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.