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Peter Thiel and the Path to a New Conservatism

Peter Thiel gave an amazing speech at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., on July 14. He attacked liberalism at its weakest point, globalization, which has failed in peace and war, in commerce and in diplomacy. America is worse off and less safe than it was in 1990. Liberal elites have failed to deliver the right kind of economic growth and are failing the patriotism test, too. Instead of real improvements, we get Progressives damning the nation as insufficiently woke for its enlightened leaders.

From suggesting that Google is committing treason by working for the Chinese communist state to arguing that universities ought to be criminally liable for the college debt crisis, Thiel also offers a populist vision of American greatness. Conservatives should rein in America’s elite institutions in the name of the people. He wants to infuse conservatism with technology, and dares to suggest an active role for the federal government in a political vision for the American nation—one that emphasizes the need for technological progress if we are to help Americans improve their lives. This could be what voters want to hear in 2020 and beyond.

His ideas are not altogether new, but Thiel has in recent years turned from a more dogmatic libertarianism to a general emphasis on political economy—that is, he is thinking seriously about the national and political requirements of economic growth. Moreover, he has become political in the partisan sense, and as a result can serve as a guide to an emerging national conservatism. Going beyond mere journalistic criticism, Thiel offers both Republicans and conservatives daring, intelligent attacks on liberal institutions, which can inspire both a party platform and a governing agenda. 

Of course, there’s one thing missing in Thiel’s fairly comprehensive view of the factions and interests in American politics: social conservatism. He can offer what Trump promises—relief from federal prosecution for Christians, whether in business or otherwise—without the president’s personal baggage. And his attack on identity politics will find many willing listeners among social conservatives. But Thiel has nothing to say about social issues, preferring instead to treat them like distractions from the real work—the economy and, at its core, technology. So his appearance at a conference alongside the likes of J.D. Vance, Tucker Carlson, Yoram Hazony, and Patrick Deneen is interesting in and of itself, and we can hope he was listening.

Conservatives need Thiel because he has a positive vision for the federal government in industrial policy and basic scientific research, to say nothing of the ways he might revive the Cold War-era conservative seriousness regarding national security. With leaders like him, NASA would no longer be a bureaucracy, but go back to its pioneering days. Technology wouldn’t be silly apps, but engineering the future. It would set practical purposes, whose worth and success we could all judge, to give Americans new avenues for greatness and new technological advantages. Compared to China, we are weak on bringing technological innovations to life, and since they drive economic growth and the power, which secures the American way of life, this is a significant problem.

But Thiel is weak on what to do about defending a stable way of life, which for many Americans is the main purpose of politics. The strength and weakness of his conservative politics, moreover, are connected. He has nothing to say on marriage, family, and children, which we believe are the foundation of society. Even less can he deal with problems of community, local self-government, and, in short, all the habits that make for the confident citizens who are also confident workers in a technological economy. Indeed, his very attack on the liberal institutions that aim to form character, the media and academia, should lead him to realize America needs more social conservatism of the right kind: that which prepares Americans to live worthwhile lives in freedom.

Thiel’s most striking argument is that American exceptionalism rhetoric is the pious lie of conservatism. It makes people lazy and conceited while infrastructure crumbles, international competitors threaten American technological supremacy, and elites conceal decline behind ever more theatrical celebrations of progress as they retreat into ideologically-pure and wealthy enclaves in the cities. If so many Americans are destroying themselves by opioids, alcohol, drunk-driving, or just plain suicide, how exceptional is America? How about the obesity crisis? How about failing schools? Instead of self-deceiving exceptionalism, Thiel wants a competitive nationalism that makes us very critical of our posturing in order to improve in reality, not in rhetoric.

There is much to commend in this criticism of self-congratulatory rhetoric, but we nevertheless need to defend American exceptionalism. Whether he knows it or not, Thiel’s political vision necessarily depends on American politics, and therefore on the Founding. We really do believe, most of us, in natural rights that come before government and therefore treasure certain freedoms. Consequently, we prefer not to be administered by vast institutions, political or otherwise. Even when we feel stuck being the way we are, we do not contemplate living like other nations, for we do not want to be circumscribed by the state.

This is the true foundation for American exceptionalism. The belief in natural rights is also connected to the Tocquevillian insight into the American capacity for self-government, which comes from the pre-political ground of our true education: our art of association. Our democratic character, our sense of equality, enables us to trust each other and work together. This goes back to our Christian ideas of community, all the way to the Puritans. It suggests that at our best we are still able to combine freedom and equality, acting and deliberating, individuality and community.

Thiel fears that equality is almost always inimical to freedom and therefore misses the need to restore the art of association at the same time as we liberate ourselves from elites that want to run our lives for us. But in order to break the power and influence of Progressive elites, it is precisely our love of equality to which he would need to appeal! Perhaps we should say he is better at speaking to and for new elites, that are actually committed to the common good, than to and for the people they would represent and guide. Thiel is right to focus on the economic means we need to live well, but wrong to ignore the purpose the economy serves.

He wants to encourage influential people to break with the institutional liberal consensus and strike out on a new path. It would be risky, but stagnation offers them no opportunity; it would be new, but at least it would be doing something by ourselves and for ourselves. But even a restricted audience would need guides that go further and deeper than business. American greatness, to be plausible politically, has to be anchored to a thriving middle class that confidently helps the worse off do better and just as confidently fends off the attempts of business aristocrats to take over politics.

Thiel is right that social conservatism has failed to create a doctrine and an art to deal well with business and with the federal government. There is something obviously wrong with political ideas that cannot face up to the massive political facts installed by the New Deal. For generations, the cause of limited government has been crippled by an inability to marshal the federal government’s power for constitutional and national purposes. Instead, conservatism has been stuck trying to limit Progressive recklessness theoretically, while practically it abandoned the federal government to Progressive domination. But if Thiel wanted a kind of libertarian future where we simply ignore the problems of human relations, in families and communities, then he’d be left without any party to support his ideas. Like it or not, a coalition would have to stand against Progressive doctrine, and that coalition would have to share similarly coherent views about how Americans can live good lives. Only social conservatives can offer that vision of human and American dignity.

Social conservatism and American exceptionalism are inextricably connected. We want to conserve the best we’ve inherited, which at this point involves coming into possession of inheritances long denied or abandoned. That includes both the truth about natural rights stated in the Declaration and the Tocquevillian insight about the hope and trust embedded in our Christian equality. Whether by luck or design, these are necessary allies in any political fight against the Progressive doctrines that stifle our moral and intellectual freedom. Moreover, the economy itself depends on the belief in property rights that is part of our constitutional doctrine and the belief in association that comes from our communities.

Technology might at first seem removed from this political problem, but we should consider both the threats to technological progress from globalization, which is by definition an attempt to eliminate American exceptionalism, and the Christian and natural rights roots of our commitment to technology as the only means to make good our Founding promise for a decent life available to all. American exceptionalism also requires defending American technological advantages since (despite what libertarians might think) war is a real problem, and thus international competition with other regimes remains a fact we cannot ignore. This reflection should lead to an American conservatism that’s both national and technologically-oriented. I do not see, therefore, any path to the improvements Thiel desires that doesn’t run through persuading and organizing social conservatives.

Thiel argues very well for freedom, but has hitherto failed to ground it in American teachings about equality that go back centuries and have been essential to American politics. He seems even unfamiliar with the best conservative intellectual arguments for the Founding and for community. Yet for those of us who follow Publius and Tocqueville, it’s hard to conceive of American greatness without American exceptionalism, even if we admit that the practices of American exceptionalism (if not its gaudy rhetoric) have fallen on hard times. Conservatism now needs a political coalition between social conservatism and partisans of technology. And those of us who argue that what we conserve is freedom together with equality need to make an ally of Thiel.

Reader Discussion

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on July 22, 2019 at 10:30:20 am

You present Thiel:
"He attacked liberalism... Liberal elites have failed to deliver..." (your first paragraph); "Thiel offers both Republicans and conservatives daring, intelligent attacks on liberal institutions", "He wants to encourage influential people to break with the institutional liberal consensus".

I searched the transcript at YouTube and found zero occurrences of "liberal."

Whether Thiel uses "liberal" for leftists, I don't know. I hope not.

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Daniel Klein
on July 22, 2019 at 12:12:52 pm

Wow! I didn't know you had decided to abandon libertarian values and embrace social conservatism.

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James Peron
on July 22, 2019 at 13:27:04 pm

“He has nothing to say on marriage, family, and children, which we believe are the foundation of society.”

The erroneous notion that private morality and public morality can serve in opposition to one another and are not complementary, has led to grievous error in both Faith and morals. A society that denies that our unalienable Rights have been endowed to us from God, is neither conservative or liberal.

All who deny The Truth Of Love, have failed to deliver, for only authentic Love can set us free; an autonomous “conservatism”, like an autonomous “liberal”, is an oxymoron.

Authentic Love does not discriminate, thus no human person is unreachable from the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity “ that flows from That Light That Shines In The Darkness”, The Power And The Glory Of God’s Transforming, Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy.

I will Pray that soon, Peter Thiel will heal his wounds and accept God’s Gift Of Grace and Mercy, and see himself as God Sees him and desires him to be, a man, who because he is beloved by God, deserves to be treated with Dignity and respect in private as well as in public. No Greater Love is there than this.

God Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, thus Marriage, Family, And Children are the foundation of every society; a Society grounded in authentic Love will conserve this Truth and apply it liberally.

“Caritas In Veritate”; “Veritas In Caritate”, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Amen.

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Nancy
on July 22, 2019 at 13:35:32 pm

Titus:

An interesting take on Thiel and not without some good insight.

However, - "One step at a time, mate"

He who beggars for his food is not wont to appreciate encomiums on the virtues of association - except insofar as it may lead to enhanced nourishment (both physical and psychological).

Thiel is spot-on when he suggests that we ought to employ a more rational strategy (NO - NOT *expert*) tpward political economy. Thiel alludes to the present American inability to "bring to life" technological innovations, many of which were / are the product of American engineering / research efforts. I would argue that Thiel is far too gentle in his critique and that American financiers WILLFULLY refuse to fund the production / introduction of these new technologies, as they are a) far more expensive and b) somewhat riskier.
A rational tax policy that would reward those who finance the introduction of technology into production / manufacturing would conceivably improve American technological / manufacturing prowess.
One must recognize that there is a "seriality" to technological innovation - not simply into new devices / products BUT rather in the development / enhancement and creation of NEW SKILLS, read: highly skilled craftsmen / women.
The absence of technological innovation on these shores in recent decades has led to a loss of tens of thousands of highly skilled engineering, tooling, process and other jobs - ALL of which helped to sustain and DEFINE a healthy middle class. It is this class, or its present diminutive form that Titus seeks to once again instill with virtue and notions of American exceptionalism and for which he laments Thiels inability to also encourage.

One step at a time.
Create the ground for a receptive audience by encouraging American ingenuity and FUNDING its implementation. Perhaps, then we shall find a greater readiness, a more fertile ground for paeans to American Exceptionalism AND an effective counter to the Proggies "Globalization" dogma.

Right now, such calls, as are also the calls for Free Trade and other favorites of the National Review types, are viewed at best as so much folderol and at worst as simply cover for self serving elitists on the Left and the Right.

Give them Bread and TOOLS, the circus and / or the Pulpit may come later.

(BTW: The "tax" issue I allude to is just one of a number of phenomena that has resulted in our present industrial / manufacturing weakness and ultimately to the vitiated sense of American Exceptionalism amongst the citizenry).

But a nice take on Thiel!

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gabe
on July 22, 2019 at 15:41:43 pm

Shrink government drastically. Stop paying for vice and licentiousness, prosecute criminals of all levels and a lot of the social problems will go away.
Not all but many.

This is a problem I have had with conservatives for decades. They somehow think government is the solution to our social problems. No, big government is the cause. And I say all this as a classical liberal Christian. I have no desire to micromanage other adults. But I also do not desire to pay for their lifestyle.

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Lydia
on July 23, 2019 at 08:48:52 am

Conservatism is dead, Burke and Kirk are rolling over in their graves. Your grandchildren are going to hate you, and they will be right to.

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John Richardson
on July 23, 2019 at 12:36:06 pm

Without freedom, there cannot be innovation; with freedom comes responsibility, and thus the desire that innovation will serve for The Common Good. This is true in every point of Time and Space in God’s Created Universe.

Thus we can know through both Faith and reason that although the Earth may not exist in the center of Time and Space in God’s Created Universe, who can deny that God placed the Earth in the perfect location in relationship to the Sun and the Moon, in order to sustain Human Life, and the Earth cannot be moved from that perfect location and continue to sustain Human Life?

“And yet it moves”, and yet, “it cannot be moved.”

From God’s Perspective, we are the center of His Universe.

https://www.lawliberty.org/2019/07/19/a-giant-leap-fifty-years-on-apollo-11/

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Nancy
on July 23, 2019 at 13:05:18 pm

Personality, I don't like JD Vance or Tucker Carlson that have the underclass white approach. Trump won about 93 of the 100 fastest growing counties in the US but listening to Vance or Carlson you thought that Trump only won Youngstown Ohio or Clay County Kentucky. Carlson even whine about Lewiston Maine which votes Democrat anyways like most of Maine does. Now, Peter Thiel is interesting, he has an approach that helps Republicans in the future since the US is changing to more higher tech particularly in the space race. Thiel could unlike Vance and Carlson make inroads in the northeast or very liberal Washington and California. As for social issues, when people get married and start having kids they go to church. Thiel plan would make more areas inland in California better off, if thousands of low income whites and Hispanics can escape LA and moved to Bakersfield where they can have kids, then the left will even lose in the long term in California.

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cynthia curran
on July 23, 2019 at 14:43:12 pm

Agree that unalienable rights are endowed to us from God. Not sure what you mean by your hope that Peter Thiel heals his wounds. Equality in the realm of Cesar is what you should ask for, as a follower of Christ-equal justice under the law.

Any healing you think he needs is for him to privately explore, discern and address with heavenly guidance. Equally true when you enter the public square to provide services to the public, you must not selectively choose who is worthy to serve.

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TF
on July 23, 2019 at 17:27:40 pm

“Equality in the realm of Cesar is what you should ask for, as a follower of Christ-equal justice under the law.”

God, not Caesar, Is The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage. Rendering onto Caesar, what belongs to God, will always end with tyranny..

To be a follower of Christ, is to recognize that Christ desires that we desire to overcome our disordered inclinations, whatever they may be, heal our wounds, and be transformed through Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace and Mercy, so that we can live virtuous lives that are respectful of ourselves and others, in private and in public, and thus grounded in authentic Love.

All are worthy to serve Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Love, if they desire to be transformed, through accepting Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy, including Peter Thiel, who has been Blessed with many gifts.

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Nancy
on July 23, 2019 at 23:31:18 pm

[…] Peter Thiel recently spoke at a “National Conservatism Conference,” which seems like an attempt to bring various […]

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Rewriting the “Conservative” Sharon Statement – The Lexet Blog
on July 24, 2019 at 13:03:12 pm

sad, isn't it.

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Molly
on July 24, 2019 at 13:11:50 pm

Tragic because there are so many sound ideas among Thiel's rhetoric. But blast this article for suggesting between the lines that social conservatism means pandering to uneducated people in the Maga-belt and ultimately ending the right to abortion. Just say it straight up, would you please?

No true Libertarian should be swayed by religious populism. We here in the Pacific Northwest tend to vote sorta left/libertarian- yes, it exists, and the numbers are high among techies. This is what I wish Thiel would stand for because the US desperately needs such an independent party.

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Molly
on September 26, 2019 at 12:43:51 pm

This observation is very worth remark, Titus, the distinction between Liberal and Left in in Peter Thiel’s thought. Perhaps you have explored this in another essay.

Is this a billionaire whom rather more in our country might salute?

A salute to Gabe, above[!], who lauds President Trump’s lonely but I think increasingly successful efforts to revivify an American middle class, with the skills and earnings to implement and enjoy the technological fruits of our knowledge class.

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William Cook

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.