Conservatives Shouldn’t Obsess over 2016

(Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
A manifesto sets out many worthy aims, but misunderstands the obstacles in their path.

Like Yuval Levin, I agree with a great deal in the social-conservative manifesto First Things has published. Conservatism can’t go back to its state circa 2015. Conservatism over the last generation has done too much to defend, celebrate, and advance “individual autonomy” and not enough to do the same for our society’s mediating institutions. “Our society must not prioritize the needs of the childless, the healthy, and the intellectually competitive.” Conservatives have too often romanticized “job creators” over workers. All of that is true, and I’m glad the signatories are saying it.

At the same time, I am not sure I agree with — I am not sure I even understand — the manifesto’s picture of our political moment. It claims that pre-2016 conservatism “surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.” That conservatism is now dead. But apparently some people want to bring it back and “foreclose debate” about it. So . . . has conservatism in recent years become more hostile to pornography? Or is the manifesto’s real concern that conservatism both pre-2016 and post-2016 hasn’t been exercised nearly enough about it?

What the manifesto says about immigration seems to me entirely correct: We should not favor it on the ground that “working-class Americans are less hard-working, less fertile, in some sense less worthy than potential immigrants.” That disposes of one line of argument of one side in the immigration debate; it hardly tells us what to do now. Over the last month the president has been talking about our economy’s alleged need for additional immigrant workers. Should conservatives consider Trump’s current view to be objectionably pre-2016?

The decision to treat the key question before conservatives as whether or not to go back to 2015 does more than exaggerate the ideological significance of the last presidential election. It puts the manifesto in the position of treating the shift within conservatism over the last few years as an entirely positive one. In my view, this is a mistake, particularly when it comes to immigration — the humanitarian disaster of the “family separation” policy would not have happened under a pre-2016 conservative — and even more particularly when it comes to race.

That framing also leads to a tendency to caricature, which is forgivable in a manifesto, and to an exaggeration of the faults of our forebears. Did pre-2016 conservatism surrender to the culture of death, for example? It seems to me, rather, that conservatives have been increasingly unified in defense of the right to life over the last several decades, with no marked change in the last presidential election. If pre-2016 conservatism hadn’t stood for the right to life, the pro-life movement might well have gone extinct here, as it has in many countries without a conservative movement in the style of the U.S. Of all the virtues I’d expect social conservatives to remember, gratitude would be high on the list.

The manifesto concludes, “we respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism and foreclose honest debate.” If the type of conservatism they oppose is truly dead, there is no need for a manifesto. If there’s a live debate, then what is calling one side of it dead but an attempt to foreclose honest debate?

I think the truth is that there are a lot of live debates among conservative writers right now. On many of them, I hope that the point of view represented by the manifesto prevails. Among conservative politicians, on the other hand, the dominant attitude seems to be that mobilizing grievances is a politically adequate substitute for promoting the “permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else” that concerns the signatories. That tendency has only grown since 2016. We will not advance the manifesto’s many worthy aims if we misunderstand the obstacles in their path.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.