Conservative intellectual work takes places on a number of levels, but too much of it has neglected Kirk’s view that at times, change is the means to our preservation. The Reagan coalition thrived because it had an external enemy that was equally committed to the West’s defeat. The post 9/11 conservative coalition, in retrospect, seems artificial.  Americans wanted to fight terror, yes, but didn’t want to be in the Middle East as an occupying force, and the cultural situation between 1950 and 2001 rendered the national unity of the former impracticable in the latter. The current conservative alignment has an adversary in progressivism but its proponents are, in fact, also Americans. So conservatives need to rediscover common ground as Americans. As Kirk and others knew, people naturally are drawn to tradition and continuity. Any conservative patchwork should include all those who recognize that common human drive.

Reader Discussion

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on April 01, 2020 at 14:50:40 pm

I think one small part of this article illustrates a fascinating point. Consider locality as a virtue. The author claims this was the domain of conservatives, while today it appears a virtue held by leftist environmentalists, but why? Conservatives can make no great moral argument, that I am aware of, for buying or staying local other than that their neighbors are the most important humans, but liberals place the issue in a global context and conclude that it is better for all humans in some way, avoiding the selfish arguments that actually robbed conservatism of its soul. It is absolutely impossible to mix Ayn Rand with cultural conservatism-- they maintain contradictory premises. Those premises must be thrown away to marry the ideas, so we will either lose altruism as a Christian virtue or selfishness as an economic virtue. In practice, we have the language of both philosophies in discussion, making that discussion logically contradictory and morally empty.

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xkz
on April 02, 2020 at 14:53:57 pm

And you equating liberalism with global libertarian utilitarianism.

Is that the best argument you can make?

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EK
on April 02, 2020 at 15:35:22 pm

The left has it easy, for to them man is the zenith of the universe and there are no truths and facts outside of what men can discern. Conservatives must recognize that there is a truth and order above and beyond men and it is our duty to discover that order and conform to it.

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Andrew Kohlhofer
on April 05, 2020 at 09:58:17 am

Gerald Russello writing for Law and Liberty knows that a conservative direction is needed to sustain the Republican Party for the future. This could be to unite the right movement with constitutional arguments to create a more populist party. It will be a party to recapture public law to favor its citizens, which may have been privatized like arbitration, as well as by redefinition of public interest. The courts will promote the scope of public property, monopoly power and due process to favor the public and in general, citizen rights that have been trampled by private business interests.
It will hopefully suggest a new petite Supreme Court for Administrative Law and Contract Law to pick the initial nature of suits against business. The first item is to pick compulsory arbitration to be succeeded by arbitration by election oF lower state or federal courts or class action suits on request if the parties cannot agree on initial steps. The purpose is to diminish the powers of private judicial intervention and return it to the public sphere. While in arbitration, no costs shall be assigned the public, while movement to other courts will necessitate the loser to pay legal costs. Compulsory arbitration has reduced the civil rights of the public which would be protected by a petite Supreme Court as its purpose.
The Supreme Court will also take up whether international panels or courts have superseded national law’s constitutional powers. Our Supreme Court has not as of yet been constitutionally succeeded by other international courts with the votes of the Senate.
In my mind there are three Constitutional documents to concern us. The first is the Washingtonian Constitution of the Federal Republic. It is Washington modeling himself as Augustus Caesar and creating a constitution of a Senate, a House of an Assembly or people’s representatives with a veto, an electable consulship and judges. Napoleon created the 1799 French Constitution molded after Washington’s Constitution and by calling himself First Consul. The Second constitution is the Jeffersonian Constitution for the State Democracies including a Bill of Rights consisting of the 1776 Constitution of Virginia, the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Territorial Ordinances of 1784-87. It is highlighted by all men are created equal and entitled to free public education, inexpensive land or property, happiness, etc. The third constitution is the unwritten (British for legislation and acts reaching constitutional proportions) Hamiltonian Constitution concerning the Administrative State, manufacturing, and debt as well as the original business contracts providing mitigation of risks for the first state bank, the Bank of New York now Mellon Bank, maritime, property and life insurance companies, and the 1793 Curb Exchange or stock market. It was not until Alexander Hamilton, as our first Secretary of the Treasury, controlled customs and post office workers that the rules of administrative agencies were set. Hamilton believed that by appointing people to agency positions a bit of British corruption would bilaterally guide these people’s future rather than civil service law.
Let us have elected Public Protectors who could bring criminal charges in grand jury proceedings against even negligent landlords, bankers, mortgage companies, investment brokers etc. In this way the public will police business miscreants as a countervailing power. Federally elected Public Protectors will be able to criminalize the negligence of administrator agency workers, taking away the concept of immunity of government workers. Both at State and Federal levels the Public Protector can appoint private lawyers to pursue cases in progress. Article I federal judges and equivalent state judges would be able to refer cases to the Public Protector or Prosecutor.
Another traditionalist argument is to allow state legislatures to vote for and name a senatorial candidate who would better support state interests. Elizabeth Warren took a walk on Massachusetts as a senator to be a failed candidate for President, even in her own state. Simply she no longer represented the people of Massachusetts as their senator. This take on the 17th Amendment means that the candidate of the legislature in order to vote for state concerns in Congress would have to be nominated and run in a popular election for a Senate seat against all other candidates. If they win the Senate seat, they can call upon the state representatives to also be a greater part in monitoring national interests. Hopefully a state house candidate would also have the interests of business ventures in the state in addition to the people’s legislators.
A further constitutional concern is our administrative state run amok. This headless fourth branch of government manipulates and sidetracks national programs without oversight. A Second Supreme Court or petite Supreme Court is needed to hear all cases appealed from Article I judges in contrast to Federal Article III judges. This petite Court would be appealable by the Department of Justice or by the federal legislature to the Supreme Court itself. At this point, the Supreme Court Chevron Doctrine states that cases in dispute will use the meaning the administrative agency gives it as a preference. Instead the petite Supreme Court will give the Constitution’s meaning to the unwritten constitutional doctrines of the administrative agencies. Hopefully compulsory arbitration clauses in business contracts with the public will now grant appeals to the state or federal courts as a step to further empowering the public as well as enter due process in arbitration dealings. In addition, class action cases to validate the public interest will be allowed as an option for the public.
The nature of Thomas Jefferson’s Democracy was to plant New England style Townships in the Northwest Territories to become states as an example for states of the Union. This meant that all town officials could be elected or be volunteers rather than be appointed. On the Federal level, it would mean that functions not originally delegated to the Federal Government would now become state elected officials with block grants from elected federal officials for the Cabinet positions of Health, Welfare, Education, Labor, etc.. In general, on a state level, the governor’s prior cabinet positions would also stand for popular elections. For Massachusetts it would mean a more responsible eye on the State Police, the Motor Vehicle Bureau, the major transportation systems supported by the state etc. If the candidates fail in office, state impeachment by the legislature is easier than Federal impeachment as an abuse of power.
The separation of banking and investment companies may require a constitutional amendment or be accomplished on a state to state basis. Simply those state companies still allowed to combine banking and investment purposes will be barred from operating in states with the separation of these functions.
The courts will look into the nature of business transparency and invite corporations to have popularly based workers councils with their election of a number of Board of Director members for their companies.
These prospects could be the progeny of Senator Bernie Sanders, but these prospects arose out of constitutions over 200 years old.

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LEONARD FRIEDMAN
on April 20, 2020 at 16:56:39 pm

You can't patch up the right because so much of it was never on the right in the first place. The coward Rich Lowry, who Buckley stupidly left in charge at national review, and Jonah Goldberg, are good examples of this. We could go over the Bulwark and see the same thing. The entire "conservative" establishment has outed themselves, and if they suddenly try to fool people about coming back, they will have no credibility. The real rightists have seen them for what they are.

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Quartermaster

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.