The most straightforward interpretation of the available evidence is that Trump is engaged in neither a programmatic defense of any particular vision of the Constitution nor a premeditated assault upon the constitutional order — there is no reason to believe that he has the energy or the intellectual inclination to follow either course of action — but that he simply pursues his own interests as he sees them at any given moment, exactly as he has done for the entirety of his public life. We know from the Roman example (of which the Founding Fathers were acutely aware) that ordinary venality can be as dangerous to a republic as grandiose political ambition; and, as it turns out, in our own case that kind of thing is sufficiently destructive without our having to imagine Trump as an aspiring Caesar. This isn’t an opera, and it does not have to be operatic.– Kevin Williamson
If I had to pick a benevolent dictator to rule over us I think I would lean toward Yuval Levin. Levin, the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is the author of three books I highly recommend if you want to understand where we are as a country:
- The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
- The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism
- A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
Levin’s historical and intellectual heft combined with his deep policy knowledge is truly impressive. The Great Debate will give you a greater understanding of the historical and intellectual roots of left and right while Fractured Republic and A Time to Build will give you great insights into our troubled politics and culture. Evidence of our failing institutions mounts greater every day I am afraid.
But that is for another day perhaps. Today, I want to focus on Levin’s contribution to the What is American Conservatism issue of The American Spectator. He argues that Anthropology Defines The Right:
What often sets conservatives apart from progressives is our view that the human person is imperfect, broken, perhaps fallen, and yet also created in a divine image. This suggests to us that human beings require formation in order to be free, and that our institutions exist to enable that formation, but that as they do so they must also respect the inherent (indeed sacred) dignity of every human individual. It is not easy to establish norms, rules, and institutions that can manage to achieve this balance. So conservatives are duly protective and appreciative of those that have evolved over many generations to be capable of doing this—in the family, religion, culture, politics, education, civil society, and the economy. They are what we want to conserve, and to build upon.
We could wrestle with and unpack this idea, which I largely agree with, but I want to note something else that actually makes up the bulk of Levin’s essay. How this leads to intra-conservative infighting.
Levin argues that this “conservative anthropology points toward both communitarianism and individualism, and the tension between the two emerges in every conservative effort to wrestle with real-world governing challenges.”
This gets to something that drives me crazy as someone who has strong tendencies to both sides of what he calls communitarianism and individualism but what also falls under traditionalist and libertarian labels.
Both sides seem to be arguing past each other. It is assumed that debate must play out in one arena or the other. “Those dubbed libertarians or liberals sometimes imply that the common good can be measured in terms of gross domestic product” while “Those dubbed communitarians or nationalists, meanwhile, sometimes suggest that the common good involves a shared idea of dignity and solidarity and that it cannot be pursued unless economic decisions are made fully subservient to it.”
In Levin’s mind this mindset prevents the two sides from getting anywhere:
But the dispute might be better resolved by taking a broader view of politics, of which economics is but a part and by no means the greatest part. Democratic capitalism is the best approach we have found for advancing the material prosperity of our society,
but there are times when other goods—family formation, the dignity of the individual, community life, moral principle, national interest, or national pride—need to be prioritized over economic prosperity. Exactly when and how that should happen is a matter for robust debate and coalition bargaining to determine in individual cases, but we would do well to avoid casting our arguments about that as simply or most fundamentally debates about economics.
To which I offer a hearty “Amen!”
But as I noted in my previous post, some seem intent on emoting and attacking rather engaging in “robust debate and coalition bargaining.” One particular example drives me nuts. When traditionalists/populists talk about “market fundamentalists” and of libertarians “running” Washington, DC as if we don’t have a massive regulatory apparatus that is growing by the minute; as if what we have is some sort of laissez faire pure market system that must be curbed if families are to flourish.
Ironically, many conservatives attacked the so-called Reform Conservatives as some sort of squishes; compassionate conservatives under a different name. Any attempt to view policy through the lens of family formation or working class concerns was social engineering and big government. Conservatives in the GOP rejected a serious and policy orientated change and now many have embraced a much less intelligent and coherent populism under Trump.
The problem, however, is that the lines are not always clear. Many who rejected the ReformCons are now die-hard Trumpists. Nevertheless, there is some truth in the fact that conservatism failed to address populists issues then and now faces them today in less attractive form.
If conservatism is to (re)form itself into a more unified and effective influence of politics and culture post-Trump, it will have to wrestle with this inescapable tension:
That human beings start out crooked and prone to sin means we require strong social institutions meant to form us, and that we cannot thrive in their absence. It means the good of the individual cannot be achieved in a society that is not meaningfully attuned to the true common good. But that human beings are made in a divine image and possessed of inherent dignity means that each of us has rights that in practice amount to constraints on what society can do to us.
Personally, I think an important start is to stop attempting to, or acquiescing in, nationalizing politics and culture. As Levin brilliant argued in Fractured Republic, localism and variety are critical if we are to lower conflict and encourage dialog and engagement. Pushing power down may seem quixotic but I think it is more important than ever.
At the same time we have to start highlighting the things we agree on, the ends, before we immediately start arguing about our disagreements about policy, the means. Conservatives of good faith are seeking the common good of our nation and communities but have disagreements about the best policies to achieve our shared goals. Outrage, personal attacks, strawman labels, and vague over-generalizations don’t help.
The question is whether we can find common ground on this shared anthropology and begin the hard work of robust debate and coalitional bargaining we so desperately need.
I have been reading and musing on essays at The American Conservative asking the question: What is American Conservatism? I could list my favorites and the various insights from the wide perspectives but I haven’t collected my thoughts in that way yet.
What struck me almost viscerally is how much tone and style, what you might call aesthetics, impact my take on a give essay.
Not surprisingly, I really enjoyed Bradley J. Birzer’s contribution as it focuses on Russell Kirk (BTW, highly recommend you read Birzer’s bio Russell Kirk: American Conservative). It also mirrors my take on conservatism and populism:
Kirk wisely chose to define conservatism by not defining it. He was, however, fundamentally clear that conservatism did not belong exclusively to the sphere of politics. It was a movement in education, in literature, in the arts, in living, in religion, in economics, and in politics. But never in politics alone.
When the critics of conservatism emerge—whether in 1964 or 2020—they all too readily view conservatism as primarily a political movement, and, more often than not, as a populist movement. Yet, the difference between conservatism and populism is not only vast, but it is also insurmountable. At its root, populism seeks homogeneity throughout culture, while conservatism embraces variety and distinction.
By its very nature as well as by its own history, conservatism can never be a coherent ideology, centered around a like-minded group of (un)thinkers, dedicated to remaking the future of government or of political society. Backward looking, conservatism was born as a rebellion against conformity in society, in bureaucracy, in education, and in government, and, by its very essence, it promotes what is eternally (not temporarily) true, good, and beautiful. It seeks that which is everlasting even as it finds such everlasting things in mortal envelopes, slowly crushed by time.
In stark contrast in style, tone and substance is Birzer’s Hillsdale colleague David Azerrad:
Conservatism is the seven cheers for capitalism and the deafening silence on demographic change, feminism, and corporate malfeasance. It’s the same tired cast of speakers blathering about limited government almost a century after the New Deal. It’s the platitudinous Reagan quotes and the worn-out Buckley anecdotes. It’s the mindless optimism and the childish exhortations—if something can’t go on forever, it won’t!
If it were only that, conservatism would simply be a harmless persuasion for nostalgic Baby Boomers. Or to be more generous, one big Benedict Option to offer a semblance of an alternative to the pervasive progressivism of our age.
But conservatism is also the endless wars, the nation-building, and the outdated alliances. It’s the free trade fetish. It’s the foolish libertarianism that hates the government more than it loves America. It’s the unconscionable refusal to clamp down on immigration.
Worst of all, conservatism is the cowardice and accommodation in the face of leftist hegemony. It’s the long list of enemies to the Right. It’s the court eunuchs and other members of the controlled opposition who offer an echo, but never a choice. It’s the faux grandstanding while living in fear of being called a racist.
Put aside whether you think this jerimand is accurate as it applies to conservatism or what many have taken to calling Conservatism, Inc. Note also the tone and style. It is angry, vindictive, accusatory, bitter and full of vast generalizations (IMO). It is a lashing out at the world not an attempt to wrestle with complex and multifaceted issues and ideas.
Interestingly, at least to me, is that these two approaches might be categorized as two sides of a paleoconservative perspective. Paleos, very roughly speaking, are those conservatives who did not fit neatly into libertarianism or neoconservativism or were hostile to those approaches and who wanted to reassert a more traditionalist perspective.
But Birzer calls us back to Kirk and his canons in answer to the question of what exactly conservatism was called to conserve. In this perspective conservatism cannot be defined simply or labeled with a basic political program.
In contrast, Azerrad declares that “the entirety of the ruling class’s ideology must be discredited” and “The right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power. And it should emulate the Left in using them to reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).”
This is populism tooth and claw. It is power politics. In the name of traditionalism, sure, but power politics nonetheless.
I know that underneath this vitriol and populism there are elements where I am sure I agree with Azerrad on policy and even first principles. But I can’t get past the populist anger, bitterness and strawman slogans. I have principled reasons to disagree with much of what he says but I lack the energy to discuss the essay with nuance because it itself offers none.
This is a big part of my unwillingness to join with so many on the right these days. This is populist reaction and counter-revolutionary rhetoric not conservatism in my mind.
I’ll take Bradley J. Birzer and Russell Kirk, thanks.
In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and — I cannot stress this too strongly — a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possible. I have many colleagues who believe the same, and students at Baylor can find us. We will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.
(And then we will sit down at a table and strive better to understand, and better to pursue, the good, the true, and the beautiful.) — Alan Jacobs