In the Age of Barack Obama, conservatives can seem uncommonly keen to tell you what they are not.
“When I am around conservatives,” anti-progressive Millennials will gripe, “I feel libertarian. But when I am around libertarians, I feel conservative. Perhaps,” they conclude, “I’m a bit of both?”
A similar bewilderment has afflicted hardened veterans of the Reagan revolution — many of whom have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Bush years were a disappointing failure and that the Republican party is an inefficient vehicle for their aspirations. It has caught in its trap the loudest players within the effusive and multifaceted Tea Party, which appears to be driven as much by what it is against as by what it is for. And it has stricken traditionally rightward-leaning voters who are unsure how they should synthesize their disappointment with the Right writ large and their dislike of President Obama and his agenda.
The vast majority of this disorientation is rooted in substantive disagreement as to what “conservatism” should mean in the 21st century. A good portion of this antagonism is strictly philosophical: On the questions of immigration and foreign policy, for example, various parts of the Right’s traditional coalition are in open warfare as to how best to reconcile the country’s founding principles with an interconnected world. In other areas, the clash is generational: On the thorny “social” questions of drugs and gay marriage, the Republican party today faces a pronounced age-based divide that its leadership will soon be called upon to bridge as delicately as is possible.
As this cycle’s unusually deep bench of Republican presidential aspirants is demonstrating daily, American conservatism has not yet emerged completely from its long dark night of the soul. Instead, crucial questions still abound. Should conservatism attempt to replicate the classic “three-legged stool” coalition — military, social, and fiscal conservatives — that made it a force to be reckoned with during the 1980s? Should it finally make peace with the social liberalism that has swept across the United States? Or should the libertarians escape from their brief “moment” in the sun and become the ascendant part of the alliance?
Calling themselves “conservatarians,” one rapidly growing contingent of dissenters has taken to splitting the difference. Unimpressed by the Republican party’s recent time in government, at odds with the traditional conservative attitudes toward gay marriage and the war on drugs, uncomfortable with the mainstream libertarian approach to defense, immigration, and abortion, and determined to defend the constitutional order from assaults from all sides, this group is attempting to fuse the best parts from each of the Right’s constituent philosophies. Determining who these people are, divining what they want, and deciding how their particular brand of fusionism might best accommodate their discontents is the objective of my new book, The Conservatarian Manifesto.
That one of the country’s two main political parties is at present struggling to reconcile a divided and recalcitrant array of adherents might seem to the outsider’s eye to be somewhat disastrous — especially this close to an important general election. It is no such thing. Instead, the divisions are providing the Right with invaluable opportunities for self-reflection and reform that may eventually redound not only to its own benefit but to that of the United States as well. Really, it should surprise nobody that conservatives and libertarians disagree so vehemently as to what constitutes the good life. So, apparently, does everybody else in America. How to ensure that this discord does not break the country apart is the defining challenge of our generation.
It should be acknowledged as an example of bitter historical irony that, at the very moment that America’s political differences became so agonizingly acute, the national government became so depressingly inflexible. Aided by the quick-fire ingenuity of Silicon Valley, younger Americans have of late become accustomed to the customization that is made possible by the arrival of Uber, Facebook, Netflix, and the ever-present smartphone. And yet, year in and year out, they are being asked to vote loyally for the sustenance of a political order that resembles the worst and most homogeneous parts of the DMV. If they ever had anything in common, the Baptists in Mississippi and the hipsters in Portland, Ore., have almost nothing in common in 2015. And yet, rather than seeing fit to cherish and accommodate their differences, their governments now seem hell-bent upon pitting them against each other. Insipid uniformity, not beautiful variation, is the toast of the hour.
It does not need to be like this. There is no good reason that Americans who lean to the right should despair when a figure such as Barack Obama ascends to the White House; nor is there any need for those on the left to inquire earnestly into the Canadian immigration system each and every time that a Scott Walker or Ted Cruz surges in the polls. As we are constantly reminded, the United States is a big, messy, and extraordinarily diverse country, and it is in possession of a constitutional settlement that was explicitly contrived to foster and to accommodate dissent. If the Right hopes to fuse its various factions into a unified whole — and, for that matter, if Americans hope to maintain their individuality while still thrilling to a common civic identity — reformers might take comfort in the recognition that they already have the tools at their disposal. The federal system, working properly, has room for us all.
Once upon a time, conservatives knew this. Now, they can often seem hypocritical and inconsistent. In the realms of economics, self-defense, freedom of speech, and energy, the Right has done a commendable job of making the case for the genius of the American order. The arrival of Obamacare, one suspects, has helped to sharpen the urgency of this pitch. And yet on the key questions of education, drugs, gay marriage, the drinking age, and even seniors’ health care, the recent record has been less than salutary. There is no good that can come from our politicians’ paying lip service to localism if they are happy to back intrusive laws such as No Child Left Behind and the National Minimum Drinking Age Act when they actually get into power.
Worse still, perhaps, conservatives have too often refused to subject favored federal programs to the same rigorous criticism they routinely apply to initiatives they disdain. The War on Drugs is a $51 billion–per–year disaster that has helped to create and foster a domineering federal Leviathan; that has invited routine violations of the supposedly cherished Constitution; and that has repeatedly and obviously failed to achieve any of its basic aims. And yet it enjoys majority support among self-described conservatives — the very people who typically apply a skeptical eye to the counterproductive activities of the state. Why?
Such inconsistencies have been extraordinarily confusing to voters, and they have served to undermine the Right’s winning message. Conservatives win big when they make it clear that there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between civil society and the state, that the use of force and the use of persuasion are by no means synonymous, and that the private preferences of our elected officials should be largely irrelevant to their roles in public office. As William F. Buckley Jr. pithily observed, “What is legal is not necessarily reputable.” Republicans and their ideological friends forget this at their peril.
There is always a risk that rigorous self-appraisal will descend into destructive self-flagellation. This is a temptation that should be assiduously avoided. At its heart, American conservatism represents the most exciting, radical, transformative, and fundamentally necessary political philosophy in the history of the world. Unlike progressives, whose foundational principles tend to change with the wind, conservatives are the fortunate heirs to an intellectual tradition that has been unparalleled in the whole course of human events. Adapting that ideology to changing times can, on occasion, be imperative to its survival. Today, such an adaptation is more pressing than usual. But there is no need to meet the challenge by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Indeed, conservatives get an awful lot right. Although it has run into a little trouble of late, the Right’s traditional approach to defense is grounded in the correct understanding of human nature, in the sober recognition that the global order requires a strong power to underwrite its security, and in the appreciation that there is no acceptable candidate for that role other than the United States. Since 1945, Americans have been called upon to defend the liberal order. They must not direct deaf ears toward that vocation.
Conservatives also tend to grasp that virtuous nations are more than just economies and that one cannot expect to maintain the beautiful principles that were adumbrated within the Declaration of Independence without determining who may and who may not belong to the polity. Although their choices for judicial office may sometimes let them down, conservatives are correct to insist that caprice is the soul of tyranny and that no republic will stand for long if its foundational laws are permitted to be bent and twisted by transient majorities and faithless judges. And, as ever, their defense of life cuts through the pabulum that typically accompanies any discussion of America’s abortion-on-demand regime and goes to the heart of the matter: that if we are to foster a culture in which all are treated equally, we cannot forget the most vulnerable of all.
Which is all, ultimately, to say that most of what is wrong with conservatism can be fixed by what is right with conservatism, and that what is discordant in America can be mended by what is harmonious. In spite of the many breathless predictions to the contrary, Barack Obama’s reelection neither ushered in an endless age of progressive triumph nor delivered a knockout blow to the Right. Now, in the waning days of his influence, the intellectual field is as open as it ever was. We could do worse than to fill it with conservatarians.
– Mr. Cooke’s new book, The Conservatarian Manifesto, will be published this month.