It is not unusual to hear of a feuding middle-aged couple that has struck a quiet accord between themselves to stay together and keep their differences relatively private until their children reach a certain age. It is even possible, in a limited way, to admire such a couple. If the relationship has so deteriorated that the plausible options are a rancorous divorce and tearing children between homes and families or a tense peace secured through a relational form of mutually assured destruction, you might argue that the latter is the superior option.
This seems to me the most charitable way of reading Jay Cost’s recent article about the future health of the United States: Our union is fragile and marked by conflict, but ultimately we can work toward a détente due to fear of the alternative — an economic form of mutually assured destruction. In a limited way, it’s possible that Cost is right. The society in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is held together not by any sort of patriotic affection between citizens but simply by a fear of losing the material comforts offered by modern society. Comfort, which is ultimately what Cost’s argument cashes out to, may well be sufficient grounds to hold our fragile republic together for a time.
But let’s return to our unhappy couple for a moment. No one, I think, would argue that their relationship is healthy. While the couple may have arrived at a solution that minimizes the damage their broken relationship will do to their children, no one would suggest that the couple are living up to their wedding vows, that their relationship is a healthy picture of “my life for yours,” or that their children will benefit from growing up in such a home. Nor, I hope, would anyone suggest that living in a permanent state of unhealth is wise, sustainable, or good. And this is the problem with Cost’s column.
Material comfort, which is provided by a market economy that serves as the only true place of shared life in our republic, might be enough to preserve a polity for a time, but it is not sufficient to shape citizens capable of maintaining that economic order. Indeed, if we wish to quote Founding Fathers to support our arguments, we would do well to consider the words of John Adams, who, writing to the Massachusetts militia in 1798, remarked that our nation’s Constitution presupposes a “moral and religious” population. “It is wholly inadequate [to govern] any other,” the nation’s second president said.
It is not sufficient, then, to simply find something that both of the feuding parties dislike — poverty, in this case — and hope that their shared fear will bind them together in a lasting union. Ultimately all human communities, whether they are a family, a neighborhood, or a nation, will long to order their life together according to truth.
The Left, to its credit, is beginning to understand this. Their vision of America, deficient and dangerous though it is, is united around common objects of love. They want an inclusive society that recognizes and protects the right of every individual to narrate his own meaning, to “define one’s own concept of existence.” They believe that this vision of life is true, and they work toward its accomplishment.
Cost’s article, viewed through this lens, is an ineffective, timid response. And this is a pity. Conservatism at its best is concerned with conserving all that is good and beautiful, with recognizing the beauty inherent in the givenness of the world and wishing to protect it from those that would crush it. But this attempt to live according to truth (to borrow from Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule) has fewer and fewer adherents amongst today’s conservatives. The vision of political life put forward by many on the American right seems largely indifferent to these great human questions and may well bottom out into a virtue-free nihilism in which there is no possibility of a common life organized around truth.
Certainly, it’s possible that life together in today’s America cannot be sustained on the basis of anything beyond the lowest common denominator. If that is the case, then perhaps you can argue that Cost’s argument is simply the political version of the couple that has agreed to tolerate each other until the kids are older. But a single household, unlike a nation, has a fixed lifespan. It will be dissolved at one point or another. Nations, in contrast, can be sustained if they live under a story that is true and if they can rally their citizenry around that story. The Left is trying to do that. They are telling a bad story, but it is a story that resonates with many. The Right, with some notable exceptions, seems to have given up all attempts at cultural storytelling.
Ultimately, human beings aspire to truth. “You have made us for yourself,” Augustine prays in his Confessions, “and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” We long to order our lives, including our political lives, to truth. The Right can choose to acknowledge this, or they can choose to ignore it. But if they do the latter, they won’t just be losing the narrative battle to the Left; they’ll be fighting against human nature — an odd posture, indeed, for a movement that aspires to be conservative.