Escaping the Old Conservative Paradigm

I am grateful to Lee Edwards, David Frisk, and Andy Smarick for their responses to my piece on how we can patch up the Right.

As background, my major point in my essay was that seeking to “patch” up the Right was a diversion. As Smarick says in his piece, there are already “mountains” of material about what conservatism is, and what those who have described themselves as conservatives believed. My point was that conservatives needed to revisit the culture as it actually is; as Russell Kirk said, drawing on Burke, “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.” Willmoore Kendall wrote that Americans carry their traditions “in their hips.” Those traditions simply are not, and are not protected by, the global free market, a strategy that views America as the “indispensable nation,” or the untrammeled individualism that animates too many conservative dreams.

My interlocutors, I believe, know this, and indeed all three point to aspects of the American tradition that conservatives have fought to defend. However, they are all still seemingly stuck in an unproductive paradigm.

I agree with Frisk’s position that conservatives “need to think harder than they often have about their opposition to America’s dominant cultural-political tendency,” that is contemporary progressivism. He is right that conservatism faces opposition from a vast “political force, progressivism, especially if one includes in that force an element of cultural power. He makes three points against me: first, that I posit a “near-moral equivalence between Left and Right in regard to coercion” and the use of government power. But I am not sure what this means. The law coerces, the culture coerces. Coercion is simply a force moving upon another force. It is inevitable in society. What I think Frisk means is that liberals coerce, and conservatives should not. But that can’t be the case because it threatens to leave conservatives always in a defensive position, beseeching the coercive progressives not to harm them. Frisk notes that:

conservatives defend not only the individual’s freedom, but also that of the family, organized religion, the rest of civil society, and the economy—the autonomy of social relations and institutions. Does the Left do that? Not often, and only where it advances their overarching agenda.

I agree with his point about the Left, but the difference between “coercion” and defend” may be in the eye of the beholder. And that in art depends on what we think society and government are for: if we believe society is meant to defend the family, I don’t see how you get around some activity that may be coercive. Family court issues coercive decrees all the time.

This makes Frisk’s second point, his opposition to my support for federalism, somewhat baffling. A smaller federal government and stronger state governments would allow for conservatives to defend their various priorities in different ways, as circumstances allow. He concedes there is still real power there, and that the Left uses it. His solution seems to be to ignore it, in favor of national power, or make gestures to “limited government” and leave it at that. But I think it would be entirely consistent to have varied ways of governing in different states, which would blunt the centralizing tendencies of progressivism. Such a position would also accord with Frisk that there are a cluster of principles that conservatives should defend and that we need not rank-order them.

In short, while Frisk acknowledges the immense “political” force of the Left, he does not really offer political solutions to its threat.

Finally, Frisk criticizes my position that conservatives are, or ought to be, antiwar. Frisk mistakes this position into some sort of quietism or pacifism. It is not. I am all for being prepared to fight for the nation, and having a military prepared to do so. What I do not see as any sort of conservative principle is that the country needs to be ready to fight various threats to anything other than its national interests. The charge of “appeasement” Frisk proffers to my position simply confirms the case: as Peter Hitchens has said, conservatives need to get out of the mindset that it is always 1938, and that those who don’t want to go to war over abstractions like “Islamofascism” are Neville Chamberlains. And I really don’t think there is any question from a conservative point of view that to have millions of men and women stationed for decades in bases all over the word is a strain on the national culture and economy. To maintain this posture also creates a danger in that our military has increasingly become a professional caste apart from society.

Andrew Smarick takes a different approach. He states that “conservative leaders must always be tuned in to the situation at hand, and they must be deft in their thinking and acting.” We agree that conservatism needs more creativity and imagination, and he refreshingly states that “[t]he ripples of this failure were first seen in the conservative agenda’s inability to adequately address pressing issues of the day—deindustrialization, immigration, men out of work, opioids, judicial adventuring, administrative-state overreach—leading to reasonable public doubts about the conservative establishment’s capabilities.” He also recognizes the nuances of the conservative debate; sometimes government may be needed to act, but with the normal conservative suspicion of power, especially centralized power. And I think he understands that while liberty protects the individual, he with Kirk does not equate liberty with “license,” which must then require some curbs on individual and social action, if not through law then through culture unmolested by law.

One can hardly question Lee Edwards’ mastery of the history of conservatism in America, or his long-term view, and his good cheer about the future is one of the things that makes him so valued a conservative observer of the national scene. I am grateful he agreed to respond to my piece. But Edwards also thinks I miss the mark in claiming the Right may not in fact need any patching up. He argues instead for a “new fusionism,” that is “dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and resolutely opposed to socialism remains the best way to unite a divided conservative movement and help unite a divided America.” Although agreeing with me that the left has won the culture war for the “time being,” Edwards nevertheless points to certain examples of a conservative culture yet prevalent in the country, and notes that, as ever, when asked whether Americans want more government,” they say no.

But if there is to be a new fusionism, to what end? My essay tried to make the point that conservatives needed to figure out what they are for before we can think of patching anything up. And if (as I believe) conservatism is not about an absolute global capitalism or unfettered individualism, and instead must be for local communities, federalism, and an economic system that works for its citizens, then that patchwork needs to be changed. As a practical matter, libertarians are a tiny minority even of conservatives, and what they offer is too often an absolutist form of individualism that is antithetical to the conservative disposition. But they have tilted the conservative perspective so that in a sense they have already won. Even now many conservatives have trouble seeing that individualism in the market tends to strongly encourage individualism in the culture. And that is where we are: big corporations treat citizens as consumers, not citizens, and attempts to use politics to do anything other than provide a free space for those corporations is denounced as “socialist.” And in return corporations have rewarded conservatives by being proponents of woke politics.

But that cannot be the case. The fusionists have been offering a version of “politics within the limits of economics alone” for a long time now, but our moment may in some sense call for a return of the primacy of the political. The Cold War, as a friend of mine told me once, confirmed that there shall be private ownership of the means of production, rather than state ownership. But that does not mean that everything must be privatized, or that the “free market” must take the form of the internationalized consumerism we now have. Nor does it even mean that government might not from time to time act in order to preserve or enhance other values conservatives hold dear, like the ones Smarick describes in his piece. Edwards and I are both for limited government, but that need not mean powerless government. Government still has things it can do, and while I agree the Right too often has lacked charismatic leaders, sometimes its leaders have led them to think what was good for DC conservatism was good for them. And that is not really the case.

Perhaps I preferred the Tea Party when they were a real threat to established order, opposing bigness and corruption, before they were tamed. But I think something essential is missing from all three of my interlocutors. All three agree that conservatism is more than an economic system, that it prizes small communities and organic loyalties, and that at its best a conservative culture can best provide for human flourishing. Yet in their responses I see little recognition that what they value must be protected through some organs of government both against government (strong states versus the national government), or from overweening economic power. Kirk and others knew that economics is too often treated as a value-free science. In fact, economics is more like a tool, which relies on an underlying political order, which includes democratic accountability and cultural assent. Conservatives value our own constitutional arrangement because they (until recently) recognize it is (more or less) the working out of a constitutional democracy.

In any event, I remain grateful that Law & Liberty thought to publish this symposium, and thank my respondents, from whose essays I have benefited in working out my own thoughts on this important topic.