Postmodern Conservative

Redefining Conservatism— Part 3

Between individualism and collectivism

I don’t have much to say about the Democratic convention except: Michelle Obama was excellent (offering the best Democratic criticism of Trump I’ve heard). Bill Clinton’s narrative of lifelong love and respect for the girl he met was a touching piece of selective nostalgia (not a big criticism, that’s what old storytellers do). Bernie Sanders has been a class act. Lena Dunham managed to achieve unprecedented diversity and intensity in whining in just a few minutes. Paul Simon should have picked a tune that to sound good didn’t require Garfunkel. And the mainstream TV media — much more than the discredited DNC — is shamelessly embracing Hillary’s narrative of the significance of her nomination.

On Trump telling the Russians to hack up some more e-mails. Well, he was joking. But more evidence of still of an utter lack of impulse control.

Now, let me get tedious by continuing my examination of conservatism as it is now:

The more dominant Republican view on the social issues might be less liberal conservative or conservative liberal than democratic: The people, as Justice Scalia explained so eloquently, have a right to legislate morality in areas such as marriage and abortion. And it’s the pernicious form of individualism morphing into unfettered personal autonomy that threatens the people’s right to choose how to define marriage and protect life. This kind of individualism is enforced by the courts, through shameless judicial activism, and abetted by unprecedented bureaucratic intrusiveness encouraged by Democrats. Peter Thiel might be right that it’s a sham culture war if folks are obsessed over who uses what bathroom. But, for social conservatives, the war was escalated by federal bureaucrats obsessing about what’s going on in bathrooms in North Carolina.

The Republicans typically add that religious liberty is under assault in our country today, and they pledge to fight against courts and bureaucrats who aim to undermine the authority of the church to teach what it thinks is true, and the authentic freedom people have to live in light of that truth. Freedom of religion is the freedom not of isolated conscience but the freedom to be a member of an organized body of thought and action that speaks authoritatively to its members.

It’s often said, and not without reason, that conservatives — including Republican leaders and public intellectuals — are inconsistent in being for individualism in one way and against it in another. That point is usually made most insistently by libertarians such as Charles Koch, who argues that we should always be for innovation across the board. The same method that fuels technological progress does the same for moral progress. That, of course, social conservatives do not think is true, and they’re more attuned to the relational costs that might accompany technological benefits. And they, even before Trumpism, could be suspicious of the motives of our cosmopolitan elites who populate both our parties.

Social conservatives are often for thinking of persons as free individuals when it comes to political and economic issues, and they criticize the Democrats for being “collectivists.” But when it comes to the “social issues,” they can readily be mistaken for “collectivists” themselves by libertarians. They deviate from pure individualism by being for attuning public policy to the needs of struggling families, accommodating the churches, and privileging American citizens over all the individuals of the world. They disagree with the libertarian premise that, even under the law, individuals can be recognized only as individuals — or as beings abstracted from their relational life. 

The libertarian — or, arguably, the purely classical liberal  — view is that the Constitution is silent on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation and so our law must be too. And so even a tax reform targeted at relieving parents is an unjust form of identity politics, just as are tax exemptions for churches. The social conservative, by contrast, doesn’t divide people into individualists (who are all about rights) and collectivists (who are all about willful majoritarianism). Genuine collectivism, like that of the socialists and the fascists, presupposes the absence of the intermediary associations that flourish between the pure individualism and the government that make life worthwhile.

Social conservatives such as Peter Spiliakos observe that the rise of Bernie Sanders and the popularity of socialism among young people can be explained by the atrophying of the safety nets — beginning with stable families — that shape lives that are some relational place between atomistic individualism and faceless collectivism. The indiscriminate progress of individualism — especially social liberalism — in our time generates security concerns that socialism promises to address in one way and Trump, with his fascism lite, in another.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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