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Religion & Liberty: Volume 35, Number 1 & 2

Conservatism and Its Current Discontents: A Survey and a Modest Proposal

    In 2022 many American conservatives are in a state of acute anxiety, convinced that they are under siege as never before and that they are losing. Across the nation, the commanding heights of the federal bureaucracy, the news media, the entertainment industry, Big Tech, and the educational system from preschool to graduate school are dominated by people who seem increasingly hostile to conservative beliefs. In social media and elsewhere, identity politics and the ideology of “wokeism” appear to reign supreme, and a censorious left-wing “cancel culture” operates with virtual impunity.

    Adding to the sense of conservative vulnerability is the declining influence of what scholars call America’s civil religion. For many years nearly all American conservatives have believed that our national experience has been on the whole a success story, and that at its heart has been a commitment to individual liberty, limited government, and the political philosophy embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Today, for millions of Americans, this story no longer appeals. Instead, large numbers of our fellow citizens are being told that the essence of the American experience has not been freedom but slavery and that even now our nation is mired in systemic racism. This raises a troubling question: Will a rising generation of young people who have been taught to criticize and even despise their political heritage be reachable by conservatives who defend it? Is the once-powerful Reaganite rhetoric of American Exceptionalism still persuasive?

    American conservatism appears to be coming apart at the seams. What, if anything, can bring the various factions together to fight the much greater threat of an illiberal, intolerant left? Perhaps plain common sense.

    Deepening the unease on the right is the growing recognition that the conservative movement itself is in disarray. There have always been moments of ferment in modern conservative history, of course, along with sharp internal disagreements about strategy, tactics, and first principles. Yet never has there been as much dissension and acerbic feuding among conservative factions as there is now.

    Why has the movement come to this point, and what might be the path forward?

    In evaluating conservatism’s discontents and prospects, we must first remember one of the most important facts about modern American conservatism: It is not, and has never been, monolithic.

    It is a coalition that developed after World War II in response to diverse challenges from the left. The coalition eventually grew to comprise five distinct groupings: (1) libertarians and classical liberals who extolled individual liberty, believed in free-market capitalism, and opposed overweening, bureaucratic government and the ever-expanding welfare state; (2) “traditionalist” conservatives, appalled by the weakening of the traditional religious and ethical foundations of Western civilization at the hands (they believed) of secular, relativistic liberalism; (3) zealous anticommunists focused on the titanic Cold War struggle against the “evil empire” of Soviet Communism; (4) neoconservatives, disillusioned former liberals and socialists who had been “mugged by reality” (as Irving Kristol put it) and who gravitated into the conservative camp in the 1970s and 1980s; and (5) the so-called Religious Right or (as we say now) social conservatives, incensed by what they regarded as the moral wreckage unleashed upon America by the courts and the culture wars during the 1960s and beyond.

    Each of these components of the conservative revival had something in common: a deep antipathy to 20th-century liberalism. The alliance was led and personified by two extraordinary leaders: the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., and, a little later, Ronald Reagan, both of whom performed an ecumenical function, giving each branch of the coalition a seat at the table and a sense of having arrived. Under the leadership of an ex-communist editor at National Review, Frank Meyer, the movement developed a theoretical construct and modus vivendi known as fusionism—that is, an attempt to fuse or at least balance the competing concerns and paradigms of the libertarians and traditionalists: the libertarians with their exaltation of individual freedom, and the traditionalists with their stress upon ordered freedom resting upon the cultivation of virtue in the individual soul.

    As a purely theoretical construct, fusionism did not convince all Meyer’s critics, then or later. Not everyone approved of his celebration of individual freedom as the summum bonum of politics. As his arch-traditionalist critic, L. Brent Bozell, mordantly put it in 1962: “The story of how the free society has come to take priority over the good society is the story of the decline of the West.” Nevertheless, as a formula for political action, fusionism proved to be a considerable success. It taught libertarians and traditionalists that they needed each other and that American conservatism must not become utopian and doctrinaire.

    The multifaceted conservative coalition that arose after 1945 was a Cold War phenomenon. The presence in the world of a dangerous external enemy—the Soviet Union, the mortal foe of liberty and tradition, of freedom and religious faith—was a crucial, unifying cement for the emerging conservative movement. The life-and-death stakes of the Cold War helped to curb the temptation of right-wing ideologues to become sectarian and schismatic.   

    Needless to say, the stunning end of the Cold War in the early 1990s had immense repercussions for American conservatism and conservative thought. No longer united by unyielding opposition to a now defunct external foe on the left (Soviet Communism), a number of activists on the right felt less need to stick together, and hitherto suppressed cleavages in the grand alliance began to surface.

    The most conspicuous example of this was the emergence in the late 1980s and early 1990s of an outspoken group of conservative traditionalists who became known as “paleoconservatives,” in fierce opposition to the neoconservatives who had risen to prominence in conservative ranks in the Reagan years. To militantly nationalist/“America First” paleocons like Patrick Buchanan, the neocons were not true conservatives at all but liberal, Wilsonian, internationalist, and welfare statist “interlopers.” The witty conservative author M. Stanton Evans quipped: “A paleoconservative is a conservative who has been mugged by a neoconservative.” The ensuing tension between the two groups became severe, and it has persisted to this day.

    Another sign of the times in the aftermath of the Cold War was a growing search by conservative intellectuals for fresh sources of unity in a different and more perplexing era. It became commonplace to advocate new formulations of conservatism with a prefix or adjective attached and to categorize conservatives in seemingly ever smaller groupings. Thus the Clintonian 1990s saw the rise of “leave us alone” conservatism, “national greatness” conservatism, and the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush. More recently, appeals for “constitutional conservatism,” “reform conservatism,” and “Tea Party conservatism” have arisen in the land. Now and then one hears of “conservatarians” and “paleolibertarians,” of “West Coast” Straussians and “East Coast” Straussians, and of “crunchy cons” (traditionalists with countercultural sensibilities). The labeling impulse has generally been well intentioned, no doubt, but it does suggest the sectarian tendencies at work.

    Still, the conservative intellectual and political community did not fall apart in the 1990s. Fusionist conservatism of the Buckley-Reagan variety continued to be the prevailing expression of conservative thought in America—the language, if you will, of the conservative mainstream—for some years after the Cold War ended.

    But no era lasts forever. This brings us to the extraordinary upheaval that Americans have been experiencing in the past decade or so: insurgent populism on both the left and the right, and the political and intellectual fragmentation that it has engendered. Traditionally, populism in America has come in two forms: a left-wing, anti-corporate version (think William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and Elizabeth Warren), and, more recently, a right-wing, anti-statist version (think Ronald Reagan and the Tea Party movement). Both variants are vocally anti-elitist, but they target different elites. For the populist left, the enemy is Big Money: the overlords of capitalist, private-sector America. For the populist libertarian right, the enemy is Big Government and the public-sector bureaucrats who administer it.

    Both of these familiar forms of populism became prominent again after the Great Recession of 2008. Then, in 2016, something truly remarkable occurred: the fiery eruption of a new and even angrier form of populism containing both left-wing and right-wing elements—a hybrid we now call Trumpism.

    It is not possible in this brief essay to examine at length the origins of the Trumpist rebellion. But a few observations about it are required. Ideologically, it bore a striking resemblance to the vehemently anti-interventionist, anti-globalist, immigration-restrictionist, and “America First” worldview propounded by various paleoconservatives like Buchanan during the 1990s and ever since: an ideological pattern that antedated the Cold War.

    But instead of concentrating its fire solely on left-wing elites, as Reaganite, conservative populism had done, the Trumpist brand of populism did something more: It simultaneously assailed right-wing elites, including the Buckley-Reagan, fusionist conservative movement described earlier. In particular, nationalist and protectionist Trumpism broke dramatically with the Reaganite internationalism of the Cold War era and with the pro–free trade, supply-side economics ideology that Reagan embraced and that had dominated Republican Party policymaking since 1980. It thus posed not just a political challenge to the liberal establishment, and a factional challenge to the Republican establishment, but also an ideological challenge to the separate and distinct conservative establishment, long headquartered at Buckley’s National Review. The distinctiveness of Trumpism in 2016 was that it assailed three establishments simultaneously.

    In short, as a body of populist sentiments, Trumpism boldly objected to the fundamental tenets of nearly every component of mainstream conservative thought described in this essay. At the heart of Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy was a single value: freedom, especially individual freedom—the “right,” in Reagan’s words, of “each individual … to control his own destiny” and “work out” his own happiness without subjection to “the whims of the state.” “America is freedom,” he declared in his Farewell Address. At the heart of Trumpist populism, however, is a rather different yearning: for solidarity and security, especially for those who feel forgotten, disrespected, or left behind. If Reaganite conservatism, at least in theory, has been skeptical of the power of government to manage the economy and create prosperity, at the core of Trumpist populism is a willingness to use governmental power to improve the lot of people whose plight has been overlooked by arrogant elites.

    It would be difficult to overstate the shattering impact of the Trumpist upheaval on conservative activists and networks during the past six years. The once ascendant conservative community in America—a community built on ideas—has increasingly become a house divided over ideas, with contentious factions engaged in an often rancorous tug of war. At such hubs of dissident conservative discourse as The American Conservative magazine, the Claremont Review of Books, and the website American Greatness, demands for a fundamental reconfiguration of the right are frequent: a right in which two of its former pillars—free-market libertarians and neoconservatives—would be marginalized if not entirely absent. The once dominant and implicitly ecumenical philosophy of fusionism has been denounced by a chorus of right-wing critics as a “dead consensus,” afflicted with “Zombie Reaganism” and what they bluntly deride as “free market fundamentalism.” In some right-wing circles, free-market capitalism has even been portrayed as an enemy of the “common good.”

    Meanwhile, the institutional custodians of fusionism—particularly those inside the Beltway—have been openly mocked by some on the right as “Conservatism, Inc.,” as if the conservative establishment were just another business trying to make money. Fusionism, some critics assert, was perhaps a necessary contrivance during the Cold War but is now irrelevant.    

    And so a determined quest for yet another formulation of conservatism has begun: for what one might call “Trumpism without Trump.” Not so long ago, leading conservative thinkers of the Reagan era and its afterglow routinely associated their philosophy with the principles of limited government, low taxation, free trade, and entrepreneurialenterprise. In 2022, however, growing numbers of populist/nationalist insurgents on the right are criticizing these principles as outdated and even unconservative dogmas. Ditching the anti-statist rhetoric of Reaganite populism, they are calling instead for the unabashed and energetic wielding of government power in pursuit of their agenda. In their hostility to globalism and transnational progressive elites, and their dismay about economic and social disintegration at home, some of them are looking to Old World nationalists and social conservatives for inspiration and intellectual support.

    Indeed, one of the most striking intellectual currents in America in the past decade has been the growing Europeanization—more precisely, continental Europeanization—of American conservatism. Interest in Europe, of course, is nothing new on the American intellectual right. One thinks at once of Russell Kirk’s magisterial volumes The Conservative Mind (1953) and The Roots of American Order (1974) and his extolling of Edmund Burke as the father of Anglo-American conservatism. One thinks also of the contributions of Friedrich Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, and Ludwig von Mises to the classical liberal and libertarian strands of the conservative alliance that evolved after 1945. In the realm of political philosophy, the émigré scholars Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin and their students have done much to remind conservatives of their European heritage all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.         

    Until recently, the American right has tended to identify most with what Kirk in one of his last books called “America’s British culture,” and with such British luminaries as Burke, Adam Smith, and (in our time) Margaret Thatcher.It has steadfastly preferred the American Revolution to the French Revolution, and the relatively moderate Scottish Enlightenment to the more radical and anti-Christian manifestations of the Enlightenment across the English Channel.While often critical of classical liberal purism, it has tended over the years to align itself with the liberty-oriented conservatism of the Anglosphere instead of the more statist brands of the right found in the past two centuries on much of the European continent.

    It is all the more striking, then, that in the past half dozen years since the Trumpist explosion, a number of conservative intellectuals and celebrity figures in the United States have sought out right-wing political leaders and anti-liberal thinkers on the continent like Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary for guidance in fashioning an alternative political path. This fascination for non-American models is a measure not only of the seekers’ intellectual curiosity but of their estrangement from what some of them perceive as an enfeebled American right—and American regime—riddled with “Lockean liberal” error and its allegedly inevitable, soul-corrupting consequences.

    Intellectuals are not the only ones on the right who are now thinking outside the battered box of Reaganite fusionism. In the political arena, right-of-center members of Congress like Senators Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley are openly lambasting big business, especially Big Tech, and are advocating forms of governmental regulation to rein in offending corporations in the name of what they call the “common good.” As Rachel Bovard, a rising star in conservative public policy circles, declared at the National Conservative gathering a few months ago: “Businesses like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple exert state-like monopoly power over America’s minds and markets, and they simply cannot be allowed to endure. The scale at which they exist is incompatible with a free society.”

    The mounting intellectual tumult on the right is motivated by more than economic concerns. At the heart ofNational Conservatism, “integralism,” “post-liberalism,” and the emerging self-styled New Right is the conviction that America is engulfed in nothing less than a “cold civil war” over the future of our republic: an irrepressible conflict pitting conservatives against an enemy determined (they believe) to destroy them. The rapid rise of left-wing identity politics and progressive “wokeism”; the spread of social media censorship and cancel culture; the tolerance of massive, illegal immigration along the southern border; the toppling of historic monuments and the wide dissemination in the schools of left-wing critiques of American history: These, to many conservatives, are manifestations of an all-out cultural revolutionbeing waged against them by an increasingly authoritarian foe. In parts of the American right—and parts of the American left, as well—the rhetoric of conventional politics is giving way to the apocalyptic rhetoric of war.

    It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the American right is now totally preoccupied with sound and fury. In the wake of the upheavals of the past few years, efforts by serious, intellectual conservatives are underway in many places to restore the nation’s civic literacy and a more balanced and affirmative understanding of Western civilization and the American experience. The National Association of Scholars, for example, has organized the 1620 Project to refute what it sees as the deeply flawed and divisive narrative of American history propounded by the 1619 Project of The New York Times. In 2021 a group of black conservative intellectuals created an alliance called 1776 Unitesin defense of America’s “spiritual, moral, and political foundations” and in opposition to what they call “false history and grievance politics.” Several months ago, the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal launched a conference program specifically for American high school teachers, using The Roots of American Order as a text, providing resources for teachers to draw upon when explaining to students the fundamental principles animating America’s regime of ordered liberty. Many more such examples could be given. Thus intellectual activity, quiet institution-building, and endeavors for cultural renewal continue on the right even amid its internal turmoil and the deepening polarization of American public life.

    So, where does American conservatism go from here?

    Can confident, liberty-loving, Reaganite fusionism and Fourth of July patriotism be reconciled with the martialrhetoric and heterodox policy proposals now emanating from “post-liberal” sectors of the right? Can Americans who consider the values of “historic liberalism” (as Herbert Hoover termed it) to be an integral part of America’s political fabric find common ground with those who claim that America was indeed liberal from the outset—and that this is its fatal flaw? Is anything more than an alliance of convenience against the left possible?         

    As a historian, I cannot predict precisely how the current intellectual drama on the right will unfold in the years just ahead. But I think I can predict that there will be no clearcut restoration of the Reaganite paradigm or the fusionist status quo that existed before 2016. History does not work that way. What is more likely to happen will be an attempt by mainstream conservative figures to refurbish the house of conservatism with a certain amount of Trumpian furniture but without Trump himself as the proprietor of the house. Many conservatives in the public arena will probably become somewhat less libertarian and anti-statist on economic and social policy, and more anti-elitist in their posture, as they try to nail down the working class vote at home and confront the military and economic threat from China. Whether Trump himself comes again to the political arena or goes away, Trumpian populism, with its counterrevolutionary overtones, is likely to remain part of the right-wing landscape for a while, for it is being fueled by an apprehension that millions of grassroots conservatives now share: that traditional America as a free, well-ordered, and basically decent society is in peril, and that a despotism of the illiberal left is arising in its place.

    But it is also likely that under relentless pressure from the cultural left at home, and from emboldened and aggressive authoritarian regimes abroad, many conservatives will again find inspiring the philosophy and rhetoric of individual freedom so deeply imbedded in the American political tradition—and not just economic freedom but religious freedom, freedom of speech, and the freedom to live and let live, without harassment. It is also conceivable that under the impetus of the appalling tragedy in Ukraine and its geopolitical ramifications, a more assertively internationalist and freedom-centered foreign policy posture will once again appeal to American conservatives.

    Faced with these multiple challenges, can conservatives in 2022 regain their moorings and lose their sense of losing? As this essay is being written, there are some reasons for hope. First, conservatives should take heart from one of their most impressive achievements of the past 50 years: the creation of a vibrant counterculture of alternative media, foundations, law firms, think tanks, homeschooling networks, classical Christian academies, and more. From the perspective of a historian, this flowering of applied conservatism, this institutionalization of conservative discourse and advocacy, is a remarkable and laudable development. Since the 1960s, what has been called a conservative parallel universe has arisen in America, and it continues to expand. It should not be cavalierly disparaged.

    Conservatives should also take consolation, if not exactly comfort, from the acts of aggression being committed by fanatics on the left. These excesses are opening up new opportunities for conservatives to cultivate alliances with dissident liberals and others in defense of free speech, civility, and a balanced interpretation of American history. One noteworthy sign on this front is the Academic Freedom Alliance, headquartered in Princeton, which was launched in 2021. Another is the burgeoning revolt of countless parents outraged by the egregious indoctrination of their children on racial and other matters by left-leaning ideologues in the nation’s public schools.

    Still, conservatives must do more than celebrate past achievements and react defensively to provocations from the left. To lose their fear of losing, they must redouble their efforts to expand their influence beyond the ranks of those already committed to the cause. Too often it seems that the conservative parallel universe does not interact sufficiently with those who live outside its boundaries. And that population includes millions of Americans—Asian, Hispanic, and black Americans—who in the past two years have been repelled by the fanaticism and illiberalism of the “woke” left. More than at any other moment in recent times, these Americans are open to conservative persuasion.

    In pursuit of these and other opportunities, conservatives should not forsake their traditional language of liberty and persuasion for the assaultive language of war. Reckless and militarized rhetoric can repel as well as attract. And successful politics, as Reagan taught, is about addition, not subtraction. The new governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, has provided an instructive lesson in how this can be done.

    At this perilous juncture, it might be useful for conservatives of all persuasions to step back from their intramural polemics for a moment and ask themselves a simple question: What do conservatives want? To put it in elementary terms, I believe they want what nearly all conservatives since 1945 have wanted: They want to be free; they want to live meaningful and virtuous lives; and they want to be secure from threats both beyond and within our borders. They want to live in a society whose government respects and encourages these aspirations while otherwise leaving people alone. Freedom, virtue, safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national security dimensions of the conservative movement as it has developed over the past 75 years. In other words, there is at least a little fusionism in nearly all of us. Conservatives should remember that.

    Finally, if conservatives are to reclaim the culture and prosper again in the public square, they must retain a fusionist sensibility. That is to say: an ecumenical disposition, recognizing that the wisdom of conservatism comes from many sources and that sound-bite sloganeering will never suffice. They must beware of the sectarian temptation—the impulse to go it alone—and be cautious about attaching prefixes or reductive adjectives to the dignified name they have accepted for their movement.

    But if the temptation to qualify conservatism with an adjective is irresistible, I submit this modest candidate: commonsense conservatism. This formulation has many advantages. It takes the word down from the thunderclouds of bitter disputation and associates it with the wisdom of the ages and the virtue of prudence in public life. It permits its advocates to engage with people without zealotry and in a manner that is welcoming, not threatening. It conveys the salutary lesson that conservatism is not an “armed doctrine” but the negation of dogmatic ideology, as Russell Kirk tirelessly taught.

    If conservatives in 2022 remember that theirs is above all a philosophy of common sense, and if they act that way, they may again lead their fellow Americans to better days.

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    Dr. George H. Nash is a professional historian and lecturer, as well as the author of a multivolume biography of Herbert Hoover and of two books and many articles about the history of American conservatism and related subjects. He is a nonresident senior fellow of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and a former president of the Philadelphia Society. In 2008 he received the Richard M. Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters, created by the Ingersoll Foundation.