Politics & Policy

Social Conservatism’s Demise Is Neither Inevitable Nor Desirable

Our movement can still be a force for good in the world.

Previously, I’ve argued that social conservatives have greatly benefited from their fusion with other factions on the right. Far from “losing every battle,” the alliance of social conservatives with the Republican Party has produced many victories. It has not been an unending tale of disaster.

But that’s not to say that building a social conservative resurgence from the wreckage of Trumpmania will be easy. It won’t. In addition to the usual opposition from the left, there will be doubters on the right: We’re already hearing many Republicans talk about how this is “the end” for the Religious Right or social conservatism in general, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they mean that as a prophecy or a wish.

You all know the clichés: Social conservatives are old hat. We’re on “the wrong side of history.” The movement’s death is “inevitable.” The belief that our ship is doomed to sink is shared by many, some gentler than others in urging us to abandon it while we still can.

I remain skeptical. Could it happen? Sure — nothing is set in stone. I’m just not at all convinced that it must happen. Joel Kotkin argues persuasively that many such predictions have proven wrong throughout history. Hatred of political correctness is alive and well in the era of Trump, and if those on the left think his defeat — over which I will shed no tears — is an affirmation of the social-justice warriors’ worldview, they are in for a nasty shock.

Wholly apart from the question of whether social conservatism will die, though, I don’t believe that it should die.

Bad things happen when political movements cast off their moral and philosophical restraints in pursuit of raw, naked power. Very bad things. We didn’t need — or shouldn’t need — Steve Bannon’s alt-right to understand and absorb this. History is full of such examples, especially in Europe.

One need not be a fan of the old guard Weimar-era conservative elite to accept that they were far preferable to the Nazis who replaced them. One can criticize the Spanish CEDA party of the 1930s for having an ambivalent attitude toward democracy and still agree that they were better than the violent, radical, and openly fascist Falangists who followed.

And that’s just on the right. Lenin’s concentration camps were filled with left-wingers who had the temerity to demand that the communists respect things they claimed to stand for: principles such as the sanctity of unions, some form of respect for the rights of the “people,” and opposition to the first wave of the “Red Terror.” They ended up being imprisoned by a regime for whom even the very concept of law was subordinate to the dream of molding and breaking human beings as if they were mere tools.

We see the same thing in Europe today, be it Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, which has abandoned Tony Blair’s centrism for paranoid hatred and worship of “anti-imperialist” tyranny, or far-right parties which speak of “Judeo-Christian values” as a means of rallying political supporters whose aims are anything but Judeo-Christian.

Far from being ‘outdated,’ our voice is needed now more than ever.

Yes, social conservatism at its worst can often serve as extra fuel on such a fire. But at its best, it can serve as a bulwark, a great wall that holds back such ugly hatred.

But our movement can do more than prevent evil, of course: It can also do good. Many on the right have done an admirable job in explaining how free markets and technology are excellent tools to serve human ends, providing us with longer, materially better lives than those enjoyed by any other generation in history. Yet these are means rather than ends: They can make it easier for us to achieve our purpose, but they cannot tell us what that purpose is.

The more we are freed of material wants and needs, the louder and more deafening Solzhenitsyn’s “howl of existentialism” becomes: Why live? Why have children? Why be human? Why use technology? Why act morally?

All of our amazing scientific and technological capabilities will achieve nothing and convince no one if we fail to face and answer these questions, both personally and collectively. And beyond the “standard” issues of family breakdown and cultural resilience, which we have always spoken of and still must, these are the questions social conservatism exists to grapple with.

The twentieth century largely revolved around avoiding the unwilling destruction of humanity. The twenty-first is set to revolve around whether we should exist or self-destruct or become something else. There are some conservatives who have engaged deeply with these issues, but there is much more still left to do.

We cannot assume that the truth of human exceptionalism and moral equality and value will “naturally” win out. As William F. Buckley himself wrote more than fifty years ago in God and Man at Yale:

 . . . truth does not necessarily vanquish. What is more, truth can never win unless it is promulgated. Truth does not carry within itself an antitoxin to falsehood. . . . Both of these [The Nazi and fascist] “revolutions,” to be sure, were wrought by complex forces acting in complex ways; but it is nevertheless a tragic fact that truth did not triumph, and that this was not because the truth had not been made known. It was rather because (a) not enough people recognized the truth, (b) those who did recognize it did not exert themselves sufficiently in its behalf, and (c) many people saw the truth, but were indifferent to it.

Far from being “outdated,” our voice is needed now more than ever. We must find the courage and strength to overcome the derision we face from all sides, much of it sadly deserved, and go back to believing that this is a cause worth fighting for. We must, above all, stand up for the truth.

— Avi Woolf (@AviWoolf) is a writer and translator living in Jerusalem, Israel. He writes for The Buckley Club on Medium.

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