Could American conservatism be obsolete? Liberals and progressives have, of course, felt this way about us for a long time, but there’s never been a need to be bothered over that. I raise the question for a different purpose: as an opportunity for conservatives to take a short break from critiquing our longtime opponents so that we might constructively critique ourselves. Has conservatism—in a practical, boots-on-the-ground sense—ceased to be useful even by our own reckoning?
What do I mean by conservatism? By some accounts, the essence of conservatism is simply an attitude that is accustomed to the act of conserving. As Theodore Dalrymple recently put it:
A conservative has no fixed doctrine to which he must subscribe. He has, rather, a general attitude, namely that man is fallible, that regress is as much to be feared as progress is to be hoped, that human action always has unforeseen consequences so that prudence is a virtue, that ignorance is always greater than knowledge, that those who came before us were as intelligent as we, that tradition contains wisdom as well as irrationality, that life cannot be lived according to a preconceived plan, that wickedness lies in wait for all of us, that man is imperfectible.
There is some wisdom in what Dalrymple writes, and such an attitude may preserve people from the whims of the utopians and radical social engineers that are always among us. Nevertheless, it is all oriented around a cautious resistance to change as such. Dalrymple’s conservative walks the same road as the progressive, he just believes that slow and steady is a better way to go down it.
Others will describe conservatism as adherence to certain values and principles—the value of the two-parent family bound together by traditional marriage, or the liberties afforded by limited government, for example. Unlike simple resistance to change, these at least offer a compass which helps one to choose a direction rather than merely a pace. Nevertheless, even among this kind of conservative, conserving remains the practical approach to pursuing those principles. Even the very term “traditional marriage” highlights this, as does our practice of pursuing limited government by merely trimming at the fringes of every new government expansion to keep the end result closer to what came before. Conservatism is, by-and-large, caught up in the preservation of what has been handed over to it so that it may pass it along unsullied to posterity. Its understanding of its own principles is caught up in those same traditions—traditions that have been dragged kicking and screaming by progressives down their own road for quite a long time now..
Now, contra what progressives would like us to believe, there’s nothing inherently wrong with conserving. Respecting and preserving precious things is a responsibility taken up by any virtuous person. However, there is still the question of exactly what is being conserved in today’s America. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Thoughtful conservatives need to consider how much of what they now conserve actually belongs to progressive mistakes of the last generation. We need to re-evaluate our own approaches—particularly whether simply conserving is still an appropriate approach to governing America. We need to ask ourselves a hard question: Is there really enough left of the America we love that conserving is the best course? Or is it time to rebuild and renew instead?
There are many cases where conservatives have begun conserving the wrong things through an inadvertent adoption of liberal attitudes. Consider, for example, traditional marriage. Most conservatives know that marriage is under assault in the recent push to legally force Americans to pretend that men are married to each other; and so it is. Nevertheless, what exactly are our marriage traditions at this point? No-fault divorce has been one of them for a long time, and it goes unchallenged by most conservatives despite being more poisonous to marriage than any homosexual lobbying could ever be. Neither does it help that our family court system is so skewed against men when it comes to dividing assets and custody. Combine the two, and the result is that any husband can be stripped of both his family and property at any time and for any reason. In effect, brides no longer have the opportunity to make a legally enforced commitment to their grooms. Legal disincentives like that are likely one of the reasons that marriage rates have fallen so much in the past 50 years.
Our anti-marriage tradition of serial monogamy is not limited to our laws, though; it also infects our customs. The rampant sexual immorality in our culture is something conservatives have fought against, but once again, some of its deepest roots have become traditions we blithely conserve. What is the traditional path to marriage for young Americans—conservatives included? Put it off until your education and then career are established at about 30. In the meantime, date as many people as you find yourself having romantic feelings for in either short-term hookups or long-term relationships that are basically play marriages without any promises. This is not at all conducive to real marriage, but it is treated as normal by most conservatives nonetheless. Conservative parents talk a good game, but by-and-large we fail to rise to the task of deliberately guiding our children into suitable marriages. Marriage may be a subject on many minds and tongues these days, but the push for gay “marriage” is not the most serious threat to the institution.
Speaking of troubles caused by the rainbow lobby, there are also those instances of photographers and bakers being forced to participate in celebrations that their consciences may have no part of. Quite naturally, conservatives have been vocal in defense of the religious liberties of these businesspeople. However, the legal basis for this intrusion into religious liberty is far older than the recent push for gay marriage. It has its roots civil rights legislation that is a half-century old—legislation that has become a longstanding tradition unquestioned by today’s conservatives.
I have no wish to second-guess the era that produced these laws—armchair quarterbacking them through the severe pressures, necessities, and injustices of their own time is pointless. Nevertheless, we no longer live in that era. We have an obligation to re-evaluate what they have left to us in light of recent events. The cost of a great deal of civil rights legislation has been the right of all races to freedom of association, and the bill is now coming due. But the racial issues these laws were meant to combat are not the same anymore. Is that heavy cost still worth it in an era when those who talk about racism for a living increasingly have to use terms like microaggression? Near as I can tell, microaggression is indistinguishable from being kind of a jerk. That’s a far cry from lynchings and forced segregation. Is the cost worth it when the placarded examples of violent racism like the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown increasingly turn out to be trumped up narratives woven by activists who have divorced themselves from the facts? Are there no better ways to fight racism than eviscerating our freedoms? And yet, too many conservatives would reflexively put on their outraged faces simply because the cost was questioned.
Or consider conservatives’ favorite political party. Though the GOP is essentially the big government of conservative politics, they are who we consistently look to for salvation. The most vehement political belligerence I’ve ever received was not from a liberal—it was from a staunch conservative upon hearing that I would not be voting for the Keynesian statist who had received the Republican presidential nomination that year. Tellingly, that description does very little to narrow down which year I’m referring to. In any other context, conservatives recognize that rewarding bad behavior (like voting for liberals who pose as conservative candidates) encourages bad behavior, but when faced with the prospect that “otherwise the Democrats might win,” fear takes over—principles are dropped for an expediency that does nothing more than slow the decay. Now that I’m a father, merely slowing America’s decay is no longer a terribly appealing option.
The upshot of all this is that conservatives have, in many respects, simply become out-of-date liberals at heart. Worst of all, our politics have encouraged us to look first to government as the solution. When our Republican-nominated justices support things like abortion or egregious abuses of eminent domain, and when our Senators vote to bail out the corporate losers of the free market at the expense of the people, we rant, we stew, and then we keep voting them back into office until it works. We seem to forget that government is not our only tool for change. What about all the things we can do that do not begin and end with government?
If conservatives are to attempt a new approach, there will hardly be a better time. The liberal stereotype of the supposedly conservative 1950’s entails, among other things, a time of rigidity too brittle to adapt to necessary changes and of an institutional arrogance that expected mindless conformity from a population no longer willing to conform. This actually describes our own time quite well, but not along conservative lines. You will not get dismissed from your job for being now or ever having been a member of the Communist Party, but busybodies at tech companies will get you canned for voting against gay marriage. You might not see Father Knows Best on TV, but the morality plays across television programs and movies are astonishingly uniform when it comes to matters like extramarital sex, abortion, and homosexuality. They just uniformly endorse liberal sensibilities.
Our institutions of higher learning are in a firm ideological grip that will not tolerate any dissent from the established orthodoxy, just as they were in the visions of yesterday’s campus radicals. Their new orthodoxy just happens to consist of perpetually overturning the once-traditional morality and religion that was rooted in American culture of the past. Many, for example, have made efforts to derecognize religious student organizations that don’t meet their ideological standards. Recently, this has even extended to making fraternities gender-inclusive because, as one professor put it, “In only allowing men to join, fraternities insist that men are fundamentally different from women right in the middle of an environment — a university — whose goal is to question such shopworn truisms.” It’s as though he has no idea that our culture has not been consistently teaching fundamental differences between the sexes for more than a generation. In 2014, the shopworn truism is that men and women are the same. This, academics confuse with critical thinking—as though they fail to realize that half a century has passed since progressives completely took over academia.
But as I’ve previously mused, if we are currently in a liberal 50’s, then why can we not follow up with a conservative 60’s? If the Baby Boomers collectively rose up to disregard the wisdom of their parents’ traditions, what is to stop multiple generations of conservatives from doing the same to disregard the foolishness of the aging Boomers’ traditions? Such an undertaking will not happen by trying to conserve the rot in the institutions they have left to us that have been decaying for decades—leave those institutions to die along with the parasites that infected them in the first place. Neither will it happen by looking for a government solution first. As the story goes, when Benjamin Franklin was asked what form of government the constitutional convention had given to Americans, he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” If America has devolved to a point where its population is by-and-large incapable of maintaining limited self-government, then the work of those who desire such freedom needs to start with raising citizens virtuous enough to do the job Americans won’t do—and we clearly cannot look to government to do it for us.
Our first duty in this regard is, of course, to have, raise, and educate our children well. Too many culture warriors seek to spray perfume on our public schools by trimming at the fringes of sex ed or finding ways to reintroduce something vaguely like prayers and religious holidays. However, other Americans have already woken up to the idea of homeschooling as an alternative to handing our children over to schools that are too cowardly to tolerate National Guard t-shirts because of a gun silhouette and too narrow-minded to even allow a child to say “ bless you” in response to a sneeze. Anti-cultural nonsense like this is, of course, on top of the fact that these schools are getting poorer and poorer at actually educating. Nevertheless, homeschooling is an idea that still needs to become more normal and less exceptional among the conservative rank and file. We all seem to like it, but not enough of us actually do it.
Likewise, it is past time to reconsider the fiscal, moral, and spiritual cost of sending our children to universities compared to other ways they might be educated. Think long and hard about whether college is the best choice for your sons and daughters. Reconsider whether your annual donations to your alma mater are really doing anyone any good. If you are an employer, then when you hire, stop using college degrees as a proxy for the intelligence and capability of prospective employees (after all, colleges too are getting poorer and poorer at educating despite the growing costs.) Use other traits & accomplishments to vet your hires.
Naturally, schooling (home or otherwise) is not the only place virtuous citizens are formed; it also happens out in our communities. We should unapologetically do the many little things that help determine the course of our culture—whether supporting the victims of anti-Christian bullies or regularly helping our neighbors so that they feel less need for government to “help” them in the first place. Though we should not be busybodies, there is also an important place for things like social stigma. For example, As parents do all they can to help guide their children into suitable marriages, they should not balk at warning their sons away from marrying loose women no matter how much the libertine scream about slut-shaming. Neither should they hesitate to warn their daughters away from men who are too uninterested or too unprepared to provide for a family of their own. This may still be part of parenting, but advice like this tends to leak out into the wider culture, and that is OK. Despite recent twitter campaigns, it is also OK to openly dislike traits like bossiness. It is OK to point out that while bad luck can result in temporary needs for assistance, it is shameful for that kind of assistance to become a way of life. Finally, as a Christian, I believe that we have an important (though not exclusive) role to play in this. Churches should be bold in proclaiming what God has given us to teach—even if it means shrugging off the government interference that comes with our traditional 501(c)(3) status; even if it means offending congregants who have themselves adopted anti-Biblical moral traditions.
What then of government and politics? Though it cannot be the primary battleground, government does remain a necessity even in a free nation, and many freedoms will be more difficult to live out until it backs off. Nevertheless, even when it comes to government, there is growing promise in replacing (or at least displacing) the rotten institutions rather than simply conserving them. Though it is an important part of our heritage, creating a competitive alternative government from scratch is perhaps a bridge too far for loyal American citizens. Nevertheless, there is an option for the states to use Article V of the Constitution to pass amendments that empower existing state governments to be true competition to the bloated federal leviathan. The Liberty Amendments by Mark Levin was my first encounter with this idea, but it seems to be worth pursuing—far more so than expecting career federal politicians to reign themselves in.
Our nation did not come about through the conservation of the unjust order that American patriots found themselves in. It came through the work of men and women bravely willing to go their own way according to their principles and virtues. The time has come for conservatives to be those men and women once again and build something better than what we have been left with.
Insofar as there be any possible political solutions to our problems, they lie in reaction, not conservatism. It simply is not enough to want to stop history, as Buckley defined conservatism’s mission. No, we have to turn things back. It’s as simple, and hard, as that.
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Thanks, Will; both for you comment and for the links.
A very interesting post, however I feel one problem is that the term “Conservative” is too broad. A common definition of a “Conservative” is anyone who is more conservative than the other fellow. So Right Liberals (nearly every elected “Conservative” is a Right Liberal) are called Conservatives, even though they often support the exact same things as Left Liberals do.
Take Homosexual marriage as an example, its not Conservative, but you will hear “Conservatives” saying its law now of course we support it. You’ll also hear that Conservatives support marriage so obviously Conservatives support homosexuals getting married!
You and I know its nonsense, but it sure confused alot of people.
In my opinion only Traditional Conservatives and Paleo-Conservatives are actually Conservative, all the rest are as real as $3 bills.
Upon Hope Blog – A Traditional Conservative Future
The broadness of the term is definitely an issue. Neo-cons pushed for a big tent approach to “conservatism” for the sake of votes, but it’s created a lot of confusion for everyone and dissatisfaction for trad-cons and paleo-cons who seldom benefit from the arrangement. Worse yet, it has allowed liberals to unilaterally frame the national conversation because all “conservative” really means to the general public anymore is “opposition to liberalism.” So yes, I agree that lots of so-called conservatives simply aren’t the real thing while the Trad/Paleo varieties come closest.
That said, I did write this with traditional and paleo conservatives in mind as the primary audience. I believe we uncritically conserve a lot of customs and institutions that are simply not our friends. If we are to be more conservative with respect to our principles, it’s going to mean being less conservative with respect to our culture and institutions.