This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
Conservatism is an inheritance, not an ideology. American conservatism emerged out of our experiences as a self-governing people who love their inherited liberties rather than abstract rights; whose laws have historically emerged out of our norms rather than a specious theory of justice; whose gift for creating and protecting political freedom (the freedom to govern ourselves, our communities, our associations) has served as the primary obstacle to the relentless drive toward an egalitarian administrative state.
We are a conservative people in our bones, in our social DNA, or we are not conservative at all. The richness and power of conservative “philosophy” is found in the discovery, articulation, and defense of a reality we experience and of affections formed long before we needed to defend them. In the end, Americans are conservative because they trust the lessons of experience and they love the cultural, social and intellectual world they’ve inherited even with all its flaws. We do not philosophize our way to conservatism but, as conservatives, we explore, clarify, discover, learn, revel in our inheritance. From the perspective of democratic politics, then, this American conservatism “in our bones” has a particular virtue: It rejects all ideology and unnecessary abstraction as simplistic accounts of who we are.
This conservatism of experience does not lend itself to a systematic expression nor even to self-awareness of conservatism as a set of beliefs, habits, affections, and judgments — except when challenged or when we are compelled to defend our inheritance and way of life. Such moments of self-awareness create intellectual and cultural defenses that are suited to the times, articulating timeless principles in terms of specific challenges. Conservatism as expressed in ideas always — or should always — articulate this dual quality of responding to context and reaching toward truths about the reality that transcends these contexts.
These characteristics of American conservatism are our primary protections against the most dangerous instincts of democratic culture. Absent the love of political freedom to be self-governing — and without the messy but rich pluralism of associations and affections that bind people voluntarily to groups, to places, and to our shared stories — democratic culture overindulges a love of equality and abstract moral truths. The more atomized our citizens, the more in need they are of abstract and universal ideals to supply them with moral and political certainty — and the false comfort that comes with certainty. Atomized individuals have little opportunity nor strong desire to do the hard work of self-governing citizens. As a result, they cede to a bureaucratized government the authority to craft a social order suited to the private pursuit of pleasure, comfort, and superficial self-creation. They demand not only the psychic comfort of a ruthless equality that only an extensive administrative system can impose but also a prescribed set of beliefs and principles that supply each person with clear guidance to appropriate thoughts guaranteeing inclusion and acceptance.
So American conservatism is rooted in inheritance, in the rough guidance of experience over abstract idealism, and in the protection of the pluralism found in voluntary association and in self-governing communities. This is why something profoundly American is lost when conservatives embrace abstraction and universal slogans in their struggle with either liberalism or progressivism. The messy history of how this came to pass is deserving of more thorough study than is possible here, but a few broad trends are readily discernible.
In the Cold War, an understandable species of conservative principles emerged to offer a contrast to the ideological madness of Soviet and Chinese communism. These principles were expressed in abstract terms as ideological weapons — complexity was sacrificed in favor of the clarity necessary for the times. In response to the continued growth of the federal government in the 1960s, a conservative political movement distilled certain contrasting beliefs connected to free enterprise, taxation, federalism, and a strong national defense. As is the nature of political ideas in a democracy, these principles were deployed as slogans, often expressed in universalistic terms rather than as successful traditions appropriate to our experiences and our national character. The political success of this evolving ideological version of American conservatism would eventually narrow the thinking of self-proclaimed conservatives, reducing our complex history to a didactic account in defense of a new ideology. Paradoxically, such reductionism would eventually condemn this ideology to irrelevance as the nation and world changed in ways ill-suited to these ready-made beliefs. 2016 revealed that those in seats of power in the Republican Party and among the right-wing chattering classes have long been operating with ideas fossilized in amber.
To some degree, these trends are to be expected in politics, as ideologies that once united coalitions ossify and cease to reflect the breadth of a people’s collective experience. Of perhaps greater concern even than these political trends is a generational weakness of the conservative intellectual movement.
This historical account is likewise too rich and complicated to explore in detail here. Suffice it to say that today we lack a strong and traditionally conservative intellectual — and specifically academic — class. The easiest measure of this weakness is found in both the number and the intellectual range of conservative academics. Of particular importance here is the dearth of conservatives in the humanities. Indeed, the number of conservative scholars devoted to such studies as philology, literature, theology, philosophy, and history as well as themes such as imagination, beauty, and truth, has dwindled both in raw numbers and as a percentage of conservative academics. Of course, outside the academy, there are journals and institutions that engage the moral, literary, historical imagination, which offer some reason for hope. But the overall trend on the Right has been toward intellectual work geared toward contemporary and immediate concerns — more about power than about beauty.
While this history of the conservative intellectual movement of the last 20 or 30 years is yet to be told, I want to focus on one more trend that I find particularly concerning. To a disturbing degree, conservative intellectuals deploy the categories and language appropriate to the Left when defending conservatism. The trend lines are six decades old now.
In the 60s, to note one example, the ferment of intellectual challenges to liberalism sparked vigorous discussions on the Right. The debate was between those conservative thinkers who stressed the complicated, messy, and particularistic forms of American traditions and cultural and moral commitments and those who felt the need to anchor the meaning, identity, and purpose of the American story in a natural rights system that stressed equality. This conflict between conservatism as an entailed inheritance and conservatism as a universal moral system associated with American exceptionalism would roil the world of conservativism for the next several decades. Ultimately, however, abstract and rationalist approaches came to dominate conservative thinking, unfortunately even among those who claim the mantle of traditionalism.
Consider the fascinating and peculiar argument made by Patrick Deneen in his book, “Why Liberalism Failed” — one of the more spirited intellectual defenses of conservativism in recent years. Deneen, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has as great a claim on the localist, particularist, and traditionalist side of the conservative debate as anyone. So, one might reasonably expect from him a book that eschews reification and sweeping abstractions in favor of a method of argument that is rooted in history and that recognizes the often tortured irony of human experience. But Deneen offers instead an often brilliant (read chapter 3, “Liberalism as Anti-Culture” for a stunning display of philosophical insight) analysis of a reified liberalism that is almost Hegelian in its use of categories and its conception of how “ideas” unfold over time.
In fact, Deneen’s analysis seems to have nothing to do with history as a story that includes complex interactions of human choices and changing circumstances. Instead, we get a bloodless History that allows the author complete intellectual control of his subject — because the story is simply the unfolding of a logic built-in to liberalism itself. Liberalism is failing now, Deneen tells us, because it succeeded: It became what it was destined to become and, as a false ideology, was eventually overtaken by reality. From beginning to end, Deneen’s liberalism is hypostatized, endowed with agency — “Liberalism has ruthlessly drawn…” — allowing the author to find in all the varieties and circumstances of history, a single embedded logic that compelled liberalism to reach its eventual self-destruction.
However useful this reification is for the sake of argument it has two — profoundly un-conservative — defects. First, it encourages thinking in abstract labels on matters that are particularly prone to contingency and complication by both historical realities and the messiness of human life. By finding in liberalism an internal logic that explains all contemporary developments, Deneen never has to ask about concrete developments or the events that altered, sometimes dramatically, the development of the ideas put into practice. For instance, without the technological, economic, and social revolution that attended the dramatic pace of industrialization in the late 19th century, how much of this History would have become real history? We simply could not have had the types of liberalism we associate with post 1933 America without the structural changes produced by this revolution. What might have happened to the range of ideas and goals that we now label “liberal” had industrialization not happened as it did?
Second, because Deneen connects liberalism with the American founding, he profoundly misinterprets the fundamental character of the American political tradition. Lost in this account is any recognition of the deep currents of empiricism and tradition that emerged from our English heritage and the common law, in particular. Lost is the American connection to Dissenting Protestants with their emphasis on covenanting. Lost also is the jealous regard early Americans had for their inherited liberties, their political freedom, and their ongoing experiences of individual and collective self-rule that reinforced for many generations the ideals of individual character and voluntary community formation. Lost, in short, is the blood and sinew of the American story — the gritty and real history of America — in favor of a clean, bloodless and false abstraction. In short, by stressing the unfolding of a built-in American liberalism, Deneen can dismiss all the empirical work that otherwise yields the rich story of American conservatism. He misses, also, human agency in the choices that mattered and that, therefore, will matter in the future.
Nothing about my critique of abstraction suggests that Deneen’s book is anything less than a very powerful analysis of trends, ideas, and beliefs that have become so toxic to American norms and traditions. For this reason alone, “Why Liberalism Failed” ought to be required reading for American conservatives. What I mean to point out is that even conservative intellectuals — even traditionalist and localist ones — have come to operate too often with leftist categories, and are losing the empirical and historical way of thinking that otherwise sustains a conservative intellectual tradition.
What we need today are more complex stories that cultivate a historical consciousness — stories that grasp the reality that we exist within traditions that shape what we see and what we have become. It is the peculiar role of conservatives to explain and defend a set of principles that are true to the human condition but that emerge in particular and specific ways because of our history, our experiences and the norms, habits, and customs that we associate lovingly with our deepest identity as a nation and a people.
American conservatives are today confronting political, social, cultural, and economic changes that threaten the principles found in our deepest lived traditions (our habits, customs, and affections). The raucous and sometimes unseemly political awakening that we are witnessing today not only exposes a widespread rejection of progressive and liberal efforts at fundamental transformation but also the problems with the ideological simulacrum of American conservatism that has colonized the thinking of Republican elites over the last several decades. This fit of reaction is a healthy beginning to a meaningful revival of American conservatism. What is required now, however, is a new and sustained defense of the underlying principles, one that is suited to our times. Such a response needs to draw on the rich conservative traditions that have always been a part of the American story — and to do so with texture and particularistic detail, embracing the amazing complexity of our shared history. In other words, conservative thinkers ought to conserve the method of analysis as much as the principles we hold all hold dear.
We are American conservatives first because our ideals, affections, and customs are in our bones. We are conservatives second because we consciously accept our inheritance and seek to understand and appreciate its beauty.
Ted McAllister is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. His book with Bruce P. Frohnen, Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul, will be published in May by Encounter Books.