What Is the Future of Conservatism?
In his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald proposed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
This strikes me as an illuminating description of the conservative mind, least in its American incarnation. Since its emergence in the decade following the Second World War, the American conservative movement has been characterized by a dramatic combination of pessimism and optimism. Think about what it means to stand athwart history yelling stop.
Yet the point of Fitzgerald’s famous Esquire magazine essay, which is more often quoted than read, is that this philosophy is untenable. In the long run, even a first-rate mind has a limited capacity for paradox. At some point, it becomes impossible to hold intellect and will in equilibrium. That is when the crack-up occurs.
Like the middle-aged Fitzgerald, intellectual conservatism has entered its crack-up phase. It was always a product of competing motives and sources, and now the tension between its fundamental elements has become too sharp to sustain. Events have moved so quickly since the emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential contender that prognosis may well be foolhardy, but here goes: the patient is unlikely to be cured.
Conservatives’ inconsistent attitudes toward the future are reflections of more fundamental tendencies that were once safely contained within the conservative mind but now strain its boundaries. These cannot be reduced to the familiar distinctions between libertarianism and traditionalism, neoconservatism and paleoconservatism, establishment and base. For the sake of simplicity, call them liberalism and reaction.
Start with liberalism. It hardly needs to be said that I mean the philosophical movement retrospectively dubbed “classical liberalism.” This term, familiar to the point of cliché, means different things to different people. So I beg the reader’s indulgence of a brief explanation.
Although it is often associated with the doctrines of natural right, the essential feature of classical liberalism is its distinction between public and private. This distinction was originally deployed in favor of religious toleration. Over time, it became a more expansive argument that certain activities are of concern only to those directly involved. It followed that such activities should be protected against restrictions imposed for ostensibly general purposes.
Among the activities considered as private is the production and exchange of value. Unless they pose direct threats to the essential interests of others, liberalism places making and doing, buying and selling beyond public control. This application of the public/private distinction has an instrumental justification: that free markets promote prosperity. But it was, in its origins, a moral claim.
An extensive private sphere could, in principle, be secured by a benevolent despotism. Indeed, there have been situations in which despots were more favorable to liberalism than were peoples. But skepticism toward absolute power is deeply rooted in the liberal tradition. Although liberals have sometimes been tempted by dictatorial shortcuts, liberal thought emphasizes rules and institutions—including mechanisms of democratic accountability—that prevent arbitrariness.
But if liberalism fears that power corrupts, it also promotes a certain confidence in reason. The pendant to private freedom is a public sphere in which common enterprises are open to scrutiny and debate. The exercise is useless, even dangerous, if it is not based on sufficient information or conducted by citizens unskilled in reasoning. Liberalism is therefore traditionally protective of formal education and—more concretely—of the political influence of persons who possess it.
This collection of assumptions and dispositions generates a particular combination of optimism and pessimism. In a sense, classical liberalism is hope that human beings will develop reasonable solutions to their problems if they are left free to do so. At the same time, it warns that these solutions cannot be determined in advance or effectively imposed on those who do not accept them. Reversing Antonio Gramsci’s famous motto, liberalism could be described as optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will.
Notwithstanding all the Adam Smith neckties and ceremonial tributes to Alexis de Tocqueville, classical liberalism is not the only pole of American conservatism. If liberalism is American conservatism’s Antarctica, reaction is its Ultima Thule. The liberal landscape is solid and open to exploration. The topography of reaction is shrouded by mists and shifting seas.
Intellectual history is an unreliable guide because the masters of reaction—Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt—exercised only an attenuated influence on American conservatism. A few native intellectuals, including H.L. Mencken and Robert Nisbet, studied and wrote about the reactionary canon. European-born scholars like Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin adopted some its themes in their teaching and passed them on to American students. On the whole, however, these were very recherché tastes. Despite the recent surge of interest in figures like Julius Evola, whom Trump advisor Steve Bannon has apparently read, we are looking for elective affinities rather than direct inspiration.
The political theorist Mark Lilla provides a useful starting point in his recent book The Shipwrecked Mind (2016). He describes reaction as the yearning to overturn a present condition of decadence and recover an idealized past. The pursuit of social transformation distinguishes reaction from the conservative inclination to cherish and preserve what actually exists.
If reaction is temperamentally unconservative, it is also historically antiliberal. In the 18th and 19th centuries, reactionary thought challenged the public/private distinction, free markets, constitutional government, and the public authority of reason. These critiques were often brilliant and remain major accomplishments of political theory. For all their insight, however, the reactionaries struggled to propose appealing alternatives to liberalism. Some defended the old prerogatives of altar and throne. Others articulated a kind of aristocratic anarchism that held some literary appeal but was hard to accept as a guide to practical politics.
The historical opposition between liberalism and reaction has led some analysts to impose a sharp separation between an essentially liberal Anglo-American conservatism and a reactionary European Right. Because it is politically flattering as well conceptually clarifying, I have been tempted to make this distinction myself. But I now think the opposition between liberalism and reaction is only contingent. When reaction is defined as the attempt to recover a lost golden age rather than commitment to a specific historical order, it becomes compatible with liberalism.
Liberalism and reaction can overlap in a specific kind of decline narrative—one according to which private conduct used to be protected, government was properly limited, reason ruled. There was a veritable golden age of freedom. But this paradise was interrupted by a calamity that undermined liberalism and imposed different principles of social order. Unless confronted, the substitution threatens to become permanent.
This decline narrative is not just an abstract possibility. Although it can be presented in several versions, it provides a template for the self-understanding of American conservative thought. It does not matter precisely which period is identified as the golden age or what event serves as that intervening calamity. Whether the point at which things went wrong is the Civil War, the Progressive movement, the New Deal, or the Great Society, the basic structure is the same.
It might be objected that even if American conservative thought involves a reactionary pattern of historical reasoning, it does not seek classically reactionary ends. Few American conservatives admired early modern absolutism or ancient paganism (although more expressed affection for the antebellum South). But they have dabbled in the endorsement of non-liberal means to liberal ends.
In the American context, that usually means adopting populist strategies that cater to the prejudices of the public. Conservative intellectuals have been willing to accept support where they could find it, without inquiring too deeply into its sources. In particular, the role of conspiracy theories and racism in generating support for putatively liberal candidates and policies tends to be downplayed or ignored. Conservatives have also been less than vigilant about limited government when sympathetic figures are in office. Concerns about executive power, for example, have a way of disappearing when Republicans occupy the White House.
The divergences are not simply lapses from principle. Reaction is, in a paradoxical way, more hopeful than liberalism. Instead of placing its faith in the long-term salutary effects of countless private actions, it depends on the acquisition and assertion of power. Like Antonio Gramsci’s Marxism, reaction could be characterized as pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.
Despite the tension between them, liberalism and reaction are not mutually exclusive. They coexist not only as factions within the conservative movement, but even in the thought of individual conservatives—maybe most of them. That is where the political theorist Corey Robin goes wrong in his perceptive if polemical book The Reactionary Mind (2011). Robin depicts conservatism as inherently reactionary and only situationally liberal. Rather than the inner truth of conservatism, however, reaction is part of a dynamic tension that helps explain its vitality.
That tension has been sustained for longer than Fitzgerald’s 39 years of sanity. But now the conservative mind is coming apart.
Some of the centrifugal forces encouraging a separation of liberalism and reaction are technological. As the political scientist George Hawley (about whom David B. Frisk has written instructively for Law and Liberty) has argued, innovations in media have made it more difficult to hold any coalition together. The preservation of balance within the conservative movement owed a great deal to the ability of a few institutions to exclude figures and ideas they judged kooky, cranky, or otherwise unacceptable. Talk radio, cable news-entertainment, and especially the Internet make this task virtually impossible.
The international setting for conservative thought is also different from what it was 30 years ago. Anticommunism no longer acts as a force field holding together disparate elements of the Right. Economic libertarians and foreign policy hawks, for example, shared an enemy in the Soviet Union. Our current geopolitical challenges—including Islamist movements, Russia, China—do not exert this unifying effect.
Domestically, Reagan-era concerns about excessive personal taxation and inflation are not as salient as they used to be. As a result, conservative obsessions with cutting marginal tax rates and hard money seem more like ideological fetishes than serious responses to today’s problems.
The aforementioned causes of the conservative crack-up have been widely discussed. But there are deeper causes that have received less attention. One is a growing skepticism about the sufficiency of classically liberal means to classically liberal ends. Conservatives have published books, established think tanks, served in Congress, and staffed the White House. But has anything really changed?
Given the centrality of anticommunism to the development of conservatism, it is ironic that concepts derived from Marxism have become central to understanding its failures. Originally developed by James Burnham, the theory of the administrative or managerial state holds that our country is actually governed by institutions with no basis in the written constitution. This unelected fourth branch is composed primarily of the federal bureaucracy. But it also includes representatives of the legal establishment, media, academia, and major financial interests.
There is nothing inherently reactionary about the theory of the managerial state, which offers considerable insight into the reality of American government. The theory only acquires that connotation when it becomes the basis for political strategy. Because the administrative or managerial state is not elected and operates through regulation not statute, the argument goes, it is impossible to overturn this shadow government by winning congressional majorities, passing laws, or even raising challenges in court. Since Leviathan cannot be restrained, it must be smashed.
The classical liberalism I have tried to describe is characteristically skeptical of executive power, particularly as an instrument for renovating constitutions whether written or unwritten. The reactionary tendency, by contrast, sees a strong executive as the only viable weapon against managerialism. This analysis has become a central feature of the theoretical case for Donald Trump. His combativeness, unpredictability, and indifference to expert opinion are seen not as defects of character but as tactical advantages over the bureaucracy.
Approving radical tactics of opposition to the administrative state need not involve sympathizing with authoritarianism as such. Some conservatives see Trumpian intransigence as an unpleasant but unavoidable precondition of any revival of old-fashioned liberalism. But there is no longer a consensus around that goal. One reason that the dispute between the libertarians and traditionalists of the 1950s could be resolved was that they agreed about their preferred social form: an idealized version of the federal republic that existed before the New Deal. As it slips out of living memory, this vision no longer brings together elements of the intellectual Right.
The breakdown of the consensus may have been inevitable. For psychological reasons, most people recall with fondness the period of their youth. It is not coincidental that the early conservatives could actually remember the arrangements and mores that many of them wished to restore. The presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was nearer in time to the heroic age of American conservatism than that age is to our own.
The focus of political nostalgia has shifted accordingly. Today, it is the comparatively socially stable, economically egalitarian, and culturally homogeneous America that flourished from roughly the end of the Second World War to the mid-1970s that stands out in the popular imagination as a golden age. Intellectual honesty requires us to acknowledge that these conditions were not the result of classically liberal policies. On the contrary, they were sustained by the very processes of nationalization, bureaucratization, and regulation that American conservatism arose to challenge.
Generational shifts are not the only reason for the waning appeal of the brand of conservatism derived from classical liberalism. Some intellectuals on the Right have always questioned whether the likes of Smith, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill were right in the first place.
It goes without saying that there are important differences between these thinkers. Even so, their arguments for limited government, free markets, and a rational public sphere presuppose a shared anthropology. According to this conception, human beings in full command of their faculties are capable of recognizing, if not discovering, the conditions of their own flourishing. We need governments, on this view, to protect our lives and property, adjudicate disputes, and perform other tasks that are hard to accomplish on a voluntary basis. But it is morally illegitimate and generally ineffective to coercively impose a specific vision of the good life.
Yet this assumption is dubious. Consenting adults often make very foolish decisions. And many of the societies conservatives admire were far more coercive and intrusive than classical liberal principles would permit. The desire for a more powerful sense of purpose and moral direction calls those principles into question. This deeper nostalgia, when it is not expressed as what Peter Augustine Lawler calls “polis envy,” often fixates on medieval Christendom. An uglier version defends the old South as a model social order.
The conclusion that classical liberalism is based on fundamentally mistaken premises is part of the reactionary inheritance that has always played a role, if a submerged one, in American conservative thought. In the past, however, it was rarely asserted consistently or used as the point of entry to wholly independent currents of political thought. Vaguely absurd expressions of anti-liberalism like Brent Bozell’s affection for Francoist Spain are exceptions that prove the rule. What is new is the emergence of illiberal movements that cannot easily be dismissed as marginal. The influence of the so-called alt-Right should not be exaggerated. Nevertheless, the growing popularity of neo-reactionaries, white nationalists, and men’s rights activists, to say nothing of freelance provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, demonstrates the appeal of joining an opposition to the modern Left that is not liberal and, because it is not liberal, also not conservative.
The stresses on the conservative mind that I have described in this essay predate Trump’s emergence on the political scene. But his election made them acute. For the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose indifference to classical liberalism prompted the creation of the conservative movement, a Republican President barely pretends to care about the philosophy. Eisenhower, however, had compensating virtues not found in Trump.
In this unprecedented situation, tendencies that once coexisted are being resolved into independent alternatives. For some conservatives, Trump’s hostility to institutions and formalities, markets, and expertise is impossible to accept. For others, Trump’s gaining the White House is an irresistible opportunity to throw off stale orthodoxies. The result is a decomposition of conservatism into opposed factions. One group basically accepts a classically liberal conception of how the world works—and how it should be governed. The other rejects one or both of these premises.
These factions are comprised of more intellectually various members than one might expect. The conservatives drawn toward opposition include neoconservatives, libertarians, Catholics influenced by natural law, theologically serious evangelicals, conservative legal activists, and East Coast Straussians. Many Trump skeptics share, in addition to an philosophical inclination toward classical liberalism, a relatively favorable assessment of the current state of constitutional government. They tend to see the Constitution as diminished but far from a dead letter.
The sociological homogeneity of this group belies its intellectual diversity, however. Trump-skeptical conservatives are often products of prestigious universities and comfortable in major political and cultural institutions. The academics and lawyers among them, especially, tend to regard themselves as custodians of majestic structures in a condition of severe but remediable decay.
Classical liberalism is at home in the classroom, courtroom, and boardroom. It is—and always has been—less effective at the hustings. One of the most important lessons of Trump’s success is that classically liberal rhetoric and positions were not very important to voters. It turned out that they wanted a candidate who promised to help, not one who knew his Hayek. The institutional advantages that the liberal strand of conservatism enjoys are thus the mirror image of its political weakness. It excels in producing journal articles, legal briefs, and business plans, but struggles to win popular support.
The group drawn in a reactionary direction is also intellectually diverse. It includes (among others) the surviving paleoconservatives, the heirs of the Reagan-era religious Right, traditionalist Catholics, Orthodox Jews, West Coast Straussians, as well as the alt-Right. These conservatives either do not believe that strategies of education, legal maneuvering, and market competition are going to secure conservative goals any time soon, or believe that those goals were misguided in the first place.
Then, too, as with the Trump-averse conservatives, the connecting thread among reactionary conservatives may be as much sociological as ideological. Although not necessarily members of the working class they often claim to defend, conservatives drawn to Trump are typically outsiders to the educational, legal, or economic establishment. Both as a cause and a result, they have no affection for elite institutions or the norms associated with them. These are not monuments to be defended but obstacles to be demolished.
This taxonomy is more like a spectrum than a hard-and-fast division. Some conservatives lean more to one side, some to the other. A few seem determined to remain in the middle. But the balancing act is growing more challenging as the distance between the poles expands. In the future, the diverging tribes of conservatism may have less in common with each other than with formations outside the Right as we have known it.
Having failed (along with many, indeed most political observers) to accurately predict the outcome of the election, I hesitate to offer forecasts of the development of conservatism. Too much depends on what happens over the next few years. It is possible that the administration will avoid major crises, develop a coherent legislative agenda, and find ways to insulate the President from the aspects of his duty that he seems to find overwhelming. But I doubt it.
So I will conclude by sketching a scenario that I regard as plausible, if far from certain. It involves the comprehensive Trumpification of “official” conservatism. That would mean the ascendance of certain reactionary features, including demotic style and an emphasis on executive power.
As it grew more reactionary in these respects, this conservatism could at the same time moderate in other respects. In particular, it could coopt the labor movement with its promotion of protectionism, and it could attract the religiously unaffiliated, who were alienated by the ostentatious religiosity of the old conservative movement. The danger is that the bond between these constituencies and traditional Republican voting blocs would be white identity politics. And that danger increases the more that Trump and his supporters deny that this bond exists.
Would a Trumpified American Right have room for intellectuals? Yes, but their role would be more retrospective than original. Their task would not be charting new directions; it would be making sense of accomplished facts. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The habit of deducing law and policy directly from an abstract anthropology is a congenital vice of philosophical liberalism. On the other hand, the pragmatic assessment of decisions that have already been made can also degenerate into the sycophantic application of a rubber stamp.
What about those left behind by the Trump revolution? Some will find ways to reconcile with existing centers of opposition to the Trump administration, including the Democratic Party. “Liberal-tarians” who see economic freedom and the protection of individual liberties as means for securing social justice have pioneered this realignment. Neoconservatives may also find that they share more with their Wilsonian cousins than with Trump’s revival of America First.
Other conservatives will conclude that Trump and his supporters are unacceptable but find it difficult to make common cause with non-classical liberals and Progressives. Their inclination will be to hunker down in their own communities and institutions. The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher’s just-published manual for riding out the storm, is addressed to orthodox Christians, but it may prove useful to nonconformists of other kinds. Associations that were conceived as beachheads in advance of a larger invasion can also be refuges for those waiting for more favorable opportunities.
This is not a happy scenario and I hope to be wrong about it. Trump has promised to make America great again, but his hostility to freedom, to the rule of law, and to disciplined thought suggest that his conception of greatness is very different from any that I can share. Nonetheless, one can believe that things are hopeless and remain determined to make them otherwise. In some sense, that is what is necessary for those of us who retain the unfashionable opinion that classical liberalism, for all its imperfections, is the best available guide to the means and ends of politics. It also part of what it means to be a conservative.