In terms of policy and personnel achievements, modern American conservatism has perhaps had its most successful two years ever. And yet many leaders on the American Right lament what they diagnose as a collapse of conservative principle in the face of a popular upheaval in support of Donald Trump. Rather than call for resistance, these leaders must treat this as an opportunity for the conservative intellectual movement to persevere and adapt — by returning to its American roots.
For the last two years, Pete Peterson and Rich Tafel have been doing the laudable work of convening discussions and conferences about the future of conservatism under the umbrella of a venture called The American Project. Conducted under the auspices of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy (of which Peterson is Dean), the project seeks a new intellectual and policy movement to fill the void left by the supposed disarray and confusion of the conservative coalition in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory.
Emerging from these conversations have been calls for, among other things: a revived and muscular federalism, which could enable a return to local civic life, associations, and even a spiritual renewal (call it a return to Tocqueville); a middle way between private individualism and our national partisan political pathologies that avoids extremism or nostalgia for a glorious past, Right or Left (call it a return to Edmund Burke); and a focus on policies and rhetoric that are inclusive and solicitous of minorities and the disadvantaged with a view to rebuilding a durable Republican majority (call it a return to the 2013 RNC’s “autopsy” of the 2012 election).
What we really need, though, is a return to the principles and politics of Americanism, properly understood. And we already have adequate resources in our American political-philosophical tradition without having need for recourse to the ideas of a Frenchman from the 19th century or a Brit from the 18th, let alone the us-too domestic politics that mimics the ideological and electoral strategies of the Democratic party.
Americanism, properly understood, means a return to the principles of the American Founding and their continuation by the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. In our age of high-octane identity politics, we need to rediscover a meta-identity that can serve, once again, as the ground of a common citizenship. Such a ground should be a national identity that starts with the equal protection of equal natural rights — in other words, a spiritual attachment to the Declaration of Independence and a political attachment to the constitutional architecture that has gradually brought that spirit into political reality.
We all know the common objection: An appeal to the American tradition leaves out so many of the sub-identities that have come to dominate our political rhetoric, whether they be rooted in race, ethnicity, or other attributes. How can a political tradition that accommodated slavery and condoned ethnically exclusionary immigration laws, for example, be the proper basis for an inclusive national identity? We have adequate answers to these objections rooted in American principles that treat in a nuanced way the balance between consent of the governed (public opinion) and justice (the full and equal protection of natural rights). This balancing of justice and consent is the perennial occupation of the American statesman. The trouble is, we’ve forgotten these answers and have ceased to teach them in our schools or marshal them in our public political and intellectual life.
On the question of slavery: The principle of human equality announced in the Declaration was of course always hostile to the institution of slavery, as Martin Luther King, Jr. would point out 187 years after the principle was laid down. Even the compromises with slavery in the Constitution were ultimately in service of a national political power (constitutional union) that would offer the best opportunity to close the gap between justice and consent as circumstances allowed. Closing that gap nearly ended our national political existence in the Civil War, and the gap would prove stubbornly durable through the Jim Crow era and after. But in principle, equal protection of equal rights was there from the beginning. That is not to discount the historical realities that frustrated the true progress of justice in America.
On the question of immigration: The principled basis for the exclusion of certain immigrants rests on the fact of human equality announced in the Declaration of Independence, which leads to the necessity for consent among the members of the political community and the equal rights of citizenship. In other words, a people created by the Declaration of Independence codified their political community in a Constitution that empowered a national government to oversee immigration and naturalization. That representative and popular national power, acting on behalf of the members of the political community as a whole, has the absolute right to decide whom to admit as new members of that political community. Thus the restriction of legal (to say nothing of illegal) immigration can be defended as a matter of justice as well as on policy grounds.
The debate over who will make the best future citizens is a prudential question and need not have anything to do with ethnicity. What is needed is a sober assessment of the habits of self-government that incoming immigrants may or may not have. That assessment will of course have to include a consideration of countries of origin and their forms of government. All men are created equal; given the diversity of bad and good governments the world over, however, there will be a range of unequal capacities for self-government and responsible citizenship. The forms and practices of American constitutionalism will be second-nature for some and almost entirely foreign to others. A society that prefers the latter immigrant to the former lacks the intelligence or the will to survive.
Segments of the conservative movement over the last 50 years have captured and articulated some of the wisdom of this distinctively American political tradition. The American Project has captured and articulated quite a bit of this wisdom. But conservatives have yet to promulgate and support such a comprehensive Americanism in any sustained way. We need a new and revived Americanism as the identity to replace all identities.
The new Americanism should be comfortable talking of equal rights for all while insisting that equality, properly understood, is based on certain facts, not values, about human nature, which circumscribe the moral bounds of that equality. Our reason — and not our passions or desires — is the only ground for equality and its conjoined twin, liberty.
The new Americanism must also have the sobriety to admit the importance of place, political culture, and habit in the maintenance of decent government and the limits of extending citizenship to potential new immigrants at home — let alone implanting liberal democracy abroad.
This new Americanism must remember the old wisdom stretching from the Ancient Greeks to Alexander Hamilton: Politics must rule economics and not the other way around. Economic policy is a means to the prosperity and perpetuation of the political community and must serve the necessities of solidarity and constitutional durability. The abstract invocation of “free markets” has become a lazy way to evade these more fundamental questions.
Finally, the new Americanism must admit the limits of “science” in solving perennial political and social problems. Administration can never be “rational” and disinterested — it will always be political. The centralization and bureaucratization of American politics over the last century, advanced by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, must be stopped and rolled back. Given America’s population, limited government in modern America will never be “small.” But at a certain point, the government grows so large as to overawe the rest of the private sector and civil society. We are nearing that point (total federal, state, and local spending is roughly one-third of GDP), and so regulatory rollback and constitutional reform that reasserts political control over administration must be both aggressive and durable.
This new Americanism, in other words, comes to look quite a bit like the common-sense policy outlines and political project of the Trump administration. Rather than build a new conservative movement based on a fusion of new ideas and policies, why not marshal the wisdom of the American Founding and its political tradition to help deepen and elevate the new and interesting political coalition on the Right energized by Donald Trump’s remarkable candidacy and victory?
Ryan P. Williams is president of the Claremont Institute.