What Conservatives Ought to Be For

Does the Right need treatment for a wound—the literal meaning of “patched up”—or does it just need be patched together? In his response, Gerald Russello claims it’s so incoherent that it requires the latter, which he thinks cannot occur without mutual agreement on what conservatism favors. Judging by his essay, it’s not clear how eager he is for this to happen, or which compromises the Right’s disparate fragments should make among themselves. Nor is it clear whether he believes it is possible. My own view, in contrast, is that a fairly coherent Right still exists in America—and it needs help, not a re-founding.

Russello reminds us that conservatives have, in various ways, “been trying to patch themselves up again for the better part of three decades.” The problem is not new. Are not political coalitions constantly forced to reknit their bonds? But given the virulence of the current Left, it’s more urgent now. Intellectual conservatives have too often preoccupied themselves with the Right’s ideas and policies. They need to think harder than they often have about their opposition, America’s dominant cultural-political tendency. If they did, they might be more patched up. One instance of insufficient thought about the Left occurs in Russello’s essay, when he writes that “conservatives have often been just as interested in the power of government to coerce behavior as liberals have been.” Just as interested in the case of abortion, yes. But that begs a large question—the fetus, which if it’s a human life, as conservatives tend to believe, would merit “coercion” by government to protect it.

The Left attempts state and other coercion across a much wider range than do conservatives, and the impression one gets from Russello of a near-moral equivalence between Left and Right in regard to coercion is even more dubious when we recall 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.

In addressing the inevitable question of what conservatives are for, Russello writes: “trying to patch together an alliance when the motivating forces that made [it] worthwhile have dissipated or disappeared will end up being a fruitless enterprise.” He explains that 1) international communism, a great unifier for the Right, fell many years ago; 2) government has grown ever-larger despite the Right’s attempts to resist this; and 3) the Left won the culture war despite conservatives’ efforts. The first two points are of course true, and the third may be true. But I hope readers won’t agree with Russello’s implication that the size and scope of government and the character of American culture have “dissipated or disappeared” as good reasons for political action. Why give up, why assume things can’t change? Russello is on firmer ground when he urges conservatives to refocus on “how Americans actually live today and what set of economic and political arrangements … make the most sense.” But it seems to me that conservatives already emphasize real life and which arrangements make the most sense. Perhaps this has been less true of conservative philosophers, but they are a tiny group.

The Right’s purpose, especially today, should be obvious: to oppose, even more than bad principles, a vast political force—the Left, the would-be transformers of society who through governmental and other forms of power work tirelessly to impose on our citizenry an ongoing series of “never enough” redistributions, redefinitions, levelings, and bans. Given the mind-boggling scope of the Left’s ambition, conservatives can’t afford to simply defend the Constitution, a free economy, individual liberty, mediating institutions, family values, tradition, or religion if any of these is understood as America’s master principle. Such clarity might satisfy a passion for intellectual rigor, but it would be artificial, since no master principle for society or a free republic exists. What is real are society’s several (perhaps seven, as listed above) elements and their joint operation. Principles do not build or constitute societies. Practices do.

The Right aims to conserve rather than reform or perfect society—or what a leading conservative thinker of our time, the late Roger Scruton, called its “ecology.” This means a defense of society’s interdependent elements, the complementary core characteristics of a culture and way of life. That defense cannot privilege any single overriding principle—freedom, tradition, constitutionalism—because one principle will weaken other principles if it is judged superior to them. We have seen what damage results from the Left’s privileging of equality or compassion over so much else. Society’s key elements which the Right defends should not be rank-ordered, any more than water and soil should be ranked in a natural ecology. Conservative intellectuals’ habit of pronouncing on master principles for the Right is not only mistaken. It also worsens conflict among the elements of our social ecology while making it more difficult to unify conservatives.

Whether or not he would agree completely with my list of our society’s crucial components, Russello clearly thinks that peace belongs on the list, and such an addition would be reasonable. But if we include it, we should also add the ability—both material and moral—to fight wars. In applauding the reintroduction of some of conservative thought’s former “profusion” or diversity into the intra-Right dialogue in recent years, Russello gives just one example: “the antiwar tradition.” By calling it the “largest” such example of this healthy diversification, he presumably means that he considers opposition to war the most important of the Right’s once-forgotten perspectives, while recognizing that others (which?) have been usefully reintroduced as well. But his elevation of the antiwar principle to great importance in conservative thought is problematic in at least three ways.

The problem in today’s world with being “antiwar”—not just highly sensitive to war’s horrors and skeptical of its value absent very strong evidence, attitudes everyone should agree on—is that our nation’s adoption of such a guiding principle might mean a stronger Islamofascist jihadism, a stronger anti-Western and aggressive China, or both. The policy toward which a deep antiwar bias tends is appeasement of aggressors. As Winston Churchill admonished, a wholly plausible result of appeasement is dishonor plus war. Furthermore, since war is undesirable to most of us, left, right, and center, it’s hard to see opposition to it as a principle that distinguishes conservatives from the Left. And a third problem with Russello’s suggestion of opposition to war as a core conservative principle is that he extends its reach with vague descriptions of the corrosive—not just cruel and otherwise dangerous—effects of supposedly pro-war policies. When he says that military occupation “destroys the character of the people doing the occupying,” that a nation which occupies other countries necessarily “becomes militaristic,” and that “militarism” (a term he doesn’t define) works against the family, local attachments, and culture, anyone who doesn’t already agree may wonder if these aren’t simply clichés. Whether they’re just clichés or actually reflect careful thinking, the comments on foreign occupations and “militarism” are unsupported in the essay—and they require support, since none of these propositions are self-evident. We should also consider a further difficulty in ideological opposition to war (as distinct from prudential efforts to avoid it). Such opposition denies the human yearnings for nationhood and collective honor, which are not artificial constructs as they’re sometimes claimed to be. When a war occurs, more than a definition of the national interest and more than a dark craving for violence is at work. There is also a passion for honor, unity, and selflessness.

A second point: Russello’s generalized wish for more federalism, which he understands to mean local and presumably state governments with “real power,” doesn’t acknowledge how the Left uses this (still quite real) power in urban America, where it holds a political monopoly. One instance: Some major local governments have begun to abandon low-level law enforcement, at least partly for ideological reasons that seem to reflect a frightening callousness toward the general public. Two other examples are “sanctuary city” policies that protect illegal immigrants from federal officers and the mounting pension crisis, threatening to wreck more and more local budgets, that results from grossly irresponsible benefit levels for public employees. Surely the ideological misrule of “blue” jurisdictions is a serious concern for American citizens as a whole. This is the 21st century, not the 18th century. In the age of international epidemics and much else, it affects us all.

In the spirit of federalism, it may nonetheless be tempting to say: let every state govern itself, and to assume that those with right-of-center majorities will actually be allowed to do so. But what reason is there to think the Left would keep any such agreement, and how would these agreements even be reached? Especially since the “progressives” and “liberals” in politics consider themselves duty-bound to protect the poor, “undocumented” immigrants, “people of color,” women, and others from the Deplorables—a sense of duty that amounts, judging by their record, to a blank check for endless centralization. Conservatives cannot retreat to conservative-for-now states and communities and expect to live under policies of their choosing, any more than we can be confident now of the continued autonomy of our homes, businesses, and churches.

Both conservatives and leftists sometimes talk of secessions or splitting the country in two. That’s no good either. Even in the unlikely event that things remain orderly, ending American nationhood would be a terribly grave solution. And Lincoln’s “essence of anarchy” point in his First Inaugural Address remains relevant and nearly unanswerable. In particular, why wouldn’t there be secessions from the secessionists? In the meantime, talk of secession is more likely to exacerbate than to settle the militant fragmentations of our political culture that some observers have, not unreasonably, called a “cold civil war.”

Finally, Russello draws on the late conservative philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler to raise the issue of postmodernity. Whether we are still in “modern” times—remaining, or likely to remain for long, in the same era as that which began with the Enlightenment or the Reformation—is a good and great question. But it’s inadequate to merely predict that “postmodernity will be about recognizing ourselves as bounded, relational individuals once again.” It sounds good, and any real conservative would like to see it. But how do we know “postmodernity will be about” this, especially since it’s conceded in the next sentence that the “narrative and unifying principles for that ‘postmodern’ world have yet to be developed”? In addition, what evidence is there that marriage, the family, and religion—indeed, faith itself—will grow stronger and not continue to weaken? What does seem to be strengthening is identity politics, extreme “wokeness” on behalf of historically marginalized groups. Identity politics is relational indeed, but it’s also poisonously anti-relational with, for example, its constant accusations of racism against others.

In his concluding remarks, Russello urges the Right to “rediscover common ground” with other Americans. Like relational postmodernity, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished if it takes a good form. But again, as with his opposition to “militarism” and his hope for more independent local government, analysis is lacking. What would the rediscovered common ground look like? The closest thing to an answer here is an assertion (echoing, with due credit, Russell Kirk) that “people are naturally drawn to tradition and continuity.” If there is to be a restored conservative “patchwork,” Russello urges, it “should include all those who recognize that common human drive.” That common drive is, I think, quite real even today. But how potent is it relative to others, and how strong relative to a hegemonic ideology which is hostile to it? In assessing human affairs, one key question is: How much are people willing to pay or give up for something? What if tradition and continuity have become, for too many Americans, merely a nice thing to have, not a primary desire? How strong is the attraction to tradition as against the powerful forces that have counteracted it throughout the modern era? What of its conflict with careerism, with the American passion for mobility of all kinds? Consider, too, another force that opposes tradition: the denial and conquest of the natural, which lies at the core of our dominant progressivism and runs even deeper than that.

But kudos to Russello for taking up the editors’ question. We all have our work cut out for us.