Postmodern Conservative

Redefining Conservatism — Part II

So I’m still about spewing out background for redefining conservatism. In case you’re wondering, the background for the background is Orestes Brownson, and all this will eventually be in a book.

What have I liked about the Republican convention? Well, Trump Jr. the guy and Trump Jr. the speech. The speech was written mainly by F. H. Buckley, who borrowed a couple of lines from a fine article he wrote. I’m not saying I agree with all of it. But if Trump Jr. were to be the candidate with Buckley as chief of staff, I might revisit my Never Trump conviction.  

In general, one advantage Trump has over Hillary Clinton (and even Ronald Reagan!) is the family Trump, which is pretty impressive. The plagiarizing thing  has had the unfortunate effect of allowing the media to get our attention off the fact. Of course the Trump people didn’t help by not sheepishly acknowledging what are basically insignificant errors.  Poor Melania got in trouble for wanting to have some control over her own speech and not getting the help anyone would expect when she needed it.

Meanwhile, back to redefining:

On the social issues, Republicans, at one level, are against the implosion of decent middle-class morality on which any free society depends. The more libertarian Republicans, such as Charles Murray, believe that the best way to lead men and women to be moral again is to reduce or rein in the culture of dependency, through, for example, eliminating the whole entitlement bureaucracy and replacing it with a guaranteed minimum income. Americans have shared a common, middle-class, bourgeois morality — the one described by Tocqueville — and can share one again by going back to a genuinely free society in which people are compelled to take responsibility for their choices.

The Americans who are doing so well in being  productive, forming stable, child-centered families, and living sensibly in every respect (well, they could have a few more kids), in Murray’s eyes, have the duty not to be condescending by expecting less of all their fellow Americans. And those Americans who are now feckless dependents have the duty to be self-reliant individuals, taking care of themselves as their own. But these duties aren’t to be enforced by the government; they emerge at least almost spontaneously when government does nothing to encourage a culture of dependency.

Murray, however, calls himself not a conservative, but a classical liberal. He follows the lead of Hayek, who understood conservatism as a choice for traditional authority over the free individual. In America, Hayek added, the classical liberal is a tactical conservative or even traditionalist, because our country has a classically liberal Founding. Reverence for our Framers coincides with respect for the free individual.

Murray rightly distinguishes his view from that the Burkean Yuval Levin and some of the other “reform conservatives.” Murray and Hayek are conservative liberals. They think that the effective exercise of individual liberty depends on the habits indispensable for productivity and self-sufficiency. But finally, they are individualists — as opposed to collectivists or statists — all the way down. They would, of course, criticize today’s “left libertarianism” as promoting a kind of self-indulgence that’s possible only with protection of the intrusive arm of state security. Too many who pride themselves in their autonomy today demand not only to be left alone but that their personal choices be affirmed whatever their consequences.

And conservative liberals, of course, are repulsed by what’s going on on our campuses and to a lesser extent in our workplaces: Free men and women shouldn’t rely on anyone but themselves for protection against the slings and arrows of micro-aggressions and so forth.  The replacement of “academic freedom” with “academic justice” is an offense against the highest form of individual freedom — that associated with Socrates and John Stuart Mill. On campus most of all, individuals should be relentlessly judged by the quality of their choices, choices that have to be defended and judged with arguments.

The Burkean Levin and other reform conservatives, as Murray notices, are finally liberal conservatives. They’re for political freedom and a free market — and for many libertarian means generally — as ways of achieving non-libertarian ends. For them, America is a country less of detached individuals than of families, churches, and local communities. The fundamental relational fact is the web of institutions that stand between the individual and the state.  Freedom is not just another word for the whimsical pursuit of happiness but a way of protecting what makes life worth living by safely securing the places in which the individual finds genuine personal significance.

So Levin isn’t afraid to deploy the word “subsidiarity” — borrowed from the European Catholic tradition — to express the thought that human decisions should be made at the most intimate and relational possible level.  Subsidiarity also suggests that there’s a place for government to acknowledge that individuals are also parents and children, and citizens and creatures. So government can provide tax breaks and related assistance to struggling families, facilitate education that’s more than techno-vocational training, promote the common bonds of citizenship through immigration policy and elsewhere, and think of freedom of religion as more than the rights of conscience of isolated individuals.

A form of liberal conservatism more insistently religious than Levin’s, of course, expressed itself in the unexpectedly successful but ultimately futile presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Huckabee was pro-growth and all that, but he was also about protecting the entitlements on which families depend and other compassionate policies to shore up relational life. Santorum was about reconfiguring the Republican agenda in a “blue collar” direction, coming to terms with the real needs of people finding it harder than ever to find relational dignity by orienting their lives around responsible love and worthwhile work. And both Huckabee and Santorum were about protecting the religious values — the culture of life — under siege from our courts and our bureaucrats. The stock Republican criticism, found in, among other places, the Wall Street Journal, is that they weren’t really conservative, precisely because they favored policies that weren’t only about protecting the rights of free individuals, that they subordinated economic growth and shrinking government to relational concerns. 

Huckabee and Santorum, truth to tell, seemed in some ways like pre-1965 moderately liberal Democrats, all for a strong national defense, civil rights, and economic growth (remember JFK’s hugely successful tax cut) but also for the basic institutions of the welfare state and for sustaining the traditional family (the Democrats in those days were for for unions and other mechanisms promoting a “family wage”), and doing what’s possible to protect American industrial jobs. There is the Burkean argument, of course, that they were the genuine conservatives, who were about sustaining the American idea of dignified relational freedom from the leveling forces of both leftist social engineering and the unmediated dynamism of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace.

Now Levin and the other reform conservatives seem to say that Huckabee and Santorum were compromised, in some measure, by being nostalgic in the wrong way. The America described by Tocqueville — characterized by a common religious morality and stable families rooted in the traditional division of labor between husband and wife — isn’t coming back. And in some ways that’s genuine progress:  The progress of “expressive individualism” that originates in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1960s has rightly liberated women to be free and equal political and economic actors and ameliorated the cruel marginalization of gays and others. Not only that, the stable, benefit-laden American workforce of the 1950s and 1960s depended on America’s dominance of the global marketplace (and, truth to tell, some on the exclusion of women and blacks from competition for the good jobs), and that’s not coming back either.

The fundamental facts in our country are about having to become more market-competitive and about a new moral divide that separates our major religious denominations. These forms of individualism aren’t altogether good, but they have many deniable benefits, and we conservatives should regard them as presenting us with relational challenges that Americans are well equipped to meet. That means that subsidiarity is more important than ever: Smaller and less centralized government is indispensable for protecting our genuine moral and intellectual diversity, which isn’t the lifestyle preferences of individuals but a variety of relational orientations that must accommodate each other. 

Among the criticisms of this kind of reforming moderation are that it slights common citizenship by promoting a “secessionist” impulse that and that it undermines classical liberalism or public individualism by humoring conservative identity politics, beginning with that observant religious believers.

Well, there’s a lot more even on “social conservatism,” but I’m stopping here for now.

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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